Earlier this year, debating Richard Carrier, I introduced an argument for the existence of God that I have now christened TACT -- the Theistic Argument from Cultural Transcendence. In defending the argument against the subsequent attacks of Hector Avalos, I explained it in the following syllogism:
(a) If an understanding of God transcends a
particular culture, it is much more likely to be true than if it does not.
The idea of God does, in fact, transcend the Abrahamic tradition from which
monotheism is often said to have arisen. It can, in fact, be found in
many highly scattered and diverse cultures, where it must have arisen
(c) Therefore God is much more likely to be real than religious
ideas that are limited to one particular culture, or flow out from one
I then explained why I think this argument has some force in a later post, made a brief case for the first two premises, and defended the argument against criticism.
Recently I showed the first of those responses to several people, including the eminent quantum physicist Don Page, who kindly contributed a chapter to our book last year, Faith Seeking Understanding. I don't know if he read the last post or not, which perhaps I should have linked as well.
Anyway, Don replied with some helpfully critical comments. In this post I would like to consider his criticism, which focus on the first premise of TACT, and determine whether, in light of that criticism, we should consider that premise to be true.
I am not entirely satisfied with my response, yet, and admit that Don's critique carries some force. But while the argument still requires more thought, and critique from those who doubt it, as I'm pretty sure I'm missing something, I think the following will show that TACT at least potentially does carry some force, as well.
"The TACT is an interesting argument. Of course, if someone can also show that atheism developed independently in different cultures, the point that the concept of God also did would not be much evidence that it is the concept of God rather than atheism that is correct.
"In science, it is not clear to me whether an idea would be more reliable if it arose many times independently or whether it originated once and then was thought to be good by many people. In some sense special relativity is sort of an example of the former, with several people coming up with some of the basic ideas (though of course they all inherited a huge commonality in their background knowledge) and then with Einstein giving the most clear formulation of it (though special relativity would almost certainly have been fairly fully developed within a few years even if Einstein had not existed). General relativity is a more rare example of the latter, in that it was independently developed almost entirely by Einstein (though admittedly after Einstein explained his basic ideas to Hilbert, who was a much more able mathematician, Hilbert found a way to give the precise field equations Einstein was looking for a bit earlier than Einstein himself did with his less sophisticated mathematics). If Einstein had not developed general relativity, it almost certainly would have been developed eventually, but probably not for decades, as compared with months or just a few years for special relativity.
"Now special relativity has much more applicability (to everything moving at speeds not negligibly small compared with the speed of light) than general relativity (which is an important improvement over Newtonian gravity only when gravity is so strong that it does or potentially could produce free-fall velocities not negligibly small compared with the speed of light), so special relativity spread much more rapidly than general relativity, but once the ideas were understood and the experimental evidence came in, general relativity also became widely accepted, and people did not criticize it just because it essentially arose only once independently in human history.
"Of course, in science it is often easier to test ideas than in theology or philosophy (though now there are ideas of superstrings and multiverses that may take decades to test), so it perhaps matters less how they originate. But I don't yet clearly understand how it makes much difference for the question of whether or not theism is true that the concept of theism has arisen independently in several or many different cultures."
To which I briefly replied,
Thanks, Don. I appreciate a critical response. Of course, it is different to say a Being exists and transcends cultures, who may possibly reveal Himself, than to affirm an idea or scientific law that could conceivably be discovered (or overlooked) by people in different cultures. But no doubt further analysis and explanation is needed. Since you kindly offer the suggestion, I may indeed post your thoughts on my blog this week, and consider how my argument may or may not work in light of those objections.
Don then answered:
"I suppose one question is whether there is some significant difference in the way the idea of theism may arise from the way the idea of atheism may arise. If both are just hypotheses that arise among humans, the fact that many cultures have come up with both does not give much information as to which idea is better. But if some ideas of theism came from detailed specific revelations such as God's burning-bush revelation to Moses, then if the reports of this revelation can be trusted, to me it would seem to count a lot more than an idea of atheism that came without such a detailed specific revelation. In principle it seems much harder for no-god to reveal the truth of atheism than for God to reveal His existence, just as it is easier for a coelacanth to reveal its existence than for anything to reveal that a coelacanth does not exist.
