One of the things I’ve noticed is that my intellectual reasons for believing in God are not always quite the same as other people’s intellectual reasons. Many of the arguments that other people find persuasive I find strangely non-compelling.
I’m not knocking those arguments per se; only saying that they often don’t really offer much to me in the way of persuasive fodder to keep my faith alive during darker days. But as I’ve spent quite a bit of time on this blog criticizing various arguments for God’s existence, I thought I’d actually take a smaller amount of time to do something mildly more constructive: I thought I’d lay out one of my own actual reasons for believing in God.
Well, I should say my own intellectual reasons. My actual reasons for believing in God are, I presume, probably much like any other person’s: I sometimes feel God’s presence, I have experienced personal miracles, and when neither of those things are happening (which is most of the time), I occasionally long for something beyond this world. In other words, I really wish the universe contained God’s presence and miraculous interventions on my behalf, and on some occasions I actually experience those things.
But here we are not talking directly about that – but rather the intellectual question: Given the state of the universe as we commonly understand it, and given that it isn’t always obvious that God exists, what is the probability that He exists? What if I had easy alternative reasons that might explain the things I believed were miracles in my own life – and instead could consider this as a purely intellectual question, such as “is light a wave or a particle or both?” If I try to do that, what can we say about it?
Below, I’m going to lay out an argument concerning this question. I should first say that there is a part of me that finds such argumentation almost silly. Now, as that’s the kind of thing the apologetics people tell you not to put on a website, I should clarify what I mean, which is: God doesn’t need an argument to prove that He exists. I’m not sure that would be His primary method of discovery, if He did exist. So, in short, I’m going to tell you about one of the reasons I believe in God, intellectually speaking – when I think about it at some broad level – but in doing so, I’m not really discussing something that is super-central to my faith. My main reason for lobbing this argument out there, like the opening bit of mashed potatoes in a food fight, is for your entertainment – so that you can all have fun ripping it to pieces and tossing it back at me. What can I say: I like you.
Finally: I don’t claim the argument is original to me in the sense that no one else has ever said anything like it. Indeed, I’d be shocked to find that no one had ever said this before, and probably some smarter and wiser person has said it better somewhere else. Rather, I only claim it is original to me in the sense that (a) to my knowledge, I came up with it independent of other folks, and (b) I haven’t really read or heard anyone else say anything exactly like it. The closest thing to this argument that I’m aware of is the “The Argument from the World as an Interacting Whole” which you can read about on Peter Kreeft’s website via this link:
If I were to name my own intellectual case for believing in God, I would call it “the argument from complex pleasure.” It starts with an observation from my own experience:
I really, really like an Iced Decaf Caramel Macchiato with Whipped Cream from Starbucks. From this experience I’ll build my case for God’s existence. But first, let’s back up a bit.
I was made as a creature that can experience pleasure. This is a fact of my experience. The key question in my argument is this: Where did that experience of pleasure come from? How did I awake in a world where I can experience pleasure?
I can see multiple potential answers to that question, but for the sake of brevity, in this post I’m only going to focus on two possibilities: Either it is the result of an entirely naturalistic process in a materialist world (I’ll call that Naturalism), or it is the result of some sort of intent by a higher Mind (I’ll call that Theism).
So which view, naturalism or theism, best explains the origins of pleasure?
The Non-Necessity of Pleasure
I think pleasure is important because it is an obviously unnecessarily positive experience. Although it does seem to serve (say) a survival function in our world some of the time, there is no necessary reason for pleasure to serve that purpose. In other words, it is easy to imagine a world where I drink water to survive, but experience no pleasure in the act. The mechanism to encourage drinking water could be punishment (e.g., I experience more pain if I don’t drink water), or rational (I simply recognize that I need water to live), or could involve some simple intuitive “counter” (e.g., I could have a mechanism that simply recognizes I’m “out” of water or “full” of water without producing any corresponding pleasure or pain in the process).
The point is this: Because it is a part of our world that pleasurable things are related to survival, it is easy for us to sometimes fall into a trap of assuming the pleasure-survival connection is necessary. But when we are asking how I ended up in a universe where pleasure was possible at all, we need to get out of that box. And when I do, I can clearly see that the pleasure-survival connection isn’t necessary in the sense that life could conceivably have emerged in a world with no pleasure at all.
