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Dear catholic.com visitors: This website from Catholic Answers, with all its many resources, is the world's largest source of explanations for Catholic beliefs and practices. A fully independent, lay-run, 501(c)(3) ministry that receives no funding from the institutional Church, we rely entirely on the generosity of everyday people like you to keep this website going with trustworthy , fresh, and relevant content. If everyone visiting this month gave just $1, catholic.com would be fully funded for an entire year. Do you find catholic.com helpful? Please make a gift today. Thank you. Wishing you a blessed Lenten season.

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The Best Argument for God

In his engaging new book, The Best Argument for God, Pat Flynn gives … wait for it … the best argument for God. We asked him to share it with us. We also asked him for suggestions on becoming proficient in defending God.


Cy Kellett:

Hello and welcome to Focus the Catholic Answers Podcast for living, understanding and defending your Catholic faith. I am Cy Kellett, your host. I’m very happy to welcome Pat Flynn, who has a wonderful new book out called The Best Argument for God, which we are about to talk about. And this is one of the things that, well, I don’t know if that’s the right way to say it, I shouldn’t say things about God, maybe the idea of God is one of the things we have to defend in many places now, maybe more than ever before. We have to defend the idea of God, that it’s reasonable, that it’s rational, and that it’s not just one possibility, it’s the best possibility to explain everything. Pat is a writer, philosopher, podcaster, speaker. He and his wife have five kids. The podcast is Philosophy for the People and the Pat Flynn Show. You should check them both out. And his website is Chroniclesofstrength.com. The author of The Best Argument For God from Sophia Institute Press, Pat Flynn, thanks for being here with us.

Pat Flynn:

Always a joy to be here, Cy. Thanks for having me on.

Cy Kellett:

All right, so when I get a book called The Best Argument for God, I think he’s going to give me a killer argument, one that-

Pat Flynn:

It’s modest, isn’t it? Very humble.

Cy Kellett:

Yes.

Pat Flynn:

I always tell people I didn’t say it was a good argument, I just said it was the best. So that’s how I can walk that back. You see that?

Cy Kellett:

Yeah, but one of the things that we have talked about before here, and I do think it’s a very helpful insight to the person who wants to defend the rationality of belief in God, is you make a cumulative argument. Your argument is not here’s the one thing to say when you’re on the train and someone says it’s foolish to believe in God, you’re not giving people that.

Pat Flynn:

That’s right, yes. I think a cumulative case is more persuasive. I think that there’s a lot, obviously, that could be said in favor of the existence of God, properly understood. I think a few arguments by themselves are actually quite dispositive and I developed them in the book, but different people in different situations are going to respond differently to different arguments. So why not bring the full museum out for display?

Cy Kellett:

Okay, let me just ask you this, Pat Flynn, is there one that you go that’s my favorite one?

Pat Flynn:

Yeah, it’s definitely the traditional contingency argument which I develop at the beginning of the book. The idea that there are things in the world that exist, but there’s nothing about their nature or essence that guarantees their existence. That what they are is not identical to the fact that they are. And this naturally makes us wonder, well, why does reality include these things? And so various philosophers have developed various sort of explanatory principles like the principle of sufficient reason, which I defend in the book, that would sort of wrap around all the contingent things, human beings, electrons, potatoes, beards, whatever, and says something like this. Look, if we’re going to have an adequate explanation for why there is any contingent thing at all, we need to sort of escape that category altogether to avoid circularity, to actually have an explanation. And it seems the only thing left there would be some sort of necessary reality, something whose essence somehow just is its existence.

And that’s a pretty profound result by itself because now we’re obviously talking about something that is quite unlike anything that we’re familiar with. But I think you can go much further, as I do in the book, to show that something whose essence is his existence upon a deep conceptual analysis turns out to be a perfect being, an all-powerful being, an all-good being, and you can really sort of unload just conceptually the entire suite of the divine attributes. So I think these arguments, which are very technical, at the end of the day are dispositive. I think it is a necessary condition for the contingent order that there is that perfect necessary being. That just really just hits my intellect perfectly. It’s just like, yes, that just has to be the case. There are objections to that argument. I address what I think are the best ones in the book, but at the end of the day I keep coming back to that argument. It still seems sound to me as ever, in fact stronger than ever after all these years of thinking about it.

