#33

December 03, 2007

God and the Flying Spaghetti Monster

Dear Professor Craig,

The cumulative case for the existence for God proceeds from some data (physical constants, sentient souls, testimonies for miracles, etc.) to the existence of God as the best explanation of these data. There are some important objections. 1. Such inference does not show why theism is a better explanation than, say, the hypothesis of the existence of a very powerful Flying Spaghetti Monster. 2. Neither it says why some evil being - some powerful, malevolent being, say, something like Satan - is not a better explanation than God; especially when the existing evil is included in the data. How would you counter? Thank you very much.

Vlastimil

Your question is really about what the various arguments for God’s existence, if sound, enable us to infer about the nature of the being proved by such arguments. Different arguments will enable us to infer different attributes, so that the case for God’s existence is, as you state, cumulative.

The much beloved Flying Spaghetti Monster was the concoction of Bobby Henderson, who in the summer of 2005 wrote a satirical letter to the State Board of Education of Kansas to protest the use of textbook stickers promoting Intelligent Design. It (or he, as the Monster is personal) has gone on to become an international sensation (see Henderson’s website at www.venganza.org/).

Henderson used the noodley Monster to parody the inference to an Intelligent Designer of the universe. He wrote, “Let us remember that there are multiple theories of Intelligent Design. I and many others around the world are of the strong belief that the universe was created by a Flying Spaghetti Monster. It was He who created all that we see and all that we feel.” Henderson claimed to know quite a bit about the nature of the Flying Spaghetti Monster:

. . . it may be helpful to tell you a little more about our beliefs. We have evidence that a Flying Spaghetti Monster created the universe. None of us, of course, were around to see it, but we have written accounts of it. We have several lengthy volumes explaining all details of His power. . . . He is of course invisible and can pass through normal matter with ease. . . . I have included an artistic drawing of Him creating a mountain, trees, and a midget.

As the drawing shows, the Monster is composed of two large meatballs surrounded by a mass of spaghetti topped with two eyeballs. It’s evident that the Flying Spaghetti Monster is supposed to be a finite, physical object which, for some unexplained reason, is not perceptible to our senses.

Great fun! But now what is the point of the parody? What does it show? It’s striking that Henderson’s parody does nothing to call into question either the legitimacy or necessity of the inference to an Intelligent Designer of the universe. Rather the point of the parody seems to be that we cannot know much, if anything, about the nature of the Designer. Therefore, it’s arbitrary to characterize the Designer of the universe as God, especially the God of some specific religion.

What’s curious about this parody is that ID theorists like William Dembski have been insisting on this same point for years, but everyone seems to think them disingenuous. Dembski makes it abundantly clear that on the basis of the specified complexity in the universe one cannot infer that the Designer is infinite, omnipotent, omniscient, omnibenevolent, and so forth. It is precisely for that reason that ID theorists deny that ID is disguised religion. The identification of the Designer with God is a theological conclusion that cannot itself be warranted on the basis of the design argument alone.

Dembski writes,

Insofar as design theorists do not bring up God, it is because design-theoretic reasoning does not warrant bringing up God. Design-theoretic reasoning tells us that certain patterns exhibited in nature reliably point to a designing intelligence. But there’s no inferential chain that leads from such finite design-conducing patterns in nature to the infinite personal transcendent creator God of the world’s major theistic faiths. . . . As a Christian I hold that the Christian God is the ultimate source of design behind the universe. . . . But there’s no way for design inferences from physics or biology to reach that conclusion. . . . Far from being coy or deceitful, when design theorists do not bring up God, it is because they are staying within the proper scope of their theory (The Design Revolution, p. 26).

Therefore, Dembski is adamant that religious interpretations of Intelligent Design should not be taught in public classrooms. Dembski himself, had he thought of it, might have appealed to the Flying Spaghetti Monster to illustrate his point! Ironically, then, Henderson’s parody actually reinforces one of the central contentions of the ID movement, that it is not religious teaching. The inference to a Designer is not an inference to any particular deity.

