bookmark_borderThe Old “You’d Have to be God to Know There is No God” Objection

(Redated post originally published on 9 December 2011)
Layman at Answers in Genesis repeats the myth that atheism is self-refuting because it requires knowledge that only God could have. In his words:

To say there is no God is to say you have enough knowledge to know there is no God. But an atheist can never have enough knowledge to be certain there is no God. He would have to know everything, because if there is something outside his area of knowledge, that something could include God. An atheist would have to be everywhere in and out of the universe all at one time, because if there is anywhere he cannot be, God could be there.

No atheist can claim total knowledge, therefore atheism is self–refuting, because knowing everything and being everywhere is to be like God. Since no one can prove ‘there is no God’, the question becomes irrelevant and so does atheism. Thus, Creation cannot be ruled out as a potential alternative.

We don’t mind if someone makes this objection to atheism, but we do mind when he doesn’t even bother to acknowledge obvious rebuttals to this objection, much less respond to those rebuttals. I responded to this objection over a decade ago, as have others. As the editor of the “Call for Papers” page for the Secular Web, I issued a challenge to anyone who thinks atheism requires omniscience to submit a response to my article or any of the others on the Secular Web which address this objection. To my knowledge, this challenge has never been answered.

bookmark_borderTheism and the Genetic Fallacy, Part II

(Redated post originally published on 5 March 2009)
A few weeks ago I engaged in an exchange with Victor Reppert on theism and the genetic fallacy. I had meant to get back to him right away, but administrative b.s. of the sort always imposed on university faculties slowed me down. Anyway, our conversation made me think of ways to employ some of the recent biological belief theories (BBT’s) of Boyer, Atran, Dennett and others in constructing a more rigorous atheological argument:
My argument is simple. I think that Alvin Plantinga is right. If God exists, humans will very likely possess a sensus divinitatis, a God-detecting faculty, which, when functioning properly and in the appropriate circumstances, will present us with warrant-basic (both warranted and epistemologically basic) awareness of his existence. If this is so, and if God does exist, then humans, provided that their sinfulness has not impaired the proper functioning of their sensus, will have a warrant-basic awareness of God’s existence. On the other hand, if there is no God, it is extremely unlikely that humans would possess a cognitive faculty that would produce the warranted (but false) belief that God exists. In this case, evidence that belief in God is not caused by a warrant-conferring cognitive faculty, but rather is generated by a noncognitive process that does not confer warrant on that belief, will, ipso facto, constitute evidence against the existence of God. An atheological argument can therefore be set out semi-formally like this:

1) If God exists, then humans very likely possess a sensus divinitatis, a cognitive faculty which, when functioning properly and in the appropriate circumstances, produces the warrant-basic belief that God exists.
2) If there is no sensus divinitatis, then God probably does not exist, unless the background probability of his existence is very high.
3) It is not the case that the background probability of God’s existence is very high.
4) There is no sensus divinitatis.
5) Therefore, God probably does not exist.

Plantinga and others argue cogently for (1). The God of orthodox theism is not an aloof Lawgiver or Watchmaker. A God that loves his children will not allow them to stumble about in the dark, vainly searching for light. Surely nothing could be more important for God’s sentient creatures than to have sure knowledge of his existence, his nature, and his will for them. Therefore, he will reveal himself to them in some clear, unmistakable, and authoritative way. That is, God will reveal his existence, nature, and will in so clear and forceful a manner that no honest and rational person will mistake it. God very probably will not make himself knowable only through a process of complex inference (modal ontological arguments, say) since very many persons lack the education or the intellect to follow such complex and recondite inferences. Therefore, God will make himself knowable either through a very simple and direct inference, or immediately and noninferentially as a basic belief. The surest way would be to implant a universal sensus divinitatis that imparts a warrant-basic knowledge of God to all humans, or at least to those in whom sin has not fatally corrupted their God-detecting faculty.
(2) follows from the probabilities we have assigned. If G = God exists and S = humans possess a sensus divinitatis, and we say, with Plantinga, that p(S/G) is very high, say, .99, then p(~S/G) = .01. Also, p(~S/~G), the probability that there is no sensus divinitatis if God does not exist, effectively equals one. By Bayes’ Theorem:

                p(~S/G) X p(G)
p(G/~S) = --------------------------------------------
          p(~S/G) X p(G) + p(~S/~G) X p (~G)