"So for me what seems most important is the reliability of reports of specific revelations. If there are indeed reliable reports of such revelations in a larger number of independent cultures (reducing the risk that some people would falsely claim to have seen what they had heard reported that others had seen), that would seem to increase the evidence for these revelations actually to have happened, but if the reliable revelations are confined to a small number of cultures, and the rest just have hypotheses without clear evidence for them, then I don't see that the existence of these hypotheses that arise independently is much support for their truth (other than to say that perhaps one should not dismiss them as a priori highly improbable, as many seem to do today to avoid the bother of looking carefully at the historical evidence)."
These criticisms may indeed weigh against some construals of TACT, and helpfully challenge its first premise. I think, though, that there is more to TACT that an analogy to physical theory or even simple observation can bring out. To recognize that, let's begin by considering how we know things.
Roughly speaking, all our knowledge comes from four potential sources: (1) the mind, which discerns relations and logical connections, and stores memories; (2) the senses, which give the mind raw data on which to work, and tell us "what is out there;" (3) other people; (4) and superhuman beings, such as God, or perhaps, aliens. (We might also deduce that someone is at the door from the bark of the dog, whether we reduce Fido to (2), or elevate him to (3).)
If God exists, and Saint Paul is right in saying, "That which is known about God is evident within them, for God has made it evident to them," then one would expect knowledge of God to appear not just within one culture, but around the world. However, Paul goes on to say that while God's "eternal power and divine nature" are "clearly seen" through "what has been made," people "suppress the truth in unrighteousness."
So Christianity predicts that awareness of God would be nearly universal, though not overwhelming, but often or usually denied, even "suppressed," in favor of idolatry and sin.
If that is the pattern we actually find, that makes Christianity more likely to be true, for the predictive value of the anthropological model it postulates. (Compared, say, to David Hume and the New Atheists, who fail to predict such a pattern, and who in fact predict the opposite, that "God" will be absent in primitive cultures, or arise in an evolutionary manner.)
But this passage seems to leave open several possible ways in which God might "make it evident" that he exists:
(1) It may be that the laws of Nature are such that it is rational, or at least seems rational, to deduce the existence of a good and rational Creator and Law-Giver -- reliance mainly on the first two forms of knowledge. This seems to be the model Dr. Page assumes above.
If that is so, then given our dependence on other people for knowledge, the fact that rational people in many cultures do in fact deduce God, from a variety of premises, does lend some a priori support to the plausibility of theism. Of course, one would still need to check the cogency of the arguments they make, as Page reminds us. If we check those arguments, we may find that (a) some seem to work, (b) all seem to fail, or (c) we aren't sure about all of them. But even in the case of (b) or (c), it is reasonable to leave room for the possibility that we are missing something, especially when we find such brilliant people as Aquinas, Anselm, or Plantinga making such arguments. It is sensible for human beings to recognize our limits, recognize also that God may reveal himself rationally but inchoately through Nature, and that people in particular social environments, or liable to particular sins, may consequently be weakened in their capacity to follow certain rational lines of argument. And we may be among those people. For instance, I confess that I do not understand subtler versions of the Ontological Argument. So I take the fact that someone like Plantinga seems to find something in them, as a reason not to dismiss the argument too strongly.
If belief in God is deduced in diverse cultures, of course it is possible that all the people who deduce Him are wrong, just as all the people who see the sun go across the sky and deduce that the sun circles the Earth, are wrong. But God by hypothesis is rationally known through creation. And since God is clever, his revelation may be of such an inchoate rationality that it will bypass some of the "wise" yet rightly appeal to savages who watch sheep under the stars or run through the jungle (as Paul also seems to suggest). So I think it would still be intellectually encouraging to find that rational arguments for theism could hold their ground not only in the sorts of public debates William Lane Craig sports in, but also in diverse cultures.
