Halo Reach, Sisyphus and religious apologetics

Debunking apologetics can feel like a Sisyphean task but can be a fun intellectual exercise and sharpen your skills. Just remember apologetics are not relevant to most lived experiences of religion, and there are more interesting discussions to be had.

When I’m in the mood to relax and able to shut out the world for a bit, I put on an old favourite game on easy mode and an old favourite podcast – usually God Awful Movies. At the end of Halo Reach, when you have completed the storyline, you enter a level called Lone Wolf. Wave after wave of Covenant forces attack your character, who must keep fighting till they can’t any longer. Nothing you do will advance the story in any way. There are no more interesting challenges to solve, nothing new will come up, no matter the skill you use to dispatch scores of Grunts, Brutes and Elites, hordes of identical ones will take their place, until you are ground down and can’t go on. It’s positively Sisyphean.

If you wanted to introduce someone to the bright and expansive world of Halo, Lone Wolf would not be the place to start. It’s easy to see this level as pointless and impossible. But like Sisyphus pushing his boulder up the mountain for ever, we can reinterpret the story to find meaning; not in achieving an outcome, but in the value of the task itself. For instance, Lone Wolf could be seen as a training level that sharpens your skills for the wider game.

That brings me to (counter)apologetics and arguments for the (non)existence of gods. Religion and religious philosophers have made varied enriching contributions to human thought. Apologetics are perhaps the least of these. Religious ideas raise many genuinely interesting questions, but whether or not we should believe in a god isn’t one of them.

On this blog I generally take what I refer to as an assumed knowledge approach to certain basic questions. Normally I think there are more interesting things to discuss than apologetics, and whether or not religion is a human invention. But, inspired by some of my recent reading, I thought I’d go through responses to some of the most common religious apologetics. According to my high school religious studies textbook, these are the three classical ones.

These are categories rather than singular arguments, so I’m introducing each with a broad exemplar, and responding to categorical rather than specific errors with each type of argument.

Cosmological

P1. Everything that begins to exist has a cause for its existence.

P2. The universe began to exist.

C1. Therefore, the universe has a cause

The above formulation is the Kalam cosmological argument, named after ancient Islamic apologetics, popularised by William Lane Craig. All cosmological apologetics attempt to demonstrate that the universe was created by god, by contrasting this with the logical impossibility of an infinitely proceeding chain of causes.

It’s worth pointing out that even if it were logically valid (it isn’t) and its clauses were sound (dubious at best), this argument would only suggest that the universe has a cause, and additional even more spurious arguments are needed to suggest that this cause is a theistic agent.

P1 and P2 are chock-full of fallacies equivocational, compositional and factual. The argument attempts to use our intuitive understanding of everyday cause-and-effect, and everyday uses of language, to play a word game.

The term “everything” in P1 and its interaction with the term “universe” in P2 invites equivocation. In P1 it can be interpreted as “every[SPACE]thing” as in every item within the set of all things, or the set itself, as in Everything. This in turn leads to a compositional fallacy as the argument uses a claim about items within a set to make claims about the set itself.

Notice that in the penumbra between P1 and P2 the apologist smuggles in the assertion that a god is not subject to this causation. If we are to assert that god does not need a separate cause for its existence, then why not simply argue the universe (which has the advantage of demonstrably existing) doesn’t need a separate cause for its existence? The phrasing “Everything, which begins to exist…” is then really just a word game, as the apologist really means “Everything, apart from god, which exists…”

“Begins to exist” is perhaps the biggest equivocation in the argument. In P1 “Begins to exist” is used in an everyday sense. i.e. we might say that something within our universe (say a building) began to exist, because there was a point in the past where the components that now make it up (e.g. bricks, and mortar) were arranged in a different state. This sense of “Begins to exist” is confined to arrangements of components within our universe. But in P2 “Begins to exist” is used to describe the universe itself coming into existence.

In P2 we are forced to interpret “Begins to exist” as “has existed for a finite amount of past time”, which in turn forces us to interpret “universe” in P2 as our local space-time, as this cannot be applied to “universe” or “cosmos” in the sense of all possible space-time.

The definition of “cause” in P1 and P2 is kept deliberately vague because the apologist wants to follow this argument up by asserting that this “cause” is a theistic god. In the classical model of causality that governs our everyday lives, some past event acts on something to cause a change: at midnight domino one falls hitting domino two, causing it to fall at midnight and one second etc. But reality is more complicated than that. Quantum physics allows for energy and space time to pop into existence or change in ways not influenced by any preceding event.

We could address this factual error in the argument by redefining “cause” to encompass both events caused in the classical sense and events allowed for by the nature of reality. In which case the more parsimonious answer would be that the nature of reality allows for the existence of our local universe.