Since we assume that p(~S/G) is .01, and that p(~S/~G) is effectively 1, then, the only way for p(G/~S) not to be quite low is for p(G), the background probability that God exists, to be very high. For instance, if p(G) = .8, then

             .01 X .8
p(G/~S) = ----------------------- = .038
          (.01 X .8) + (1 X .2)

Even if we say that p(~S/G) is only .1, rather than .01, and we keep p(G) =.8, that would still give us only p(G/~S) = .29. So, if we say, with Plantinga, that p(~S/G) is quite low, then the only way to keep p(G/~S) above .5, is to put p(G) very high.
With respect to premise (3): That it has not been established that p(G) is very high, I take for granted. The numerous arguments of natural theology have been extensively, and, in my view, cogently debunked by critics like Mackie, Matson, Martin, Everitt, Oppy, Gale, Le Poidevin, Sinnott-Armstrong, Fales, Drange, Edis, Carrier, Parsons (ahem), and many, many others. For the record, I think that, among the many arguments of natural theology, Victor Reppert’s argument from reason is about the best of the lot, though I have argued copiously elsewhere why I find it wholly unconvincing.
Naturalistic explanations of religious belief, such as the various Biological Belief Theories (BBT’s) of Wilson, Boyer, Atran, Dennett, Guthrie, et al., come in to support premise (4). Theistic belief is warranted, in Plantinga’s sense, only if it is the product of the proper functioning of a cognitive faculty designed to produce true belief. Now one may wish, following Richard Dawkins, to speak of highly adapted phenotypic features as “designed” by evolution, but even so, no one would say that the belief-producing mechanisms postulated by the various BBT’s were designed to generate theistic belief if and only if that belief is true. They are not God-detecting faculties. On the contrary, these postulated mechanisms would work just as well in generating theistic belief whether or not God exists. Clearly, if theistic belief is generated in a manner like those proposed by BBT’s, then theistic belief is not warranted in Plantinga’s sense. Belief is the result of an epistemologically unreliable belief-forming process, not the consequence of the proper functioning of a cognitive faculty in the appropriate circumstances, and so belief cannot be warrant-basic. If humans possess a sensus divinitatis, then theistic belief cannot be explained in terms of an unreliable, noncognitive, non-warrant-conferring process, such as a BBT. Therefore if any BBT is sound, there is no sensus divinitatis, and the fourth premise of the above atheological argument is supported.
The upshot is that appeal to BBT’s or other naturalistic explanations of theistic belief need not involve the genetic fallacy. On the contrary, when added to other highly plausible claims, they provide support for the atheological argument I have given.

bookmark_borderAtheistic Teleological Arguments, Part 5: Dawkins’s Ultimate Boeing 747 Gambit

(Redated post originally published on 7 December 2011)
A. The Argument Formulated
In chapter 4 of his book The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins advances an argument for atheism he calls the “Ultimate Boeing 747 Gambit,” in reference to Fred Hoyle’s famous comment about a Boeing 747 arising by chance in a junkyard.[26] Just as Hoyle’s argument appeals to the (alleged) improbability of evolution, Dawkins’s argument appeals to the (alleged) improbability of God.
Dawkins is not a philosopher writing for other philosophers; he is a biologist writing for a popular audience. For this reason, it is entirely understandable that he does not provide his argument for atheism in its logical form. On the other hand, it is valuable to state it in its logical form, so that we can have a clear and precise summary of it. We are in luck: philosopher Erik Wielenberg has already done the work of carefully analyzing Dawkins’ argument and identifying its logical form. Since I agree entirely with Wielenberg’s analysis, I shall simply quote his formulation of the argument.

