By Paul Almond, 24 September 2005
One type of argument for the existence of God uses a sequence of events known to have occurred, but considered to be outrageously unlikely, as evidence, in fact usually proof, of God. These events usually have a combined probability which is supposed to be very low. In such arguments it is often pointed out that conditional probabilities are calculated by multiplication: to determine the probability of a number of events all occurring we multiply their probabilities together and if a sequence of events is required to produce some outcome then the individual probabilities of the events needed to do it combine to form, so these arguments state, an implausible daisy chain of coincidences with no reasonable chance of happening.
The following are frequently offered as examples of such unlikely happenings:
- the emergence of the first self-replicating organism on Earth.
- the evolution of life into higher forms.
- the organisation of matter into convenient objects such as planets.
- the formation of a planet (Earth) where the conditions are 'just right' for life.
- the existence of laws of physics which allow life to emerge at all.
- the occurrence of various fortunate events to individuals.
I would actually dispute that some of these are as improbable as claimed, or that it makes sense to think of all of them as 'happenings'. I will not, however, argue with each of these individually: proponents of theism can always get more as fast as I can argue with them. Instead, I will refute the main idea of the proof.
The proof of God claims that the occurrence of the sequence of events of low probability implies the existence of God. The idea is that it is much more likely that such unlikely sequences of events are the work of an intelligent agent such as a god than chance.
This article will attempt to refute this proof and weaken the case for the existence of God.
Many different things are claimed to have happened by those seeking to prove that a god exists. This article will not be seeking to refute every claim that can be made. The refutation presented here is intended to deal mainly with attempted proofs of God that use some sequence of events that is generally accepted to have occurred in mainstream science: the article is not really directed at claims of resurrections in religious books, for example.
This article is not part of the series that I am currently writing about Occam's razor. It will, however, involve related ideas at some points.
An Example of a Claimed Sequence of Unlikely Events
Let us suppose that we have a sequence of events to explain that appears improbable. While I will not be arguing with every case that theists could submit, I will choose one as an example. I will use, because theists often use this, the events which led to the first life on Earth.
Evolution works by a combination of random variation and natural selection but it can only improve successive generations of organisms. It can only work when some sort of self-replication (things making copies of themselves) is occurring. Self-replication is not simple. It may seem that the first life on earth would not have had the benefits of evolution to acquire its ability to self-replicate in the first place because it would have lacked ancestors from which it could have evolved. There would be no history of mutations and natural selection to give it any of the complexity it would seem to need to self-replicate.
How did the first self-replicating organism originate?
How this is Supposed to Prove God
Theists say that self-replication, the way that DNA works and the systems involved in even the most minimal sort of life are so complex that they could not have come about by chance. They say that it is wildly improbable that a random series of events could achieve this.
This could be countered by arguing that the entire universe and huge spans of time have been available. We could also say that early life need not have relied on DNA and most likely used a simpler replicator  from which DNA later evolved and which is now extinct, having been replaced by successive generations of other replicators, culminating in DNA.
Theists counter this by saying that matter randomly assembling into any self replicating system, DNA or otherwise, is so unlikely that even if the entire universe and billions of years are available then no object of such complexity is going to arise by chance. To support this an impressive list of probabilities is presented, all multiplied together to give a hopelessly low value. If chance alone will not bring about life then, the argument goes, intentionality of some sort caused it and this proves that life was caused by God.
I am not accepting that the emergence of the first life is as improbable as this, but I will not make an issue of it in this article. I do think that postulating a god of any sort is an irrational thing to do. Let us assume, however that we have postulated a god to explain our sequence of unlikely events. God is often considered to have many properties such as infinite wisdom, infinite intelligence and so on. We will assume that we are dealing with this sort of god: he is very much greater than us and he used his amazing attributes to cause the unlikely sequence of events that we are considering.
Refuting the Argument
A god has been postulated in this case because it was thought to be necessary. Reality without a god was actually considered to be more extreme than a reality with a god. If we are going to do this we should be consistent and not postulate more of the god that we actually need. Let us now detract from some of this god's properties. We have assumed that he has an infinite amount of each of the qualities mentioned above. Let us make each of these qualities finite and ask ourselves if he could still cause the sequence of events.
Making God's Attributes Finite
I have seen no satisfactory argument that a god with infinite attributes is necessary to cause an unlikely sequence of events. There may be other reasons why a theist thinks that God has infinite attributes, such as God saying so himself in a religious book, a prophet telling us, or some mystical insight that this is the case, but nothing like this is required simply to cause an unlikely sequence of events. If I roll a die 100 times and get six each time then there should be no requirement for an infinite god to do this. After diminishing God's attributes in this way we now have a very powerful god, still much more powerful than a human being, or even than all human beings put together, who caused the universe in general and the unlikely sequence of events in particular.
Reducing Sophistication of Motivation
Let us now consider God's motivation in causing the unlikely sequence of events. Theists may say that God has some sort of grand vision or design. In this view the universe is made as some great work, but how can we know this is the case? Suppose the unlikely sequence of events simply occurred due to the desire in the mind of God to actually do such a thing, with no higher motive beyond this desire itself?
In this sort of view if I roll a million sixes I am just as justified in saying that God has a preference for six to come up a million times because he just does as I am in saying that there is some higher motive for this. In this view the universe is as it is because God has an innate desire for it to be that way.
We can argue now that some of God's other attributes are not needed. We can actually diminish God's intelligence and other attributes. God is now descending the intellectual scale and becoming more like a person in terms of intellectual capabilities. What may separate him from a person is his ability to act on the scale of the universe, but there is no reason why we have to assume that what he does actually has any sort of higher motive. We could go even further. Lots of animals have behaviour that is based on simple instincts and even perform quite complicated sequences of actions because they just have an innate tendency to do it. Where this tendency comes from need not concern us right now. The mere fact that they do it is enough for them to serve as examples and this will shortly play a part in our reasoning.
But is that valid?
Some readers may be disputing this by saying that you cannot just reduce the attributes of a being who is supposed to have caused certain things without considering how sophisticated those things are. The idea of this objection would be that a certain minimum level of sophistication is required to cause certain sequences of events.
This objection is not a very good one. To see why, let us imagine a very complex object - Leonardo da Vinci's Mona Lisa painting. Don't let artistic opinions get in the way here: the painting is much more complex than many more mundane objects found in the world - in fact, most paintings probably are - but if you really find this painting hopelessly simple then just imagine some painting that you do find complicated.
The Mona Lisa is a product of intelligence - Leonardo da Vinci's - yet does this mean that it is impossible for someone with less capabilities than Leonardo da Vinci to make something like the Mona Lisa? Is there a minimum amount of intelligence which is logically required to make this sort of thing?
The Mona Lisa's complexity comes from how matter - paint - is arranged. I want to look at a more 'conceptual' version of the Mona Lisa, without all the physical issues of painting and cleaning up afterwards. Let us imagine that instead of the physical Mona Lisa we just have its information - an array of numbers indicating what colour each part of the image is - basically an image bitmap. We will now look at what is needed to make it.