Teleological

Teleological arguments arrest that some aspect of the natural world is evidence of design. These are emotionally appealing because we live in very designed environments and have a natural tendency to assign agency to the appearance of design. These arguments can be extremely varied, but the most common formation is claiming that the existence of the world (Earth or the universe) and/or life is the product of design. Teleological arguments contrast the supposed design seen in nature with examples of non-design. The most well-known example is the watchmaker argument by the proponent of natural theology William Paley. In 1802 Paley put forward the watchmaker analogy, where someone picking up a watch abandoned on a beach would know that it was designed because of its complexity and function. Parley analogised that living beings, being far more complex, are evidence of a designer for nature. Parley’s reasoning is understandable but flawed. The discovery of evolution by natural selection provides the answer to how complex living systems come to be without a designer. Parley’s arguments continue to influence creationists of today who, unlike the nineteenth century clergyman, don’t have the excuse of the ignorance of their times.

There is a more fundamental error in Parley’s thinking which affects all teleological arguments. In the watchmaker analogy, Parley demonstrated that the watch is designed by contrasting it with undesigned i.e., naturally occurring things such as rocks. But to do so invalidates the argument that nature is designed.

Modern theologians try to get around this dilemma by comparing our supposedly theistically designed natural world to a theoretical undesigned one, but they have no basis for doing so. The only universe we have access to is our own, we don’t have examples of other designed or natural ones to compare it to.

There are other problems with the idea that the universe is finetuned for the purpose of life. We have no access to other universes, so we don’t know what universal conditions are possible. An infinitesimally small part of the universe supports life. This obviously matters to us, but if we step outside of our anthropic view, we could just as easily argue that the universe is fine tuned for the purpose of empty space.

The bigger problem with this view is that it gets everything backwards. As Douglas Adams said, it is like a puddle looking at the hole it sits in and concluding that the hole was made for it. The universe isn’t fine-tuned for life. Life is fine tuned for the universe. The life which exists within the universe is that which the natural conditions of the universe allow to exist.

Ontological

Paraphrasing Anselm of Canterbury:

P1. God is defined as the greatest possible being

P2. The concept of god as the greatest possible being exists in our mind

P3. A being which exists in the real world as well as in the mind is greater than one which exists only in the mind.

P4. If god exists only in the mind, then we could conceive of a greater possible being.

P5. But god is defined as the greatest possible being.

P6. Therefore god exists in the real world

Whereas the teleological and cosmological arguments at least try to address some grand question about reality and resort to word games only to hide their weaknesses, ontological arguments are nothing but word games. At the heart all ontological arguments seek to smuggle existence into their definition of god, in order to argue that god exists by definition.

A lot of the humorous refutations of the ontological argument floating around the Internet have fun by pointing out that you can define anything in this way. I used to enjoy my own ontological argument for the existence of Batman that I’m sure others have thought of:

P1. Batman is defined as the greatest possible detective

P2. The concept of Batman as the greatest possible detective exists in our mind

P3. A detective which exists in the world as well as in the mind is greater than one which exists only in the mind.

P4. If Batman exists only in the mind, then we could conceive of a greater possible detective.

P5. But Batman is defined as the greatest possible detective.

P6. Therefore Batman exists in the real world

Of course, that we are able to have some conception or definition of a thing does not say anything about whether that concept is coherent or maps to anything in reality.

The trick is in P3, where the argument assumes that existence is a necessary quality of “greatest”, which seems to make intuitive sense. But if that is the case then, asserting that god is defined as the greatest is the same as defining god as existing, which makes the argument circular. You might as well start and end with P1.

Whereas we can conceive of things which cannot exist in reality, and which may be greater in any number of ways than their nearest existing analogue. For example, we can mathematically describe a perfect circle which will always be more perfect than any circle which may exist in reality. We can conceive of infinity, which will always be greater than any number which could exist in reality.

Is there any point?

If you’re in the mood, then religious apologetics can be fun to play around with and sharpen your logical skills. If you encounter an argument which just seems wrong, then learning to recognise and describe the flaw will help you to think clearly about other arguments. Debunking apologetics can help others out of religion or impart the gift of doubt which is so effective at undermining toxic manifestations of religion. Apologists do their best to avoid admitting their arguments have been debunked, which can often force them into more and more absurd positions, which may undermine their authority on other issues.

The key thing to remember is that apologetics are not really that relevant to anyone’s lived experiences of religion. They are post hoc rationalisations for belief, so debunking them is not the best way to address the reasons why people believe in gods or why such beliefs are used for good or evil.

Thanks for reading

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Photo information: Empty Gray and White Concrete Spiral Stairs, Mithul Varshan

3 thoughts on “Halo Reach, Sisyphus and religious apologetics

    1. Some formulations attempt to get around this by either (1) redefining “begins to exist” in such a way that it doesn’t require a time when it doesn’t exist, which invalidates the premise or (2) introducing a hypothetical separate time in which the creator exists.

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