(1) If God exists, then God has these two properties: (i) He provides an intelligent-design explanation for all natural, complex phenomena in the universe and (ii) He has no explanation external to Himself.
(2) Anything that provides an intelligent-design explanation for the natural, complex phenomena in the universe is at least as complex as such phenomena.
(3) So, if God exists, then God has these two properties: (i) He is at least as complex as the natural, complex phenomena in the universe and (ii) He has no explanation external to Himself. (from 1 and 2)
(4) It is very improbable that there exists something that (i) is at least as complex as the natural, complex phenomena in the universe and (ii) has no explanation external to itself.
(5) Therefore, it is very improbable that God exists. (from 3 and 4)[27]

B. Assessment of Dawkins’s Ultimate Boeing 747 Gambit
Dawkins began his chapter by reviewing why Hoyle’s argument from improbability (i.e., his ‘Boeing 747 gambit’) is evidentially worthless against evolution by natural selection. As Dawkins correctly points out, natural selection is the opposite of chance;[28] hence, the argument is literally irrelevant to the hypothesis of natural selection. It seems to me that the Ultimate Boeing 747 Gambit (hereafter, “Dawkins’s Atheistic Teleological Argument (ATA)”) suffers from a parallel problem with respect to the God hypothesis. As Wielenberg points out, it’s valuable to distinguish two versions of the God Hypothesis:

(GH1) There exists a contingent, physical, complex, superhuman, supernatural intelligence that created the universe and has no external explanation.
(GH2) There exists a necessary, nonphysical, complex, superhuman, supernatural intelligence that created the universe and has no external explanation.[29]

The key point here is the difference between a contingent, physical being and a necessary, nonphysical being. As Weilenberg writes, “Dawkins’s argument may be effective against (GH1), but no clear-thinking Jew, Christian, or Muslim accepts that thesis. (GH2) is much closer to traditional monotheism than is (GH1), but Dawkins’s Gambit is ineffective against (GH2).”[30] Therefore, as far as (GH2) is concerned, premise (4) is false and Dawkins’s ATA fails.

Series on Atheistic Teleological Arguments

[26] Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2006), 111-59.
[27] Erik Wielenberg, “Dawkins’s Gambit, Hume’s Aroma, and God’s Simplicty,” Philosophia Christi 11 (2009): 113-128 at 115.
[28] Dawkins 2006, 113-14.
[29] Wielenberg 2009, 118.
[30] Ibid.

bookmark_borderSean Carroll’s List of 6 Arguments Used by Science Denialists

Sean B. Carroll is a noted evolutionary biologist, author, and vice-president for science education at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. I haven’t read his book, The Making of theFittest: DNA and the Ultimate Forensic Record of Evolution, but I’m told it contains a summary of 6 arguments used by science denialists that could be applied to most any subject.
Here are the 6 arguments.
  1. Cast doubt on the science.
  2. Question the scientists’ motives and integrity.
  3. Magnify any disagreements among the scientists; cite gadflies as authorities.
  4. Exaggerate the potential for harm from the science.
  5. Appeal to the importance of personal freedom.
  6. Object that acceptance of the science would repudiate some key philosophy.

 Since this hadn’t been previously mentioned on this blog, I thought readers might find it of interest.

bookmark_borderPreliminary Remarks Concerning Euthyphro-style Ojections to the Divine Command Theory

This post is meant to set the stage for a follow-up post in which I will argue that the Euthyphro Dilemma provides a definitive (or as close to definitive as we can reasonably expect to get) objection to divine command metaethics (even the modern so-called modified divine command theories associated with Robert Adams, Edward Wierenga, C. Stephen Evans and others). In this post I want to talk not about divine commands or love or metaethics, but rather supreme executive power, reasons, motives, and arbitrariness. We’ll start with this:

Upon learning how Arthur became King of the Britons, Dennis the constitutional peasant says, “Strange women lying in ponds distributing swords is no basis for a system of government. Supreme executive power derives from a mandate from the masses, not from some farcical aquatic ceremony.”
Dennis is here presenting a democratic theory of the basis of government. Presumably, he would be unmoved even if he were assured that the Lady of the Lake had perfect knowledge of any presumed candidate’s qualifications and only tossed swords to candidates that were well-qualified. After all, defenders of democracy recognize that their preferred system does not always result in the most qualified leadership. Their claim is, rather, that legitimate government is only that which is elected via popular referendum. So, from Dennis’ perspective, the Lady of the Lake’s choice is completely arbitrary with respect to the issue at hand. But notice that his concern is not that it is arbitrary because it is ungrounded in reasons; Dennis does not care whether she had reasons or what those reasons might be (more on this, including an important ambiguity involved in ‘reason’ below). The problem, from Dennis’ perspective, is that the feature of Authur Pendragon, in virtue of which he is King, namely that the Lady of the Lake threw Excalibur to him, is totally unrelated to the task he was chosen for, that is, being King. In that sense, the fact that he was the recipient of Excalibur is just an arbitrary reason to think that he deserves to be King.
A basis or ground of something can be arbitrary when the purported ground is completely unrelated to the thing for which it is supposed to be serving as the ground. Here is another example: Suppose that passengers on a damaged aircraft, which is running low on fuel, have determined that the plane stands a good chance of making it to a safe landing spot only if its weight is significantly reduced; and the only way to do that is for one of the passengers to jump from the plane. Since there are no volunteers, the passengers decide to draw straws to see who will have to jump. Bob draws the short straw. Given that Bob agreed to the procedure, he is now obligated to jump. But here’s the thing: Bob does not deserve to be sacrificed just in virtue of having drawn the short straw. Drawing the short straw is not the kind of thing that could make someone deserve to be sacrificed. It is an arbitrary reason to think that Bob deserves to die.
It is important to note that there may be a non-arbitrary method for deciding who deserves to die. But time is running out and given the difficulties involved in discovering a mutually agreed upon method, the passengers are better off just going with the arbitrary method of drawing straws. But that the method is expedient does not make it less arbitrary. In this case the ground–drawing the short straw–is not the kind of thing that could serve as the basis for the relevant feature; that is it cannot make it the case that a person should die. This is what makes the method arbitrary.
One more point: even if it is true that the Lady of the Lake (LoL) had reasons for her decision to throw the sword to Arthur, that does not mean that her decision was non-arbitrary. To see this we need only remind ourselves that ‘reason’ is ambiguous between ‘motive’ and ‘justifying reason.’ If, when we say that the LoL has reasons for choosing Arthur, what we mean is merely that she has motives for choosing him, then we are not saying that she has a justifying reason for her decision. She can have a motive that would render her decision arbitrary. Suppose, for example, that she is acting on a threat, the ghosts of Arthur’s deceased ancestors have threatened to reveal scandalous information about the LoL’s proclivities for hippo-love; or suppose she is personally smitten with Arthur’s considerable charms.  In such a case, while LoL has a motive to choose Arthur as King, she lacks a justifying reason. And (and this is very important) her decision is therefore arbitrary.
We will miss this point so long as we neglect the very significant distinction between motives and reasons. We use the word ‘reason’ to talk about both, but this obscures the following important difference: motives explain while reasons justify. One can therefore have a motive without having a reason (in the justifying sense). Therefore the fact that a decision was based on a motive does not make the decision non-arbitrary.
Stay tuned for my follow-up post in which I apply some of these lessons to the Euthyphro based objections to DCT.

bookmark_borderMurderous Anti-theism: A Further Response to John Mark N. Reynolds

(Redated post originally published on 1 May 2015)
John Mark N. Reynolds, Provost of Houston Baptist University has written a lengthy reaction to criticisms of his earlier blog post claiming that anti-theism is the murderous force behind communism. I and Bob Seidensticker criticized his earlier essay. Reynolds’ more recent piece is, as I say, a reaction to those and perhaps other criticisms. Though it is a reaction, it is not really a response since he does not address his critics by name or quote from our posts. Consequently, it is not always easy to see just when or whether he is addressing our particular points. Therefore, instead of addressing what I think are rebuttals, I will just reiterate his claim as presented in his later post and state why I still find his claim entirely unpersuasive.
Reynolds says that his claim is this:

“…in all human history any anti-theists who have formed a mass political movement and gained power have been that horrific. This is an odd fact and must be explained. Of course, saying anti-theism caused all horrors in any state is wrong. I will be content to say that anti-theism caused only those horrors in states run by anti-theists which the anti-theists said were motivated by anti-theism!”

