Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Some Ways of Defending Theism That Don't Work

Here are a few ways of defending Theism against e.g. the evidential problem of evil that don't work (which is not to say there aren't better responses, of course).

“I may not be able to prove there is a God, but no one can prove that there isn’t.”

When presented with a rational challenge to their belief, Theists sometimes say, ‘Look, I cannot prove there is a God; but then it is not possible to prove that there isn’t. So Theism and atheism are both “faith positions”. But then it follows that they are equally reasonable or unreasonable.’

But what, exactly, does ‘prove’ mean here? Prove beyond all possible doubt? It may well be true that we cannot prove beyond all possible doubt that there is no God. But then we cannot prove beyond all possible doubt that there are no fairies or unicorns or Santa. It’s just possible these things exist (perhaps there has been a huge and elaborate CIA-led conspiracy to hide the truth from us). But of course, no one insists that belief in the non-existence of Santa is, then, a ‘faith’ position. Certainly, it does not follow that belief in Santa is just as reasonable as belief that there is no Santa.

Perhaps the suggestion is that it is not possible to prove beyond reasonable doubt that God does or does not exist? But that is a very contentious suggestion. Actually, many Theists believe that the existence of God can be established beyond reasonable doubt. And almost everyone accepts that the available evidence establishes beyond reasonable doubt that there is no evil god. But surely, anyone who acknowledges that ought, then, to acknowledge at least the possibility of there being evidence sufficient to establish beyond reasonable doubt that there is no good God either.

“So how do atheists explain…?”

If we reject belief in God, how do we respond to one of the questions with which we began chapter two – why does the universe exist? What is our answer? Personally, I am not at all sure about how to answer this question. This is a deep and baffling puzzle to which I am not confident I possess a satisfactory solution.

Some Theists may take this to be an astonishing admission: “If you do not know the answer, they you do not know that our answer is incorrect! Your view is no less a faith position than ours.”

But to admit that one does not know the answer to a question is not to say that certain answers cannot reasonably be ruled out. Suppose Sherlock Holmes is having a bad day. There’s been a terrible murder. There are hundreds of suspects. And Holmes just can’t figure out who dunnit. However, while Holmes can’t identify who the culprit is, he is quite sure that certain people are innocent. The butler, in particular, has a cast-iron alibi. So Holmes is justifiably confident the butler didn’t do it, despite the fact that he doesn’t know who did.

In the same way, atheists can admit that there is a mystery about why the universe exists, and that they are utterly baffled by it, while nevertheless insisting that there’s overwhelming evidence that, however it came to be, it certainly wasn’t created by the all-powerful, all-knowing, all-good God of Christian theology. It may be that they can be as justifiably confident of that as they can be that it is not the creation of an all-powerful, all-evil god. Which is something almost all of us are rightly confident about.

An atheist “leap of faith”?

But don’t we all have to make a “leap of faith” at some point – atheists included? Atheists, after all, believe they inhabit a physical world filled with trees, houses, mountains and people. But they believe this only because that is the kind of world their senses appear to reveal. So how can they know their senses are a reliable guide to the truth? How can they know that their experiences are produced by a real world, rather than, say, a supercomputer generating a sophisticated virtual reality, as in the film The Matrix? After all, everything would seem exactly the same, either way. So atheists cannot justify their belief that their senses are fairly reliable. Their belief that the world they seem to experience is real involves a huge leap of faith.

Now it seems to many Theists that they directly experience God. So why shouldn’t they place their trust in this God experience, in the same way atheists place their trust in their perceptual experiences? Neither, it seems can justify their beliefs based on these experiences. Yet we do not normally consider the atheist’s trust in the reliability of his or her senses to be unreasonable. But then why should we consider the theist’s trust in the reliability of his or her religious experiences to be any less reasonable?

