One of the more controversial arguments in the Book of Mormon is found within Alma’s response to Korihor in Alma 30. Korihor asks Alma to “show me a sign, that I may be convinced that there is a God, yea show unto me that he hath power….” (43) Alma responds that “all things denote there is a God; yea, even the earth, and all things that are upon the face of it, yea, and its motion, yea, and also all the planets which move in their regular form do witness that there is a Supreme Creator.” (44)
Most people cast this debate as between the humanist skeptic of religion and the believer. Alma’s response is thus seen as a variation on Paley’s argument from design for the existence of God. Paley argued that if we found a watch on the ground we’d assume an engineer had designed it. In the same way creation makes us assume a creator. Now the argument is pretty bad for a variety of reasons, not the least of which self-organization and complexity is pretty well scientifically established. We find it not just in evolution but in very easy to observe phenomena ranging from protein formulation to the formation of various structures in thermodynamics. At this point complexity and self-organization is so well established any argument that depends upon it being false (as Paley’s does) seems quaint.
The question is whether Alma is actually making a variation on Paley’s argument. I don’t think he is.
In his argument Alma never makes any statement about complexity or man made things. Rather he is pretty clear that “all things denote there is a God.” In other words it’s directly within our experience of natural phenomena that we encounter the idea of God. To Alma the signs Korihor demands are all around him. While I think it’s fair to read this as a kind of spiritual experience as we think about things, I’m not sure that’s what Alma means. Just as he never mentions complexity he never mentions the spirit or revelation in the argument. Now I’ll admit one could easily argue that when he talks about the testimony of the prophets he’s talking about witnesses of spiritual encounters. Without rejecting that reading though let me suggest a other approach.
The great American philosopher, physicist and chemist Charles Sanders Peirce had a rather interesting argument for God. Unlike his better known contemporary, William James, Peirce tended to think through issues not in terms of psychology but the hard sciences like chemistry. To Peirce logical analysis and careful inquiry were what was important in ones considerations. He distinguished his form of pragmatism from that of James. James tended to view religion through a more subjective lens of how an individual responded to religious beliefs in their practices. To Peirce while we learned truth through the consequences of a belief being true, he saw those consequences more in terms of scientific measuring such as found in chemistry or physics. Tied to this Peirce developed a type of logic he called abduction. Abduction is a type of inference that is somewhat different from the more familiar induction. It’s a type of reasonably accurate guessing roughly akin to how scientists form hypothesis. Now Peirce didn’t think abduction entailed truth. It still needed to be tested the way scientific theories are tested.
One of the better examples outside of science of Peirce applying the logic of abduction is actually his argument for God. He called this The Neglected Argument for God. His argument can’t really be understood independent from his notions of science and philosophy. So it can be a little difficult to follow for someone not already familiar with Peirce. Peirce argues that when we sit back and think about the natural world though a sense of intellectual play or what he calls musement, the idea of God comes naturally to mind. I’ll try and sketch it out the argument for you and then say why it makes sense to apply to Alma.
For Peirce inquiry always arises from objects we encounter as an object or surprise or wonder. When we encounter objects we try and think of an explanation for this surprise happening. We tend to believe the explanation that seems most believable to us. This happens as a matter of instinct. That is one explanation above others often presents itself as the most likely. This is the process of abduction as Peirce conceives of it. This doesn’t typically happen instantly but through a process of inquiry and thorough analysis.
The whole series of mental performances between the notice of the wonderful phenomenon and the acceptance of the hypothesis, during which the usually docile understanding seems to hold the bit between its teeth and to have us at its mercy, the search for pertinent circumstances and the laying hold of them, sometimes without our cognizance, the security of them, the dark laboring, the bursting out of the startling conjecture, the remarking of its smooth fitting to the anomaly, as it is turned back and forth like a key in a lock, and the final estimation of its plausibility, I reckon as composing the First Stage of the Inquiry.
In certain circumstances as we sit back and muse on the world around us in a more general way, we will intuitively be led to think of God as an explanation. Note how this is different from Paley. He makes no argument about necessity or complexity. Rather it’s a thought that comes to us as we rationally think through science and our encounters with the world.
…in the Pure Play of Musement the idea of God’s Reality will be sure sooner or later to be found an attractive fancy, which the Muser will develop in various ways. The more he ponders it, the more it will find response in every part of his mind, for its beauty, for its supplying an ideal of life, and for its thoroughly satisfactory explanation of his whole threefold environment
Now merely being plausible isn’t sufficient. It takes continued inquiry. Peirce argues that as we think on it and continue to inquire that this belief increases in strength. The belief isn’t volitional but is a consequence of inquiry. We simply can no longer doubt the belief.
In the first place the Plausibility of the hypothesis reaches an almost unparalleled height among deliberately formed hypotheses. So hard it is to doubt God’s Reality, when the Idea has sprung from Musements, that there is great danger that the investigation will stop at this first stage, owing to the indifference of the Muser to any further proof of it. At the same time, this very Plausibility is undoubtedly an argument of no small weight in favor of the truth of the hypothesis
Peirce never argues that we simply accept the idea. His whole notion of science entails continued inquiry and continual testing. But if the belief persists, as a practical matter it is beyond doubt.
Without here discussing how strong Peirce’s argument actually is, let me note how similar it is to Alma. First Alma mentions that the belief of those around in God counts as a kind of evidence – that is they’ve conducted the test (see Alma 32) and found the belief true. Further he notes how things testify of God. But how do they testify? As we think of them they lead us to belief in God. He’s not saying that the things require a belief in God as a deductive consequence. Rather he says that as we think on them they testify of God. That is to think about them leads us to a belief in God.
Of course not everyone musing, as Peirce did, comes to the same conclusions Peirce did. Peirce merely has faith that if inquiry is continued everyone will. (Although as always, he’s open to changing his own views as he inquires after things) Somewhat unsurprising Alma’s claim that all things testify there is a God isn’t persuasive to Korihor. He wants a stronger sign. (Which he later gets, much to his detriment)
The Neglected Argument for God is certainly not a standard argument for the existence of God. It doesn’t make belief in God a necessary conclusion of some premises. It is just that with musement or intellectual play we are led inexorably to a belief in a purpose for this world and a belief in a Creator. But the argument is at best an argument for how musement leads to this. The only way to see if it does is to engage in the practice ourselves and see if we are led to such a belief. The argument doesn’t force us to believe in God. Rather it establishes that with the proper attitude, the belief comes to us on its own.