The Case for Deism…….or not?
In this essay I will be exploring whether or not there may be an argument for deism or a deistic entity. Although I can categorically state that as a scientist I see no evidence for the theistic concept of deity, I have to admit that when it comes to the deistic argument I remain open to the concept simply because I am of the opinion that given our current state of knowledge, the deistic deity is unknowable. I suppose one could say I remain an agnostic when it comes to the deistic god.
I often read many of the arguments put forward by theists with some amusement. The reason I do so, is because many of the arguments (first cause, complexity of design and so on) they put forward as evidence for theism are in fact arguments for deism. It appears that many theists once they have present their argument for a deistic god do not realise that they have all their work cut out for them to demonstrate a personal, interventionist deity.
It’s clear to me that many theists do not realise that deism and theism are worlds (or should that be gods) apart.
Let’s start by having a look at a few definitions to highlight the key differences between theism and deism:
Theism, in the broadest sense, is the belief that at least one deity exists. Theism is commonly a monotheisticdoctrine, although it can also be polytheistic, concerning the nature of a deityor deities, and relationship to the universe. Theism conceives of deity as personal, present and active in the governance and organization of the world and the universe. As such theism describes the classical conception of deity that is found in Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Sikhism and Hinduism.
Deism is the belief that reasonand observation of the natural worldare sufficient to determine the existence of a Creator, accompanied with the rejection of revelationand authority as a source of religious knowledge. Deism holds that the deity does not intervene with the functioning of the natural world in any way, allowing it to run according to the laws of nature.
The core of deism is:
- Rejection of religions based on books that claim to contain the revealed word of God.
- Rejection of religious dogma and demagogy.
- Scepticism of reports of miracles, prophecies and religious "mysteries".
- God exists and created the universe.
- God gave humans the ability to reason.
To summarise, the two key differences are:
1. Theistic knowledge is gained through revelation and authority hence most theistic traditions have religious dogma, leaders and “ancient” texts. Deistic knowledge is gained through reason (philosophy) and observation of the natural world (philosophy of science).
2. The deity/ies in theism are supernatural intervening entities. The deity (usually one) in deism is non-intervening and is not supernatural because the formation of life and the universe is done so using only natural processes.
It should also be immediately clear that atheists and deists share some common ground. Deism and theism are poles apart.
History of Deism
Deism gained prominence in the 17th and 18th centuries during the Age of Enlightenmentin Britain, France, Germany, and the USA, among intellectuals who found fault with organized religion and did not believe in supernatural events such as miracles, the inerrancy of scripture, or the Trinity. It’s interesting to note that in the USA, Enlightenment philosophy, heavily inspired by deism, played a major role in creating the principle of religious freedom. A list of interesting and influential people that claimed to be deists can be seen here.
Deism is generally considered to have declined as an influential school of thought by around 1800, mostly in response to the rise, growth, and spread of naturalism and materialism, which were atheistic and the writings of David Hume, Immanuel Kantand later, Charles Darwin, which increased doubt about the first cause argument and the argument from design, turning many deists towards atheism.
Arguments for Deism
Modern deism is largely based on building a case for a deistic entity based on circumstantial evidence (evidence that tends to prove a fact by proving other events or circumstances
which afford a basis for a reasonable inference of the occurrence of the fact at
issue) from nature. In combination the sum of the evidence can be used to argue a case for a deity or supreme creator. Some of the circumstantial evidence used for modern deism is as follows:
The Big Bang – First Cause argument – There are several hypotheses seeking to answer this question, the deist claims that none of them, by definition, is observable, and infinite regressions are quite problematic. Occam's razor tells us that the simplest solution is usually the correct one. Why not take advantage of this theoretical principle and conclude that some power exists that is beyond our current understanding? For the deist, that power is god. This by no means proves that there is a god, but reaching that conclusion is rational.
Precision of the Cosmos. Sir Martin Rees, Britain's Astronomer Royal, is a Professor of Cosmology and Astrophysics at the University of Cambridge. In his book Just Six Numbers – The Deep Forces that Shape the Universe, he presents six cosmic constants that appear "well tuned." Had these numbers varied only, relatively, slightly from their current values, our universe would have persisted in lifeless expansion or collapsed before intelligent life could evolve.
For the deist, it is difficult, even counter-intuitive, to accept this much coincidence as random chance.
Laws of Nature. Consider the laws of nature: motion, gravity, conservation of mass-energy, conservation of momentum, thermodynamics, electrostatic law, and the invariance of the speed of light. Regardless of one's location in the cosmos, the laws of nature are consistent and cannot be defied. They are, in effect, God's commandments. These are true and inviolable laws. Because we do not consider atoms to have decision-making abilities, we must assume a "law giver" of sorts. Again, for deists this Law Giver is a deity, a creative force that set everything into motion.
