13 Dec 2009

Steve Landsburg’s Case Against God

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Steve Landsburg’s Case Against God
By Robert P. Murphy

University of Rochester economist Steve Landsburg is one of my favorite writers of popular articles and books. I often disagree strongly with him–indeed I use his “more sex is safer sex” thesis as a primary illustration of mainstream economic self-parody–but even when he’s wrong, he’s brilliantly wrong. It is with some disappointment, then, that I have to report his case against God is uncharacteristically weak.

Before proceeding to my critique, I should say that overall Landsburg’s new book, The Big Questions, is well worth the purchase price. (Although in my case, as a blogger who would likely review it, Landsburg arranged for me to get a complimentary copy. But hey, the book is definitely worth more than I paid for it!) In particular, Landsburg wrote one of the most succinct defenses of free trade that I’ve ever seen, and he also does a great job explaining the seminal contributions of Robert Lucas and his critique of old-fashioned macroeconometrics. If you are a fan of Landsburg’s previous books, there is still much to enjoy in his latest.

Yet as I said, if you are a theist and were expecting to be shaken to your core, I think you will be disappointed. Onward to Landsburg’s case against God.

Why Does the Universe Exist?

Before tackling Landsburg’s specific critique of theism, we need to first explain his own explanation for why we exist. To get things going, Landsburg first establishes that the “natural numbers (i.e. the counting numbers 0, 1, 2, and so forth)” are real things, not arbitrary social conventions: “You and I know the natural numbers are real. Not only are they real, they are necessary. By their very nature, they could not fail to exist” (p. 7).

Landsburg then generalizes to mathematical truths as a whole:

And likewise for other mathematical structures, of varying degrees of complexity….The natural numbers together with the laws of arithmetic form a mathematical structure of profound complexity. The human genome, with its combinatorial structure of A’s, C’s, G’s, and T’s, can be described entirely in the language of arithmetic, so the very least, arithmetic is as complex as human life, and therefore as complex as your brain and the pattern of your consciousness. (pp. 7-8)

Already I think Landsburg is in serious trouble, but let’s hold off criticism and let him make his case. In the interest of brevity I can’t reproduce his whole argument, but here’s the punchline:

The Universe itself, in other words, is a mathematical pattern, containing your consciousness and mine as subpatterns. The Universe exists because it can; a logically possible Universe is a mathematical object, and mathematical objects exist by necessity. (p. 14)

So we see that Landsburg thinks he has disposed of the need for God, by offering an alternative explanation for the most eternal of questions. Yet I think Landsburg’s “proof” suffers from the exact problem that he fingers in Saint Anselm’s famous “ontological argument” for the existence of God. I’ll reproduce Landsburg’s handling of this matter, and then circle back to show why Landsburg’s own explanation is similarly flawed:

Anselm defines God as “the greatest thing imaginable.” Now, existence is really really great, so if God didn’t exist, he couldn’t be the greatest thing imaginable, now could he? Therefore, by definition God exists! Case closed!

Regardless of what Anselm chooses to “define,” there can instead be something very great, and then something even greater, and then something greater than that, ad infinitum—just as there are numbers, and then larger numbers, and then numbers that are larger still, ad infinitum. Anselm starts by assuming that there is a greatest thing imaginable. Start with an unjustified assumption and you’re sure to reach an unjustified conclusion.
(pp. 34-35)

I think that Landsburg’s own explanation, while at first seeming quite profound, is just as question-begging as Anselm’s. Landsburg has replaced the traditional questions, “Why should we have consciousness? Why is the universe constructed this way, just-so in order to sustain our lives and allow us to ponder our existence?” with the question, “Why should mathematical structures exist, in such deep complexity?”

Landsburg spends most of his time going from the fact that purely abstract mathematical structures exist, to the conclusion that therefore we sentient beings exist and perceive “solid” objects around us. Now that leap may itself be invalid as well—I’m actually sympathetic to Landsburg’s arguments, which I’m not reproducing here—but my point is, Landsburg never really explains why these mathematical objects exist in such complexity so as to “give rise” to the traditionally complex subpatterns that every other philosopher seeks to explain.

