The most unknowing responses to the cosmological argument for the existence of God (flying spaghetti monsters, Zeus, and Thor; “who created God?”) are probably just as likely to stem from theistic misinterpretations of what God is than from actual ignorance of the argument being made – irritating as they may be. Feser knocks it out of the park today with an analogy:
Suppose you’re looking at a painting of a crowd of people, and you remark upon the painter’s intentions in producing the work. Someone standing next to you looking at the same painting — let’s call him Skeptic — begins to scoff. “Painter? Oh please, there’s no evidence of any painter! I’ve been studying this canvas for years. I’ve gone over every square inch. I’ve studied each figure in detail — facial expressions, posture, clothing, etc. I’ve found plumbers, doctors, dancers, hot dog vendors, dogs, cats, birds, lamp posts, and all kinds of other things. But I’ve never found this painter of yours anywhere in it. No doubt you’ll tell me that I need to look again until I find him. But really, how long do we have to keep looking without success until people like you finally admit that there just is no painter?”
Needless to say, Skeptic, despite his brash confidence, will have entirely misunderstood the nature of the dispute between you and him. He would be making the crudest of category mistakes. He fundamentally misunderstands both what it means to say that there is a painter, and fundamentally misunderstands the reasons for saying there is one.
But now consider another onlooker, who rushes to your defense. Let’s call him Believer. “I think you’re overlooking crucial evidence, Skeptic,” Believer says. “I agree that you’re not going to find evidence of the painter on any cursory examination, or in most of the painting. But consider that in the upper left corner, among the other figures, there’s a policeman leaning at about a ninety degree angle, yet whose facial expression gives no indication that he feels like he’s going to fall over. Now it’s possible that he’s leaning on something — a mailbox perhaps — but that seems very unlikely given that we see no mailbox, and a mailbox would be too big for part of it not to be visibly sticking out from behind one of the other figures standing around. No, I think that the best explanation is that there is an invisible figure standing next to the policeman, or at least an invisible force of some kind, which is operating at that spot to hold him up. And an invisible cause like that is part of what we think the painter is supposed to be, no? Also, you’ve said that you’ve gone over this painting square inch by square inch. But we’ve got techniques now to study the painting at the level of the square centimeter or even the square millimeter. Who knows what we’ll find there? In fact it seems there are some really complicated patterns at that level and it doesn’t seem remotely probable that any of the figures we do see in the painting could have produced them. But an invisible painter could have done so. In fact the patterns we find at that level show a pretty high level of cleverness and artistic skill. So, when we weigh all the evidence, I think there’s just a really strong case for the existence of a painter of some sort, in fact of a really skillful sort!”
Needless to say, Believer, despite his chipper earnestness in the cause of arguing for the existence of the painter, is in fact as clueless as Skeptic is. If you are trying to explain to Skeptic the error of his ways, Believer is no help at all. In fact he’s only getting in the way, muddying the waters, and indeed reinforcing Skeptic’s error. Like Skeptic, he’s treating the painter as if he were essentially some part of the picture, albeit a part that is hard to see directly. And like Skeptic, he’s supposing that settling the question of whether the painter exists has something to do with focusing on unusual or complex or hard-to-see elements of the painting — when, of course, that has nothing essentially to do with it at all. In fact, of course, even the most trivial, plain, and simple painting would require a painter just as much as a complicated picture of a crowd of people would. And in fact, the painter is not himself a part of the picture, and therefore, looking obsessively within the picture itself at various minute details of it is precisely where you won’t find him.
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The column goes on to apply the analogy to exposing the shallow arguments that circulate in online forums regarding the existence of God. Will the straw men ever die?