Skeptical of Soft Theism
by Gary J. Whittenberger
The central belief of Soft Theism, introduced and advocated by Miklos Jako in a recent issue of Skeptic (Vol. 19, No.2, 2014), argues that there exists “a great Intelligence that created and sustains the world…[that] does not concern Itself with human affairs at all…[that] wants us to behave well,” and that “transcends space, time, nature, and logic.” To begin, I’m skeptical of the term “great Intelligence.” Making the same mistake as many New Agers, Jako reifies one property of humanity—intelligence —and implies that it can exist by itself separate from a living person. This is no more reasonable than belief in a great Reproduction separate from a reproducing person.
Jako claims that his Soft Theism has “none of the superstitious baggage of traditional religion,” but unfortunately it does. The central belief meets the essential criteria for “superstition” defined in Merriam-Webster’s dictionary: It is based on faith or trust in magic, it results from ignorance and a false conception of causation, and it is maintained despite evidence to the contrary.
Thousands of gods have been hypothesized to exist. I will call the god of Soft Theism according to Miklos Jako the “ST.1 god.” (There may be other versions of Soft Theism whose gods could be labeled differently.) Clearly, the ST.1 god is different from the god of most Jews, Christians, and Muslims, who is often called “God” (with a capital “G”), but to avoid confusion I will call this god the “JCM god.” Whereas the JCM god is thought to intervene in earthly and human affairs moderately or very often and a Deist god is thought to intervene not at all, the ST.1 god is thought to intervene rarely. Believers in the JCM and ST.1 gods would need to specify when, why, and how their gods have intervened in order to properly fill out their worldviews. Jako admits that there is no “hard evidence” for the ST.1 god. Although it is reasonable to believe that ST.1 god possibly exists, without hard evidence it is not reasonable to believe that it probably exists, as Jako seems to do.
Jako thinks about the possibility of an intentionally unverifiable god, but if such a god existed, this fact could not be distinguished from the existence of no god, and so there would be no good reason to believe in such a god. Despite Jako’s claim, this god would not “make more sense than not.” If the ST.1 god rarely intervenes in earthly and human affairs, then he would not be unverifiable—there should be detectable signs of his rare interventions. Jako cannot have it both ways.
If the problem of evil is a powerful argument against a good god and a perhaps a clincher for atheism— as Jako admits—then it would not be reasonable for him to believe that any good and powerful god exists. At best his ST.1 god would have to be amoral, and at worst immoral or evil. For example, if the ST.1 god did exist, then he should be considered responsible for natural disasters since he would be the creator and sustainer of the world. Natural disasters would occur only because this god wanted them to occur. Does Jako admire or worship this ST.1 god? If this god did exist, I would abhor him.
If a god who transcends space, time, nature, and logic is the only kind of god which makes sense to Jako, then that is fine for him, but that kind of god will make no sense at all to nearly all human persons, especially skeptics. A god who transcended time couldn’t do anything at all, including create and sustain our universe, so the definition of the ST.1 god actually becomes self-contradictory. If the ST.1 god transcends logic and is intentionally unverifiable (leaves no evidence of his existence), as Jako apparently believes, then Jako has no tools of skepticism or reason to convince the rest of us skeptics to accept his claim. He is relying totally on faith or wishful thinking.
With regard to a first cause, Jako claims that there are three possibilities: “1. The universe has always existed. 2. The universe came into existence out of nothing. 3. The universe was created by an entity.” This is a false trichotomy since these three possibilities are neither exhaustive nor mutually exclusive. If the universe always existed, then it may have undergone a great transformation (beginning with the Big Bang) and this change may have had no cause at all, an unintelligent physical cause, an intelligent physical one, an unintelligent nonphysical cause, or an intelligent nonphysical one. If the universe came into existence out of nothing (#2), then, likewise, this may have had no cause at all, an unintelligent physical cause, an intelligent physical one, an unintelligent nonphysical cause, or an intelligent nonphysical one. So, there seem to be at least ten possibilities instead of just three.
Jako seems to think that the most likely of these alternatives is that the universe came into existence from nothing and this event had an intelligent nonphysical cause. I think he has embraced the least likely of the ten alternatives. Arguably, the most likely scenario is that the universe has always existed and underwent a great transformation (beginning with the Big Bang) for which there was an unintelligent physical cause. This is supported best by the evidence and Occam’s Razor. The Law of Conservation of Matter-Energy supports the hypothesis of an eternal universe. There have been millions of demonstrations of the transformation of matterenergy, but no demonstrations of the creation or destruction of it. We have no evidence of nonphysical causes. There have been billions of demonstrations of the connection of intelligence to complex physical structures, brains in particular, and no demonstrations of the connection of intelligence to anything else. Brains appear to be a very recent development in the 13.8-billion-year history of our universe since the Big Bang. This explanation is also based on the least number of assumptions.