Recall that the conclusion of TACT is not "God must exist." Rather, it is that theism is more plausible than are beliefs that arise in just one locality. I grant that if we construe TACT's first premise on (1), then Dr. Page's objection from the analogy to scientific theories carries some weight. But even so, biblical theism seems to predict the actual pattern that we find, and why arguments for God may be rational, simple, even almost self-evident, yet also be "plausibly deniable," and therefore not spread with the same overwhelming power among the cognoscenti as, say, the Special Theory of Relativity.
So even construing Paul's words on (1), I think TACT is somewhat successful -- also for other reasons to be given at the end of this post.
(2) It may also be that Paul means that God reveals himself to human beings directly, or to some human beings at some times, or to people whose hearts have been prepared, whose lives, like the lens of a telescope, have been adequately cleansed, one might say, or for whom God has some special mission. Perhaps that revelation is still what we call "general," a sense of awareness that is like a spiritual organ in our hearts, an "eye of faith," if you will, not blind faith but one that sees what is.
In that case, the fact that awareness of God appears in different cultures, would be analogous to the fact that people in many countries recognize a round moon. There may be some people with bad eyes who see two moons or just a blurry light in the sky - I'm heading in that direction. But the fact that people in hundreds of cultures do come to recognize a Creator God with a character like that set out in the Bible, would in that case be reason to think God is in fact real.
Of course, unlike the moon or physical laws, God is, by hypothesis, a person, and a person more intelligent than human beings. This means that the pattern of how He reveals Himself will follow some reason, but that reason we may or may not be able to discern, or perhaps we can discern it in some cases, to some extent, but not in others.
But the fact that empirical descriptions of the moon from different parts of Earth match, even if descriptions may differ, and people with bad eyes may not see it well, and poets may describe it strangely, is evidence that people are "seeing" the same real object. If we "perceive" God in a similar way, similarities across cultures do provide evidence for ontological reality.
(3) It may also be, as Dr. Page mentioned in his second e-mail, that God takes special action to reveal Himself to particular people around the world. Don Richardson describes several such apparent special revelations, and I have heard such accounts from other missionaries.
Given each of these possibilities, the fact that we do find awareness of God in hundreds of cultures around the world, I think does his existence more likely than it would be if we did not find such a phenomena. The fact that that knowledge is often obscured, even actively suppressed, actually fits the biblical pattern and therefore makes Christian faith more credible still.
However, this does not prove that God exists, because it may also be possible to explain this phenomena from a skeptical point of view. Given a misleading appearance, such as the apparent motion of the sun across the sky, people in many cultures may make similar but wrong deductions about that phenomena: the sun moves from east to west. Maybe people deduce God because the world "looks designed" but is not, the Blind Watchmaker has played a trick on us. Or maybe we are hard-wired to believe in Parental Authority, and go on believing as adults, setting that Ultimate Authority in the sky. (In which case, though, it is hard to understand why God seems relatively absent in some cultures.)
So I do not claim TACT is a conclusive argument. But as I pointed out in my final response to Avalos, it does seem to work on six levels, beginning again with the moon. In conclusion, let me rework those comments somewhat:
(1) First, there is the simple level of analysis by Durkheim, Dawkins,
Dennett, and Carrier . . . If God does not transcend
particular cultures, he is less likely to be real. This demonstrates the
converse: if God does transcend particular cultures, he is more likely to be
real. Some object that this commits the genetic fallacy, fallacious assuming that the origin of an idea determines its validity. (And this is what Dr. Page is getting at, too.)
This is complex, but sometimes the origin of an
idea is very relevant to its plausibility.
Suppose you are in radio
communication with different tribes on a planet too far away to tell if the
planet has any natural satellites. You find out that the people dwell separately
on 100 islands, separated by waters so rough they cannot cross them, speak
different languages, and cannot communicate. (They just obtained radios by a US
government "Welfare for Aliens" grant, from a passing space ship.) Suppose each
tribe reported something different about the planet's satellites -- it has no
moon, it has 50 moons, the moon is round, the moon is shaped like a donut, it's
green, it's red, it's almost invisible, it fills half the sky. You might
conclude that you know nothing sure about the planet's moons -- whether because
of clouds, the inhabitants are blind, or they are inveterate liars.