For example, how do we know that mathematical patterns “really” exist? Maybe Euclid’s proofs just seem a priori true to us, because of the way our brains are hardwired. Perhaps other sentient beings could possess a “different logic” from ours. That strikes me as impossible, I grant you, but wouldn’t it seem impossible if what I am saying were true? Here’s what Landsburg has to say about the ultimate foundation of his whole worldview:

I am confident that mathematics exists for the same reason I am confident my hopes and dreams exist: I experience it directly. I believe my dining-room table exists because I can feel it with my hands. I believe numbers, the laws of arithmetic, and (for that matter) the ideal triangles of Euclidean geometry exist because I can “feel” them with my thoughts. (p. 6)

And so we’ve moved in a circle (assuming circles exist…). Landsburg explains the existence of everything we “know” in day-to-day life by pinning it on the ultimate existence of mathematical objects. And these exist because we directly experience them. As to why these mathematical truths have the form they do, Landsburg offers no other explanation except they have to have that form. How do we know? By thinking about them, in other words by “feeling” them with our thoughts.

When it comes down to it, I think Landsburg has done nothing truly deeper than to say, “Why do trees exist? Just look our your window, man! They do exist, that’s why.”

A Note on Complexity

I am by no means an expert on information theory, but I want to mention that some people also do not agree with Landsburg’s argument that arithmetic is more complex than human life. (I am grateful to Silas Barta for discussions on this topic.) In particular, it’s not true that one can “represent” all of human life—and especially human consciousness!—by a sequence of four nucleic acids (in DNA). It reminds me of a critique I read of Michael Crichton’s Jurassic Park. In the movie (and presumably the novel, which I haven’t read), the scientists are able to grow a bunch of living dinosaurs from DNA they find preserved in a mosquito that had bitten a dinosaur millions of years in the past. But that alone wouldn’t be enough, because the dinosaur would have to develop inside its mother before being laid as an egg.

The same is true with humans. Contrary to science fiction plots, you couldn’t clone an adult replica of someone just from a blood sample. Someone’s DNA wouldn’t contain the history of that person’s environment as he grew up, and it wouldn’t contain the memories of his experiences and so forth. If lab technicians could provide an adequate simulation of the person’s mother’s womb, then at best they could reproduce an identical twin as a newborn infant. But in order to literally reproduce an exact replica of an adult human being, the scientists would need to reproduce (in principle) the entire universe in which the person grew up. And this all assumes that the philosophy of functionalism is true! If it turns out that people have immortal souls, for example, then the scientists still wouldn’t have truly reproduced the “person,” just at best his physical body.

Before leaving the point, let me share Silas Barta’s analogy to show (part of) the problem with Landsburg’s procedure: Landsburg is saying that if X can produce Y, then X is necessarily more complex than Y. But bricks and mortar can produce a house, and not many people would say they are more complex than the house. If you try to point out the “flaws” in this analogy, just realize that they apply with equal validity to Landsburg’s assertion that arithmetic (using just A’s, C’s, G’s, and T’s) can describe all of human life.

I Predict Landsburg Didn’t Really Try to Understand Theists

Although I think Landsburg’s argument about the existence of the universe is ultimately a non sequitur, at least it’s a serious argument and something that theologians should grapple with. I personally think the existence of mathematics is one of the most beautiful flourishes of God’s creation. Mathematical laws cannot be overridden, even by the most despotic of earthly rulers, because we simply perceive logical relations in the way we do; that’s how our minds work. (Landsburg would say, I believe, that this is so because our minds could not conceivably work differently, whereas I would say our minds work like this because God wanted us to live in an orderly, logical universe and so chose to design it this way.) Another neat thing about mathematics is that it shows the practicality of pure thinking. Pragmatists can deride poets for wasting their time daydreaming, but nobody doubts the usefulness of geometry textbooks.

So although I think the existence of mathematics per se can’t bear the explanatory weight that Landsburg puts on it, I at least understand his fascination with the approach. Unfortunately, there are other sections of the book where Landsburg’s hostility to theism struck me as downright silly. Here are a few excerpts and my reactions:

Now, to a true religious believer, the conviction rate [after committing a crime] is 100 percent. God sees all, knows all, and punishes all. Based on everything we know about deterrence, true believers should almost never commit crimes. But I have not been able to uncover a shred of evidence that those who profess belief are any more law-abiding than their atheist neighbors….[H]ere we have a testable implication of the hypothesis that religious beliefs are sincere, and I look forward to seeing that test conducted. (p. 58)

This argument might hold for some religious doctrines, but not for Christianity. Christians believe that Christ died for their sins and that they are therefore forgiven. You don’t “get into heaven” by being a good enough person to pass some threshold. Once you accept Jesus as your Lord and savior, you are saved. (This is one of the reasons Christopher Hitchens finds Christianity repugnant, because it allegedly relieves individuals of responsibility for their actions.) Let’s get back to Landsburg’s testable hypotheses:

Many religions promise not just punishment for the wicked, but a glorious afterlife for the righteous, and if believers are sincere, this, too, should affect their behavior. Surely people who expect to survive their own deaths should be less reluctant to die, and should therefore invest fewer resources in self-preservation. Do those who call themselves religious spend less on health care than the rest of us? Do they buy fewer smoke alarms? Are they more likely to jaywalk? Less likely to flinch when a foul ball is hit in the direction of their foreheads? I’m guessing not, and if my guess is right, it becomes almost impossible to imagine that their “belief” in an afterlife could be sincere. (p. 59)

Again, I don’t think we should waste time collecting the data, because I am not convinced that Landsburg has in fact teased out a true implication of religious belief. Christians, at least, are also supposed to view their bodies as temples to the Lord; doing reckless things would be sinful for that reason alone. To see the point a bit differently, does Landsburg think believing Christians ought to go on murder sprees (at least among other believers), in order to send as many brothers and sisters to be with Jesus as quickly as possible?

Christians do not enjoy the suffering of this world, and they do indeed look forward to the day when they can be reunited with their Creator. But in the meantime, we have a job to do, namely to spread the good news to as many others as we can, in the short time we have on this earth.

I’ve saved my favorite for last:

Religious believers, then, should, by and large, be students of—well, of what, exactly? Religion is first and foremost a physical theory—a theory of how the Universe was formed, what keeps it going, how it will end, and what sort of stuff (souls? angels?) inhabits it. I predict, then, that true religious believers should have a passionate interest in fundamental physics—even if only to figure out what’s wrong with the mainstream theories. But I also predict that the bookshelves of the average churchgoer are no more likely than anyone else’s to contain a good survey of, say, quantum chromodynamics. I conclude that the average churchgoer is not a believer. [Emphasis in original.] (p. 62)

Landsburg has gone entirely astray here. He is fascinated by physical theories, and so that’s why he thinks that’s what religion is “first and foremost.” If you asked the average believer, “What is the Bible all about?” I doubt many would say, “It’s about the origin of the universe.” Of course it does explain the origin of the universe, but that’s, well, just the first two chapters. The heart of the book, of course, is the personal relationship between God and His children.

Let me offer Landsburg some rival “predictions” that are think are much fairer to the theory that some people really are sincere in their religious beliefs. It would be easy to say things like, “They go to church more than professed atheists,” or, “They have more books about God on their shelves than atheists,” but Landsburg could dismiss that as a recreational activity.

Okay, what about this: I predict self-professed Christians donate more money than self-professed atheists. For sure, I predict they give more to churches, but I will go beyond the obvious and so they also give more to charities, if we include tithing in the total. This is a classic example of putting one’s money where one’s mouth is, so Landsburg should appreciate it. (To be really safe—and protect my prediction from people who really are just paying lip service—I could flip it around and say, “People who donate high fractions of their income are more likely to say they believe in God.”)

For another example, I predict that self-professed Christians are much more likely than atheists to travel to foreign countries—often at great personal risk—to help build churches and spread the gospel. Some things of this nature can be dismissed as vacations paid for by other people’s donations, so Landsburg can restrict it however he wants. For example, “mission trips” to countries where other missionaries have been imprisoned or murdered within the last x years. Assuming it turns out that more professed believers engage in this behavior than people who say it’s all nonsense, isn’t the most obvious explanation that they actually believe in it? Why else would someone risk his freedom or even life to spread beliefs he doesn’t actually believe? Landsburg is a clever guy and will surely come up with theories, but I think the most obvious one is staring us in the face: many people actually believe.


Steve Landsburg’s new book is very provocative and covers an audacious range of topics. Yet on the issue of the existence of God, I found his arguments to be below his usual excellence.

Robert P. Murphy holds a Ph.D. in economics from New York University. He is the author of The Politically Incorrect Guide to the Great Depression and the New Deal (Regnery, 2009), and is the editor of the blog Free Advice.

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