Cy Kellett:

What you’re really good at, Pat, and in The Best Argument for God, I was very impressed with this, is hard, difficult ideas that we struggle with that we can’t articulate, you make them kind of easy. And I imagine that that is a consequence of hard work on your part, that it’s not easy to make a thing that’s hard to understand easy to understand.

Pat Flynn:

No, it’s very hard.

Cy Kellett:

I could hardly even do that sentence it’s so hard.

Pat Flynn:

It’s very hard to make difficult thought easy and it really forced me to, I think, grapple with ideas from so many different angles and it was very fruitful for me. But the truth is, Cy, that book was rewritten several times, maybe three times start to finish because it was so important for me to try and achieve what I think is the impossible for a popular level book, which is to present an argument in a simple way without diluting or distorting it. And there’s this sort of great chasm I see in the literature where you have a lot of popular level stuff and it’s okay, it’s okay, and some of it’s good. There are a few exceptions out there. But it isn’t going to convince the trained skeptic. But then you have all this stuff in the professional literature that I think is really good, especially on the theistic side, but it’s totally inaccessible to most people and there’s just not a whole lot of stuff in it.

Now Catholic Answers does a great job of plugging stuff in the middle, but beyond that, there’s just not a whole lot of stuff in the middle that is rigorous yet accessible. So that was really, really important for me to try and accomplish that. And it was not easy. There were many rewrites. Ultimately, there was stuff in the book that had to get cut just because I couldn’t get it down enough. So maybe in a revised edition I’ll have a better command of that material and be able to present it a bit more simply. But thank you, that means a lot because that’s exactly what I was trying to do and it was not easy.

Cy Kellett:

I feel like it’ll be helpful to the… I mean, I’m always trying to think of how to help the parent because the primary complaint we get, or not complaints so much as a plea for help, is my children have lost the faith. There’s this grinding kind of pressure on children so that many kids are losing their faith by sixth grade, seventh grade, or in those early developmental years, long before the parents know that the child has lost the faith. And so for example, a child might see things on the internet, they’re not prepared to deal with those things. They come to think, “Well, this whole God thing is silly, because the person said it so convincingly on this video I watched that the idea of God is silly.” And it seems to me that this could be a recovery book for parents who might put this in the hands of an 18, 19, 20 year old, 25 year old, 40 year old, 50 year old who never got over that crushing blow of somebody who could speak really convincingly talking them out of God.

Pat Flynn:

Yeah, that’s a great point. I think that’s absolutely true, and I like the idea that this could be a recovery book because what it will offer at the very least is conceptual clarification of what we mean by God. When you hear a lot of these attacks on God, especially from the new atheist type, I agree, what they’re describing seems profoundly silly to me. And it’s a darn shame that people think that that’s what most theists actually mean by God, including most young children. Of course that is a silly idea, the bearded man in the sky or just some sort of complex demiurge or whatever it is that most of the popular atheists sort of set out and then attack.

The reason that they’re so effective is because people just don’t know better. They don’t know what we actually mean by God as that fundamental absolutely perfect ontologically first principle of everything, whose essence is his existence. Why do we think that God is like this? Why do we posit an entity like that? And I find that once people understand the philosophical motivations behind positing in a philosophically theoretical sense the existence of God, it does help to at least get them to reconsider the idea of God because a lot of them go, “Oh, I never thought of God like that before.”

Cy Kellett:

Oh, that’s a very good point, yeah.

Pat Flynn:

And it presents at least an opportunity for them to not have their ego torn apart, because nobody likes to think that they were totally wrong, but you can kind of meet somebody halfway and say, “Look, your rejection of God before, look, I’m with you. Whatever you rejected should be rejected. But there’s another way of thinking about God, reasons for God and what God is, that you might want to consider. Here it is.”

Cy Kellett:

Running through the book is an idea that you kind of use that contingency necessity argument as the one that’s just most profound to you, but it does seem to me that the word intelligibility is a theme that runs through the book. And it does strike me that one of the reasons that sixth grader who sees the wisecracking atheist video goes for it is the sense that I don’t want to be a fool. And so the idea is that science makes the world more intelligible. These science-y type people don’t believe in God. And so there is a real desire to have explanations that are real explanations. And so what it seems to me that you do in the book is you say, “Yeah, that’s right, and if you really want an intelligible universe you’re going to need God.”

Pat Flynn:

Yeah, that’s right. So I like to do a lot of these linking projects and one of these linking projects is with science. What worldview better anticipates a world that is stable, orderly, and intelligible, a world where we can apply the scientific enterprise and actually get consistent repeatable results, discover new things about the universe, advance technology, what sort of worldview anticipates a world like that? And of course I make the case that theism does because theism is a fully intelligible worldview where there’s no brute facts, where things don’t just exist arbitrarily without any further reason why, that God, when properly understood, would value and have reason to create a universe that is intelligible where we can search out coherent answers to meaningful questions. And there would be reason for God sort of encouraging us to do that. What about atheism, what about naturalism, I ask, really anticipates a world like that?

Well, the first step is to get clear on what naturalism is. And naturalism is really just a philosophically developed form of atheism which denies the existence of God, but it’s really run by a principle of indifference. The naturalist says whatever else is sort of at the bottom of reality it’s not anything like God, it’s not intending, it’s not aiming, it’s not a being of supreme value, it’s just utterly indifferent. And then you think about that for five minutes. You say, “Well, what would I anticipate from that?” And the answer is, not much. Nothing. I would anticipate nothing from that, literally nothing. So then what you have to do is you have to wire more stuff into that theory. You have to kind of bake more elements into the theory that now we’re at a fundamental level, which means there’s nothing deeper that could explain them so now they’re just sort of brute facts, whatever they are, say they’re certain natural laws or parameters of laws or whatever it is.

Now they’re just there, and they’re the sort of thing that seems like they need to be explained further, but they’re not because they’re at the bottom level. You can’t go further. And now’s sort of very complicated. Now we just have this very sort of messy complication at the bottom of theory, and we still don’t get much predictions from that, at least not along relevant lines of things that we really want to know about. So that’s what a lot of this book book is up to. And I should probably clarify, what is the best argument for God? You asked my favorite argument, but that’s not the actual argument that I set out in the book. So the best argument for God, I take it, is the reverse of what many think is the best argument for naturalism. And that argument, Cy, is this, it goes in contemporary form as follows. If two theories explain just as much, believe the simpler theory. Theism and naturalism explain just as much, but naturalism is simpler so believe that.

And then what my book does is it says, no, that’s wrong, it’s the reverse that’s true. That naturalism can only explain some, but not all of what theism can, but only when strapped with far greater complexity. And then what I do in each chapter of the book is I just sort of line up all the things that a philosophical big picture or worldview needs to explain, things like contingency, consciousness, the moral dimension, physical stability, fine-tuning order, and even suffering and evil, and at each point I make the case that theism is really the only conceivable explanation, which I think is a case for arguments like contingency. I just don’t think that naturalism really has anything that could possibly explain why there are any contingent things at all rather than not. And in other cases I say maybe naturalism could explain aspects of this phenomena, but usually not all of it. And to kind of keep up in the explanatory race they need to sort of-

Cy Kellett:

Add complexity.

Pat Flynn:

… add complexity, right, in their theory, and as you add more complexity and basic components you’re adding stuff that at a basic level can then not be explained anymore. So it’s just there. And because of the added complexity, for reasons I talk in my book, you’re making your theory internally less probable. One of the reasons philosophers and scientists like simpler theories is you think with a simpler theory, at least when we’re considering fundamental components, there’s fewer moving parts so there’s fewer ways that things could go wrong or turn out to be false. So that’s why we think that simplicity is a guide to truth. So it’s not good to have arbitrarily more complicated theories on the fundamental level, and that’s what I’m showing has to be the case for naturalism if it even has any shot of keeping up with theism with respect to at least some of the relevant phenomena that need to be explained by a philosophical big picture, if that makes sense.

Cy Kellett:

It’s an interesting flip that happens there by the end of the book where if the person is saying… and this is not an argument so much as an impression that people have, science is explaining more and more, science is the thing that explains, we don’t need your religion, Pat Flynn anymore. We don’t need your God anymore to explain things. But the point that becomes, I think, quite clear by the end of the book is, well actually, if your science is producing more and more explanations for things, then that’s suggesting that the universe… it’s giving heavier and heavier clarity to the idea that the universe is in fact intelligible. But if you’re a naturalist, you’re saying but at root it has no reason and no explanation, it is unintelligible.

Pat Flynn:

Yes. I don’t think that there’s a sort of happy middle ground for naturalists, which is an intelligible universe without God. I think the options are really theism or absurdism, a sort of nihilistic absurdism. I don’t think you can just sort of stand in the middle. You have to go one way or another. And let me talk about the science thing really quick because I know this gets a lot of young people. It got me when I was a young person. So science is etiological, to use a technical term, it’s looking at how one physical event or process unfolds into another physical event or process. And that’s great. That’s awesome. We’re super into that and it’s helpful for many reasons. But the question of God is really ontological. Why are there any physical events at all? That’s not something that science can touch. There’s so much that science presupposes and cannot touch that so many philosophers, theists and atheists are perfectly willing to admit.

So if you’re willing just to say science is powerful, it explains a lot, the theist is like, “Yeah, cool, no problem. My worldview predicts that, there’s no issue.” But if you adopt scientism, which is an epistemology, a theory of knowledge of saying that the only things we can know, and even further the only things that exist, are the things that essentially come out of physics and chemistry, well, now I think you’re in a land of complete fantasy and absurdity, but scientism is itself a philosophy. It’s not a product of science. And the notorious issue with scientism is it seems to be self-defeating because if the only things we can know come through science, notoriously that statement itself is not something that we can kind of get out of the hypothetical deductive method, right?

Cy Kellett:

There’s no scientific paper that can produce the support, on the basis of some scientific investigation, say science is the only or exclusive or even best way to know things.

Pat Flynn:

Right, so you’re going to need some philosophical arguments. But then once philosophical arguments are on the table, why can’t I run my philosophical arguments for God? So there’s that issue with scientism. The other one is if you follow scientism all the way through and you’re sort of a hard-ball physicalist, which is a type of naturalist thinking, it really does sort of boil down to physics, okay, that’s fine. But then if you follow those thinkers, you really wind up in positions like eliminativism. They don’t end up explaining things, they explain things away. They say there is no such thing as consciousness, there’s just neural processing. There is no you, Cy. And in fact, because you are a different bundle of particles, you were a different bundle of particles five minutes ago than you are now, there is no Cy Kellett, right? There’s the illusion of it.

Or there is no moral dimension. Morality isn’t something that we can get at through a telescope or microscope, to put it crudely, so whatever else morality is, it’s something that was programmed into us as a mechanism that was useful for procreating and avoiding bears. But it has no objective bearing in the sense that we really think that it does. And then I just like to put that out there and ask people does that sound like an actual explanation to you or does it sound like you’re just sort of burning the entire intelligible world to cinders? And I think most people realize, no, I actually do exist. Consciousness is a real phenomena. Rationality is a real phenomena. I’m pretty committed to the moral dimension. Some things are definitely right and wrong. Maybe I don’t know what all of them are, and so on and so forth.

I actually do need to explain these things. I can’t just sort of write them off or eliminate them because I’m committed come hell or high water to some absolutely crude epistemology that I have no other motivation for aside from the fact that look what science could do. But that’s a really poor, yeah, science can do cool stuff but that doesn’t mean that it’s exhaustive. That’s a huge leap from saying science can tell us a lot and science can produce a lot of cool stuff to science can tell us everything. That’s a huge leap and I argue it’s completely unjustified, in the book.

Cy Kellett:

So again, the book is called The Best Argument for God. It’s out now, right, from Sophia Institute Press? People can get it now?

Pat Flynn:

It is, that’s right.

Cy Kellett:

Yeah, get it. I don’t mean to say this in a dismissive way, but it’s not an egghead book. I already have my master’s degree and I know what the word defeater means. I hate books that have the word defeater in them.

Pat Flynn:

It is a very common, especially if you’re into Plantinga and epistemology, everything, and then we have defeaters, the defeaters, the defeaters, the defeaters, and the game goes on and on.

Cy Kellett:

I know, but I feel defeated, let me say, any book that includes that word, I’m like, “I can’t finish this book.” So this is a book that you can read and enjoy, actually enjoy reading and come out with the best argument for God. Again, it’s from Sophia Institute Press. So you don’t come to the conclusion, however, after saying naturalism gives you a kind of way of thinking about the world that at root can never say the whole thing is intelligible. It has to say at root the whole thing, look, just accept the fact it has no meaning or it has no purpose. And so ultimately it ends the intellectual life. It doesn’t continue. It says the intellectual life ends with your questions about why it’s all here or what it’s all about. That’s not part of… so it disqualifies a whole bunch of questions that we actually have. But what you won’t say is naturalism is foolish.

Pat Flynn:

Right, sure. So the first point is really important and it comes down to this. Do you think borrowed explanations are genuine explanations? Do you think that you have a genuine explanation? If you can answer this, you can answer that. You can answer this, you can answer that, but then you get to some really big thing and it’s just a giant question mark, right? I think intuitively most of us say, no, right? I mean, think of it, here’s a crude example. Why is the earth stable? Well, that’s a mystery, right? Well, let’s just make something up that we’ve heard before. Well, maybe it’s balancing on a turtle. Okay, why is that stable? Well, it’s balancing on another turtle. Okay. Well, it’s balancing on another turtle. Why all these turtles there? Well, the last turtle in the line, it’s a necessary turtle, it just had to be there. You’re like, what? So okay, you kind of have and explanation-

Cy Kellett:

I’ve never met a necessary turtle.

Pat Flynn:

You kind of have explanations but then you get to this final level and it’s like we haven’t explained anything. It’s the crudeness or the bruteness at the bottom level that kind of shoots back up. It shoots the mystery all the way back up and you realize we don’t have any explanations at all.

Cy Kellett:

Ah, that’s very well said, yeah.

Pat Flynn:

So you’ve really sort of deferred the intelligibility but then you landed in absurdity, and I say the same thing’s really going on with natural. You can get a lot of intelligibility within the physical world, of course you can, and that makes sense on theism. But then when you ask why is the physical world here at all? Or other questions about the physical world that I ask in the book, and you just have to just do the Bertrand Russell and say, “Well, that’s here and that’s the end of it.” Or there was some initial physical state, whatever that is, and that’s sort of the end of it. And then you have to seriously ask, is it?

Cy Kellett:

Maybe it is for you, but I don’t feel like that ended anything.

Pat Flynn:

To me, that doesn’t explain anything, that makes everything worse. That makes everything worse. So if you’re with me on that, then I think you can kind of see what I’m up to in this book of saying, no, explanations have to go all the way through or we don’t have it at all. And if they’re going to go all the way through then we need some fundamental entity that could explain everything else. And somehow, if we could grasp its nature, it could explain itself. If we could grasp its nature, if we could comprehend its essence, there would be no mystery remaining as to why this thing exists instead of not. It’s like if we can grasp the nature of what a mountain is, we can understand conceptually why it includes valleys. Right? So there’s something about if there’s a fundamental reality, there has to be something about it that if we could comprehend it all mystery would be removed of why it exists the way that it does in this necessary and robust way.

And what the arguments for God are really doing, Cy, is saying, okay, if there has to be some sort of reality like that, then it has to lack certain features or properties. It has to be unlike all these other sorts of realities that clearly are not self-explanatory. Right? Contingent things, changing things, composite things, all the sorts of realities that if we stop explanation with any one of these, the problem of intelligibility would not be solved. So whatever else is fundamental, it has to be profoundly, categorically different than all the sorts of realities we’re commonly familiar with that are just not completely intrinsically intelligible. So that’s really getting at the heart of your intelligibility thesis, that it has to terminate in something that cannot be explained by something else. We can’t just keep going down a chain.

So the only other contender is that reality is fundamentally absurd. We just wind up with some huge question marks that there are no coherent answers to, or there’s something very, very special whose essence or nature is so qualitatively immense and perfect that if we could wrap our minds around it, we would go, “I see.” Now we can’t do that, at least not in this life, but we have good philosophical reasons to think that there is an entity like that at the basement of reality, and that’s what philosophers mean by God.

Cy Kellett:

Yes, and that’s not just a big man in the sky. It’s not just one more god, that I got rid of Zeus and… is it Marduk? Marmaduke is the dog, Marduk is the Persian God. Yeah, I get them confused. It’s none of that. The philosopher’s god is at root what you would expect to find if this universe were intelligible.

Pat Flynn:

I think that’s right. Now the other point you said is that I won’t call somebody foolish for being a naturalist, and of course not. I used to be a naturalist myself. I don’t think I was foolish. I think I could have given you reasons for why I was a naturalist. I now reject those reasons. But I also rejected an idea of God that I do not think is philosophically accurate. So what I was rejecting, I don’t think was foolish to reject at the time. I needed some conceptual help of what was actually meant by God, if that makes sense. So I think a lot of people are in a similar situation. I know many smart, intelligent atheists and naturalists, and they have reasons for their position. I’m not really interested in polemics. I’m interested in arguments and showing why I think the arguments for theism are really strong and why the arguments for naturalism are definitely not.

Cy Kellett:

So is it your view, now this would be a faith question, this is not a philosophical question, but you said not in this life so that just leaves me with the question do you think that in the next life we will grasp the intelligibility of things to their root?

Pat Flynn:

Yeah, that’s a wonderful question. I take it the deification and participation in the divine essence in the beatific vision is so radically profound, it really is like a life 2.0 that we cannot begin to wrap our heads around, or whatever else heaven is and the beatific vision is and the participating divine life is, it cannot be any of these cartoon versions of what most people think about heaven. It has to be so radically other and it has to bestow, I think, a very special, if you will, epistemic quality. Whereas even if we can’t fully soak in the entire and complete essence of God, I think and I hope, this is a faith question, right, definitely hope plays into this, that all the most meaningful questions to us will be answered beyond a shadow of a doubt once we get there.

Cy Kellett:

Well, I’m looking forward to that then, Pat.

Pat Flynn:

You and me both, brother.

Cy Kellett:

Yeah, and I was looking forward to this conversation and I always enjoy conversations with you, Pat Flynn, thanks for doing this with us.

Pat Flynn:

Thank you, Cy. I really appreciate it. I always have a fun time.

Cy Kellett:

Check out Philosophy for the People. It’s at Philosophyforthepeople.com, right? That’s where people go?

Pat Flynn:

I think so, yeah. We’re mostly on YouTube so if they just search that up on YouTube that’s the place to go.

Cy Kellett:

The Pat Flynn Show, Chronicles of Strength, but go out and get the book The Best Argument for God, even if your 20-something won’t read it, you read it and then just enjoy conversations with them where you review some of this stuff. The Best Argument for God out now from Sophia Institute Press. Pat Flynn has been our guest. I am Cy Kellett, your host. Thanks so much for being here with us. We really appreciate that you take the time. If you like what you hear, would you please help promote us online, give us those five stars and maybe a few nice words that helps people to trust that they’ll take a chance and listen to an episode. If you’d like to support us financially you can do that by going to givecatholic.com. Remember, there is a $1 million limit there. Please don’t try to give more than $1 million at Givecatholic.com. If you want to email us, send it to Focus at Catholic.com and we’ll see you next time, God willing, right here on Catholic Answers Focus.

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