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.