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The Rowe-Grayling Debate

Michael Egnor

Rabbi Daniel Rowe and atheist philosopher A.C. Grayling recently had a debate, “The God Debate,” sponsored by J-TV: The Global Jewish Channel. It is a fine précis — an archetype of sorts — of the grander debate about the existence of God.

In his opening statement, Grayling begins by quibbling over terms — what to call himself (he prefers naturalist to atheist, but he is concerned that people might conflate this with nudism) — and he complains that “The concept of the deity is extremely ill-defined…”

Grayling seems surprised that the Ground of Existence may tax human understanding, and he shows no evidence that he is aware of the enormous literature on just that topic — from the astonishing “I Am that I Am” in Exodus to voluminous Jewish and Christian scholarship on apophatic theology. This error reappears repeatedly in Grayling’s argument. He seems to believe that God is an empirical hypothesis within nature, to be dissected with the methods of empirical science. Yet the question of the existence of God is more a logical quest than an empirical undertaking, and it is just this logic with which Rabbi Rowe excels and Grayling flags.

Grayling then raises two issues: the historical and psychological reasons for belief in God, and the epistemology of belief in God.

On the historical and psychological basis for theism, Grayling attributes theism to our forbearers’ misplaced attribution of natural events to agency. He thereby falls prey to two fallacies: he begs the question, and he commits the genetic fallacy.

He begs the question by assuming that the inference to agency in nature is wholly in error, which is of course just the question at issue in the debate. A theist would argue that the inference to agency in nature is not entirely in error. The laws of nature — the tendency of change in nature to work to ends — speak powerfully to agency. This is the basis for Aquinas’ Fifth Way — the argument for God’s existence based on the obvious teleology in nature. Grayling’s argument that such inference to teleology is problematic for theism merely begs the question. Why exactly is nature’s goal-directedness, which our forbearers saw and understood, a reason to doubt their inference to theism? What a witless argument.

Grayling’s second fallacy is the genetic fallacy. Even if the inference of our forbearers to teleology were a basis for the rise of theism (and it certainly was), the statement of this fact does not speak decisively to the truth or falsehood of the inference. One does not disprove an inference by describing its origin. It would make just as little sense to refute atheism by pointing out how much sense it would make for a subset of our forbearers to deny moral and eternal accountability.

Whether or not teleology or moral accountability played a role in the rise of theism or atheism, the genesis of the inference is irrelevant to the truth of the inference. One gets the sense that Grayling anticipates the difficulties he will face with logic and evidence, and early in the debate he has already invoked two quite obvious fallacies.

Grayling stumbles from fallacies into epistemology. He babbles about Popper and proofs and pudding and dragons, none of which has any relevance to God or to the actual arguments for His existence.

Grayling next makes passing reference to natural evil, and asserts that this raises profound questions about God’s existence. This argument too is witless. If God does not exist, there is no transcendent standard of good and evil, and “good and evil” become mere human opinions, as Nietzsche noted, lacking any reality. If God does not exist, good and evil don’t exist. Only opinions of evolved hominins like Grayling exist, which of course have nothing at all to do with good and evil, but are mere strategies to propagate genes.

In fact, Grayling in decrying natural evil makes a powerful argument for God’s existence as the ground of good and evil. If God does not exist, Grayling’s recourse to the concept of good and evil is baseless. Why should an evolved gene replicator shed a tear over a competitor’s misfortune?

What is remarkable in Grayling’s opening statement is its amateurism. I have come to see in the couple of decades that I have been as a theist that this is invariable in atheists’ arguments against God’s existence. Atheist arguments are a parade of fallacies and hand-waving, transparently motivated by evasion and arrogance. None of their arguments withstand even cursory scrutiny. And remember that Grayling is that rare New Atheist who is a professional philosopher. How pitiful.

Rabbi Rowe’s opening statement, on the other hand, is superb. Rowe begins by pointing out that the debate is about the rationality of belief in God, and he proceeds to explain that theism is supremely rational. He observes that both theists and atheists can have irrational reasons for holding their opinion. Hoping for eternal life is no more an irrational motive than hoping that there will be no eternal accountability.

Rowe points out that the question at hand is rationality of belief, not motivation for belief. He lays out the rational argument:

  1. What do we mean by God? We don’t mean a thing within the universe, understood anthropomorphically. God is outside the natural world.

  2. Where did everything come from? It can’t come from nothing, because from nothing comes nothing.

He discusses infinites, and uses a helpful example of a potential, but not real, infinite. One cannot cross over from an unbounded potential infinite to an actual infinite. He notes that the inference to the Infinite — understood as God — emerges from basic arithmetic, known to the ancients. He points out that everything in our universe had a beginning — the universe itself, the earth, mankind, and so on. But how did the beginning of the universe come about? Rowe talks about Lawrence Krauss’s The Universe from Nothing, and he explains that a quantum field is not nothing. From nothing, nothing comes.

Extensionality — our universe — had a beginning, and it didn’t cause itself. It needs a non-extensional cause. A cause that is not finite, that did not have a beginning, that does not have potentiality, etc. That is what men call God.

Rabbi Rowe demolishes Grayling’s foolish argument that empirical testing does not reveal God by pointing out that the inference to God is rational and logical, and that of course God, who is not extensional, not finite, and not even a potential infinite, could not be a discrete thing that could be studied by science. The Ground of Existence isn’t a butterfly that can be pinned to a corkboard.

Rowe devastated Grayling. The debate goes on beyond that opening statements, and it gets progressively worse for Grayling, who seems, despite his veneer of erudition, utterly out of his depth. Please watch the whole thing.

This debate is an example (one of countless examples) of the intellectual vacuity of atheism. You can see why the moniker “Brights” didn’t stick. Keep in mind that Grayling is a famous academic, the “Fifth Horseman” of New Atheism, who as a philosopher is a professional at arguing his point. Grayling’s problem is not merely his frank incompetence in open debate (you can understand his penchant for censorship). Grayling’s problem is that atheism is indefensible in open debate.

Rabbi Rowe is to be congratulated for his superb defense of the obvious truth of God’s existence.

Michael Egnor

Senior Fellow, Center for Natural & Artificial Intelligence
Michael R. Egnor, MD, is a Professor of Neurosurgery and Pediatrics at State University of New York, Stony Brook, has served as the Director of Pediatric Neurosurgery, and award-winning brain surgeon. He was named one of New York’s best doctors by the New York Magazine in 2005. He received his medical education at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons and completed his residency at Jackson Memorial Hospital. His research on hydrocephalus has been published in journals including Journal of Neurosurgery, Pediatrics, and Cerebrospinal Fluid Research. He is on the Scientific Advisory Board of the Hydrocephalus Association in the United States and has lectured extensively throughout the United States and Europe.