Let us imagine this bitmap being constructed by a computer program. Such a program would have to transcribe the numbers representing the bitmap, maybe to a file.
Let us imagine that all computer programs that could exist were set out in front of us. Most of these, of course, would not produce the Mona Lisa bitmap, however some would. Some of these programs that would produce it would be very sophisticated. Indeed, if computational artificial intelligence can theoretically match human abilities, then some of the programs that would produce it would actually have human level intelligence. Other programs may lack human level intelligence, but may still produce the bitmap in various sophisticated ways. There would also be, however, some programs that produce the bitmap in ways that are not at all sophisticated. One obvious example of such a program would be one that simply has all of the numbers of all the points of the image built into it: the program would simply transcribe the image because that is what it does and there would be no higher level of sophistication in its functioning. All the programs may do this in various ways, some of which are probably messy. There will be many programs which appear to behave in an almost random, chaotic manner that actually manage to produce the Mona Lisa bitmap.
Am I trying to trivialise the Mona Lisa? No, however I am saying that the complexity or sophistication of an object has nothing to do with the minimum sophistication of the computer program needed to produce it, unless we count any sophistication intrinsic to a set of commands which simply list every part of an object and cause a program to make it - which hardly matters here. Even the most complicated object can be specified by a simple program that has commands of the form 'do this bit, then do this bit, then do this bit, etc'. Such a program would be a kind of idiot savant, producing a high degree of complexity, not because it has any high degree of sophistication, but simply because that is what it does.
Am I saying that God is a computer program? No. That would be strange, as I do not actually believe in God. This does serve as a useful analogy however, because it shows how producing complexity does not necessarily mandate a high level of sophistication and a high degree of sophistication of motivation.
Some readers could object to this by asking where a program which just happens to create the Mona Lisa would come from. Would it not be an extreme coincidence to find a program which happened to have commands perfectly set up to draw the Mona Lisa? That, however, is not the issue that is being dealt with at the moment. In the analogy, we were not looking at where all these computer programs came from, but at the minimum level of sophistication needed to specify an object. Plausibility is another matter entirely.
The end result of this reasoning is as follows: a sophisticated being is not necessarily needed to cause improbable sequences of events, with a high degree of sophistication in terms of his intention. A stupid being could just as easily cause that sequence of events. Most stupid beings that we can imagine may not cause the events that we want, but out of all the stupid beings that we can imagine, which will all have different behaviour, we should be able to find one that matches a sequence of events. All that is needed is the right kind of stupidity.
Continuing this to the Obvious Ending
We can continue this and progressively diminish god further.
We have already started to detract from the sophistication of god's motivation. As we detract from god's sophistication, more and more, then we start to assume that what God is doing is the result of simply an innate desire to do it. The sort of god we end up with here may cause one hundred sixes in a row when you roll a die, but for no good reason in particular: God simply has the very shallow motivation that he likes things to occur that way for no good reason.
We are not questioning the nature of God here: we are simply assuming that god has an innate desire to do something - a desire very specific to the sequence of events that has occurred. We can take this further however: what if the desire were merely a tendency in God to cause the action?
What I mean here is that God need not have a complex system of emotions to make him like doing certain things. He may simply have the tendency to do these things in the absence of higher thought.
In this model we can almost treat God as if he is acting on instinct. In this view God makes unlikely sequences of events (like the one we are considering) occur because that is what he does - just as plants grow towards the sun, a human knee may move when you hit the right part of the leg with a hammer or a program which transcribes the Mona Lisa as a bitmap does that.
The Consequences of Extreme Detraction from God
We have detracted from God's nature so that only those characteristics of God needed for him to cause the unlikely sequence of events remain. In place of God's infinite attributes we simply say that God has a tendency to cause any random sequence of events for which we would like to hold God responsible. We are not questioning God's motives in causing these events: as a matter of fact, by this stage there are none. The sort of god that we have ended up with is not complicated enough to be described in terms of 'emotions' or 'motives'. God is not even conscious by this stage in the argument.
The Ontological Coup de Grace
The consequence of this, in the end, is quite disastrous for God. If all that remains of God is a tendency to cause the sequence of events that we are considering, then at this stage there is no meaningful ontological distinction between God and the tendency for the sequence of events itself to happen. 'God' has simply become another name for the sequence of events itself. Instead of saying it is unlikely for a sequence of one hundred sixes to be rolled with a die we are saying that the tendency of this unlikely sequence of events to happen is called 'God'.
By gradual detraction, God as a personal being has effectively disappeared. He has evaporated away. He has simply become another name for 'statistics'.
The above argument may be awkward for some readers to follow, so I will give a more earthbound example, though it will not be a perfect one.
Imagine that you visit a professor of artificial intelligence. In his laboratory he has all kinds of wonderful machines, some of which are running loose. On a table there are fifty coins. You turn away from this table for a while you talk with the professor.
When you look at the table again something strange has happened. The coins are now all the same way up - they were not before. It seems highly unlikely that some random process could have caused this. The probability of any given coin being turned a certain way up as a result of a random event is 0.5, so the probability of this happening in the right way for fifty coins is 0.550 which is about 10-15.
You could see the only door while you were talking and you did not see anyone enter. Could a human be hiding in the laboratory? You discount that possibility for other good reasons.
How do you explain this? Maybe it is one these experimental machines that are running around the laboratory. Should you assume that the professor has made a breakthrough in artificial intelligence and produced a machine with infinite attributes in such areas as intelligence? No, you should not! Apart from the obvious difficulties of building infinitely powerful computers, no such thing has to be assumed even though the probability of this sequence of events may seem very low. It is certainly possible to imagine a human moving the coins like this so we should not need to assume a machine much more sophisticated than a human brain.
Maybe the professor has found out how to replicate human level thought processes in a machine. Is one of the machines in the laboratory of human intelligence and has it arranged the coins? Again, there is no real reason to assume this. Intelligence of this degree is not required: we could merely assume that the machine has a much simpler system of working, allowing it to do little beyond turning coins over. Is it not more reasonable, if we have to assume that a robot did this, simply to assume that it is the simplest sort of robot capable of doing the job? The obvious sort of robot to assume here is one with behaviour more similar to instinct rather than complex human thought processing.
This has some similarity with how the refutation of the theistic argument works. Although we can start off by assuming huge amounts of intentionality and all the attributes for God, by progressively detracting from God we can diminish the amount of God which is assumed to be present. In the end we are left with a God which is indistinguishable from the sequence of random events itself.
How God's Magic Can Cause Him Problems
The analogy that has just been given actually has some limitations that the idea does not have when used to refute proofs of God: when used to refute God the argument can go further and leave a much more severely detracted being at the end of it - one that is ontologically no different from the process that we are trying to explain.
In the professor's laboratory some mechanisms would be required to arrange the coins, even when just a simple machine is involved. We have to assume that some physical processes are going on to bring them about. Even the simplest coin arranging machine has to be doing some computation. It would need some sort of circuitry to run its crude coin flipping software and to allow it to recognize coins, though it may do this in a much cruder way than a human would. It would also need some sort of mechanism to physically handle the coins.