Further, the Theist might claim that, precisely because they do place their faith in their God experience, they don’t then have to place any additional faith in the reliability of their normal perceptual experiences. If there is a benevolent God of the sort the Theist seems to experience, that God will not allow them to be systematically deceived by their senses. So trusting their senses does not require a further leap of faith.

So, the Theist may conclude, at least for someone who has such religious experiences, belief in God need be no more or less a faith position than is the atheist’s belief in the external world.

This is an ingenious line of argument. It may contain some truth. It might be true that atheism is a faith position because any belief one holds about how things stand outside of ones own mind is ultimately a faith position (though I have my doubts even about this – for example, some philosophers argue that the view that physical objects, other people, etc. exist outside my own mind is the best available explanation I possess for various perceptual experiences I have, and is thus not a faith position at all, but a well-confirmed hypothesis).

However, even if any belief about how things stand outside ones own mind requires a leap of faith, it does not follow that it is as reasonable for Theists to place their trust in their God experiences as it is for atheists to trust their normal perceptual experiences.

Here’s one obvious difficulty with the suggestion that trusting a supposed experience of God involves no greater leap of faith than trusting the deliverances of your other senses.

Observation reveals that people have a very diverse range religious experiences. Some believe that, through such experiences, they know that there are many gods, some one god, and some (such as some Buddhists) no gods at all. Some experience the Judeo-Christian God, others Thor, others Zeus, others Mithras, so on. People have experienced literally thousands of gods and other supernatural beings (saints, angels, ancestors, etc.), beings with a huge and diverse range of characteristics. The existence of any one of these gods typically rules out the existence of many, and in some cases all, of the others. So we know that at least many of these experiences must be at least in large part delusory. But then isn’t someone who, knowing all this, nevertheless insists that their own particular religious experience is a reliable indicator of the truth being excessively credulous – far more credulous than someone who merely takes their normal sensory experiences to be fairly reliable (for at least our normal senses don’t provide us with good evidence that they are not themselves fairly reliable)?

A second difficulty with the above suggestion is that while the Theist’s assumption that they experience God might then lead them to trust the deliverances of their other senses, their other senses then quickly furnish them with ample evidence that there is no such benevolent being (see the problem of evil above). So, unlike the assumption that our normal senses are pretty reliable, the Theistic assumption actually ends up undermining itself.

N.B. This is from my OUP Very Short Intro to Humanism. Also note that the final section, while addressing the objection based on skepticism about the external world, would apply equally to the "atheism is a faith position too" move based on skepticism about logic (i.e. the point that logic cannot be justified in a non-circular manner). I'll leave you to figure out exactly how...

35 comments:

Anonymous said...

I don't think the atheist can get away with acknowledging ignorance. The question is what is the best explanation of the existence of the universe, or that there was a beginning of the universe before which nothing existed.

Stephen Law said...

The good god hypothesis is a very poor explanation because it is ruled out (beyond reasonable doubt) by empirical observation. Just like that evil God hypothesis is. There may still be a creator. But not either of those two.

Martin said...

@ Anon - Surely the atheist can get away with some ignorance. Not knowing an answer to a question does not show that one's worldview is irrational. If an atheist does not know how to answer the question, "how did the universe come into being", that shows merely a gap in one's knowledge, not a sign of irrationality.

Of course, things are different if the theist provides an argument that the existence of the universe demands the existence of God. The atheist, faced with an adequately stated and commended argument, could not simply say that they don't know how the universe came to be. The argument at hand, if successful, would provide such an answer - one contrary to the atheist's atheism. The atheist, to remain rational, must, at some point, engage with the argument, challenging its form or premises.

Anyway, I more or less agree with you Stephen that all the strategies you mention here should be avoided by theists.

Anonymous said...

Well, no, I don't think it is ruled out. For one, the "evil god" argument is undermined (plausibly) by the Ontological Argument. Robert Maydole has a proof of possibility so you can't use your argument as evidence against the possibility premise as a general objection. You need to deal with the direct warrants for the premises in a proof for possibility. Moreover, the theodicies you use in your evil god challenge are good ones. They work for good and evil god. So, we now know what we already knew: you can't disprove either good or evil god on the basis of the existence of good/evil in the world. Good/evil doesn't disprove either.