Jako says that a spiritual thing, like the ST.1 god, would not need a cause. But how does he know this? He doesn’t. It makes more sense to me that there was an infinite regress of physical causes rather than that a nonphysical intelligence was the first cause of our universe. We know that there have been multiple series of physical causes extending all the way back to the Big Bang. It is more probable that these series extended backwards before the Big Bang than that they simply stopped at that moment. Also, there is no evidence of nonphysical causes.
When considering the origins of existence we don’t need to step outside the boundaries of science, as Jako insists. Instead we should use science, our best tool for investigating reality, to hypothesize about what we don’t already know. Dispensing with evidence and logic does not have a proven track record of success.
When Jako suggests that we need the ST.1 god to fill “the ultimate gap,” i.e. “how the whole thing started,” then by “whole thing” he could mean the universe itself or he could mean merely the Big Bang. But if the universe always existed, then that “whole thing” never started, and Jako is begging the question. On the other hand, we don’t have a good explanation of the Big Bang, but we should not assume that this constitutes a gap that will never be filled. If that gap is filled, then will Jako come up with a new “ultimate gap?”
Jako says that it makes more sense to him that life came from life than that life came from nonlife, but this should not make more sense to him since the evidence does not support that hypothesis. There is evidence of nonliving things existing on the Earth prior to 3.5 billion years ago, but there is no evidence of living things existing on the Earth prior to that time. Although there are other possible explanations, the best explanation for now is that some nonliving things changed into living things through a process not yet fully understood. Scientists specializing in biochemistry and related fields are working on the problem and there are good reasons to think they will eventually solve it. Contrary to there being a “gap,” there are in fact at least half a dozen testable hypotheses to explain the origin of life. Just because there is little agreement on which one is likeliest to be true does not mean the problem is an insoluble one.
Jako also says that it makes more sense to him that intelligence came from intelligence than that intelligence came from nonintelligence. However, intelligence is always associated with brains (robots may become an exception), and there is no evidence for the existence of brains prior to the advent of multicellular organisms on the Earth. Contrary to what Jako believes, most scientists, atheists and theists alike, think that life came from nonlife and intelligence came from nonintelligence during the course of Earth’s history.
Jako finds it miraculous that when he scratches his arm during yard work the wound is healed a few days later. But there is no miracle here. The natural physical healing process is well understood. He says “I think there is an indefinable life force.” If something is indefinable, then what observations could be made to support or undermine its existence? How could it be distinguished from nothing? Before the 1850s, belief in vitalism was still widespread, but it is an idea now rejected by the overwhelming consensus of biologists. Jako says “I do not believe in miracles, but I think life itself is a miracle.” This is equivalent to saying “I do not believe in any miracles, but I believe in at least one miracle,” which is an internal contradiction.
Jako says “Science may tell us the details of how something happens, but not why it should happen. I think this sustaining force can reasonably be interpreted as God caring about us.” Jako does not tell us what would be the difference between the questions “Why did it happen?” vs. “Why should it have happened?” By using “should” did he mean to bring in a moral consideration? I don’t know. At any rate, “why” questions usually refer to motives of persons. Science can sometimes tell us why persons have engaged in some acts, but it cannot tell us why water freezes at 32 degrees Fahrenheit, why life exists, or why there is gravity. These types of questions are meaningless, unless there exists some super person responsible for these facts whose motives can be examined. So, asking “why” questions begs the question of god’s existence. In addition, if the ST.1 god did exist and cared about us, as Jako suggests, then there shouldn’t be any of those pesky natural disasters. So the ST.1 god very probably doesn’t exist.
Jako believes that the argument that “life on Earth can be explained only by God’s design, not by sheer luck” is a “half decent argument.” It is not. First, design by God or ST.1 god is not the only explanation for life on Earth. Secondly, “sheer luck” is not the only alternative to some god’s design. A combination of natural orderly processes and sheer luck is probably the best explanation. The claim presented by Jako is not nearly “half decent.”
Applying skepticism, reason, and critical thinking skills to Soft Theism I can confidently conclude that this hypothesis is very probably false. Like the minority of scientists who believe in one god or another, e.g. Francis Collins, Hugh Ross, etc., Miklos Jako is the victim of “compartmentalization of the mind.” Although he is adept at being skeptical with respect to some questions (“Do mediums communicate with the dead?), he fails to generalize his critical thinking skills to other questions (“Does a god exist?). I certainly accept Miklos Jako into the family of skeptics, but I encourage him to extend his skepticism even further.