I gotta have my orange juice.

Jesu, Juva

The economic argument for the existence of God

with 18 comments

I’ve just finished the book Freakonomics, and it was very interesting and thought-provoking. Seeing how an economist approached life’s situations and problems made me wonder if we could construct an economic argument (speaking in broad terms of cost and incentive rather than merely money) against atheism and for God’s existence. By its nature such an argument wouldn’t be conclusive, but then most arguments for God’s existence function that way — encouraging the faithful but not sealing the deal for non-believers. Here’s how I think we could develop such an argument:

  1. Let’s assume for a moment that there is no God. Does this fit the data that we see? Disregarding the conventional wisdom that religion is an “opiate,” I think we can actually argue that if there is no God, religion is economically unsustainable. If there is no God and man has evolved, then belief in God and the practice of religion consist entirely of costs and no incentives (since there is no God responding to your prayers, nor providing any future hope or joy or reward). This creates a powerful incentive not to believe in God — it is a perfect waste of time and energy. From an economic standpoint we would hardly expect religion to have developed in the first place, and from both an economic and evolutionary standpoint we would hardly expect religion to persist. As supporting evidence, monkeys in zoos don’t form cargo cults; instead, it seems quite obvious that if they worship anything, it is simply themselves. But if monkeys are so sensible about how much of an economic and evolutionary waste religion is, why do so many humans practice religion? Our hypothesis (there is no God) simply does not fit the data.

  2. Let’s assume for a moment that there is a God and that man is uniquely created to fellowship with and worship God. The atheist is quick to point out that this hypothesis does not fit the data either; where are all the indications of God’s fellowshipping with man? Why does God allow such confusion among men as to who God is and how to fellowship with him? Putting aside for a moment the fact that we see God’s fingerprints everywhere, let’s agree with the atheist that if our hypothesis were true we would very much expect to fellowship with God walking in the garden in the cool of the day.

  3. But now let’s assume that there is a God, that man is uniquely created to fellowship with and worship him, but that there is some estrangement between man and God. This, then, seems to explain the data! The fingerprints of God can be identified in his careful and thoughtful design of the world. Our being created for the unique purpose of fellowship can be seen in the fact that humans alone are able to reason and communicate. There is now a great economic incentive to believe in God, since there is great joy and blessing to be had as his children; and in fact, it is precisely where Christianity has most flourished that civilization and freedoms have most thrived. Yet this estrangement also creates a great economic incentive to disbelieve in God, or to fabricate one’s own gods and religion, which explains the great confusion man has about God. This estrangement suggests that God might allow himself to be hidden from our sight to a certain degree, but also that he might be working to reconcile us to him — so there is even a suggestion of the gospel!

There are, of course, ways that this argument needs to be further developed. More work needs to be done to demonstrate that religion truly has no economic incentive if God does not exist. And we have assumed one type of God here (a personal and good and gracious God who pursues fellowship with man), but the atheist will be quick to point out that this is a fallacy of limited choice; perhaps there is another type of God who delights in causing chaos — does this explanation fit the data? To the Christian it is certain that it would not, but for apologetic purposes this argument must be developed.

And of course, we should not see God as a mere hypothesis. Stay tuned for Friday’s quote.

Written by Scott Moonen

June 13, 2007 at 5:02 am

Posted in Commentary

18 Responses

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  1. Thanks for the thought-provoking post, Scott. I agree with your concluding remarks that point #1 needs to be fleshed out a bit more. From an atheist’s perspective, I’m not sure you can summarily dismiss the “opiate for the masses” explanation of religion. From a purely economic and utilitarian perspective, this may be valid. But simply by observing humanity one can see that we have a need for serving something bigger than ourselves (worship). To an atheist, that would have to be society, for the “uneducated masses” it would be religion because they know no better (again, speaking from an atheist’s point of view).

    You might spend some more time developing the thought of the apes. To the atheist we are simply a few steps above apes in the evolutionary scale, so your observation of how they are self-worshiping is a good one. Why would religion have evolved? Where is the missing link between humans and apes in spiritual matters? I think this point could be elaborated to come to the conclusion of dismissing the conventional wisdom that religion is an “opiate”.

