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Part two of an Imaginary Conversation between an Agnostic and Aristotle Part two of an Imaginary Conversation between an Agnostic and Aristotle
by Dr. Emanuel Paparella
2013-03-28 10:58:16
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Agnostic: Good morning professor Aristotle. Do you mind if I join you and your other students in your daily peripatetic conversation through the Lyceum gardens?

Aristotle: Not at all. What’s on your mind?

Agnostic: I was wondering if we can continue yesterday’s conversation inquiring into the existence or non-existence of God. I’d like to know the second cosmological argument you mentioned that can rationally prove the existence of God.

Aristotle: Oh yes. That is the argument that goes under the name of Argument from Design; an argument of which my teacher Plato was also very fond of. It starts out with the fact that in the observable world or the phenomenon we detect many complex things which are very adapted to their functions.

Agnostic: Indeed, we see those phenomena all around us. Our modern thinker Charles Darwin calls it natural selection. Creatures that are beautifully engineered so that they can adapt and survive within nature. Without that adaptation few creatures would be able to survive.

Aristotle: as a biologist who examined many species of animals, I cannot but agree with Darwin, but the point I am making is that things seem to have been designed to suit the environment and that design implies a designer.

Agnostic: Now you lost me. How to you get from designed universe to designer?

Aristotle: Suppose you found a watch in the street. You look at it and you observe that its hands move regularly and pointed in the exactly the same direction at the same time every day. It has been said that even a watch that does not work would be right twice a day. That is true because it reflects the movement of the spheres, but if it works it will do so regularly every day. The movement of its hand is precise and not random as the wind or the sea waves are, for instance which one can assign to the results of natural impersonal processes. This mechanical design supposes a designer with a mind that put the design there to begin with; which is to say the watch was designed to suit its function; all its components did not come together by pure chance; it did not create itself but it has a mind behind it. In ancient Greece we called such an intelligent cosmic mind “Nous.” It explains order and purpose in the universe.

Gnostic: Yes, I see, but how does that apply to biological organisms?

Aristotle: Well, as Darwin made quite clear, all biological organisms show evidence of ingenious intelligent design to suit their functions and no people designed them, albeit they may have had intention to propagate their own species by what we call procreation, the result of a sexual union between a man and a woman, but they did no design themselves or their offspring. So logically, there must be a designer who is superior in power even to the finest human watchmaker. We call it the Cosmic Mind or God whom we encounter indirectly through the evidence of his intelligent design everywhere we look.

Agnostic: but if I remember correctly, you did not call it argument from design but the teleological argument, or argument from a purposive universe with beginning and ends, or that things are set up to suit their ends, but we have already seen in our previous conversation that it is conceivable that the universe has no beginning and no end, that it is eternal. So we seem to be back to the First Cause argument.

Aristotle: you are quite right. Both arguments claim that we can only get to God whom we do not see via what we see in the phenomenon or the world all around us.

Agnostic: but do the premises support the conclusion here?

Aristotle: Indeed they do if they are supported by reason, what in philosophy is called an argument to the best explanation. If the explanation for a premise is the best explanation, or more plausible than any other, then we have rational reasons to accept that explanation. A simple example is this: you go outside and see that the street is wet all over. There may be other explanations, but the best or at least the most plausible one is that it rained during the night. You would not need any argument if you actually saw the rain come down during the night. You need one because you did not directly see or experience the rain coming down. We have never seen an atom or radio wave lengths but we accept their explanations because they fit all kinds of observations. Even a modern empiricist would accept that much.

Agnostic: ok, I can go along with that, but it seems to me that the issue is whether or not God, as proven by your two arguments (First Cause and Design) provides the only, or most plausible explanation for what we observe. Do scientific explanations suffice unto themselves without bringing in the idea of God?

Aristotle: but I hold that such scientific explanations are not plausible.

Agnostic: all right, so let’s see if even here there is no other plausible explanations.

Aristotle: ok, let’s do so.

Agnostic: as mentioned above, the scientific explanation for living organism was given by Darwin in his Theory of Evolution Through Natural Selection.

Aristotle: Could you kindly summarize that theory for us?

Agnostic: it basically claims that the current adaptations of living things can be accounted for by two factors called Random Variation and Natural Selection. The first means that living things don’t always produce offspring that is the exact copy of themselves; occasionally a genetic mutation occurs or a genetic recombination, if you will. Once the mutation has occurred those new genetic characteristics can be passed on to that organism’s own offspring. These variations are random: they can be beneficial or harmful. Many times it is beneficial, resulting in the organism being better able to deal with its environment. The advantage so derived will ensure the survival and the propagation of the organism so advantaged. This is called natural selection.

Aristotle: so what you are saying, and correct me if I am wrong here, is that all complex features of living beings, so suited to their needs, came about by a random mindless process, by a series of accidents. Isn’t that like saying that if you put together all those intricate little wheels that are in a watch and put it in a box and shake it well, they will rearrange themselves into a fully operational watch. The watch will have created itself.

Gnostic: no, professor Aristotle, what I am saying is that adaptations are the result of a random process, but they do not happen as quickly as your example of the shacken box would intimate. Evolution is a very slow process occurring in small cumulative steps but there is no need to bring in God.

Aristotle: but isn’t Darwin’s explanation called a theory since it has not been proven yet?