But if all that Reynolds is saying is that anti-theism was responsible only for those evils that the perpetrators admitted were so motivated, then we have been at cross-purposes. I fully agree that communist states were anti-theistic and that anti-theism was an integral part of communist doctrine. Also, as I said in my previous post, religious people were persecuted in communist societies, explicitly because of their religious beliefs. If this is Reynolds’ claim, then we are in full agreement. I would even go further and say that any officially anti-theistic government is intrinsically bad. For a government to adopt anti-theism as a policy is per se oppressive, even if it is not followed by outright persecution. To declare that theistic belief is officially disapproved is, in itself, an expression of intolerance, fully as offensive as if a state were to endorse theism and officially disapprove of atheism. A state should be secular, that is neutral on religion (or irreligion), and not officially endorse (or oppose) any species of belief or unbelief.
However, Reynolds often seems to be making a much stronger claim than the above quote indicates. He appears to say that it is their anti-theism that made communist regimes so particularly oppressive and violent not communism per se, or any other aspect of communist governments, such as their despotic nature. Again and again in this post and the previous one, Reynolds says that whenever antitheism has become a mass movement and taken over a nation, it has resulted in a nightmare society that engaged in mass murder and oppression. He then attempts to debunk every other possible explanation of the crimes of anti-theist regimes.
This approach is fundamentally wrongheaded, and its fallaciousness is illustrated by an example Reynolds gives. He shows a church that was destroyed by Soviet communists and asks, “Why blow up this church? Communism or anti-theism?” However, this is like asking “What led to the Holocaust? Nazism or anti-Semitism?” Or you might as well ask “Is John Mark N. Reynolds a Christian or a theist?” Reynolds implies that the answer has to be one or the other, but, because one alternative entails the other (all Soviets were anti-theists), the answer obviously has to be “both /and” instead of “either/or.” When A entails B it is literally senseless to demand a choice between one and the other. In other words, Reynolds’ question is a blatant example of a false dichotomy.
The correct question to ask is this: Granted that communist regimes were anti-theistic, why was their anti-theism so virulent and vicious? Why did it issue in active persecution? Reynolds admits that many anti-theists, though they dislike theism, do not advocate persecution. So, what made the Soviets or the Maoists so much more vicious?
The short answer is that communism was intolerant of opposing beliefs for the same reason that the medieval Church was intolerant of opposing beliefs: Like the Church, Communist ideology claimed to possess the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. Every opposing claim was not only a lie, but a damned lie, a lie so manifestly false that it could not be blamelessly believed. When a system, whether it is theistic or atheistic, becomes a total system, the all-encompassing, absolute, and certain truth, then it cannot regard any dissent as harmless. All disagreement is intolerable. The slightest deviation from orthodoxy is like a cancer that threatens to grow and metastasize until it is an unstoppable and fatal force. Therefore, heterodoxy must be hunted down and snuffed out. The Church did it with the Holy Inquisition. The Soviet Union did it with the NKVD.
An absolute conviction of rightness and certainty, combined with longstanding institutional support is what makes for an inquisition, as Collen Murphy observes in his excellent recent study, God’s Jury: The Inquisition and the Making of the Modern World (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012). And inquisitions are not a thing of the past:

“Call it the inquisitorial impulse. It springs from certainty—from unswerving confidence in the rightness of one’s cause. But conviction alone is never enough. What separates an inquisition from other forms of intolerance is its staying power. It receives institutional support—creating its own or relying on what exists. It goes on and on. Today, the basic elements that can sustain an inquisition—bureaucracy, communications, the tools of surveillance and censorship—are more prevalent and entrenched, by many orders of magnitude, than they were in the days of Gregory IX or Tomás de Torquemada (233).”