God, however, is supposed to be beyond such requirements. With God matter is simply supposed to move simply by God commanding it. We hardly need to worry about how a 'minimum' god would at least need hands to pick up atoms and shove them around to cause these lucky events. Likewise, the question of how God's brain is supposed to be physically built is not supposed to be an issue in the same way that we can ask how computers are built: even talking about 'God's brain' is considered to be absurd. God just is and he just does. Ironically, this starts to work against God in this situation. The lack of any reliance of God on anything apart from his own existence to do what he does mean that there are no limits on how much we can detract from God and still have a working god - right up to the point where the detraction is so extreme that 'God' is just another word for the phenomena that we are trying to explain.
The Purpose of the Argument
I have presented the main argument now. I will shortly deal with some anticipated objections to it, but first I want to ensure that I give a clear idea of what the argument was intended to accomplish.
There are many arguments to refute the claim that God exists and I think that these arguments are valid and that there is no need to postulate a god. Some people disagree however and think that the arguments in favour of God are valid. The existence of God is often postulated for quite shallow reasons and the main purpose of this argument is to show that the mere act of postulating a god, even if valid, does not guarantee that the God claim is correct. Even if all the atheistic arguments against the God claim failed, and I do not think that they do, the God claim could still be attacked after the God's existence was actually accepted by following the theistic claim inside God and continuing to attack the God concept there. In such a way, even the successful postulation of the God does not guarantee anything for theists: God can still be attacked even after this stage by rendering him trivial to the point of making his existence merely a semantic preference.
The best way of thinking about this argument is probably as a late refutation. Ideally we would make our refutation early, well before the existence of God was accepted. If we make various incorrect assumptions however, we can wrongly come to the view that a God exists. An argument of the type presented here can then still be used to set matters straight, pretty much by using the same sort of logic that should have been applied earlier, even at this late stage.
Why make a late refutation?
Why would we would bother making a late refutation? If various arguments have not succeeded before God's existence has been accepted, then why should those arguments work any better by attempting to apply them after God's existence has been accepted? Why have our argument inside God? What does it achieve?
If we have even got as far as accepting the existence of the god I think that illogical reasoning has been accepted. There are very good reasons, however, why even at this late stage we should seek to set matters straight by diminishing God. Once a god has been accepted he is typically viewed as having various properties which are beyond refutation arguments. The usual god of religion is protected from arguments against his existence by a set of assumptions. Those assumptions may be illogical, but they are widely perceived as invalidating refutations of God. Furthermore, they are often seen not as assumptions, but as self evident truths or basic knowledge.
As one example of this, a common theistic argument states that the universe needs a cause and that nothing happens without a cause. A common refutation of this asks, rhetorically, what the cause of God is. A theist will typically reply that God is uncaused. God is being protected by an assumption, regarded as a self-evident truth by many theists, that he does not need any cause whereas everything else does. Once his existence is accepted it can be difficult to shake such an idea. It is as if the extreme properties that God is alleged to have are actually capable of extending themselves outside of the definition of God and into the realm of debate about God where they can be used to refute arguments against his existence. Such illogicality, where a thing's properties can help to make it real, may be best known in Anselm's ontological argument. Whereas in Anselm's argument God's properties are actually presumed to contribute in a very direct sense to making him real, the fallacy in many theistic arguments is the idea that God's properties help to make him real by providing the defence of putting him beyond attacks on theistic arguments.
The simplest example of this is probably well known to most people who have debated against religious claims. A non-believer, after providing an argument against religious belief, may be told, 'Your atheistic argument is just logic. God is beyond logic and beyond your argument.' Many theists would reject such an argument, but it remains that this style of thinking is still commonplace: God is viewed as having properties which defeat arguments against him.
This is why we have grounds for using a late refutation, as this article has suggested. By proposing a gradually diminishing god in the refutation we can actually take advantage of some of the assumptions about God which are used to insulate him from refutation arguments. The very assumptions which are used to put God beyond the reach of arguments against him can also be used to protect this refutation argument.
We will see how this works, and how the idea of diminishing God can benefit from some of the theistic assumptions to protect itself, in the answers to some of the objections to this refutation which will now be discussed.
Objections to the Argument
Objection 1: Your argument uses a sequence of gods, each more diminished than the last. From where do these gods come? From where does your final, totally diminished god come? These diminished gods are rather hard to believe in. Can you offer any plausible explanation for their origins?
This has some similarity with the 'first cause' argument. Theists using the first cause argument ask where the universe came from. The same reasoning is being used, basically, in asking from where these diminished gods came. There is a clear suggestion here that it is unreasonable to expect them 'just to be there'.
I could state that most of the gods in this sequence only serve as intermediate stages in the argument: when I postulate a partially diminished god it is only as an intermediate step until we postulate an even further diminished god. I may therefore suggest that we do not need to worry too much about these intermediate gods. I am not really going to get away with that, however: a theist could say that even things postulated as an intermediate stage in the argument should be plausible and he/she could have a point. We also have the problem of the very last god that we postulate - the one that is so diminished that he is equivalent to nothing more than the improbable sequence of events itself: that god certainly is not merely an intermediate step. I could attempt to defend this last god by saying that, as there is nothing there, he needs no explanation, but I know that I am not going to get away with that either: a theist could say that I am still, at the very least, postulating the tendency for the unlikely sequence of events to occur and that even that needs an explanation for its origins.
The answer is simple. For each of the diminished gods that we use, and for the final, totally diminished god in the refutation, we can simply say:
'God does not need any explanation.'
This is an example of how doing our reasoning inside God, after the point at which God's existence has been accepted, helps to protect our argument from counter-refutation. Just as the statement 'God does not need any explanation' can be used to protect arguments for God's existence, it can also protect a refutation such as this. This is how the refutation benefits from being done at a late stage.
I want to be clear about something here. It may seem that in using the refutation presented here I am trying to suggest that everything can be reduced to a simple cause. This would be an obvious way of attacking the first cause argument for example: we could say that even if we do have to accept that everything has to have a 'first cause' then that cause can be something simple, such as a basic form of matter from which all other matter originated, or some simple form of energy from which everything else (assisted by various laws of physics) came. This would involve accepting God as a first cause and then diminishing him so that he becomes a simple cause, at which point it would be nothing but semantics to say that the first cause is 'God' and certainly of no use to theists. The refutation in this article is different. It is not really intended to refute the first cause argument, but to refute arguments that 'unlikely sequences of events' must be caused by a god. Rather than trying to reduce God to a simple cause of such sequences of events the argument seeks to reduce god to so that he simply becomes equivalent to the tendency for such sequences of events to occur.
Objection 2: You have vastly underestimated the complexity and beauty of the universe. While we can imagine a god naïvely making a die turn up with a lot of sixes purely by instinct we cannot imagine a god doing this to produce such a sophisticated system as the universe. It is impossible. The universe's sophistication requires a large amount of intelligence, not just blind instinct.
