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Sep 22 2008

God Is Magic

There’s an argument that gets made a fair amount by religious believers. It gets made by more thoughtful theists and by, shall we say, less thoughtful ones; it gets made in forms that are marginally clever and forms that are laughably bad. But none of the versions are ultimately very good, and none of them are convincing unless you already believe in God.

The argument:

Jesus is magic
God is magic, and he can do anything.

Here’s the more fleshed-out version of it. Phenomenon (X) currently has no natural explanation. Given our current understanding of the physical world, Phenomenon (X) can’t have a natural explanation. Therefore, the explanation must be supernatural. Or, at the very least, it’s reasonable to think that the explanation is, or might be, supernatural.

In other words: The physical world is bound by immutable laws of cause and effect. But God, by definition, is not bound by immutable laws of cause and effect. God is magic, and he can do anything. Therefore, if we don’t currently understand the laws of cause and effect governing Phenomenon (X), the best explanation, or at least a marginally reasonable assumption, is God.

Example. In the physical world, effects have to have causes. Things can’t bring themselves into being, and things can’t just have existed forever. But the universe itself must either have (a) always existed, or (b) somehow come into being from nothingness. Therefore, the universe must have been brought into being by an entity that is not bound by the natural laws of cause and effect. In other words — by God. God is magic, and therefore he can have created himself or always have existed, and he can have created the universe out of nothing but himself and the void.

It is, in my opinion, a terrible argument. I want to talk about why.

Time line of the universe
1: Sez who?

Who says that Phenomenon (X) — say, the very existence of the universe itself — can’t possibly have a natural explanation?

Just because we don’t currently have a natural explanation for it, does that mean we never will?

I’m going to make a point that I’ve made approximately 90,690 times in this blog (so my apologies to people who are getting sick of it, I promise I’ll move past it in a moment): Look at history. Specifically, look at the number of times that we thought Phenomena (A, B, C, D, E) had supernatural causes. Had to have supernatural causes. Could not possibly have been caused by anything other than the supernatural.

Origin of species
And look at the number of times we were wrong. Look at the number of times that supernatural explanations for phenomena have been replaced by natural ones. It’s thousands. Tens, or even hundreds of thousands, depending on how specific the phenomena are that you’re talking about.

Now, look at the number of times we were wrong in the other direction. Look at the number of times we thought Phenomenon (Y) had to have natural, physical causes, and wound up being wrong about that. Look at the number of times that unexplained phenomena have been carefully, rigorously studied, and all the best evidence pointed to the cause being spirits, or metaphysical energy, or God.

It’s exactly zero.

The question of “Where did the Universe come from?” (or “Did the universe just always exist?” or “Why is there something instead of nothing?”) is currently an unanswered question. But that absolutely does not mean that it’s an unanswerable question. In fact, it’s a question we’re trying to answer. It’s a question that’s being looked into. Physicists and astronomers are working on an answer as we speak.

Geodetic_effekt
Now, if and when they do come up with an answer, it may boggle our tiny little minds. It may completely rewrite our way of thinking about the world — much the way that heliocentrism and evolution and relativity did. It may even make us completely re-think the very concepts of cause and effect. But that doesn’t mean it won’t be real. It doesn’t mean it won’t be right. And it doesn’t mean it won’t be an entirely natural, physical explanation.

The fact that we do not currently have a natural, physical answer to this question does not prove — or even imply — that no such answer exists.

Some people will probably argue that this response shows a faith in science that is identical to a faith in God; that it’s essentially saying, “I don’t know what the answer is, but I trust that the answer will prove to be a natural/ scientific one,” in the same way that religious believers say, “I don’t know what the answer is, but I trust that the answer will prove to be a spiritual one.”

But it’s not.

It’s not a response based on faith. It’s a response based on evidence: the evidence of history. It’s not a blind faith in science; it’s an observation that, when it comes to unanswered questions about the world, the answers have always wound up being natural and physical… and that therefore, given any currently unanswered question, the existence of a natural, physical answer is an immeasurably better bet.

Blake_ancient_of_days
2: The universe just doesn’t look that way.

Let me put it this way. If the universe were created, and intervened with on any sort of regular basis, by a being who was magic, a being who was completely unrestricted by the natural laws of cause and effect and who had no limits to his magical power… wouldn’t that just be obvious?

Would there be any arguments at all about his existence?

Wouldn’t there be violations of the natural laws of cause and effect on a regular basis? Heck, would there even BE natural laws of cause and effect?