    Luke

    June 13, 2007 at 6:50 am

  2. Also, something I like about this argument is its inclusion of the gospel, or at least the beginnings of it (sin).

    Luke

    June 13, 2007 at 6:52 am

  3. Wow! What an astoundingly bad argument.

    The problem is, of course, in point 1. We would not expect to see a persistent religion if it did not provide some economic value, but the existence of God is not the only possible basis of economic value. The premise that “If there is no God and man has evolved, then belief in God and the practice of religion consist entirely of costs and no incentives (since there is no God responding to your prayers, nor providing any future hope or joy or reward),” is unsupportable, especially given the fact that there is no evidence at all that God actually does respond to one’s prayers or provide any future joy or reward.

    It is not sufficient to simply compare one theory to a single other theory. As Feynmann points out in Cargo Cult Science, to have confidence in a theory you must bend over backwards to consider all the alternatives, not just a conveniently dismissed straw man.

    The Barefoot Bum

    June 13, 2007 at 7:23 am

  4. In other words, if you’re going to pretend to make a scientific argument, you might want to learn a little bit about how scientific arguments are actually constructed.

    The Barefoot Bum

    June 13, 2007 at 7:25 am

  5. Woo, sharp and quick readers! Everyone’s hitting on exactly what I think to be the weaknesses. 🙂 Bum, in spite of my provocative headline I’d humbly point you to the places where I wrote “could,” “not sealing the deal,” “develop,” “developed,” “more work,” “fallacy,” etc. I’m obviously thinking of this post as a sketch or a riff and not a formal argument, so you’re either being dense or unfair. I’m trying to see where the freakonomic approach to questioning conventional wisdom takes me, but it should be evident that I agree I have no argumentative force at this point.

    Regarding point #1 in particular, the two possible alternative explanations that come immediately to my mind are that religion really is some intangible psychological opiate, and that religion is an efficient power play to subjugate others. I certainly need to think about this more. As far as I’m aware, simians don’t exhibit social structures approximating cargo cults or shamanism, so that is at least suggestive that neither of these particular alternatives is a slam dunk.

    Maybe I’ll comment or post some further thoughts if time permits.

    Scott Moonen

    June 13, 2007 at 10:01 am

  6. Scott, regarding simian shamanism, I point you to none other than Rafiki.
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rafiki

    Luke

    June 13, 2007 at 10:09 am

  7. Here’s your problem: “…the two possible alternative explanations…” There are never only two possible explanations, and the inverse of an explanation is not itself an explanation.

    The Barefoot Bum

    June 13, 2007 at 10:18 am

  8. Bum, you seem to have missed my qualifier “that immediately come to mind” and my admission that “I have no argumentative force.” I think we’re having a heated agreement here, although I don’t understand why you aren’t seeing that.

    Scott Moonen

    June 13, 2007 at 10:27 am

  9. Your other problem is that your estrangement “theory” is tending towards unfalsifiability, i.e. it is compatible not only with what we actually observe, but also a wide range of observations which would contradict what we actually observe; a theory explains only those observations for which the inverse would falsify the theory. A theory must be definite to give explanatory power.

    By the time you could fix up your theory to be definite and falsifiable over a broad range of observations, it would be so laden with rococo metaphysics as to collapse of its own weight.

    The Barefoot Bum

    June 13, 2007 at 10:29 am

  10. I understand your position is tentative. I’m just trying to identify the problems in your thinking.

    The Barefoot Bum

    June 13, 2007 at 10:29 am

  11. Bum, thanks. I think you’re right that there are inherent reasons the theory could never become a legitimate proof, although it has value among fellow Christians whose shared presuppositions fill in some of those holes. It also has apologetic value in suggesting an alternative view of the world with potential explanatory power.

    I’d actually extend your concerns to all of the so-called proofs of God’s existence. It’s like trying to build a ladder in a closed room to reach the roof — or more dramatically, to build a ladder to reach the sun. You might come to touch the ceiling or sky, but by the nature of the thing you simply cannot prove that there is a transcendent God, much less that this God corresponds to any particular religion’s views. You just can’t break out of the system, so fundamentally these arguments will fail at some point. See, for example, my critical remarks on Anselm’s ontological argument. (I’m reminded here of Hofstadter’s GEB, especially chapter 15, and while this is a slightly different problem domain, the idea of inherent and inescapable limitations on proof and disproof within a closed system remains.)