Suppose, however, that half the tribes give similar but not
exactly equal reports. The planet has two moons: one big, round, yellowish or light green, and
smooth, the other small, reddish, elongated with large craters on the surface.
(Though slightly different hues are named, and not everyone reports that smaller second moon.)
The other tribes give mixed and inconsistent reports, as in the first
In both cases, you are relying entirely on reports from "people"
you don't know. But I think it's reasonable to believe what the second set of
reports agree upon, even if you only find the first set confusing. You might
suppose that those tribes which fail to report on the planet's two moons, live
in areas subject to heavy cloud cover, or are run by paranoid North Korea type
regimes and think you are planning an invasion from their planet's moon. (Or
perhaps they were also given copies of Avatar by the passing space ship
dubbed in local languages.) So they don't want you to know what their moons
are like, and are shining you shamelessly.
(2) Second, there is Avalos'
own implicit argument. If God does not transcend particular KINDS of cultures,
"patriarchal" and all that, Avalos seems to imply that He is less likely to be
real. From which it follows, since God DOES transcend particular kinds of
culture, He is more likely to be real.
The point here is that religion
is supposed, as above, to be the product of social evolution. From which it
follows (and this is a very old idea) religions will reflect the character of
the tribes in which they arise. The Chinese Heaven will be bureaucratic. (As
indeed it is, in Journey to the West.) The Greek Olympus will be
crowded with quarreling, skirt-chasing gods (as in the Iliad). Amazon
tribes will worship a jaguar, and North American tribes, a coyote.
an idea of God that arises in many different kinds of culture, independent of the
variety of political systems, is more likely to be true than theologies
that can be explained by peculiar systems.
(3) Third, there is
the simple predictive element. St. Paul predicts that God will transcend
cultures. David Hume strongly denies it. Paul is right, Hume (despite the
advantage of 1700 years) is wrong.
This is startling, especially when
you consider Hume's brilliance, as well as his knowledge of a wider spectrum of
human cultures. Again, it might be that both were too ignorant of science and anthropology for us to bother with their primitive theories. But modern atheists who do seem to know science well, like Richard Dawkins, still get this wrong, while Paul and St. Augustine get it right.
(4) Fourth, there is the complex predictive element.
St. Paul predicts that while God will be widely known, he will also be widely
denied, and idolatry and worship of "the creature" will be practiced. Paul saw
that all around him, but he had no way of knowing it would also be true in South
America and Mongolia.
Let's return to our Island Planet analogy.
Suppose your astronomer friends predict, given the planet's aquatic habitat,
that the sky will only be clearly visible from about half the planet, with
clouds almost permanently obscuring the heavens the rest of the time. Suppose
they also tell you that if the planet has a moon, it will be in tidal lock with
the planet. So even when the moon is visible, through obscuring vapors, from
some angles it might appear through a sunset glow, which is deep crimson on that
planet, and will be elongated by atmospheric refraction. (That being the only
time of year that the vapors clear.) Furthermore, the moon will be invisible
from much of the planet, but an asteroid belt might be visible for creatures
with eagle eyes. And not having seen a "moon," people speaking their language
naturally use the word for "asteroid" that you mistake as meaning "moon."
Paul's anthropology similarly seems to predict, not just "God" simply,
but a common but obscured and often twisted concept of God, along with lesser
beings that may be mistaken for him. This greater detail in prediction thus
renders the Christian model of religions not weaker, but far stronger, and can be construed as evidence
for the truth of Christian anthropology.
(5) Fifth, there is the fact
that God is seen as transcending particular cultures, even by those within those
transcended cultures. Durkheim admits that Australian tribes recognized "God"
as belonging to more than just their own tribes. Readers of the Chinese
Classics and oracle bones find evidence for this in ancient China as well . . .
(6) Sixth (and here things may get downright scary for skeptics), there is Don Richardson's observation that the "God"
of pagan cultures often seems to prepare his believers to welcome the Good News
of Jesus Christ. (He relates the story in Eternity in Their Hearts.)