Read AN EXAMINATION OF THEISM: CHAPTER IV of Theism / Atheism‚ The Great Alternative, free online book, by Chapman Cohen, on


What, now, are the facts upon which the modern believer in deity professes to base his belief and what are the arguments used to defend the position taken up?

Premising that the reasons advanced for the belief in deity are more in the nature of excuses than aught else, we may take first of all the argument derived from the mere existence of the universe, with the alleged impossibility of conceiving it as self-existent. Along with that there may also be taken as a variant of the argument from existence, the alleged impossibility of a natural “order” that should result from the inherent properties of natural forces. Now it is at least plain that whatever difficulty there is in thinking of the universe as either self-existing or self-adjusting is in no degree lessened by assuming a God as the originator and sustainer of the whole. The most that it does is to move the difficulty back a step, and while with many “out of sight out of mind” is as true of their attitude towards mental problems as it is towards the more ordinary things of life, the policy can hardly be commended in serious intellectual discussions. It is not a bit easier to think of self-existence or self-direction in connection with a god than it is in connection with the universe. And if we must rest ultimately with an insoluble difficulty, it is surely better to stop with the existence we know rather than to introduce a second existence which for all we know may be quite mythical.

It is no reply to say that the idea of God involves self-existence. It does nothing of the kind, or at least it can do so only by our making yet another assumption that is as unjustifiable as the previous one. If God is a personality, we have no conception of a personality that is self-existent. The only personality that we know is the human personality, and that is certainly derived. Our whole knowledge of human personality is that of something which is derived from pre-existing personalities, each of which is a centre of derived influences. Of personality as either the cause or the commencement of a series we have not the slightest conception. And the man who says he has can never have carefully examined the contents of his own mind.

The truth is that the fact of the existence of the universe provides no ground for argument in favour of either Atheism or Theism. Existence is a common datum for all. Some existence must be assumed in all argument since all argument implies something that is to be discussed and explained. And for that very reason we can offer no explanation of existence itself, since all explanation means the merging of one class of facts in a larger class. The largest class of facts we have is that which is included in the term “universe,” and we cannot explain that by assuming another existence God about which we know nothing. To explain the unknown by the known is an intelligible procedure. To explain the known by the unknown is to forsake all intellectual sanity. Thus every difficulty that surrounds the conception of the universe as an ultimate fact, surrounds the existence of God as an ultimate fact. You cannot get rid of a difficulty by giving it another name. And whether we call ultimate existence “God,” or “matter,” or “substance,” is of no vital importance to anyone who keeps his mind on the real issue that has to be decided. If the question, What is the cause of existence? be a legitimate one, it applies no less to the existence of God than it does to the existence of matter, or force, or substance. All that we gain is another problem which we add to the problems we already possess. We increase our burden without enlarging our comprehension. If, on the other hand, it is said that we need an all embracing formula that will make our conception of the universe coherent, it may be replied that we have that in such a conception as the persistence of force. And it is surely better to keep to a formula that does at least work, than to devise one that is altogether useless.

The inherent weakness of the theistic conception will be best seen by taking an orthodox presentation of the argument under consideration. In his well-known work on “Theism,” Professor Flint says “that granting all the atoms of matter to be eternal, grant that all the properties and forces, which with the smallest degree of plausibility can be claimed for them to be eternal and indestructible, and it is still beyond expression improbable that these atoms, with these forces, if unarranged, uncombined, unutilised by a presiding mind, would give rise to anything entitled to be called a universe. It is millions to one that they would never produce the simplest of the regular arrangements which we comprehend under the designation of course of nature.” (Theism; p. 107-8.)

Now this is an admirably clear and terse statement of an argument which is often presented in so verbose a manner that its real nature is, to a considerable extent, disguised. But in this case, clearness of statement makes for ease of refutation, as will be seen.

For, instead of the statement being, as the writer seems to think, almost self-evidently true, it is almost obtrusively false. Instead of its being millions to one, given matter and force with all their present properties, against the present arrangement of things occurring, it is inconceivable, assuming that nothing but the atoms and their properties exist, that any other arrangement than the present one should have resulted. For the present natural order is not something that is, so to speak, separable from our conception of natural forces, it is something that has grown out of and is the expression of the idea of nature. Thus, given a proper understanding of the principle of gravitation, and it is impossible to conceive an unsupported stone not falling to the ground. Given a proper conception of the properties of the constituents of a chemical compound, and we can only conceive one result as possible. In all cases our conception of what must occur follows from the nature of the forces themselves. This is necessarily the case since the conception of the ultimate properties of matter has been built up by the observation of the actual results. And one simply cannot conceive an alteration in these results without thinking of some alteration or modification of the causes of which they are the expression. What is true of the part is true of the whole. The present structure of the world stands as the inevitable outcome of the play of natural forces. This is both the expression of an actual fact and a condition of coherent thought. Uniformity of results from uniformity of conditions is a pre-requisite to sane thinking.

In reality, the expression “millions to one” is no more than an appeal to man’s awe in facing a stupendous mechanism, and his feeling of impotence when dealing with so complex a subject as the evolution of a world. It can only mean that to a certain state of knowledge it seems millions to one against the present order resulting. But to a certain state of knowledge it would seem millions to one against so fluid a thing as water ever becoming solid. To others it is a commonplace thing and a necessary consequence of the properties of water itself. To a savage it would be millions to one against a cloud of “fire mist” ever becoming a world with a highly diversified fauna and flora. To a scientist there is nothing more in it than antecedent and consequent. Such expressions as its being “millions to one” against certain things happening is never really more than an appeal to ignorance; it means only that our knowledge is not great enough to permit our tracing the successive stages of the evolution before us. Once the scientific conception of the universe is grasped, the marvel is not that the present order exists, the marvel would be that any other “order” should be, or that any radical alteration in it should occur.