    This smacks of fideism (how else to reach this transcendent God than by a leap of faith?), but in reality there is no epistemic neutrality and we all have unquestioned assumptions where we hang our hats at the end of the day. So we are all alike able to observe evidence; examine our own often-hidden presuppositions; compare the explanatory power of various presuppositions as we seek to interpret this evidence; and of course to receive grace to see and to trust in a good savior. That grace is a good thing indeed, because seen or unseen, the vassal doesn’t rightfully sit in cool judgment over the existence of his lord.

    Scott Moonen

    June 13, 2007 at 12:12 pm

  12. “[B]y the nature of the thing you simply cannot prove that there is a transcendent God.”

    No argument there. Not only that, but you cannot show an evidentiary difference between the presence or absence of a transcendent God. An (ontological or metaphysical) difference which makes no (epistemic) difference is no difference; As Hume noted, belief in a mystical/transcendent God actually is atheism. There are no differences between the two positions: Both say “one cannot know anything about God.”

    The moment you say one can know anything about God, one is abandoning, at least in part, God’s transcendence or mystery. To justify knowledge by appeal to transcendence is to justify knowledge by appeal to the principled lack of knowledge, which is a blatant contradiction.

    One can fantasize an infinity of arbitrarily elaborate cloud-castle belief systems, entirely disconnected from any evidentiary substantiation. But that is all one is doing: engaging in fantasy. There is nothing wrong per se with fantasy, but mistaking it for truth is the definition of insanity.

    The Barefoot Bum

    June 14, 2007 at 7:59 am

  13. Right, well, two thoughts. First, Christians, of course, believe in a transcendent and immanent God, doing what Tolkien could never possibly do — actually entering his own story. Second, even if the existence and nature of a transcendent God is inaccessible to formal proof or falsification, that doesn’t mean that there can’t be plentiful indications of his existence and work (which are subject to various interpretations depending on whether you hold that God exists).

    You’re equivocating between truth and logic. This is a little bit deeper water than I’m used to swimming in (my reading in epistemology is not extensive), but even for the foundationalist this equivocation doesn’t hold in the case of basic beliefs. I’m not sure I’m a strict foundationalist, but it is at least a comfortable pool for me to swim in on the shallow end. I’ll grant you foundationalism for now, but I think you still need to demonstrate your warrant for your basic beliefs pertaining specifically to God’s non-existence and inaccessibility. I think on this point interaction with Alvin Plantinga’s work on warranted Christian belief and the proper basicality of belief in God would be appropriate.

    Scott Moonen

    June 15, 2007 at 7:32 am

  14. What it comes down to, again, is that we each have our basic beliefs or presuppositions: you in God’s non-existence (or at least inaccessibility), and me in God’s existence and authority as revealed in the Bible. Our conclusions are largely immune to proof or falsification, as we have both asserted in multiple ways, since they are in fact assumptions rather than conclusions. By this, then, neither of our beliefs is irrational precisely because they are pre-rational.

    Irrational or not, I maintain that your beliefs are foolish, though of course I say that with kindness and not derision. There is a very-well-attested set of historical documents — the Bible — that documents the Christian belief — my belief — in my own sinfulness, my need for a savior, God’s love for me, his provision of a savior, and my adoption into his family. My observation of nature, humanity, history and my own personal experience are all in excellent agreement with this view. By your own admission this is not formally falsifiable and you are simply stipulating it not to be the case. If it proves to be true, then you must agree that you are absolutely without excuse for failing to respond to God’s plentiful revelation of himself.

    And we have not yet even gotten to the question of how well or poorly your own basic beliefs correspond to reality.

    Scott Moonen

    June 15, 2007 at 8:47 am

  15. “[W]e each have our basic beliefs or presuppositions: you in God’s non-existence…”

    This is not the case. The non-existence of “God” is not in any way a presupposition or “basic” belief. It is a conclusion reached on the basis of presuppositions we both share about the relationship of reality to perceptual and experiential evidence.

    “Our conclusions are largely immune to proof or falsification…”

    Speak for yourself. Your “conclusions” (a.k.a. fantasies” are immune to proof, not mine.

    “… I say that with kindness and not derision.”

    I read this as “… I say that with patronizing condescension and not outright hostility.” I’d very much rather have your honest hostility than your smarmy disingenuous condescension.