Now, this doesn’t of itself play into our debate about God – at least not directly. The same argument could apply to God as to chance – there is no necessary reason why an omnipotent being would have produced pleasure, either. But my point here is largely this: Pleasure interests me in part because the pleasure that I feel is, at some base level, a positive fact of my existence that would not have necessarily had to emerge for any particular reason. So why did I end up in a universe where it was possible?
I think it matters what kind of pleasure we are talking about. Some of those pleasurable experiences are fairly simple in their nature. So, for example, I can see that I find pleasure in drinking water or in having a full stomach after eating dinner.
Now, it doesn’t take a lot of imagination to see that, even though pleasure isn’t a necessary mechanism for survival, it could serve as a possible mechanism. Given this, such simple pleasures seem fairly easy to explain from a purely naturalistic framework – at least conceptually (whether or not chance would have likely produced such a thing is a different matter, and is in a sense a different argument altogether). Why do I find pleasure in drinking water? Because I need water, and I need a mechanism to get me to drink water, and pleasure could be a natural mechanism for encouraging me to drink water. If that were all there were in this universe, I can easily imagine that I as a being evolved to enjoy water in order to keep me alive through chance processes. Of course, God also could have made me to enjoy the thing that keeps me alive with the exact same purpose in mind – so this is basically a stalemate. Simple pleasures really get us nowhere.
The Mystery of Complex Pleasures
But not all of the pleasures I experience in life are like that. Many of them are richer than my experience of a quenched thirst on a parched day. The very essence of these pleasures is that they are complex: They cannot easily be broken down into a unitary cause-effect chain such that the experience itself is clearly tied to only some biological need. The reason I like an Iced Decaf Caramel Macchiato with Whipped Cream is not the same reason as I like water when I’m parched.
And the reason it isn’t the same is because of (a) the rich complexity of the experience, the way a lot of varied flavors, desires, textures, smells, and feelings all combine into one amazing mouthful; and (b) while some of the individual parts may seem to serve some clear biological function, the sum total of this experience does not seem to serve a clear biological function.
Now, I know that one natural reaction to this is to simply try and cheapen the experience by saying “I think you are overstating the glory of Starbucks, man. It’s not that great.” So I fear I am forced at this point into a very boring task – namely, of defending the glory of the Iced Decaf Caramel Macchiato with Whipped Cream. I think any argument that simply denies that there is a huge difference in the complex richness of some pleasures and the simple necessity of others is simply closing one’s eyes to reality – at least, to my reality. So to be sure you are not blithely dismissing this important and obviously-true observation, I want to spend a little time on the experience itself.
All experiences, even ones I’ve described as simple, have some complexity – so, for example, from a sheer biological viewpoint, drinking a sip of water is complex. Further, obviously water has texture and flavor as well, two different components that constitute some level of complexity. But I’m referring mostly to the subjective nature of the feeling it evokes here and how the mechanism we have for perceiving that integrated whole might have come into being. And drinking a latte combines a lot of somewhat-disparate things into a complex picture that produces a unique kind of pleasurable experience that doesn’t seem to be directly about filling some obvious biological need – at least, the summed whole of the experience doesn’t seem to do that (even though a lot of the parts individually might).
There is the pleasure of fatty milk; there is the pleasure of the smell of coffee; there is the pleasure of quenching thirst; there is the pleasure of sugar; there is the pleasure of caramel bits; there is the pleasure of sweet cream; there is the feeling of home, of something like nostalgia, of faint and mostly-forgotten memories, echoes of conversations from times past, and a hundred other learned associations; I could go on. The point here is to say that the combination of all of these things produces a unique experience that is way, way better than any of the things on their own. I’m using the word complex; but perhaps the experience itself can best be described as being rich. It isn’t that we don’t experience, say, the pleasure of sugar in a latte – rather, it is that this pleasure is subsumed into a larger mosaic that is much, much richer than that pleasure (or any of the other pleasures) alone.