That’s not what the universe looks like. The universe operates by laws of physical cause and effect… laws that are remarkably consistent. Phenomenally consistent. “Insert superlative of your choice” consistent.

Claims of miracles — i.e., supernatural interventions that violate the natural laws of cause and effect — consistently fall apart on closer inspection. They just don’t happen.

Given that this is the case, we have one of three options:

MATRIX
A: There is a God, but he not only intervenes in the physical universe: he intervenes in our perceptions and our understanding, making us think that the universe operates by consistent physical laws when really it doesn’t. Otherwise known as the “Matrix” option, or the “stoned college sophomore discovering solipsism for the first time” option. Theoretically possible, but not very plausible. It’s also not falsifiable or testable one way or the other, and is therefore useless as a hypothesis.

Hands off manager
B: There is a God, and he created the universe, but he does not intervene in it in any way, shape or form. Since he created it, he just sits back and watches as it unfolds according to the laws of cause and effect. This is the Deism option. Also theoretically possible, and kind of hard to argue against, since the effective difference between a Deist God and no god at all is zilch.

But for that exact reason, it’s also not falsifiable or testable in any way, and is also useless as a hypothesis.

And, more to the point — it’s completely irrelevant. Again, for that exact same reason. If there is an infinitely powerful magical being who brought the universe into being, but who never intervenes in that universe in any way… why should we care? What difference would it make? The effective difference between a Deist God and no god at all is zero. What reason is there to believe in him, or to act as if he exists?

Or… and this is the one I’m going to go with, if for no other reason than Occam’s Razor…

C: There is no God.

Letting go of god
Julia Sweeney said it best, in her amazing performance piece “Letting Go of God.” After a long, arduous journey of spiritual searching, starting with her original Catholicism and going through New Age spirituality and vague beliefs that “God is nature” or “God is love,” she came to this conclusion: “The world behaves exactly as you would expect it would, if there were no Supreme Being, no Supreme Consciousness, and no supernatural.”

The world does not behave as if a magical being who could do anything were running the show. The world behaves as if it operated, entirely and 100%, according to physical laws of cause and effect.

Slash circle
3. There’s just no evidence for it.

There’s a point Ingrid keeps making, and it’s time I brought it up. She points out that every scrap of “evidence” that there is for religion comes from human beings. It comes from parents and religious teachers, from prophets and from sacred books, from just sitting around in your room thinking really hard.

And the “God is Magic” argument is exactly the same.

The “God is Magic” argument comes dangerously close to Anselm’s famously crappy ontological argument. That argument, for those who aren’t familiar, goes roughly like this: “I can imagine a completely perfect being, i.e. God. But an aspect of perfection would have to be actual existence: if something didn’t actually exist, by definition it wouldn’t be perfect. Therefore, God exists.” (No, really. Stop laughing. I am not making this up. I actually had to learn this when I was a religion major, as one of the classic arguments in favor of God’s existence.)

The “God is Magic” version of this essentially goes, “I am defining God as that which can always have existed and can create universes out of nothing. This magical God would provide a very neat and tidy explanation for any unanswered questions we might have. Therefore, God exists.”

But the fact that you can imagine and define such a being does not provide even one scrap of evidence that he actually exists.

Simpsons_church_sign
I realize that atheists sound a bit like a broken record when we say this, but it’s important and it’s true: It is not up to us to prove that God does not exist. It is up to theists to prove that he does: to prove that God is the best explanation for why things are the way they are, or even a plausible explanation that we should seriously consider.

Example: If you believe in theistic evolution — the theory that evolution is a process created and guided by God to create life and people — you can’t just say, “It could have happened that way. You can’t prove that it didn’t.” You need to show some evidence for why that’s a better hypothesis than evolution just happening as a natural process. You need to point to structures or processes that could not have evolved naturally, or to transitions in the fossil record that show unmistakable signs of intervention. (The intelligent design crowd has tried to do this, with laughably bad results.)

And if you believe in a God-created universe, you have to show some evidence for why that’s a better explanation for the existence of the universe than, for instance, the idea that universe has simply always existed. You can’t just say, “Well, we don’t know how it happened, and it had to happen somehow, and God is as good an explanation as any.” You can’t just say that the universe is impossible, define God as that which can do the impossible, and call that an answer.

Watch the gap
The “God is Magic” argument is really just another version of the “God of the gaps”; the God that is the answer to whatever gaps there currently are in the body of scientific knowledge; the blue crayon that gets used to fill in all the empty spaces in the coloring book… despite the fact that blue has never, ever proven to be the right color.

