Theo: Well, I know that good things can only happen if there is a God because the holy book says so.
Art: So to be clear, you’re saying that because the holy book says that good things can only happen if there is a God, it must be true.
Theo: Yes. The holy book is always right.
Art: Ah! Very good! You have already Generalized the Principle for me! Now, I happen to know a bit about the holy book and disagree that it says this. However, the next principle I want to apply is See What Happens When You Concede. I won’t contest this point, to allow us to Stick to the Issue, and See What Happens when we do.
Art: Are there any other reasons, besides the holy book, to think that good things can only happen if there is a God?
Theo: Well, the holy book is true, so it’s quite sufficient.
Art: Yes, I understand. But supposing the holy book were not always true, is there another way you could establish that it’s true that “good things can only happen if there is a God?”
Theo: Well, there wouldn’t be anything without God in the first place, so of course no good things would happen, or any thing!
Art: Okay, I see that. But…how to say this. It’s one thing to say that God made a system which works without Him having to intervene. But it sounds to me like you believe He does intervene, to cause all of the good things to happen.
Theo: Maybe some good things happen just because of how He made the universe. But, yes, he intervenes to bless us besides.
Art. Right. So we have two ideas.
1. God made the system (the universe)
2. God intervenes in the system.
Now, we know if the first one is false, that nothing would happen. But (without the holy book) we might reasonably suppose that God might have made the system, and then didn’t intervene in it.
So knowing the first point doesn’t tell us whether the second point is true.
Theo: Yes, that’s very clear. But what’s the point?
Art: Oh. Well, just that, you pointed out that nothing good would happen if God hadn’t made everything in the first place. But that doesn’t really help us answer the question.
Theo: It shows us that God exists.
Art: Sure, but the question I asked was, can you show that it is true that good things can only happen if God exists without the holy book. So you had proven point 2 (see above) with the holy book, and I wondered if that was the only way to prove it, or if you had others. You pointed out point 1 (see above), but as we just realized, point 1 doesn’t help us establish point 2.
Theo: Ah…yes, I see it now. It’s still an important point, though.
Art: Indeed it is! I’ll write the point “Nothing would exist without God” (if that wording seems correct) below “Good things can only happen if there is a God.”
Theo: Yes, that’s fine.
Art. Right. So we’ll get around to Generalizing the Principle behind that argument, and then Applying the Principle to Specifics, and then getting to the Why of the What, after we finish with our first point. Because it is an important point, after all.
Theo: That seems acceptable.
Art: So, do you know of any other proofs for “Good things can only happen if there is a God” besides the holy book?
Theo: Hmm…let me think. If I didn’t know that getting my job when I did was God’s work because the holy book told me so, would I know it was God’s work by some other means…? Ah! Yes! The act speaks for itself. It’s so improbable that it couldn’t have happened by chance, so it must have been caused by God.
Art: Okay, let me put it In My Own Words. Now, saying something is improbable is the same things as saying it’s unlikely to happen by chance. So how about: “sufficiently improbable events can not happen without God?”
Theo: Yes…I think that’s right. In full disclosure, I have a nagging feeling that something’s not quite right, but I can’t put my finger on it just now.
Art: That’s the whole point of Generalizing the Principle and Applying the Principle to Specifics. Perhaps it’ll come to you as we do so.
Theo: Carry on, then.
Art: Well, I skipped from your specific example of getting your job when you did right to the generalized principle, which can cause problems, but I think we’re okay. Let’s try Applying the Principle “sufficiently improbable events can not happen without God” to some Specifics.
Art: Do you think you’re the only person in the world to get a job right when you needed it?
Theo: No, but that’s God at work for you. He’s behind the good stuff.
Art: Yes, but remember, we’re seeing if we can establish that God must be at work without the holy book, and it’s the holy book that tells us that He’s behind the good stuff. We’re seeing if we can tell it’s God just by how improbable the events are.
Theo: Well, okay. But I’m not sure I see the point. Even if we couldn’t tell this way, we would still know the answer from the holy book.
Art: Yes, I understand. I just want to know your full reasons for believing the principle in question.
Theo: Carry on, then.
Art: So you’re not the only person in the world to have this event happen to you. Are you the only person in the country? In the state? In the city?