This is not to say that we can infer nothing about the Designer of the universe on the basis of the specified complexity of the cosmos. Principally, what we can infer is that there exists a personal, and, hence, self-conscious, volitional being of inconceivably great intelligence who designed the universe. If people really believed that to be true, they would be wide-eyed and open-mouthed with astonishment, rather than mocking and derisive.

Moreover, it’s plausible that any ultimate explanation must involve a personal being which is incorporeal. For any being composed of material stuff will exhibit precisely that specified complexity that we are trying to explain. The old “Who designed the Designer?” objection thus presses hard against any construal of the Designer as a physical object (see my “Richard Dawkins’ Argument for Atheism in The God Delusion” in the Question of the Week Archive). That immediately rules out the Flying Spaghetti Monster as a final explanation.

What about the other theistic arguments? The contingency argument, if successful, proves the existence of a metaphysically necessary, uncaused, timeless, spaceless, immaterial, personal Creator of the universe (see “Argument from Contingency” in the Question of the Week Archive). That conclusion is also incompatible with the Sufficient Reason of all things being the Flying Spaghetti Monster, since as a physical object (even if invisible to our senses) he can be neither metaphysically necessary, timeless, spaceless, nor immaterial.

The kalam cosmological argument, if sound, gives us grounds for believing in the existence of a beginningless, uncaused, timeless, spaceless, changeless, immaterial, enormously powerful, Personal Creator of the universe. Again, a being with such attributes cannot be anything like the Flying Spaghetti Monster.

The moral argument complements the cosmological and design arguments by telling us about the moral nature of the Creator of the universe. It gives us a personal, necessarily existent being who is perfectly good and whose nature is the standard of goodness and whose commands constitute our moral duties. This argument rules out any suggestion that the metaphysical ultimate is some evil being akin to Satan. As a privation of goodness, evil is parasitic upon the Good and so cannot exist as the highest being.

Finally, the ontological argument gives us reason to think that God, as the greatest conceivable being, is metaphysically necessary and maximally excellent, that is to say, omnipotent, omniscient, and all-good. The poor Flying Spaghetti Monster is, alas, left trailing in the dust.

I think you can see that the Flying Spaghetti Monster is vastly overrated, both as a parody and as a being. As a parody, he fails to show that an inference to an intelligent designer of the universe is either illegitimate or unwarranted. What the parody shows is that we are not justified in attributing to our explanatory postulates arbitrary properties that are not justified by the evidence. Natural theologians have always known this. That’s why, for example, Thomas Aquinas, after his five brief paragraphs in his Summa theologiae proving the existence of a being “to which everyone gives the name ‘God’,” goes on to discuss in the next nine questions God’s simplicity, perfection, goodness, limitlessness, omnipresence, immutability, eternity, and unity.

As a being, the Flying Spaghetti Monster comes up drastically deficient as an explanation of those phenomena, some of which you list, which lie at the basis of the arguments for God’s existence. Those arguments, if all sound, as I think they are, require cumulatively a being which is the metaphysically necessary, self-existent, beginningless, uncaused, timeless, spaceless, immaterial, personal, omnipotent, omniscient Creator and Designer of the universe, who is perfectly good, whose nature is the standard of goodness, and whose commands constitute our moral duties.

The real lesson to be learned from the case of the Flying Spaghetti Monster is that it shows how completely out of touch our popular culture is with the great tradition of natural theology. One might as well be speaking a foreign language. That people could think that belief in God is anything like the groundless belief in a fantasy monster shows how utterly ignorant they are of the works of Anselm, Aquinas, Leibniz, Paley, Sorley, and a host of others, past and present. No doubt part of the fault lies with equally ignorant Christians who have no answer when called upon to give a reason for the hope within and who therefore give the impression of arbitrary and groundless belief. But it must also be attributed to poor education, intellectual laziness, and a lack of curiosity. Given the revival of natural theology in our day over the last half century, we have no excuse for such lame caricatures of theistic belief as belief in the Flying Spaghetti Monster.