And it’s not actually an explanation. It doesn’t offer any clarity about why things are the way they are — a magical God could presumably have made things be any way at all, and the answer to why would ultimately just be, “God’s whim.” And it doesn’t offer any predictive power — ditto.

It’s not actually an explanation. It’s just a way of getting around the necessity of offering an explanation.

25 comments

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  1. 1
    Brad

    Whenever a theist asks me “where did the universe come from” I ask them back “why is the sky red?”
    Both questions are erroneously presumptuous. You can’t just assume that the universe had to have come from somewhere. Maybe it didn’t.

  2. 2
    Yoo

    It’s also suspicious that god of the gaps arguments are usually only used to “support” the existence of a benevolent god, and yet the same sort of arguments for an evil god are considered facetious by most.

  3. 3
    Frank DN

    I just drove past a church last night that had on their sign in great big letters: The Theory of Evolution – A History of Controversy. I thought my little corner of Michigan was safe from these people (I don’t know why I thought that, there are hundreds of churches around here). Even in my most gung ho religious days I never believed the young earth business and most churches I went to didn’t either. We were usually quite busy trying to make the day is as a thousand years and a thousand years as a day stretch to cover millions and billions. How all this even became an issue now is beyond me. So If god didn’t do it, it must have been the devil. Because as you know, the devil is in the details.

  4. 4
    Carson O'Jennick

    Another idea for a response…If we suppose that there is in fact some ultimate creator of the universe, how to you get from that to “God told Abraham, kill me a son.”
    If there is a god, there is still absolutely no reason to think that any of the human made religions have any idea what the nature of this god is like.
    It always seems so funny to me that the one thing that all the mutually exclusive religions can agree on is that athiests are wrong, because somewhere deep down they know that they all need to stick together to keep up the idea that having faith in things that are on their face absurd is NOT CRAZY and should in fact be respected.

  5. 5
    arensb

    I’ve argued before that one of the defining traits of magic is that it is fundamentally inexplicable. This is the main difference between someone like Sylvia Browne or John Edward, and a stage magician. The implied premise of a David Copperfield or Penn and Teller show is “this stuff looks impossible, and I’m not going to tell you how I did it, but it’s really just a trick, performed using ordinary physics.” If it were possible to explain magic, it wouldn’t be called magic; it would be another branch of science. What was once the magic power of being able to tell when to plant crops by looking at the moon and stars is now part of astronomy and agricultural sciences.
    And yes, “miracle” is part of “magic”.
    There’s a scene in, I think, a play by Moliï¿œre, in which a medical student tells his teacher that such-and-such plant has the property of putting people to sleep because it possesses virtus dormans, which is Latin for “the property of putting people to sleep”.
    I think a similar thing is going on when people invoke God to explain things: God is magic, i.e., God is a fundamentally inexplicable thing that can do fundamentally inexplicable things, therefore God can create life/the universe/Mother Teresa on a Cinnabon/whatever.
    In short, “goddiddit” isn’t an explanation; it’s just a different name for “I don’t know”, but with enough smoke and mirrors to avoid the discomfort from a plain old “I don’t know”.

  6. 6
    Eshu

    Some people will probably argue that this response shows a faith in science that is identical to a faith in God;

    Although anyone who says that needs to read #1 again!

  7. 7
    Ebonmuse

    As Richard Dawkins puts it, God is the “ultimate 747″ (in reference to the creationist “tornado in a junkyard” argument). An omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent, infinitely wise deity is by far a more complex and unusual phenomenon than anything we might possibly invoke it to explain. What good does it do to explain lesser complexity by postulating an infinitely greater complexity? That hypothesis makes the problem worse, not better.

  8. 8
    Blue Nine

    So when is the “Greta Christina’s Book Of Posts On Atheism That Always Hit the Nail On the Head” going to be published? You would be the First Horsewoman of Humanism.

  9. 9
    Eclectic

    The ontological argument always seemed to me like a good argument for the nonexistence of god, thanks to Bertrand Russell and his famous paradox. If god created all things that did not create themselves, then god does not exist.
    But going back to the three options (Plato’s cave, deism, or atheism), the point is that there is zero practical difference between the three. There being no way to distinguish them means that there is no possible act that can have perceptibly different consequences based on which is true. Which means that they all have exactly the same implications for how I should act.
    I happen to think that #3 is the simplest, but that’s just quibbling about nomenclature.