Before we evaluate what this means about God, let’s take two different examples that are perhaps, by degrees, a little further removed from biological needs. Let’s start with the pleasure in the colors of fall. Why do we like autumn color? Well, liking fall color isn’t the same as liking a page colored with a red crayon (though we often like that because we like bright colors). It subsumes that pleasure; but it’s richer, more varied, and transcends it. Our enjoyment of fall colors simultaneously includes at least the following elements: (a) a love of specific colors, (b) a love of contrasting colors, (c) a love of trees and nature, (d) the feeling imbued by transient and ethereal things (that is, we know it will not last long), (e) the enjoyment of visual complexity, and (f) the pleasure we feel in cyclical recurrence of the seasons. Those are just a few of the elements, all of which involve pleasure individually – yet, the experience of the enjoyment of fall colors somehow combines them, transcends them, subsumes them, into a new and different experience. That is the essence of a complex pleasure.
Finally, consider something that seems even further removed from biological needs: The love of music. I was at a symphony a few weeks ago and there were a couple of moments where the complexity of the pleasure evoked by the glorious chords almost made me cry. [Editor’s note: He also once cried at a football game – and at the movie Mulan – and because he ate a really, really good donut. We’re just sayin’ that maybe we shouldn’t make too big a deal about this whole crying at the symphony thing.] And why do I love music? Where does that come from? Enjoyment of the symphony involves an ability to process an incredibly complex mosaic of instruments (more than I’m going to list) and constantly fluctuating variations in rhythms, loudness, and pitch. The weaving of this rich mosaic is a complex pleasure.
Complex Pleasures Point to God
Now the whole point is this: Why did I awake in a world where such complex pleasures were possible? And the answer I find, when I think it through, is this: I think it modestly likely that random chance could have produced the simple pleasures, like the pleasure I get from drinking water when I’m thirsty. But I think it far less likely that random chance in a naturalistic world would have produced complex pleasure.
For me to experience a complex pleasure, there has to be (a) complexity in my environment and (b) a matching psychological mechanism for me to encode and enjoy the complexity in that environment. Thus, it is primarily the match between the complexity of our psychology and the complexity of our environment that is in play here. I find it unlikely that chance would have produced something as complex as a latte and something inside of me that allows me to register the complex experience as the rich thing that it is. I find it unlikely as a matter of sheer probability. The mechanism that allows me to experience this wild combination of flavors in a complicated way would have to be complex – and the odds of it matching the complex ingredients in the latte seem small.
This is simple mathematical probability: The odds of two things matching by chance decreases proportionally as the complexity of each thing increases. We’ll deal in a minute with the obvious possibility that the match comes from the psychological mechanism altering the environment or vice versa – but first let’s illustrate the matching probability principle with an example.
A Digression About Crossword Puzzles
I like crossword puzzles; sometimes my wife and I work on them together. One of the things that reasonably annoys my wife when we do this is that I often like to write down my guesses in pen. Given the tiny space for each letter and the inability to erase a pen, it is hardly surprising that this is not a popular thing to do in the Conway household.
Yet for our purposes it will help illustrate what I mean about complexity and probability. Because, contrary to what Kathrene may tell you, I don’t write down every guess in pen – I use an intuitive method for determining the probability that a guess is right before I write it down. Consider a section of the following (real) crossword puzzle I just completed:
Let’s say I know with near certainty that 5 down is correct.
And here’s what I have for clues:
5 Across ___ Romeo
14 Across Microsoft chief, to some
18 Across Poet Dickinson
20 Across Govt. Tax Form
22 Across A pig’s house
6 Down Proceeds falteringly
7 Down Play at Love
8 Down Brass or Bronze
15 Down Cheat by deception
Now let’s say that I look at 6 down and I think immediately that it is steps and I look at 8 down and I think immediately that it is metal. And what I want to know is, what are the odds that these guesses are correct – should I write them down in pen?
Not yet. I first want to see how they might fit together with other possible guesses. If I put those in, for example, that means that 14 across (Microsoft Chief) would be B S _ E _. That doesn’t look promising, since I think that’s probably going to be some form of “Bill Gates” (though I’m not sure – I don’t follow Microsoft) and neither of those would match that. Further, I think the poet in 18 might be “Emily” and that doesn’t match either one.
So I decide to scrap both of those ideas for the moment. Instead a new thought occurs to me – I wonder if 8 down might be alloy. So I play around with that. I have this vague sense that 5 across is alfa (though I’m not sure why – maybe that’s a car?). That fits. If 14 across is Billy (who knows – maybe some people call Bill Gates that?) then that would fit, too.