Gnostic: that kind of question shows that indeed you are an ancient, dear Aristotle, or you would not have asked it. When scientists nowadays in modern times call something a theory they don’t mean that it is just a guess or an hypothesis. It explains a broad range of phenomena. There a theories which are strongly confirmed by the evidence, as for example the Atomic Theory of matter, or the Sun-centered Theory of the solar system. The theory of evolution, in its broad outlines is one of those. Almost all biologists believe it. They are sure that there is no scientific reason to doubt it and that the only reason anyone would object to it is because of their religious beliefs. Some of these believers have a different story for the origin of species; they call themselves creationists and take the account in the Bible literally. But in all fairness, it must also be emphasized that many religions fully accept Darwin and his theory of evolution or the theory of the Big Bang.

Aristotle: if I understand you correctly, you seem to be saying that there are two competing ways to explain design: the scientific way and the religious way, and the two run parallel and shall never meet. In effect we have two truths. So why prefer one to the other? And can there be two truths? Isn’t truth one as Aquinas for one well taught us?

Agnostic: well, as far as I am concerned, I’ll take the scientific one any time. If nature had indeed been created by an all powerful designer, then it would stand to reason that everything in nature would be perfectly designed. But sadly, it is not. You said at the outset that you respect science. If that is so, then you have to accept what science claims to have established. It may well be that religion is a superstitious faulty mythical mode of explaining the world around us. In point of fact, science is the best tool for knowledge that we have, with all due respect to St. Thomas Aquinas who saw no real contradictions between the two contrasting world of scientific culture and the humanistic culture, reason and faith.

Aristotle: perhaps Aquinas had it right in assuming that in many ways the Bible may be a symbolic version of the story of creation, not exactly literal scientific truth. It is an ethical book not a scientific book. However, you have to concede that evolution by itself doesn’t show that there is no God either.

Agnostic: here is my skepticism, and that is why I am an agnostic. Evolution could be part of the complexity that reveals the divine design. Creation could still be an ongoing process and not a one shot deal at the beginning. The heart may have reasons that reason knows not.

Aristotle: indeed, I could provide you with many examples of design that are not in the least accounted for by the blind forces of evolution. Just think how an incredible diversity of stuff is made from fewer than 100 basic elements; how everything seems to be connected and interrelated in nature; how everything is regular and cyclical and how it all fits together holistically. The universe seems to be beyond the power of human imagination to conceive and mysterious in many ways. I am sorry, but I cannot rationally accept that harmony happens by chance, from blind interactions. Harmony and balance and avoidance of extremes for us Greeks is a very important concept to begin to understand the mystery  that is the universe.

Agnostic: I don’t disagree with you that the universe is mysterious and awe inspiring; that it spurred the philosophical enterprise  in man (philosophy begins in wonder, said Socrates) but the issue of the designer remains, I am afraid. Could we not account for those by natural causes without having to bring in a divine designer to complete the scientific story?

Aristotle: are you saying that accepting a scientific explanation is ipso facto rejecting God?

Agnostic: yes and no. By which I mean that such is not the issue here. What we are wondering is whether or not there is something unexplainable by science, for which God is the only plausible explanation. I don’t think we have found it yet in this conversation.

Aristotle: but that in itself does not mean that God does not exist.

Agnostic: that’s certainly true  professor Aristotle. But even if you have proven the existence of a First Cause or of a Designer who creates and places purpose in the universe, you have a way to go before you prove that this is a providential God who cares for his creation and responds to prayers on a personal level.

Aristotle: indeed I cannot but logically accept that, and I certainly would not encourage anybody to worship the products of their hands or minds. That is idolatry and cultism, which is certainly not authentic religion, or what we in ancient Greece called piety, to use a much abused word. But let me leave you with a final philosophical thought or conundrum and then we’ll pick up the conversation next time we meet. And it is this: next time you see a scientist ask him this simple question with which the philosopher Martin Heidegger begins his book Being and Time: Why is there something rather than nothing? He will probably laugh in your face or perhaps caricature the question, but that is because he cannot answer the question. If he is honest he may answer that science cannot possibly begin to answer that question, that such is and remains the task of philosophy.


Part I - Part II 

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Emanuel Paparella2013-03-28 16:42:34
Footnote: Since we are currently covering a chapter in the Introduction to Philosoph ("Does the Center Hold" and "Philosophy the Basics") I will be assigning this conversation as reading for my students at both Broward College and Barry University. I will suggest that they attach some comments beneath it but I will not require it.

Leah Sellers2013-03-30 05:04:31
Hello Brother Emanuel,
I Think that God is always Creating, Destroying and Re-Creating Him/HerSelf.
God is the very Essence of perpetual Paradoxical Evolution.

This is an instructive conversation between your characters, sir.

Thank you.

Vincente Class (Broward)2013-04-05 05:27:37
The endless debate continues... Is there a God? I like the conversation between Aristotle and the Agnostic because it shows the rational side of both arguments. In Philosophy class (as well as Philosophy texts) the idea of God comes up frequently but the puzzle is never solved. Why should it be? I think debates like these are where we get our rich understanding of human spirituality and reasoning. At the very least we may begin to see where meaning lies for us all and how ideas can have lasting effects on people. In the end, people will believe whatever holds the most meaning for them personally. I do not believe in a providential God who watches our every move. My reasoning, if God is providential then why allow misery and suffering? How could God allow evil and still be a caring God? Furthermore, why must God care for us? This seems to me to be the very form of idolatry that many of the Ancients warned against. Consequentially, if you idolize yourself image you begin to place that image above all. Mankind has elevated himself above all that exist in our world simply because he can reason to it. Does this not promote abuses? Shouldn’t we use our reason to guard against this kind of narcissist ideal? God as a concept/ideal is a stronger God than God as a herder of sheep, is he/she/it not? But that doesn’t answer the question why there is something rather than nothing, I guess only God knows the answer to that question. I will go on to find my meaning in hopes that I am worthy of this precious existence in space-time.


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