You may say this is "obviously" false or "intuitively" false. Well, it isn't obvious to me and it isn't intuitive to me. Nor is it with respect to most theists. Plus, you undermine the moral argument's appeal to intuition so it is hard to understand why you aren't shooting yourself in the foot, if you indeed make this response.

Stephen Law said...

Hi Anon - this is an odd response from you to this particular post. As Martin points out, rather than responding to the post, you are just asserting that there are good arguments for the existence of your God (i.e. ontological, arg to the best explanation). Which is to say the least questionable(!), but in any case irrelevant.

If you actually agree with the points I make in the post, why not say so? And then, when you see theists' making those moves, tell them not to, please.

Also, what does this mean? - "you can't use your argument as evidence against the possibility premise as a general objection."

Anonymous said...

Hi Dr. Law,

I wasn't using the Ontological Argument (OA) in response to your main post. I was using it as a reply to your evil god response in the comments section. You said we can "rule out" good god. This is false insofar as the OA is sound, so that you can't rule good god out unless you also refute the OA.

Now, I disagree with your second point. I think it is legitimate to ask _on atheism_ why the universe exists instead of nothing.

"you can't use your argument as evidence against the possibility premise as a general objection."

^ What I mean by this is that your evil god challenge doesn't refute any of the premises in Maydole's modal perfection argument, which entails possibility and then actuality. An a priori proof of God would undermine a (dubious) a posteriori argument against God, not the other way around.

Stephen Law said...

"I think it is legitimate to ask _on atheism_ why the universe exists instead of nothing. "

Yes, of course it is. Where do I deny that in the post?

What do I say that is wrong in the post?

Stephen Law said...

As to a cogent ontological argument that transparently and unambiguously proves there's a good god, well that would largely deal with the evidential problem of evil, of course! That's precisely the sort of argument the ECG challenges theists to provide. I have seen many ontological args but not spent to time on that particular one as yet. Perhaps it is, finally, a transparently cogent proof of the existence of your god. That would be a turn up...!

Anonymous said...

Ah, I see now. You write:

"In the same way, atheists can admit that there is a mystery about why the universe exists, and that they are utterly baffled by it, while nevertheless insisting that there’s overwhelming evidence that, however it came to be, it certainly wasn’t created by the all-powerful, all-knowing, all-good God of Christian theology. It may be that they can be as justifiably confident of that as they can be that it is not the creation of an all-powerful, all-evil god. Which is something almost all of us are rightly confident about."

Of course. Although I would deny that there is overwhelming evidence that God doesn't exist. Moreover, someone can argue that the existence of fine tuning and, therefore, the reasonable probability of life is evidence of the design being of a good god. This to say nothing that the fact that our having moral experience and an apprehension of moral values is more probable on good god than it is on evil god, since it is obviously very probable on good god (0.999) and not as probable on evil god.

Village theism isn't very interesting, so if you're attacking that then I will agree: we should not be village theists in debate.

Anonymous said...

Forgive me, I repeated myself in my last sentence.

Lee said...

"Moreover, someone can argue that the existence of fine tuning and, therefore, the reasonable probability of life is evidence of the design being of a good god."

Wouldn't an evil god desire moral beings in order that they may perform moral evils, the worst kind of evil possible? Moral experience, apprehension of moral values, it seems all of those are equally to be expected in either direction.

Lee.

BNJ said...

Personally, I find this evil/good god thinking quite unreasonable. Good and evil lie in purpose and meanings behind events, not within them. To a child it might appear evil for you to wake her up early in the morning from her nice comfy sleep and send her to school at dawn in freezing temperature... but is that?