This was dealt with when I used the analogy with stupid computer programs making the Mona Lisa by having all of its details specified within them. Huge complexity and sophistication does not mandate that whatever made it had any sophistication. Any complex object can be broken down into small parts and can be made by an entity that only knows that it must put each part in a specific place, without knowing why.
Objection 3: But that means that your god is complicated! If a computer program could make a complex object like the Mona Lisa, even if it did nothing more than execute instructions built into it, that specified every detail of the painting, and even if it lacked understanding, we would still say that it was at least as complex as the Mona Lisa, merely by virtue of containing its information: even if it lacked the full complexity of Leonardo da Vinci's mind and had no understanding we could still say that it was complicated. Your god contains all the information needed to cause an unlikely sequence of events to happen, even if he lacks any understanding of it. Your god has therefore, at the very least, the complexity implicit in any sequence of events he causes. You have not disposed of God's complexity so what was the point?
Some people may misunderstand the refutation and think that I was seeking to reduce God's complexity until nothing was left. This is not the case. The argument was intended to reduce God's sophistication until it was ontologically meaningless to say that he was different in any way from the sequence of events that we were trying to explain and their tendency to occur. At this stage of course god would still have some complexity: he would have whatever complexity is intrinsic to the sequence of events itself and we cannot, nor do we need to, remove this complexity. This would not change the fact that at this point assuming God would merely be using different semantics to say 'assuming the sequence of events occurred with whatever complexity was intrinsic to it'.
Objection 4: You ignore the cases were God has actually intervened in the world and directly communicated with people. As an example, in Exodus, in the Bible, he speaks to Moses.
This objection is not relevant to this article, which is only dealing with the argument that God's existence can be proved from various sequences of events, generally accepted to have occurred, that are typically claimed to be unlikely by theists.' Other arguments can refute, or fail to refute, that sort of thing.
Objection 5: All you have done is sweep the sequence of unlikely events under the carpet of your 'diminished God' and there you think you can hide it. In fact a sequence of events is just as unlikely whether inside a god or outside.
It is interesting that in making such an objection you have abandoned any idea that God can be implicitly assumed and that once the existence of God has been accepted no tests on the plausibility of his nature are required. Theists often take these matters on faith, however anyone making such an argument clearly thinks that the very nature of God should be questioned and weighed against other possible natures.
Ironically, although this objection is intended to attack the plausibility of a diminished god it actually attacks the plausibility of gods in general.
If we question the plausibility of a diminished god then we should also question the plausibility of the conventional, intelligent god. Simply saying that we have to assume him without further question would be inconsistent. How do we know that your god is any more plausible than my detracted one?
To deal with this issue we need to consider what criteria we should use to assess the plausibility of something. In many situations we consider the plausibility of a thing's existence to be related to the plausibility of the sequence of events needed to bring it into existence. This will not work, however, in this situation, because the conventional god and the detracted god are both supposed to be assumed to exist without any events needed to bring them about: God is not supposed to have a cause. If you wish, you can of course redefine your god to have a cause and then start arguing that the events that caused your god are more plausible than the events that could have caused a detracted god. Doing this, however, is drastically reducing the general awesomeness of your god's nature and making him just another caused thing in the universe, probably something that does not really deserve the name 'God'. For this reason, I will not get into comparing the plausibility of different caused gods.
We could say that what is plausible is what seems intuitively plausible. This will not help. We disagree on what seems intuitively plausible: believers tend to think that intelligent gods are plausible and many non-believers think that they are not. Using this idea means abandoning any attempt to make a logical argument for God. We need another way of assessing the plausibility of a god of a given type.
One approach is to use specificity. Specificity is how exact the thing's description needs to be. One way of thinking of specificity is in terms of the amount of information needed to describe a thing. Another way of thinking about it is by imaging the number of random events that would have to turn out right if the thing were to be generated by chance. We could imagine, for example, writing down a description of a god by tossing a coin every time we had to make some 'yes' or 'no' decision about that god. If a very large number of such coin tosses would be needed to form a description of a particular sort of god, and they all had to turn out the right way, then he would be very specific. Yet another way of thinking of specificity for a god is to imagine that we could look at every possible god that could be conceived and could have caused the sequence of events that we are trying to explain. If the description of a particular kind of god only applies to a very small proportion of such gods then it is a very specific description and a description of a god which can be vaguer and encompass many possible gods would be a less specific one.
Let us consider the specificity of the diminished god and the conventional god.
The diminished god certainly has some specificity. That specificity is the specificity that is intrinsic to the sequence of events that we are trying to explain. It is actually the only specificity that is relevant for the diminished god because he has been so diminished that nothing else really remains apart from the 'instinct' to make these events happen - which I have already explained is ontologically nothing more than the tendency for them to occur.
For the diminished god, then, it is actually very easy to quantify the specificity. We can say that our god has a tendency to 'instinctively' cause our sequence of events. He could, if he had been a 'different' god, have had the tendency to cause lots of different sequences of events instead and the specificity of our particular sequence of events is a measure of this. For the specificity of our god we can simply use the probability of the sequence of events occurring as an indicator: a low probability would mean high specificity. This is like considering the probability that any god, selected at random from all that gods of which we can conceive, would actually be one that 'just happens' to have an instinct to cause our sequence of events. We get probabilities like this by multiplication, so we simply multiply the probabilities of the events together. This is what a theist making the argument that is being refuted in this article is likely already to have done.
At this stage a theist may point out very low claimed probabilities of some sequence of events and say, 'Look! See how high the specificity of that sequence of events is! What are the odds that a god would happen to exist that happens just to do that by instinct?' He/she should delay getting excited: we still have to examine the specificity of the conventional god.
The only way that a conventional god could win here is if it could be shown that an intelligent god is more plausible than the diminished one, in terms of him being less specific. Furthermore, it would have to be shown that a god who has the motivation to cause the sequence of events that we are considering in particular, is less specific than the diminished god.
Let us consider motivation first. God is supposed to have caused the sequence of events that we are explaining, but there are lots of other sequences of events that he could have caused instead. It may seem that we have to assume that the god's motivation is towards causing exactly the right sequence of events, and this would make the specificity of this motivation just as high as it is for the diminished god. Theists could have a decent reply, however. They could say that is more plausible to associate some sequences of events with an intelligent god than others, that the sequence of events that we are explaining is one of the more likely sequences for a god to have caused and that most sequences of events, such as ones associated with random chaos, are less likely to have been caused by an intelligent god. We should partially accept this reply, but the intelligent god that performs the sequence of events still has some specificity. If we are assuming that the sequence of events is that which caused the first life on Earth then we have to assume that we have a god who wants life, rather than other imaginable gods who choose to assert their power in other ways, and this does cost some specificity. This specificity of intention is not something we will consider much right now, but we will give it some thought later.
Another type of specificity, and one that concerns us more right now, is the specificity needed to have intelligence at all. Most theologies give god motives that are at least as complex as human ones and intelligence that is at least as high as human intelligence. How specific is this sort of thing?
Unfortunately for the theistic case, intelligence is very specific. In fact, it seems to be about the most specific thing we have ever encountered. Human brains are probably the most complex thing known to humans: we do not even fully know how they work. Imagine trying to put a human brain together randomly, without knowing what you were doing. What would your chances be of making a working, intelligent brain? They would be vanishingly small. The specificity here is much greater than that involved in 'unlikely sequences of events' typically offered by theists. A typical unlikely sequence of events may involve ten or a hundred probabilities being multiplied together, but we would hardly expect a lucky sequence of a hundred die rolls to generate the description of a thinking being for us.
Some readers may dispute this, so I will give an example to show just how bad the problem is. Let us suppose our 'unlikely sequence of events' is the sequence of events that caused the first self-replicating life on Earth. A theist may suggest that expecting even the simplest of self-replicating organisms to come together from random chemical reactions in the primordial soup is implausible. This would be relevant even if a diminished god caused it because any implausibility is being caused by specificity: all of those chance events get translated into specific attributes of a diminished god which have to be just right. Imagine stirring the soup up and getting something as complex as a human brain out, not after billions of years of evolution (a process which many theists dispute anyway) but directly - due simply to random events in the soup. The implausibility of a simple replicator emerging from the chemical mix would be tiny compared to this. Human brains are vastly more complex than simple self-replicating life because intelligence has naturally much more specificity. Assuming any god who has intelligence is assuming all of this specificity. Doing it to explain something like the origin of life is actually assuming far more specificity than is needed simply to accept even an apparently unlikely sequence of events.
I will give another example. Imagine randomly putting commands together to make a computer program that makes decisions and imagine that these decisions match up with those needed to cause the 'unlikely sequence of events' that we are considering. Such a program would have an innate tendency to make decisions that match the sequence of events. It is doubtful that, if we were successful in making such a program, it would have anything like human intelligence: it would simply have a randomly thrown together tendency to make a particular sequence of decisions for no good reason other than that is what it does. We may consider that unlikely, but consider now the chances of randomly putting computer commands together to make a program that has human intelligence - and then happens to go on to cause the sequence of events for intelligent reasons: the specificity hardly just went down, did it?
Objection 6: In your answer to Objection 5 you were acting like god is caused by some sequence of events. You misunderstand the nature of God. God is not caused.
That was not my intention at all. I was merely saying that the only reasonable standard for assessing the plausibility of some type of god is to act as if it were caused, regardless of whether it is or not, and then consider how specific such causes would need to be. Your objection does not help. If you want us to stay away from considering God in this way, and if we can just assume that he has immunity from issues such as specificity and plausibility, then the diminished god should have the same benefits - and we should know where that leads by now.
Objection 7: You are trying to reduce God to a mechanism like a brain or a computer. You used computer programs early on in the article, when you discussed the Mona Lisa and in your answer to Objection 5 you treated God as being analogous to a human brain. God cannot be reduced to a mechanism and analysed in this way. God is beyond simple logic and he is much bigger than your argument.
Oh, good. I can have my diminished god then?
I have not tried to reduce God to a mechanism. I have not really suggested considering God in terms of programs or brains. I did use those things as an analogy simply to show how the innate tendency to do a thing is likely to be less extreme, in terms of having less specificity and less information than a high degree of intelligence to do the thing. If you wish to use this argument then unfortunately it cuts both ways. Once we have decided that a thing called God must have caused certain events to have occurred if it is invalid for me to look behind the word 'God' and consider possible ways in which God could work and reach the conclusion that a diminished God would suffice then it is equally invalid to look behind the word 'God' and come to a conclusion that an extremely intelligent being is there.
When I discussed the feasibility of brains coming out of 'primordial soup' I was not trying to suggest that God must have something like a giant brain, existing far away in some higher dimension, although I know it could look like I am imagining that. I was merely pointing out the huge specificity of things that behave intelligently. Of course, you can say that we should not think of God in such terms, but if this sort of analogy with physical things that behave similarly is to be prohibited then who is to question the plausibility of the diminished god and on what criteria will any argument against its plausibility be based? Some readers may think it is unreasonable to consider the plausibility of things by considering physical analogies - such as looking at the specificity of intelligence in the physical world to get an idea of how specific God's intelligence must be - but those same people would want it both ways: they would happily view the diminished god as implausible by considering in mechanistic terms. If God can be immune from comparison with mechanisms then the diminished god should be likewise.
If you are using this objection and you say anything about the nature of God, based on plausibility, then you are breaking your own rules and being inconsistent.
Objection 8: What if there were something simple that could give rise to a conventional god, while it were implausible that something as simple could give rise to a diminished god? Would a conventional god not then be more plausible?
This sort of objection is somewhat more subtle. It is suggesting that we could have a god without assuming that his huge intelligence is 'just there', with all the problems of plausibility that that causes, but that he could have come from something simpler that is more plausible. We often do this in reality: we observe things happening and form the opinion that something very complicated is happening while accepting that it has a simpler underlying cause. Could this make a god plausible?
How would this work? Would the thing that gave rise to a conventional god also be God or would it be something else? That would largely be a matter of semantics. One way of imagining this would be to say that God would originally be simpler - and more plausible - and would then make himself more complicated. Another way of looking at it would be to say that God was caused by something else that was simpler than God and was not itself God.
There is no clear reason, within the scope of this article, why such a thing could not happen. This article is not intended to refute ideas about very powerful intelligence existing in the universe in various ways. A much more serious problem for such an idea is that, while it may just be semantics, viewing God as originally being simpler and then making himself more complicated is bad semantics. God is supposed to have certain characteristics and something which was simple enough to be plausible would lack those characteristics. This is most obvious when we look at the issue of intelligence. The whole idea of proposing primitive origins for God would be that it should allow the earlier god to be as plausible as the diminished god - which would mean not having greater specificity than that of the diminished god. The specificity of the diminished god would come directly from that of the sequence of events that we are trying to explain and for most such sequences of events proposed by theists as 'evidence', because of their claimed improbability, the specificity would be much less than the huge specificity which is required for intelligence. That was the reason for the diminished god being more plausible in the first place. If God did come from simpler origins, and it was really of any help here, then those origins would need to have involved a god who lacked intelligence. It is difficult to see how the term 'god' can be reasonably used in this situation. The whole point of the 'god' idea is that everything is caused by intelligence. Any attempt to explain this intelligence in terms of a simpler cause is self-defeating. It would reduce God to being just another caused thing in the universe, like everything and everyone else.
Objection 9: In your answer to Objection 5 you stated that much more specificity would be needed for intelligence than would be needed for the diminished god, who has the specificity associated with the sequence of events that we are trying to explain. That may apply for some sequences of events, but there is a problem here: what if we dramatically increased the number of events in the sequence, or reduced their probabilities? The specificity of the diminished god needed to explain them would increase, whereas the specificity of an intelligent god would stay the same. At some point, would the specificity associated with the sequence of events not become so high that we would be obliged to believe in an intelligent god? Does this not mean that, even if your article shows that some sequences of events do not suggest a god, it is possible to imagine a sequence of events that would be best explained by a god?
While I disagree with this objection it is not too bad. It makes a case that needs to be answered. In fact, we can use the same justification for thinking that other people exist - something which most of us think to be the case. We routinely see things around us that we attribute to the intelligence of other people. A critic of the refutation in this article could suggest that if, when the specificity of a sequence of events is increased, there could be no point at which the refutation would fail and an observed sequence of events would strongly suggest that intelligence is needed to explain it, then this would allow an individual no reasonable grounds for thinking that observed sequences of events in everyday life imply the existence of the intelligence of human beings. Such a critic could simply say that my refutation could be used to refute away any claims that memories of conversations we have had, New York, Shakespeare's plays or the Hoover Dam imply human intelligence as human intelligence could be diminished in a similar argument. We would be left with the conclusion that other human beings do not exist - or at least not as intelligent beings - which is clearly nonsense.
If the refutation is to be valid it cannot really be suggesting that sort of solipsism. In my opinion really good atheistic arguments should often appear precariously close to solipsism because they often involve the same sort of concepts - trying to show that various observations of the real world do not automatically suggest intelligence. Many theists seem to have some awareness of this kind of issue, although they often seem just to touch on the edge of it, when they ask atheists questions like 'How do you know that anyone else loves you?'
Does this mean that an atheist is a solipsist by definition? No, of course not! Just because an atheistic argument may appear close to solipsism it does not make them the same thing. Many refutations of the existence of God will actually fail when you try to use them to argue other people out of existence.
Clearly, I must think that the refutation in this article fails in this way when we actually try to use it against claims for the existence of human intelligence. How does this happen? This is where the issue raised in this objection becomes relevant - the idea of very high specificity sequences of events forcing us to accept intelligence.
There is not much of a way round it: we should accept that very high specificity sequences of events can be a good reason for presuming intelligence. That is the only way that we can avoid the solipsism problem. This does not, however, leave the pathway open for a proof of god. There are three main problems.
Firstly, the specificity that we normally see in our dealings with other humans is huge. Imagine having a one-hour long conversation with another human being. Every sentence that that other person utters is building up more specificity that needs explaining. Now imagine every conversation you have had in your life. The specificity here is much greater than is typically involved in the sequences of fortunate coincidences presented in theistic arguments. If you disagree with this, here is a question:
Which one of the following two tasks would you rather choose?
Task 1: Rolling dice in an attempt to duplicate the sequence of coincidences needed to create the simplest sort of self-replicating life-form that can be imagined.
Task 2: Rolling dice in an attempt to pick sound utterances randomly which will duplicate the sequence of coincides needed to create, without use of any intelligence, all of the speech that you have ever heard from other humans.
The second one here should be clearly more difficult. In fact, even one human being happening to describe a plausible sequence of events for the origin of life, in enough detail, would actually be generating an amount of specificity in human behaviour that could be equivalent to specificity of the origin of life all by itself! Even though some of the sequences of events that we may invoke a god to explain may have a lot of specificity, the specificity associated with human behaviour is much higher and we have more justification for explaining our observations of other humans in terms of intelligence than we have for the various sequences typically claimed by theists as needing a god. The refutation does not have anything to do with solipsism: it is simply that the specificity of the sequences of events offered by theists is inadequate.
This is not the end of the matter yet. Theists could respond to this by saying that I am wrong about the specificity of various sequences of events that could be used to support a god and that such a sequence of events has such a massive amount of specificity that a god is forced.
I would dispute this. The sorts of sequences of events mentioned in the introduction simply do not have that sort of specificity. The analogy I gave about randomly putting brains together from a chemical soup, with its comparison with randomly making a self-replicating organism, should have made this clear. A theist could try to claim some huge specificity like this. An obvious approach would be to use accounts in religious books of God actually speaking to people. In cases like this the huge specificity of actual speech would make it hard to defend a diminished god, but such accounts are hardly accepted without dispute. This article is not going to get into whether such events as God speaking to humans, or doing other similar sorts of high specificity things have occurred but is going to be restricted to sequences of events widely acknowledged to have occurred in mainstream science.
A theist could say that this at least creates the potential for some sequence of events to be produced which has such high specificity that god belief becomes rational and I am sure that someone reading this is confident that he/she knows of just such a sequence of events which I have failed to consider. I cannot anticipate every sequence of events that could be produced as part of a claim for a god: each would have to be discussed individually and this argument is concerned with generalities, but even finding such a high specificity sequence of events - and the specificity really would need to be huge to allow an intelligent god to compete with a diminished god - would not necessarily imply a god. We still have two more problems.
The second problem is that high specificity in itself, no matter how high, is not enough: the specificity has to be of the right type. In my previous answer to an earlier objection I pointed out that the specificity issue does not necessarily disappear once it is 'swept under a god' and if it does then it would just as easily disappear inside a diminished god. If the diminished god is seen as being very specific in his innate behaviour then it is possible that an intelligent god would have just as much specificity of motivation: it is not necessarily true that the specificity of an intelligent god is always the same, irrespective of what he is needed to explain, as the objection claimed. There are many things that we can imagine an intelligent being doing and expecting him to want to cause the specific sequence of events that you are trying to explain is actually giving him a characteristic - that desire - that is potentially just as specific as the innate tendency of the diminished god just to cause it. The only way around this would be if the sequence of events could be shown to be something that is particularly expected to be something that an intelligent god would want to do, merely as a result of being intelligent. An argument for God would then take this form:
- The specificity of the sequence of events is extremely large. It is so large that it is easily more specificity than would be associated with the existence of intelligence.
- A diminished god which has the tendency to cause the sequence of events would be more specific than an intelligent god, and therefore less plausible.
- Even though an intelligent god can do many things, some things are more likely than others. The sequence of events that is to be explained is something that an intelligent god is particularly likely to do, and therefore less extra specificity has to be dealt with to allow for this motivation.
The problems to be overcome here to make god plausible are enormous. Finding a sequence of events of such high specificity would be difficult. If this seems strange to some readers who are imagining the high specificity of some sequences of events remember: we are comparing it with the specificity of something that is intelligent. Showing that the specificity is something that is naturally associated with intelligence would cause further difficulties.
There is a third problem, even if extreme enough specificity can be found, that stands in the way of God becoming a reasonable explanation. Even if some sequence of events can be shown, with reasonable confidence, to be a product of intelligence, it does not follow that that form of intelligence has to be implicitly assumed and is not the product of something unintelligent. Even if huge specificity in a sequence of events could be shown and that specificity was particularly likely to be something that intelligence would want to do, then there is still the possibility of the existence of that intelligence being caused by something of less specificity. In fact, if we were considering an intelligence that is caused in this way we would not necessarily need the huge specificity in the sequence of events that was discussed earlier because the specificity of the cause of the intelligent being may not be anywhere near as high as the specificity of the intelligent being itself and may be easily able to compete against the specificity of a diminished god. This, however, should not be of much comfort to theists because, as I have explained earlier, any intelligent entity who is caused by something of specificity too low to be intelligent should not really be considered a god.