Abiogenesis. This hypothesis describes how life on Earth may have arisen from inanimate matter. Science has shown how the building blocks of life, amino acids, can form in naturally-occurring chemical reactions. This is what scientists believe happened in what is often referred to as the "primordial soup" that was present in early Earth's existence. There are a host of differing hypothesis battling for supremacy within the theory called Abiogenesis, but none have been successful in a laboratory, largely because we do not know the conditions that existed on Earth at that time. Whatever happened, it is safe to consider it was predetermined to occur through the laws of nature put in place by a deity that intended life to form.
Evolution. Nature reveals purpose through evolution. Why does nature follow this fundamental principle? We must either conclude that the process of evolution was yet another random act of chance, or it was the result of some intelligent agency that built rules into the system ensuring improvement and advancement in life over time.
Information and DNA. For life to improve upon itself, nature must "remember" what it has tried, what works. Enter deoxyribonucleic acid or DNA, the hereditary material found in all living organisms. DNA is, basically, a blueprint or instruction manual for life. DNA is not merely a molecule with a pattern; it is a code, a language, and an information storage mechanism. All codes are created by a conscious mind; there is no natural process known to science that creates coded information.
Consciousness. Consciousness is our self-aware, subjective experience of reality. Probably the greatest issue or question about consciousness is the relationship between our mind and our body. Consciousness allows us to conceive of the very structure of our universe, without direct observation, and it allows us to determine ways to discover it. Our minds allow us to see beauty and enjoy music. If our thoughts are simply the result of chemical reactions in the brain, how is it that those chemical reactions have become self-aware? The deist concludes there is something more at work in our minds than chemistry. And as much as a deist values reason, science and logic, the perception of beauty and the enjoyment of music are not rational, reason-base processes.
Intuition. Consider intuition, a positive and important human trait, but it has limits. Intuition provides a spark. It allows us to process large volumes of data, applying our experience and knowledge very rapidly to create a "gut reaction," an instinctive response to something. Instinct is not infallible, but it is a proven tool. When the volume of circumstantial evidence is considered, a deist simply cannot accept it all as random chance. The notion that all this complexity and order "just happened" overwhelms and the visceral conclusion is that God exists.
Now when reviewing the arguments/evidence for deism, the astute reader will have realised that deists use the same evidence and arguments commonly used by theists (notably Christians). Many Christians do not realise that the arguments and evidence they put forward as evidence for god are actually the same used by deists.
The point is that the arguments often used by theists only get them to deism. These types of argument and circumstantial evidence can only be used to demonstrate a deity that does not intervene in the affairs of the universe and that natural law and not supernatural miracles are all that is required in the daily operation of the universe.
For any practical purposes, deism appears to be completely indistinguishable from atheism. An entirely non-interventionist god, who doesn't intervene in the afterlife we might or might not have, much less with this life, is, in any useful day-to-day sense, utterly indistinguishable from no god at all.
It’s important to realise that theism claims to have an intervening deity about which intervention many claims are made (efficacy of prayer, miracles, personal relationships, etc.), which although slippery and deceptive, can and have in fact been tested.
Deism on the other hand remains an unfalsifiable hypothesis. The deist deity supposedly answers the question of how the universe got here in the first place and why is has laws of operation, but in reality the question is simply moved on. How did the creator come to be? Did the deity come from nothing? The same questions we are asking of the universe. The fact is that the deist hypothesis does not answer any of the questions that non-deist hypothesis does not answer; it just creates a universe of more questions.
One could argue that a deist god answers the question of why believers believe; why people feel the presence of a deity even though there's no good evidence. Given the fallibility of intuition and confirmation bias, people's personal feelings and intuitions do not make a good argument for a deist god, any more than they do for an interventionist deity.
I have shown that many of the arguments and evidence that theists use as evidence for their intervening entity are in fact arguments for deism.
I have also shown how it is that modern deism presents a body of circumstantial evidence for a logical and reasonable inference to be drawn that there must be a deity that is creator and law-giver and that does not intervene in the daily operation of the universe. I’m not sure I am convinced by these arguments, but if one had a propensity for belief in a higher power and purpose then these arguments and evidence could be persuasive.
Now the question is why on earth would we even bother acknowledging the presence or not of this deity, if for all practical purposes such a deity has no bearing on our daily existence? Is deism simply another way of legitimising belief in undetectable and “intuitively felt” supernatural entities?
Sources and further reading: