Colbert, O’Reilly, and God

Skip forward to about 2:20.

Update: Here is the original video from which Colbert’s clip was taken. More from O’Reilly about us being “lucky.”

It is so plainly obvious how deeply flawed O’Reilly’s reasoning is here, and these are more words than the subject could possibly deserve, but I can’t help but want to address it.

What’s really peculiar about it is that he doesn’t seem to be saying that the creation of the moon can’t be explained by ordinary, mechanical events. I’m sure he’d agree that it’s viable to theorize that a huge asteroid smashed into the earth a couple billion years ago and formed the moon. It has explanatory power, although there is no way to know for certain that that happened, because we can’t observe it directly. And that seems to be his point; it’s one thing for apologists to point to something that can’t be explained in order to suggest that there is a god — “Why is there something rather than nothing? Why is the gravitational constant what it is?” — but here he’s invoking something so trivial, something that can be explained, but whose explanation we can’t verify with absolute certainty, and suggesting that it has the same logical heft.

If you leave your dog in the living room, and come back to find that your wine glass is now on the floor — what do you conclude? That your dog knocked it over. “But wait,” O’Reilly should say. “How did he knock it over? With his tail, or with his snout? Maybe he bumped into the coffee table. You can’t know for certain.” The creation of the moon, like the knocking over of the wine glass, is not fantastical. It happens all the time. Dogs knock stuff over. Massive bodies slam into each other in space. That’s just what happens. But if O’Reilly’s logic were sound, it would mean that the dog and the wine glass have as much to say about the existence of god as the moon does, because we can’t explain with certainty the specifics of how either happened.

This is, of course, only if you take what he’s saying at face value. It’s possible, and I’m somewhat inclined to think, that he’s just not articulating his thoughts clearly. It may be that when he asks, “Where did the moon come from?”, he already knows some plausible theories, and that it’s a rhetorical question with “the moon” standing in place of anything in an infinite regress. If you told him that an asteroid is responsible for the splintering of the moon off of the earth, he would most likely say — if he agreed in the first place that that’s probable — “Where did the asteroid come from?”

Still, I think there’s more to what he’s saying than a poorly-communicated version of that old Prime Mover chestnut. I suspect that he would disagree that the moon and the wine glass are fundamentally the same, because the moon is important for life on earth. It is, of course, untrue that the moon is important for life, but it seems clear that he thinks it is for some reason. But I think part of what he’s saying (and this comes from seeing him “discuss” “philosophy” of “religion” several times in the past) is not only that there are phenomena that can’t be explained, but furthermore that some of these phenomena make life possible. And, he seems to argue, it is because those phenomena can’t be explained that indicates that there is a god. As he said to Richard Dawkins, “I don’t think we could have lucked out to have [this].”

This position is, of course, egotistical and small-minded. One of the mistakes he’s making, one frequently made by apologists, is to think that we did, in fact, “luck out,” with the sheer egotism to think that we are somehow “prior” to the universe — as though we would have been here anyway (not just “here” as in, “in the universe,” but “here” as in, “in the precise location within the universe that the earth happens to be right now”), and it is just fortunate that there is a planet under our feet with an atmosphere to prevent us from suffocating in the vacuum of space, let alone trees and rainbows and bunnies. Close call!

What’s also evident here is his inability to see that the universe could have been otherwise. If you were to say to him, “If the earth hadn’t been habitable, we just wouldn’t be here,” he would most likely say, “But we are here.” It is, of course, just an incidental property of the universe that there happens to be an earth with humans on it, but that’s such a subtle metaphysical point that I don’t think he could ever be convinced otherwise. It might be worth trying, however, to tell him that the other day you shuffled a deck of cards, and the ace of spades ended up on top. I’m sure he understands in that case that specific outcomes are not special merely by virtue of being specific, though I’m not sure the analogy wouldn’t be lost on him. He’d probably try to turn it around on you by asking you who, then, is the “Cosmic Shuffler.”

Of course, it’s also easier for him to see the shuffling of the ace of spades to the top of the deck as unremarkable, because he knows that the ace of spades is only significant because we’ve given it significance. We might have decided that the eight of diamonds should be regarded as the most “virile” card, or whatever characteristics we seem to give to the ace of spades. But people are different — they are intrinsically valuable, or so he would probably argue. Or at least, if not valuable, then “special,” “privileged,” or something along those lines. But it seems to me that this is a case of begging the question. If you were to ask him why we’re special, he might say that it’s because we have a soul. But once you have already taken as one of your premises that the universe contains soul-possessing humans, you’re at a place not far from your conclusion. The existence of human souls is something he is also burdened with proving. So to argue that there is a god because the earth is hospitable, and that a hospitable earth is remarkable because it allows humans to live comfortably on it, and that humans living comfortably is remarkable (even important) because they have souls — that’s pretty circular. He may want to point out that even if we don’t have souls, we produce art and literature and cure disease and fall in love. And, while those things are important to us, they surely aren’t “intrinsically” important. The universe couldn’t care less whether those things are going on.

What’s ultimately most frustrating about this is that it demonstrates such a profound degree of logical ineptitude. He is the type of person with whom it is quite literally impossible to argue. And I don’t mean this as somebody who doesn’t believe in god and who disagrees with O’Reilly politically — I mean this as a philosopher who can recognize poor logic when he sees it, regardless of the subject matter. Replace all the “there is a moon”s with “P”s and all the “God”s with “x”s, and it’s still shoddy reasoning. In other words, he’s not pitiful because he believes in a god, but because the reasons that he believes in a god are so logically destitute.

One Reply to “Colbert, O’Reilly, and God”

  1. This is great stuff.

    He is the type of per­son with whom it is quite lit­er­ally impos­si­ble to argue.”

    This all begins to feel a little Derrida-esque. If Derrida is correct, at some point we ram into that logical conundrum of signifier and signified. Religious discussions frequently traverse into that nebulous dark world.

    The validity or invalidity of any argument seems unavoidably intertwined with the need for the “outside text”.

    At that point, we are all vulnerable, are we not?

    I understand you. My reality disagrees with yours.” seems to be a more appropriate end point.

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