Theists could have two replies to this third problem.
One reply would involve asking why we should worry about what, if anything, has caused an intelligence that we deem necessary to explain things. 'Surely,' a theist, could ask, 'is it not simply atheistic desperation to look for some way out if we do discover a god? If we can produce clear evidence of a god should we not just accept what is evidently there at face value?' Such a reply would involve a double standard. God's existence is being suggested in the first place because the idea that 'we can simply assume things' is clearly not being accepted - and if we do not assume the universe's existence without question then neither should we assume a god. In addition, a theist who is attempting to even answer the refutation at this point by trying to show that an intelligent god would have less specificity than a diminished one is accepting the idea that things are most plausibly explained in terms of low specificity: indeed he/she is actually trying to use the idea. If, however, you think that any lower specificity would make an intelligent being more plausible than a diminished one, and if you are being consistent, you will accept the consequences of a non-intelligent cause for an intelligent being having lower specificity than the intelligent being himself: you cannot have it both ways:
The second reply would try to suggest that something as specific as intelligence can never emerge from something with specificity too low to have intelligence. This has never been convincingly demonstrated: in fact there is much evidence against it - too much to cover in any great depth in this article. Here are just a few reasons for thinking that low specificity can give rise to high specificity.
- Fractals involve simple mathematical rules giving rise to complex images and objects. An example is the Mandelbrot set.
Chaos theory involves physical systems with simple rules giving rise to complex behaviour.
Humans are born with thinking abilities that improve with time. The very process of a human learning and improving his/her thinking abilities is an example of increasing specificity.
- Artificial intelligence techniques allow computers and software to self-organise. Neural networks [2, 3] are a good example.
Objection 10: In your answer to Objection 5 you said that a huge amount of specificity would be required in some sequence of events to make the existence of an intelligent god more plausible than the existence of a diminished god. Your argument for this was based on the huge amount of specificity associated with intelligence and you tried to demonstrate this by using the human brain as an example. There is a problem here: by this argument, anything requiring the specificity of a human brain would be a good candidate for this 'huge amount of specificity' needed to make a god plausible. There clearly is something that does require the specificity of a human brain in the sequence of events that produced it: the human brain itself! The human brain is fantastically complex and for it to emerge by a series of chance events is asking a lot. If a diminished god did this it would have to be one with huge specificity and this diminished god would need to have the specificity associated with the random sequence of events needed to make a human brain. You can hardly say that such a diminished god is less specific than an intelligent one can you? It has all the specificity associated with intelligence, except as innate behaviour. Your refutation would fail in such a situation as the intelligent god would be just as plausible.
This objection assumes that the specificity of human brains was caused by a random sequence of events. The view of mainstream science is that human brains were caused by the process of evolution by natural selection, the broad idea of which was proposed by Charles Darwin. If this is true then the sequence of events needed to cause a human brain lacks the huge specificity claimed in the objection and it fails. Some readers will dispute the theory of evolution. This article is not intended to even get into that: it is not about evolution versus creationism. It is only concerned with sequences of events that are accepted by mainstream science and a sequence of random events causing the specificity of brains is not accepted by science. The claim that evolution does assume a sequence of random events would be wrong as, as well as random variation, evolution proposes natural selection, which is a non-random influence. If mainstream science is correct the objection simply fails.
What if mainstream science and evolution are wrong? Although it is not really within the scope of the article I will still try to deal with this briefly. This would not automatically make a god plausible. The issues raised in the answer to Objection 9 would be relevant, that is to say:
Specificity in itself is not enough. The specificity would have to be the right kind of specificity. God can do many things and we have to assume specificity of motivation. This specificity of motivation for most things would be as large as the specificity associated with a diminished god and would actually make the intelligent god less plausible than a diminished one, as it would need this specificity in addition to the specificity needed to be intelligent. To avoid this, theists would need to show that the motivation to make something like a human brain is particularly likely for a god, a task which is not as easy as it may seem, and even if successfully accomplished there is no prospect of getting a god which is much less specific than the diminished one. There is also still the other issue from the answer to Objection 9: any lower specificity cause of the intelligence would be more plausible than an intelligence that just exists with no cause.
Question 11: What is all this 'specificity' nonsense? You are just making your own rules up for how we should determine the plausibility of things. Who put you in charge of how we should assess plausibility.
The idea of specificity is a well known test of plausibility for things in the physical world. There are justifications that can be made for it, though I will not be presenting them here in depth as this article is already long enough. I will simply rely on the idea that we generally assess plausibility in a way like this.
We needed some criteria for plausibility and if we are not going to use specificity what can we use? We can hardly look at which type of god is most likely to be caused by some sequence of events in the physical world as both the conventional god and the diminished god are simply supposed to exist without any cause.
If you like we do not need to worry about any criteria for plausibility. We can just say that any conceivable type of god is as plausible as any other, in which case I will, of course, insist on the diminished god being just as plausible, which would hardly leave an attempted proof of God based on some claimed unlikely sequence of events in a good state. Alternatively, if you like, you can propose some other way of assessing plausibility. If such a proposal includes extra assumptions, however, then any proof of God which it supported would be relying on these and may be compromised.
Objection 12: At most, all you have proven is that God is of diminished capacity and it is doubtful that you have even managed that. You are still left at the end of the argument with a thing that you call 'God'. Even after all this, you are forced to accept that God is real.
That is not what the argument has achieved at all.
It only makes sense to argue that something exists if you are arguing that something with various properties exists. If those properties are lost, but you persist in attaching the name of what you claim to exist to something anyway - something that lacks any of the properties that the argument was about - then you are not achieving anything beyond showing that any word can be associated with anything we want if we define the language appropriately - something which should be obvious to us in any case.
That is the problem with this sort of objection to the refutation. What is left after the diminishment of God may have the label 'God' attached to it, but this means nothing. The label is being attached to the sequence of events that God was introduced to explain. As God has been diminished now all that we have left is the sequence of events and choosing to call that 'God' would be no more than a semantic decision.
If the idea of God being this sequence of events is meaningful then we may as well say that every other sequence of events is also God, and as everything we know is caused by some sequence of events we are not too far from calling everything God. I am well aware that somebody could use this to try to suggest that God is present in all things, and even that the refutation argument in this article has actually proved this. Such an argument would be trivial. A word which can be applied to anything that we encounter hardly helps us much. It certainly does not help us to differentiate things: it is just another word for 'things'. Such a God has no properties independently of whatever he happens to be being associated with at the time. Reality would be described quite adequately in such a case without recourse to God.
Objection 13: There is lots of other evidence for a God that you have failed to deal with. There are lots of other arguments that prove God and you have failed to refute these. You have not proved that God does not exist.
Theistic claims of evidence tend to involve claims for things existing or happening which, if true, could be assessed in terms of their specificity and its effects on the plausibility of an intelligent god and a diminished god to account for it, as discussed previously.