    “There is a very-well-attested set of historical documents — the Bible…”

    ROFLMAO! Well attested my hairy atheist … nose. Before you start talking about history—a scientific discipline—you might actually want to learn something about it.

    “If it proves to be true…”

    That’s a big huge hairy “if” you got there, Scott.

    The Barefoot Bum

    June 16, 2007 at 9:48 am

  16. Regarding your conclusions being provable, by the very nature of the thing and incorporating your own remarks above regarding my own world view, you cannot exclude all possible alternatives. You can only make a probabilistic argument using tools like Occam’s razor. But that cuts both ways, so I would naturally raise questions such as your ability to give an account for things like induction, the problem of the one and the many, the possibility of making ethical judgments, your expectation of there being significant correspondence between reality and our brains’ higher-order reasoning, etc. On the face of it you are certainly pulling a lot of highly developed basic beliefs right out of your magician’s hat.

    You’re being quite unfair in interpreting “not derision” as “patronizing condescension.” I meant what I wrote, and if anything I have a lower view of myself than of you, since I am well aware of my own sins, have barely an inkling of yours, and can even identify quite a lot with where you’re coming from. Next time you’re in the RTP area, Larry, email me and I’d love to get together for a beer and conversation.

    As to historical attestation, lots of words and scholarship have been thrown at that from both sides. You’re dismissing it a bit too summarily, to the extent that I would suggest you have left room for no confidence in any historical documents.

    Scott Moonen

    June 17, 2007 at 8:14 am

  17. Regarding your conclusions being provable, by the very nature of the thing and incorporating your own remarks above regarding my own world view, you cannot exclude all possible alternatives. You can only make a probabilistic argument using tools like Occam’s razor.

    As well as the public nature of perception, a critical distinction.

    On the face of it you are certainly pulling a lot of highly developed basic beliefs right out of your magician’s hat.

    Does theism give you the power of telepathy? How do you know what basic beliefs I am or am not pulling out of my hat?

    I would naturally raise questions such as your ability to give an account for things like induction, the problem of the one and the many, the possibility of making ethical judgments, your expectation of there being significant correspondence between reality and our brains’ higher-order reasoning.

    Important philosophical topics, many of which I go into considerable detail on my own blog. Very briefly: Induction is a pseudo-problem; modern scientific empiricism does not depend on induction in the Humean sense. I’m not sure what you mean by the problem of the one and the many; I assume you mean the problem of universals, which follows from the problem of induction, which is a pseudo-problem. One may make ethical judgments on subjective grounds. I have no idea whether my brain’s reasoning has anything to do with the “real” (noumenal) reality, nor do I care.

    You’re being quite unfair in interpreting “not derision” as “patronizing condescension.”

    If you’re going to call me a fool, call me a fool. I’m a grown man, I can handle it. Don’t cloak an insult in kindness.

    As to historical attestation, lots of words and scholarship have been thrown at that from both sides.

    And I’ve read quite a lot of them. Have you ever read anything critical of biblical veracity? You seem to simply parrot a lot of apologetic and Christian-biased information; do you have any idea whatsoever about the arguments and underlying methodology? This is a sincere, not rhetorical, question. On the one hand, you make a lot of assertions, but don’t show any of the underlying arguments; on the other hand, these are a comments, not essays, and I don’t expect strict substantiation.

    I think the best we can do here is define the parameters of the debate and define some issues of contention. I’m putting your blog on my daily reading list; if you go into substantive detail on any of these topics, I’ll most probably see it. You can also email me: my address in on the profile on my blog. And, of course, you’re free to read my own blog and comment there.

    The Barefoot Bum

    June 17, 2007 at 9:53 am

  18. These are interesting arguments. As an economically-trained atheist, however, they are problematic; only after many of the strongest assumptions of economics are made (perfect information, universal rationality, etc.) do these arguments even make sense on face- for example, following the rules of a deity that may or may not exist is an excellent example of a situation of asymmetric information, a classic scenario for market failure.

    I would love to see some of these arguments fleshed out on WiQED (www.theperfectsquare.net/wiqed/index.html). If you go here (http://www.theperfectsquare.net/wiqed/index.php5?title=There_is_a_God), you can see the “There is a God” argument topic, where you can form different articles dealing with specific assertions and questions related to this argument.

    Byron

    September 20, 2007 at 9:43 pm


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