Theo: Of course I don’t really know. But I would guess not.
Art: So, this happens to some thousands, or maybe millions of people around the world. Now, things that happen millions of times can’t be all that improbable, right?
Theo: Hmm, I guess…
Art: Think of it this way. If something only has a one-out-of-a-million chance of happening, we have a tendency to think it’s impossible, it’s never going to happen. It’s the most natural thing in the world to think then that if it does happen, there must be someone behind it, maybe God. But one-out-of-a-million chance things don’t never happen; they happen exactly one out of a million times, right? That’s what it means.
Theo: Yes, I see that.
Art: Now, in a world of seven billion people, if they’re all in the running for these one-out-of-a-million things, how many of them will get one, assuming it’s just blind chance at play?
Theo: Well, seven billion divided by a million, I suppose you’d get seven thousand “winners,” so to speak.
Art: It is well calculated! Now, we’re supposed to get seven thousand winners by chance. If instead we get ten thousand, then we might think there really is someone intervening, maybe God. But if we got only four thousand, that would be equally good evidence that someone was intervening, maybe God. And if we had only one thousand winners, then stronger evidence still! What if we had none?
Theo: Then that would be even stronger evidence that someone was intervening.
Art. It is well reasoned. So in other words, if we don’t see a certain number of “impossible” one-out-of-a-million coincidences happening in the world, then we have evidence that something is intervening. But if we see a few hundred happening, then it’s less likely that someone is intervening. And if we see several thousand, then that’s even less evidence. And if we see about seven thousand, give or take, then that’s just what we’d expect to see without any intervention.
Theo: Hmm…Well, that does make sense.
Art: Sure! It’s a little like the man who always guesses the wrong answer to a coin flip. It’s just as hard to always get the wrong answer as it is to always get the right answer. And when it comes to crazy coincidences, it’s just as weird to see too few of them as it is to see too many.
Theo: Yes. That’s very clear now.
Art: So say your job business was a one-out-of-a-million event, though it might be much more common than that. Do you think that too many things like that are happening, more than should happen just by blind chance?
Theo: Of course I couldn’t possibly know.
Art: Yes, I suppose it would unfair to expect anyone to know something quite like that.
Theo: But the holy book still tells us where these things come from.
Art: You’re right. The holy book does, but the improbability of the events does not. If it weren’t for the holy book, we would be fine concluding that they were just chance occurrences. Is that fair?
Theo: Mmm, I guess so…I guess it’s really just a testament to how important the holy book is. Without it, we’d be ignorant of these important answers.
Art: Fair enough.
So we have: God exists
How do we know? Because we see good things, and good things couldn’t happen without God.
And how do we know that? Because the holy book says that good things can only happen with God, and the holy book is always right.
In this argument, the conclusion that God exists depends on the truth of “the holy book is always right.”
Theo: But don’t forget what I said about that “point 1” business before. We also know God exists because nothing would exist without Him.
Art: Perfect, I’m glad you reminded me. We’ll get to that next. For now, we have to see if the holy book is always right. We’ve got the What, so now the Why.
How do you know the holy book is always right?
To be continued
See What Happens When You Concede – Often a useful technique. Many arguments fail even if the premises are true because the argument is invalid. Concede the premises to test the argument’s validity. If the argument is invalid, why does your conversant buy it? They must be ignorant of the faulty reasoning, a much deeper error than simply having a false conclusion. This way you can address that deeper issue, instead of just the surface problem.
If the argument is valid, reconsider the premises to see if they’re true, also. You can let people know in advance that you’re conceding the premises to see where the argument takes you. That way they won’t feel you’re flip-flopping when you reconsider the premises.
If the premises and argument both check out, the argument is sound.
Stick to the Issue – The chain of reasoning necessary to show that an argument cannot stand is a fragile thing. If you leave one chain to go build another partway through, you’re wont to lose all the progress you made on the first one.
When a new issue arises, don’t let it distract you. Write it down. Move on to it only after resolving the issue at hand. When you do move on, remember that Understanding Must Precede Argument (and Advice). Put the argument In Your Own Words, get your conversant’s approval for the wording. Generalize the Principle the argument is based on, and Apply the Principle to Specifics to test it. Only then move from What to Why they believe.