Proof of god lies not in empiricism, but in reason. For most “believers” god is more of an ultimate wisdom and potential in control of things…not discretely localized in space and time. If this were true, no analysis, instrument, vision, perception can directly fathom it, because we can only contrast and compare. For us to know there is light, we must be able to identify darkness. When things are on either sides of our equations, they simply cancel out – that does not in any way mean they are not there!

Rick Warden said...

Hi Stephen,

You directed me to this post in answer to questions I had asked at this post.

When I asked you what you consider the best logical argument for atheism, you stated, "I like the EGC".

Can you please show the premises and conclusion of this argument, as you best understand them?

In this post here there seems to be an underlying implication that people must either emphasize faith or empiricism in justifying their beliefs.

I would offer that faith is important in experiencing truth because of the relationship between knowledge, action and experience, however, in terms of testing and evaluating the truth of ideas and beliefs, I would emphasize the importance of logic.

As noted in a previous post, the top apologists for atheism tend to either ignore or misuse the laws of logic.

A guest at my blog named Tony, whom I believe came over from your blog, seems to hold what appears to be a popular misunderstanding of the relationship between truth and logic. I believe this has to do with presuppositions about the nature of truth.

downtown dave said...

It's impossible for man to prove the existence of God. But God has proven Himself, and is holding man responsible for the evidence He has given. http://atheistlegitimacy.blogspot.com/

Stephen Law said...

Downtown Dave - you think I know your God exists, and am just lying/deceiving myself?

BNJ said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
BNJ said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
BNJ said...

My two recent posts originated in a misunderstanding, so I deleted them

Stephen Law said...

That is William Lane Craig's view, btw. People like me know God exists, and knowingly reject him. Which is why we will burn in hell for eternity. And deserve to.

Lee said...

Stephen,

My sister employed this position when I tried to get her to acknowledge my sincere disbelief. Is the best answer on offer, "well, you'll just have to take my word on the matter"? Seems like her not taking my word was the problem in the first place.

Any suggestions?

BenYachov said...

>That is William Lane Craig's view, btw. People like me know God exists, and knowingly reject him. Which is why we will burn in hell for eternity. And deserve to.

How do we know that is his view? I am skeptical after all you where the one who falsely claimed Feser believed in Theodicies.;-)

Stephen Law said...

Sod off Ben.

BenYachov said...

So professional.

Grow up Prof Law. You are better than that.

Stephen Law said...

Tell you what, Ben, can you give me the reference and quote where Feser explicitly denies offering theodicies (wich he then does in his Last Supersitition book)? That would v helpful as I am planning to write EGC 2 paper might well include Feser. In return I'll quote you Craig and give you page reference.

As for professionalism, if you endlessly troll and try to wind people up, it's not unprofessional of them to tell you to get lost.

BenYachov said...

@Prof Law

>Tell you what, Ben, can you give me the reference and quote where Feser explicitly denies offering theodicies

Ah reversing the burden of proof! Such a lovely sophistry! :-) Sorry your the one making the positive claim he uses Theodicies & therefore you should show the rest of us where he like Swinburne or Plantinga explicitly says he is trying to morally justify God's actions.

Which is going to be kind of hard considering in both TLS and AQUINAS Feser explicitly says God has no moral obligations to us. Feser clearly endorces Brian Davies view and if you are at all fimilar with Davies' work you know He rejects Theodicy in two chapters of his book titled "HOW NOT TO VIDICATE GOD PARTS I,II".

At best he cites some reasons as to why God might allow sufferings but they are hardly presented as moral justifications. Which for modern Theodicy is essential.

>In return I'll quote you Craig and give you page reference.

I would appreciate that but I remain skeptical that your interpretation & exegisis of his work might be at all accurate. Here is a simple idea? Why don't you e-mail him and ask him what he ment?

>As for professionalism, if you endlessly troll and try to wind people up, it's not unprofessional of them to tell you to get lost.