  10. 10
    agnohumanist

    Ebonmuse said: “An omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent, infinitely wise deity is by far a more complex and unusual phenomenon than anything we might possibly invoke it to explain. What good does it do to explain lesser complexity by postulating an infinitely greater complexity?” Great comment, Ebon, and one that I’ve heard even curious children ask, albeit in a less sophisticated way: If God exists, who made him? Yeah, turtles all the way down, right? lol I guess philosophers call this “infinite regress” and I’ve never heard a remotely plausible refutation of it. Deep down, most liberal religious folks believe in a deity because they just can’t conceive of the complex world without a creator. Have they never entertained the concept of infinite regress? Assuming they are reasonably intelligent, wouldn’t it force them to doubt? I think it is the most efficacious tool in the skeptic’s toolbox.

  11. 11
    Valhar2000

    Are you sure, Agnohumanist? It seems to me that liberal beleivers, far more so than fundamentalists, beleive because they feel like it.
    I say this becuase in my experience liberal beleivers are more likely to accept that they can’t answer some questions, but that what they feel is true and it’ll all work out somehow; fundamentalists are far more likely to answer questions, and insist that their answer is correct, no matter what the pinko-commie-godless-atheists say.
    In fact, many have said that it is easier to deconvert a fundamentalists than it is to deconvert a liberal beleiver, becuase the fundamentalist cannot rest until difficult questions are answered, and is more likely to pursue the answers whereever they may lead.
    Not to say that the liberal ones don’t do that, but they go about it a different way, more touchy-feely way.

  12. 12
    efrique

    It is not up to us to prove that God does not exist. It is up to theists to prove that he does: to prove that. God is the best explanation for why things are the way they are, or even a plausible explanation that we should seriously consider.
    Imagine someone trying to claim that gravity (as we understand it) exists, in the face of someone that has the pre-existing claims that “objects have a natural propensity to be in particular locations” (which sounds vaguely plausible, but – at least as it stands here – is a circular argument). The natural propensist would, naturally, ask for evidence that this thing called “gravity” exists.
    Gravity as a “thing” is difficult to observe. You can measure its effects, of course, but that doesn’t necessarily raise gravity above propensity as an explanation. However, you can make a mathematical theory and start to put together predictions. Now, there’s some evidence for the theory. It doesn’t disprove propensity, because maybe propensity operates in a similar way, mathematically speaking (even though the propensist didn’t come up with the mathematical theory, the propensist says “this doesn’t prove propensity doesn’t exist”).
    Then comes the challenge “So how does this mysterious gravity work, anyway? It sounds like faith, just as much as you claim propoensity is”.
    The poor old gravitationalist is at something of a loss, because so far the theory doesn’t have a “mechanism” by which gravity operates. Gravity is a property of bodies with mass, but the gravitationalist has no mechanism by which that occurs.
    After some long period of time, the gravitationalist has come to understand connections between fields and potentials, forces and particles, and so on, and posits the existence of a particle that carries the gravitational force.
    It’s a specific prediction that is (with sufficient cleverness, money and time) possibly open to experimental confirmation.
    Probably much earlier than this, if they have any concept of science, or indeed, any shred of intellectual honesty (but certainly by this point in any case), the propensist either leaves the field, or makes a counter-prediction confirmable by experiment (i.e. puts some meat on their claims). The alternative – that “propensity might also operate this way” is a distinction without a difference – if propensity can’t make a prediction not already made by gravity, but merely follows the evidence around, it has no “there”, there; it is plainly unfalsifiable, and consequently explains nothing whatever.
    The claim of god is like the claim for propensity – without evidence and specific predictions that differentiate it from existing scientific ideas, it becomes content-free.
    If a supernatural god is really there, show some actual evidence that a purely naturalistic explanation would fail on. Make a specific prediction that a purely naturalistic theory would not make.
    And then let’s see if it’s got anything to it.
    Or, failing that, admit that there is no explanatory value in it, call it a really long “just so” story, and get off the stage.

  13. 13
    Maryann

    Hi. Theistic evolution (better: BioLogos) does not think God stepped in to direct evolution, only that it does not happen outside of His control, it is not some surprise to Him, it is how He wants things to happen (knowing every moment of the universe past, present, future, and sustaining all of it). Unguided evolution and free will both happen in this great, God-created and sustained universe. See “The Language of God” by Francis Collins.