And there really is no need to throw the whole universe at the head of the sceptic. That is an attempt to overcome him with sheer weight. Intrinsically there is nothing more marvellous in the evolution of a habitable globe from the primitive nebula, than there is in the fact that an unsupported stone always falls to the ground. It is only our familiarity with the one experience and our lack of knowledge concerning the other that gives us the condition of wonder in the one case and lack of it in the other. In the light of modern knowledge “order” is, as W. H. Mallock says, “a physical platitude, not a divine paradox.”

Moreover, if the odds are a million to one against the existence of the present arrangement existing, the odds would be equally great against the existence of any other arrangement. And as the odds are equally great against all seeing that some arrangement must exist there can be no logical value in using the argument against one arrangement in particular. The same question, “Why this arrangement and none other?” might arise in any case.

Finally, the absurdity of arguing that the “order” of nature compels a belief in deity may be seen by realising the fact that our conception of order is itself the product of the experienced sequence which constitutes the order in question. Our ideas of order are not independent of the world, they are its product an expression of the relation between organism and environment. Given a different organism, with different sense organs, and the world would appear different. On the other hand the whole structure of man is the result of the existing conditions. Assume the order to be changed, and the human organism presuming it still to exist, will undergo corresponding modifications. It would not find less order or less beauty, the order and the beauty would simply be found in another direction. And, presumably, the theist would still point to the existence of that order as clear proof of a designing intelligence.

Something needs to be said here on a more recent form of the argument from the “order” of nature than the one we have been discussing. There is no vital distinction between the old and the new form, but a variation in terms seems to produce on some minds a conviction of newness itself a proof that the nature of the old form had never been fully realised.

This new form is that based upon what is called “Directivity.” Recognising that it is no longer possible to successfully dispute the scientific proposition that the state of the universe at any one moment must be taken as the result of all the conditions then prevailing, and, therefore, it is to the operation of the ultimate properties of matter, force, ether, or whatever name we choose to give to the substance of the universe it is argued that we nevertheless require some directing force which will set, and keep the universe on its present track.

But there is really nothing in this beyond the now familiar appeal to human impotence. “We do not know,” “We cannot see,” are quite excellent reasons for saying nothing at all, but the very worst ground on which to make positive statements, or on which to base positive beliefs. The only condition that would justify our making human ignorance a ground on which to make statements of the kind named would be that we had demonstrably exhausted the possibilities of natural forces, and no further developments were possible in this direction. Far from this being the case there is not a single man of science who would dissent from the statement that we are only upon the threshold of a knowledge of their possibilities.

And this assumption of “direction” is unconvincing, if not suicidal in character. Assuming that direction may have occurred, the fact of direction adds nothing to the qualities or possibilities of existence, any more than the “directivity” of a chemist adds to the possibilities of certain elements when he brings them into combination. Unless the possibilities of the compound were already in the elements guidance would be useless. And, in the same way, unless the capacity for producing the universe we see already existed in the atoms themselves, no amount of “direction” could have produced it. God simply takes the place of the chemist bringing certain chemical elements in, of the engineer guiding certain forces along a particular channel. But no new capacity is created, and all that is done by either the chemist or the engineer might occur without their interference. Otherwise it could not occur at all.

Now there is no denying that natural forces do produce the phenomena around us. That is undeniable. And whether there be a god or not this fact remains quite unaffected. All that God can do is to set up certain combinations. But this does not exclude the possibility of this combination taking place without the operation of deity. In fact, it implies it. Either, then, natural forces possess the capacity to produce the universe as we see it, or they do not. If they do not, then it is impossible for us to conceive in what way even deity could produce it. If, on the other hand, they have this capacity, the argument for the existence of deity loses its force, and the theist is bound to admit that all that he claims as due to the action of deity might have happened without him. The theists own argument, if logically pursued ends in divesting it of all coercive value.

It is curious that the theist should fail to see that a much stronger argument for the operation of deity would have been of a negative character, to have proved that in some way God manifested an inhibitive influence and thus prevented certain things occurring which would have transpired but for his interference. Regularity, or “order” is, as we have seen, the necessary consequence of the persistence of force. And so long as natural forces continue to express themselves in the way in which experience has led us to expect there is no need for us to think of anything beyond. The principle of inertia is with us here, for if it be true that force will persist in a given direction unless deflected from its course by some other force, it must be equally true that all forces will work out a given consequence unless they are deflected from their course by the operation of some superior force.

Now if it were possible for the theist to show that in certain cases the normal consequences of known forces did not transpire, and that the aberration could not be accounted for by the operation of any other conceivable force, it might be argued with some degree of plausibility that there exists a controlling power beyond which answers to God. That might afford a plausible case for “directivity.” But to insist upon the prevalence of “natural order” will not help the case for theism. It will rather embarrass it. It may, of course, impress all those whose conception of scientific method is poor and sometimes one thinks that this is all that is deliberately aimed at but it will not affect anyone else. To the informed mind it will appear that the Goddite is weakening his case with every step he takes in the direction of what he apparently believes to be a demonstration of its logical invulnerability.