Or, in the words of Mel Brooks, “The Inquisition, what a show! I know your wishin’ that we would go, but the Inquisition’s here and it’s here to stay!”
To end on a positive note: John Mark N. Reynolds and I agree about far more than we disagree. It would be good if atheists and Christians could join their voices more often in condemnation of sectarian oppression wherever it occurs.

bookmark_borderMass Murder and Atheism

(Redated post originally published on 16 August 2012)
I’ve been thinking about the relationship between religion and morality again. I recently read yet another editorial that blames atheism for the mass slaughters committed by Hitler, Mussolini, Stalin, Pol Pot, Mao Tse Tung, and so forth.
They have a point. While it is entirely debatable whether Hitler was an atheist—I tend to think the evidence indicates that Hitler believed in some sort of non-Christian god—I’m not aware of a good reason for doubting that the other individuals were, in fact, atheists. Even if we exclude Hitler, therefore, we are still left with a list of atheistic dictators who collectively murdered tens of millions of people. Theists are justified in mentioning that fact in response to atheists who have attacked religion because of atrocities committed by theists. Let us not, therefore, address concerns about the behavior of atheistic regimes too dismissively. These were men who believed that they answered to literally no one and who slaughtered millions of innocent people. The outrage (and fear) that good willed people feel at the very thought of such individuals is a natural human emotion. It therefore deserves to be taken seriously.
So as an atheist myself, what, then, do I have to say about these atrocities? To be frank, I can think of a lot of easier questions to tackle. My response is not going to even come close to the response it ought to be given the sheer magnitude of those atrocities, but it is the best I can manage to write.
Every atheist I have ever met condemns those atrocities as moral abominations. Indeed, I think if you asked the average atheist if they condemned the behavior, the answer would be not only “Yes” but “Yes, of course!” Because this answer would seem so obvious to atheists, I think atheists tend to forget to actually make their feelings on the matter explicitly known. Yet to merely say that the actions of those dictators were wrong seems like a massive understatement. I think I can speak of behalf of all good-willed atheists when I say that I (we) feel terrible about what those atheistic dictators did. When I think about the scale of the tragedies inflicted by these monsters, my knee-jerk reaction is to feel angry. I wish they received the punishment they deserved.
While I obviously cannot undo the past or prevent atrocities by future totalitarian regimes, one thing that I can do is to promote freethought. This is relevant, since freethought and totalitarianism are at odds with one another. (By definition, freethinkers are committed to forming opinions independently of tradition or emotion.) Indeed, it is striking just how much these dictators had to suppress independent thought in order to maintain their totalitarian control.
Everything I have written above was intended to address the perfectly understandable emotions that many people experience when they consider the actions of atheistic regimes. But what about their philosophical significance? Does the behavior of 20th-century atheistic regimes somehow refute atheism? Unless there is good reason to link their behavior with their atheism, the answer would have to be “no.” To paraphrase a point made Julian Baggini, “The fact that 20th century totalitarian regimes were atheistic is no more reason to think that atheism is evil than the fact that Hitler was a vegetarian is a good reason to suppose that all vegetarians are Nazis.”
In fact, contrary to what some critics of atheism assert, there is good reason to believe that mass murder is not the consequence of atheism. First, atheism, as opposed to materialism, does not entail an ontological thesis about the nonexistence of moral facts. (In other words, the existence of moral facts is logically compatible with the nonexistence of God.) Second, atheism does not entail the denial of any normative ethical theory except for those theories, such as various versions of the divine command theory, that explicitly appeal to God. (In other words, atheism is logically compatible with ethical theories that make mass murder wrong.) Third, atheism was never cited by atheistic regimes as the justification for their actions. Fourth, again paraphrasing Baggini, “The mere existence of millions of atheists in Western democracies who have no truck with totalitarian regimes shows that there is no essential link between atheism and condoning mass murder.”
This leads to my final point. For purposes of this essay, we can divide atheists into two groups: dogmatic and freethinking. Freethinking atheists are atheists who arrive at the conclusion that atheism is true, independently of authority and dogma; dogmatic atheists are atheists who don’t. Atheistic dictators who rely upon the authority (and force) of the government, rather than persuasion, to enforce certain points of view are not freethinkers, but dogmatists. By contrast, freethinking atheists have not committed atrocities. And all of the major atheistic organizations in the English-speaking world are committed to freethought.
Does the behavior of 20th century atheistic dictators show that atheists can be evil? Clearly, the answer is yes. Is citing that behavior a relevant response to atheists who claim that religion is responsible for historical atrocities? Again, I would say yes. Does their behavior show that mass murder is a logical consequence of atheism, much less freethinking atheism? No, it does not even come close to that.