So far, that’s not enough to be too confident. But do you see what’s happening here? If I get one or two things that I’m unsure about lining up, it still could be the wrong answer – all of these could be wrong; random coincidences if you will. But as the number of coincidences coalesces – as more and more of my guesses fit together into a complex pattern – I begin to grow in confidence.
So now I notice that alloy also fits with Emily because the “l” works. That’s not quite enough for me to have confidence even in Emily to write it down; my grasp of poets’ names is not all that great. But then I realize that 6 down might be limps (which fits with alfa, Billy, and Emily). Then it occurs to me that 22 across could be sty. I’m not confident in sty, but it fits with alloy. So what are the odds that all my guesses to this point are wrong? Very small. Although I’m not confident in any one guess enough to write it down, I have guesses for 5 across, 6 down, 8 down, 14 across, 18 across, and 22 across, all of which fit together. For alloy, that would only leave one letter open (20 across, which I’ve no idea at all what it is). I decide to write “alloy” down because it seems immensely unlikely that, even though I’m not that confident in alloy on its own, I’m confident that the likelihood that the whole mosaic of uncertainties would have emerged as a fluke is pretty small.
I then have a check, because while Billy works great for some of the letters, the “y” on the end cannot possibly work because, if Emily is right, that word for 15 down would start with “yy.” I don’t trust that; it seems either Billy or Emily must be wrong. So I try all sorts of words both starting with “y” and with “y” as the second letter. I come up with “gyp” and notice that this would make 14 across “BillG” which could be right. I write that down.
Finally, with 7 down having apparent letters (if my guesses are right so far) F L I _ T, I fill in the “r” for “flirt” and decide to call it good.
Does this mean that this section is right for certain? No. I’ve done a lot of crosswords and sometimes what I thought was a beautiful mosaic was in fact a set of random words based on sensible guesses that turned out to be almost entirely wrong.
My point is not about certainty; but about probability. The probability of my being right – and thus the likelihood of me writing in pen – goes up, not just with the certainty of my guesses for each case, but also with the likelihood that those guesses match up to other guesses. And the more and more complex it gets, the lower the likelihood that the matches are a fluke, and the higher the likelihood that my guesses actually approximate the intent of the person who designed the crossword.
Mercifully We Return to the Question At Hand
So, back to our question: Why did the world end up in such a way as to include both my ability to enjoy a latte and the ingredients to create it? Why did the world end up in such a way as to contain both my ability to enjoy fall color and the fall color itself? How did my incredibly complex pleasure-feeling mechanisms happen to match the incredibly complex reality that I actually experience?
The best I answer I can think of to that question is that I was made for it; the complex environment and the complex perception mechanism were both created by something outside of each. By what or whom? By something that intended that I, Luke Conway, would have an ability to experience complex pleasure, just like the crossword puzzle was designed by someone that intended the word alloy to fit in a non-random way in that particular place. That something would have to be pretty powerful, awfully intelligent, and have some desires or goals commiserate with this experience. In other words, it would most likely be some kind of mind that wanted me to be able to experience such complex pleasure and was capable of producing the match between my complex pleasure-processing unit and the complexity of the latte. That mind would have to be outside of us, guiding our development as a species in some way, either making our processing unit commiserate with an already-existing environment, or making both the environment and the processing unit to match each other. While it’s of course possible that some Prometheus-like aliens did it, I find that something like a Theistic God fits the bill better. But the point is that based on what I know, my experience of drinking a latte is better explained by God than it is by naturalism, even though the experience itself is essentially non-religious in nature and doesn’t necessarily produce a religious reaction.
Similarly, I find it unlikely that chance would have produced both the rich varied world of autumn colors and my psychological ability to enjoy that rich and varied experience. What are the odds that Alloy matches Emily, Sty, Alfa, and BillG by chance? Not very large to me. The mosaic feels too complex. What are the odds that my perception mechanisms would have emerged to allow me to assimilate a seemingly unnecessary pleasure in fall colors and that the fall colors themselves would contain all those complicated elements? It doesn’t feel like there is a very great probability that both would have co-occurred by chance – they are each too complex. Thus, just as I assume alloy is probably the result of actual intent by a real mind designing the crossword because it fits into a larger mosaic, I assume that my pleasure in fall colors is probably the result of actual intent by a real mind because it fits into a larger mosaic.