  14. 14
    Maryann

    Other details about the beginning of the universe, and if God has a beginning, I mentioned in reply to this article of yours: http://gretachristina.typepad.com/greta_christinas_weblog/2010/03/why-everything-has-a-cause-is-a-terrible-argument-for-god.html#comments

  15. 15
    Greta Christina

    Maryann: If God intended evolution to happen the way it’s happening, then why is it happening in such a cockamamie way? Biological life is magnificent — but it’s also full of clumsiness, half-assedness, inefficiency, “fixed that for you” jury-rigs, pointless superfluities, glaring omissions, laughable failures, and appalling, mind-numbing pain and brutality. If it’s unfolding this way on purpose because that’s how God wants it to happen, then God is a sick bastard.
    And maybe more to the point: What evidence do you have for this hypothesis? What evidence do you have that life and the universe was created and is sustained by God?

  16. 16
    Maryann Spikes

    “The Bible tells us that God created, but it does not tell us how, and we need to be careful that we do not force the God of the Universe into one of our human molds. [
] What do we learn about the nature of God’s activity from studying the Bible? One thing we learn is that God builds freedom into His creation. [
] Just as God builds freedom into our lives today, so freedom may well be a central component of God’s biological world as well. This is not to say that God is not playing a supervisory role in creation in a manner resembling the role God plays in my life and yours. But there is no a priori scriptural reason to assume that the biological world was created one species at a time by the God of the Universe “pushing creation buttons” each time he wanted a new species. [
] God’s spirit guides the progression of life. His presence is never far from creation, just as it is never far from the events of my life. Nonetheless God respects my freedom and (I suspect) values freedom in the rest of creation as well.” — Darrell Falk

  17. 17
    Greta Christina

    Maryann: What on earth does that have to do with anything? How is that an answer to the “God is magic” problem? Or, for that matter, to the “crappiness of the purported design of life” problem, which this comment thread got derailed into?
    The “free will” apologetic is a terrible one. (I’d go into more detail about why, but I’m writing a dedicated piece on the subject that’ll get published in a few days, so I’ll hold off until then.) But apart from it being a terrible apologetic, I also fail to see how it is in any way relevant to this particular question.

  18. 18
    Maryann Spikes

    Greta, I was responding to your questions. You asked why evolution doesn’t behave as if under the control of a designer. I do not believe in Intelligent Design, and so posted a quote answering your question.

  19. 19
    Eclectic

    Maryann, an few introductory words such as “Darrell Falk says it better than I can” would have made it clearer that you were stating your own position.
    My problem with that bit of apologetics is that it can be summarized in the current context as “maybe God wants it to be that way.” That’s not evidence, that’s an excuse for lack of evidence, and Greta already discussed in in case 2B of her original essay.
    As efrique said earlier, “without evidence and specific predictions that differentiate it from existing scientific ideas, it becomes content-free.”
    Greta’s broader question remains unanswered: has God had any perceptible effect on the evolution of life (including, but not limited to, humans)? If not, has God had any effect on anything anywhere?
    If God made a world that, just as Julia Sweenwy said, “behaves exactly as you would expect it would, if there were no Supreme Being, no Supreme Consciousness, and no supernatural.” then there’s nothing to talk about. A God that has no effect on anything, ever, is a God that doesn’t exist.
    To be more specific, two theories that make exactly the same predictions in all circumstances are the same theory.
    Sticking a non-functional God into it just clutters it up without changing it in any important way.
    Your source asserts that God somehow participates in the universe:

    “God’s spirit guides the progression of life. His presence is never far from creation, just as it is never far from the events of my life.”

    But I fail to see the slightest shred of evidence to support that assertion. As Greta asked in her second-last comment, have you got any?

  20. 20
    Eclectic

    Gaah, my apologies for the missing closing italics tag. This blog needs a preview feature!

  21. 21
    Eclectic

    Wow, bad comment HTML validation. I just closed the italics tag…

  22. 22
    DSimon

    Help, I’m trapped in italics and I can’t get out!

  23. 23
    Greta Christina

    HTML fixed. Sorry about all that.

  24. 24
    solomon

    Mrynn Spks, f y dn’t blv n ntllgnt dsgn, thn yr ls dsgnr

  25. 25
    quiet title

    Hello there Nice wewebsite. Would you like to guest post in my own at some point? If that’s the case make sure you tell me by means of e-mail or simply reply to this particular remark since We subscribed to notifications and can realize if you do.

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