I cannot deal with all of these claims here. It is not within the scope of this article. This article does not seek to prove that God does not exist, but simply to show that a very specific argument often submitted for God's existence is flawed. Other arguments for God's existence can be made and these would need separate refutation.
Objection 14: So you believe in accidents? You think all of [some reference to a sequence of events] was an accident?
It is a common for atheists to be asked if they think 'this is all an accident'. The idea is that the assumption of intelligence makes everything reasonable while any alternative involves an outrageous sequence of coincidences.
If I was going to worry about this more I would want to know exactly what 'accident' is supposed to be here. It is an emotive word, and one that could cause semantic difficulties.
None of that is a problem, however. Whatever an accident is, we do not need to worry about it. Because we can attribute the sequence of events to a diminished god then we need regard it as no more accidental than as if it were caused by an intelligent god: the diminished god makes the whole 'accident' objection powerless.
Objection 15: Your answers to the last two objection was weak. A god can be rationally proposed to explain unlikely events. It is a sensible idea. You claim that your diminished god can explain these events just as well, yet your diminished god is actually shown to be nothing. You use him to explain away 'accidents' and then you show that he can be viewed as ontologically indistinguishable from the tendency of the accidents to occur. He is merely a semantic trick. As he is not really there he cannot explain anything - unlike the real, intelligent god.
Of course the diminished god is a semantic trick: it is the whole point of this article, yet that is no reason why it should not do just as good a job of explaining things as the intelligent god. When we have postulated him our ability to use him to start explaining things is in no way related to our ability to later declare him ontologically indistinguishable from the sequence of events that we are trying to explain. The fact that a diminished god can do the same as an intelligent god, before being made to evaporate, should cause concern for theists, because it shows just how empty the idea of God is, in terms of making any real explanations.
Objection 17: You still assume the tendency for accidents to occur. Wouldn't it be fair that to say that you believe in some mysterious 'tendency of accidents to occur'? Isn't that in itself an admission of a higher power?
I am not necessarily accepting that 'accident' is a good word to use.
Showing that a god can be replaced the tendency of some sequence of events to happen is not trying to give that tendency any supernatural nature. We are not even saying what that tendency is. Whether it is random chance, some unknown property of reality which makes it so that such events should reasonably be expected or the workings of some caused, non-theistic intelligence is not being explored here. All this article is showing is that the god explanation for this tendency is not a good one.
Accepting the tendency for a sequence of events to occur is not really accepting anything at all. Any sequence of events that occurred would be the product of the tendency for it to occur and there is no need to believe in this 'tendency' as an extra thing: it is equivalent to the sequence of events itself.
Objection 18: You still have not accounted for accidents. You are happy to be negative yet offer nothing in return.
It has been shown that postulating a God to account for a claimed unlikely sequence of events accomplishes nothing. Any implausibility, extremity and unlikelihood of the sequence of events is merely being 'swept under a god'. When we start to apply the same sort of logic to how God works and start to explore God's nature we find that we can detract from this nature, leaving a god who is actually trivial and nothing more than semantics, so that nothing is left but the sequence of events.
Such a diminished god is no less plausible than an intelligent one. In fact, when we start to consider the issue of plausibility more closely, a diminished god can be seen to be more plausible.
The diminished god, however, is never really there. The whole thing is just an exercise in semantics.
The same sort of arguments made in this article, such as those dealing with plausibility, could be done equally well without a diminished god and show the concept of god to be flawed well before we need to start postulating a diminished god. The diminished god refutation, on the other hand, allows the positing of a god before then starting to diminish its nature and reducing it to triviality. The argument is making a late refutation.
Why would we want to bother making a late refutation? If we really want to weaken the case for something's existence then it makes sense to attack it using any valid argument that we have and a late refutation provides such a valid argument. Some people will find arguments for God's existence persuasive, but a late refutation can still speak to such people even after the decision that God exists has been made.
A late refutation provides a way of dealing with one problem when debating against theism: that of theists giving God a special kind of status in philosophical arguments so that God is seen as having immunity from various arguments that could be directed at claims for the existence of other things. Some of the ways in which God is commonly viewed as having special status are as follows:
- God does not need a cause, but everything else does.
- God is not subject to any form of analysis, but everything else is.
- God does not need any explanation for his existence, but everything else does.
- God must not conform to rules of logic, but everything else must.
- God can create himself and be his own explanation for his existence, but nothing else can, however illogical this may seem.
- God can break the laws of physics, but nothing else can.
- Belief in God should be without high standards of evidence, but belief in other things needs evidence.
… and I could give further examples here. The point here is that God is often seen as having a privileged status that insulates him from many refutation arguments. The diminished god, by being a god itself, can assume the same status as God. A defence of God that makes use of his privileged status is also likely to be a defence of the diminished god, even though the diminished god's existence works against the concept of God in the end. When this happens God's special status is not helping him. Whether or not a theist admits that God has been given a special status is irrelevant: whatever God has been given, special or otherwise, then, unless a good argument can be made otherwise, the diminished god can have it during the refutation attempt.
The diminished god provides a way of storming the gates of paradise and taking our refutation argument directly to God, where we can benefit from all the convenient theological assumptions that protect him! Even to make a passable try at beating a diminished god refutation, a lot of theological ground has to be given up and a lot of mystery declared subject to scrutiny.
The diminished god is in no way, however, suggested as a real being: the idea of the diminished god is that, in the end, he becomes so diminished that he lacks any characteristic except the tendency to cause the specific sequence of events being explained, and he innately possesses this tendency. At this point the diminished god becomes ontologically indistinguishable from the sequence of events itself. The entire purpose of the diminished god is to refute God's existence and then considerately disappear.
The real problem in an unlikely sequence of events, or one thought to be unlikely, is its specificity. We may delude ourselves that we are dealing with this specificity by 'sweeping it under' a diminished god, but in reality this achieves nothing. The specificity is still there: it has merely been located inside a god, where there is no reason why it should not face the same questions about plausibility. The process of diminishment brings this into sharp focus by making it clear that we are still left with that specificity.
As perhaps a rather crude anology, it is almost like we tried to make salt disappear by dissolving it in water. The process of diminishment is like evaporating the water so that the salt remains and it is made clear that it had been there all along: the process of diminishment gradually evaporates the god leaving the residual specificity behind, and makes it clear that it had never been taken away. If a diminished god appears a useless explanation of sequences of events that is not a failure of this refutation. It is its entire point: it shows the fallacy and emptiness of sweeping the specificity of probabilities under a god in the hope that they will go away.
There are issues which could be argued about: I expect that the most controversial parts of the case will be those that deal with plausibility.
 Smith, J. M., Szathmary, E. (1999). The Origins of Life: From the Birth of Life to the Origins of Language. Oxford: Oxford University Press Chapter 2, pp16-17.
 Rietman, E. (1988). Experiments in Artificial Neural Networks. Pasadena: Tab Books.
 Gurney, K. (New Edition, 2002). An Introduction to Neural Networks. London: Routledge. Chapter 8, pp115-146.
(Originally published:1997. London: UCL Press)