You wind yourself up and thus I win. Here is some advice. Don't give me the satisfaction. O

h and contrary to what you might think I am no troll. I do respect you when you act laudibly. Your defense of philosophy against Atkins and Dawkins was comendable. I have no patence for bad Theistic argument anymore than you do. So get the chip off your shoulder. I am not your enemy. I just disagree with you.

testinganidea said...

I apologize in advance as it is unlikely that I be able to follow-up any replies in a timely fashion.

The statement that:
“evil god challenge doesn't refute any of the premises in Maydole's modal perfection argument”
is irrelevant as this argument does not require god to be good in order to be “valid” unless one presupposes that good is one of god’s properties which is the question at hand.

More importantly if one uses this same set of inference rules and possible worlds approach with the premises:
1. It is possible for nothing to exist
2. If God exists then God is a necessary being
The logical conclusion will be:
3. God does not exist

Since I find this set of premises more likely, does that make the conclusion true? As with any deductive proof it only leads us to what was contained (although perhaps somewhat hidden) in the premises all along. Deductive proofs of this nature tell us nothing about our real world. With one set of axioms the interior angles of a triangle must equal 180 degrees but with a different set the proof yields greater than 180 degrees. We cannot use these proofs to tell us which is true of our world; we must make measurements and observe if we are to determine which set reflects the world as it is.

BenYachov said...

>1. It is possible for nothing to exist.

Well you have to define what you mean by "Nothing" & I find there is too much equivocation on the definition of that word.

>2. If God exists then God is a necessary being.

With you so far.

>The logical conclusion will be:
3. God does not exist

I guess that would be true if we define "nothing" as extending to the existence of God.

But then again on the classic definition of "Nothing" meaning an absence of anything.

"Nothing" doesn't really "Exist" since there is nothing to exist.

ex nihilo nihil fit.

Thus I am skeptical it is even a valid deductive proof of the non-existence of God.

Oh BTW it good to see you here testinganidea. I thought I felt a positive disturbance in the Force.:-)

Cheers man.

BNJ said...

@testinganidea

"If God exists then God is a necessary being"

I am not sure what you mean by "being"...to me it reflects a thinking that is borne out of our experience within our universe....it gives a shape and form identity to something, and compels consideration of "it" as "thing". A "being" that has come to be, or a "being" that has always been?

Personally I wouldn't use the word being for the Ultimate. I wouldn't even consider it as a "cause" or the "first cause" of anything, because within the term is embedded dependency -- without an effect, there is no cause.

Perhaps a mysterious "potential" cause that becomes a cause when there is an effect, otherwise remains a potential in and of itself.

Let me know how silly I sound.....

Dan P said...

Stephen Law:
Although I do not accept Leibniz's theodicy, i.e. the best of all possible worlds analysis, I do think it is the correct approach if theodicy is to succeed. He sets an extremely high standard for the conditions God has to satisfy.

He argues that God is omnipotent, omniscient, maximally (infinitely?) good, and in explaining the apparent inconistency of these properties with the existence of evil, argues that God brought into existence "the best of all possible worlds".

I understand "possible world" to mean "complete history of the Universe". Along these lines, to say that this is the best of all possible worlds is to say that there is no possible history of the Universe that would have been better than the actual history of the Universe.

A history of the Universe that did not include the Holocaust, on Leibniz's view, would not be a better history of the Universe.

Leibniz's theodicy requires not only that God is omnipotent, omniscient, and maximally good, but that the history of the Universe could not have been better than it is.

I agree with Leibniz's standard. However, I disagree that this is the best of all possible worlds, in his sense.

Hence, God leaves something to be desired. Hence, God with a capital "G" does not exist.

Paul Wright said...

Ben: "[W]hen a person refuses to come to Christ it is never just because of lack of evidence or because of intellectual difficulties: at root, he refuses to come because he willingly ignores and rejects the drawing of God's Spirit on his heart. No one in the final analysis really fails to become a Christian because of lack of arguments; he fails to become a Christian because he loves darkness rather than light and wants nothing to do with God." -- William Lane Craig, Reasonable Faith, quoted here.