The Obvious Reasonable Objection and Why It Does Not Compel Me
Because this is getting kinda long, next post we will deal with a few possible objections to this argument. At the moment, though, I’d like to discuss the most obvious one that occurs to me and that I’ve thought about a lot. That objection is this: It’s possible that the reason for the match between the environment and the mechanism is because one of them created or influenced the other. So, for example, it is possible that I developed a mechanism that allowed me to enjoy lattes, or to enjoy the ingredients in lattes, because those ingredients existed in the human world. It is also possible that humans then just experimented with all those ingredients until we found the best combination that produced the most pleasure. To the degree that this is true, the match between my own perception mechanism and the environment becomes less mysterious and can more compellingly be explained by chance mechanisms requiring no “outside” mind. The “match” thus becomes less compelling to the degree that there is “contamination” between the environment and the perception mechanism.
This is a reasonable point; but it does not compel me. Some of the reasons it does not compel me are very subjective and hard to define – it does not remotely capture the nature of the experience itself to imagine that, say, it is very likely that woodwinds and violins playing together were invented as a result of some kind of seek-and-find effort.
But no matter – that’s not really what we are about here. Intellectually, when I step back from that, this objection has little weight to me. (1) It is largely based on the unlikely proposition that I would develop a mechanism for assimilating ingredients in my environment when the assimilation itself (and sometimes the individual ingredients themselves) does not seem to serve any necessary function. Even granting that, having a mechanism for enjoying a complex latte, I might search the universe out to find the right ingredients to produce the perfect one, the question still arises – why would I develop a mechanism for a complex pleasure before I would have the ingredients to search it out? I don’t just have mechanisms for each individual ingredient – I clearly have a mechanism to assimilate those ingredients. Thus, as an explanation for the match between the two, the search-and-find idea leaves a lot to be desired. Indeed, it kind of makes my point for me – it assumes that the mechanism causes the match with the environment, but in so doing illustrates how incredibly unlikely it is that we would develop a complex mechanism for a rich experience that we had not yet had.
(2) On the other hand, if we assume the environment created the mechanism, we have a different problem. (a) First, it seems unlikely in many cases that the environment would have preceded the mechanism at all. Is it really a serious argument that my mechanism for enjoying the symphony was created in the distant past by the existence of complex instrumentation? Yet I seem made for the symphony. (b) More importantly, in most cases it is hard for me to imagine how the complexity of the mechanism would come from the environment itself. It may be tempting to say that, given the existence of fall colors, perhaps over millions of years we gradually developed an ability to enjoy the various parts and then somehow assimilated them into a larger experience. But this hardly gets us anywhere, and indeed just brings me back where we started. The only naturalistic mechanism we know of is chance mutation (and I can think of no better one, and all of them would involve something like chance in any event). And there is no necessary reason that, existing for billions of years in a given environment, we should assume that chance mutation would have produced any particular thing, much less this particularly complicated one. Fall colors exist in a complex way – but a fungus exists in the same environment and presumably does not have a mechanism for enjoying their complex pleasure. So why should the environment produce a mechanism for enjoyment at all for something so complex? The prima facie case for an environment producing a complex pleasure is not very strong. Indeed, in reality the environment can at best only have an indirect effect in shaping the mechanism – it cannot really directly produce anything.
(3) An offshoot of this idea suggests a kind of co-development over time, so that the mechanism for perception grows at the same time as the complexity of the environment. The co-development idea sounds all fancy-pantsy, but as far as I can tell, it has the same set of logical problems that we’ve already illustrated – it just couches them in more obtuse language. But as this post is getting awfully long, even for me [Editor’s note: Good heavens, is this guy right for once! We hope he is actually about to stop rambling], I’m going to deal with that in my next post. For now, I’ll just note that this co-development idea mostly punts on all the hard questions and takes us a long way round to the same exact fundamental question we are now considering.
And that leads right back to our crossword puzzle. What are the odds that two complex things, the environment and the mechanism, would co-occur by chance to match each other? That they would emerge in some mutually-constitutive way when it seems unnecessary for survival for them to have done so?
I would say an honest evaluation suggests to me that it is possible, just like it is possible for all those guesses to have been randomly placed in a mosaic – but it is not likely.
After all, I went and looked up the answers to my crossword puzzle – and 8 down was “alloy.”