BenYachov said...

Thanks Paul I own a copy of REASONABLE FAITH pp. 35-36 is it?

I'll go look it up.

Cheers man.

"No one in the final analysis really fails to become a Christian because of lack of arguments; he fails to become a Christian because he loves darkness rather than light and wants nothing to do with God."

So does Craig absolutely reject the concept of Invincible Ignorance or the possibility of Inclusivism like C.S. Lewis?

Is he a restrictivist?

I believe in the Catholic dogma of Extra Ecclesiam nulla salus(i.e. Outside the Church there is no Salvation). But it doesn't logically follow I believe every non-Catholic who dies without formally joining the Church will be damned.

BenYachov said...

Well this answers my question. Craig is a retrictivist or appears to be one.


http://www.leaderu.com/offices/billcraig/docs/politically.html#ref15

testinganidea said...

Ben,

Rather then discuss the definition of "nothing" let be make the point I was trying to convey to Anonymous a different way. 

The issue I have is with this particular application of modal logic. Under the definitions and rules of inference used in this argument I get reach conclusion
C1. God exists 
If I use premise
P1 It is possible that God exists
However, I reach conclusion
C2. God does not exist 
If I use premise
P2 it is possible that God does not exist

Any system of logic that gives these conflicting conclusions based on how I phrased (with or without negation) the possibility of god's existence does not provide results that reflect the meaning of "possible". 

Stated another way, under this model the statement
S1. It is possible that god exists and it is possible that god does not exist 
Is the equivalent to the statement
S2. god exists and god does not exist

Yet S1 seems reasonable if not logically true by definition while S2 is logically false by definition.

In my opinion this argument of god's existence intentionally hides the implications of its inference engine to allow the acceptance of seemingly non controversial statements (god may exist) to be the logical equivalent of a controversial statement (god exists). 

BenYachov said...

Here is the The Modal Perfection Argument For The Existence Of A Supreme Being spelled out on this forum(I think it's WL Craig's formum).

http://rfforum.websitetoolbox.com/post?id=3458545

Ontological Arguments aren't particulary favored among Thomists.

http://edwardfeser.blogspot.com/2010/11/anselms-ontological-argument.html

http://edwardfeser.blogspot.com/2010/12/plantingas-ontological-argument.html

I also seem to remember David Oderberg first Chapter of REAL ESSENTALISM was devoted to polemics against Modalism.

It's a lot to digest.

Interestingly both Plantinga and Graham Oppy have criticism of this argument.

I'll have to get their papers when I get around to it.

Cheers man.

testinganidea said...

Ben,

Thanks for the guidance. I appreciate the help and hope you are doing well.

From the pointer you provided (http://rfforum.websitetoolbox.com/post?id=3458545)

“Theorem 1: If it's possible that p and q are true, then p is possible and q is possible
Theorem 2: If it's possible that p is not possible, then p is not possible
Theorem 3: If it's possible that there exists an x that is an F, then there exists an x so that it's possible that x is an F.”

Using the statement
P1: the existence of the Christian God of WLC

P1 is not possible under many conditions for example if a logical conflict exists among all the required characteristics/capabilities of the WLC god, or if God is not personal, or if the Buddhists are right.

If any of these conditions or countless others are, not necessarily proven true but, just possible we get from Theorem 2

The existence of the Christian god of WLC is not possible

Perhaps I misunderstand how to apply Theorem 2 or it is incorrectly presented but what concerns me is the willingness to accept this logic system when it proves “a supreme being” without examining the implications and applicability of the system of inference to the question at hand. Given the ease with which results like the one above are generated it seems there is an issues in using this set of theorems to any “necessary exclusive entity” since the possibility of anyone of them rules out the others. There also seems to be something at play when you can shift a statement from being, possibly not possible to truly not possible without any additional evidence or argument.