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Australian philosopher, literary critic, and professional writer. Author of FREEDOM OF RELIGION AND THE SECULAR STATE and HUMANITY ENHANCED.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Marke but this flea

After the publication of The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins, many quick, opportunistic books were written in reply. Dawkins responded by referring to their authors, among them David B. Hart, as his "fleas", referencing a poem by W.B. Yeats.

Well, Hart has now published a long rant at the theocratic apologetics site FirstThings, which advertises itself as advancing "a religiously informed public philosophy for the ordering of society." Hart's piece stands as a sort of review of 50 Voices of Disbelief: Why We Are Atheists (surprise! surprise! he didn't like it), but it goes on to attack the "New Atheism" more generally, with particular attention to Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, and A.C. Grayling.

Much of the rant consists of an attempt to defend the hopeless Argument from Contingency. All things that we see are contingent: i.e., they might not have existed. Sure, there might be causal explanations for their existence, but if you trace those causes back far enough, you still come to something that (logically speaking) might not have existed, so eventually (it's claimed) you need to postulate something that "necessarily exists" in order to explain the whole shebang. This is God, or so the argument runs.

But that's nonsensical reasoning. For a start, even if God does exist he (logically) might not have. Turning this around, it's logically possible, even in a world where God exists, that he mightn't have existed. There's nothing self-contradictory about a description of a world with no omnipotent, omniscient, angry, wine-loving, shellfish-abominating being. (Note: by "world" here we don't mean "physical universe"; we mean the entirety of reality including whatever spooky, non-physical ontology it might have.) The concept "God", however exactly we define that concept, is not instantiated in the actual world as a matter of logical necessity any more than the concept "neoconservative wanker" is (the world just happens to contain a lot of neoconservative wankers; as far as logic is concerned, it might not have). Even if God happened to exist, it would still be logically possible that "God" is an uninstantiated concept.

Meanwhile, there's no reason at all to worry that it's logically possible that whatever things do happen to exist might not have, or that it's logically possible that different things might have existed. Sure, the world - including any spooky ontology it might involve - could (where "could" refers to logical possibility) have been different. So what? It's a brute fact, not something required by logic, that the world is as it happens to be. Who would ever think otherwise, unless in the grip of a religion? Even Hart ultimately distances himself from the argument, sensing its sad lack of legs.

The Argument from Contingency gets nowhere, and it acquires whatever thin veneer of plausibility it might have only by relying covertly on archaic concepts of necessary being and the like. Alas ... you can have a concept, and attach to it the high falutin' formula "absolute actuality", but you do not thereby guarantee that the concept is instantiated in the real world. Thus, God would be just as contingent as anything else.

You'd think the numerous historical failures (including that of Goedel!) to get an ontological argument off the ground for more than a few confused seconds would provide enough warning as to why contingency arguments inevitably come crashing down in flames. If ontological arguments fail, you don't have a necessarily-actualised concept of God, but if you don't have that you don't a decent argument from contingency. The Argument from Contingency is parasitic on the Ontological Argument.

Ontological arguments always fail, once they are carefully picked apart, because you can't just take the concept of some sort of substantial, if spooky, thing that is imagined to have various specific properties - e.g. being omnipotent, loving wine, hating shellfish, ordering genocides, prying into people's bedrooms, and so on - then define the concept into being actualised. It just doesn't work that way.

Commenters at Dawkins' site are having a field day with Hart.

12 comments:

Brian said...

If ontological arguments fail, you don't have a necessarily-actualised concept of God, but if you don't have that you don't a decent argument from contingency. The Argument from Contingency is parasitic on the Ontological Argument.

That seem like an inversion of an argument I showed you a while back. Going from the failure of logical demonstrations of god's existence, we can say god doesn't necessarily exist, thus god is contingent, thus ontological arguments fail. I think that's what I said anyway. But really, I think Kant said that better a while back. Watch out the Robert what-is-name doesn't descend in a cloud of arrogance peddling Goedel's ontological argument....

I must say, Hart is a pompous fart. Irony challenged too, all the time accusing the NAs of being vapid and rude while not having a skerick of self-awareness that that is exactly what he's doing.

I liked 50 voices of disbelief. I didn't go the Global Atheist shindig, so didn't get your John Hancock on my copy. Guess it won't be worth much on e-bay without it. ;)

P.S. If Ophelia reads this, your contribution was really bad, which as you surmised Hart ignored it. :)

Brian said...

Oh, I nearly forgot. Congratulations on your own flea. You've made the big time!

Anonymous said...

Hi, Russell,

I always find the argument for God from contingency rather odd.

If God is required to exist because of logic, then logic itself is above God.

In other words, even God must be compelled to behave in accordance to logic.

This would be ok if they talk about rather limited gods like the Olympians, but not the God who is supposedly the master of the universe and the cause of all existence,--including logic.

On the other hand, if one argues that God himself is not bounded by logic, but is required to explain why logic exists in our world, then it would be to concede that logic is itself contingent and the whole argument against contingency breaks down: there would be no "logical necessity" for a "first cause" at all because there is no such thing as "logical necessity" in the final analysis, based on their very own premise.

Either way they shoot themselves on the foot.


Bonzai from RD.net

Jack said...

Hart's piece really was one of the most absurd, pompous, snide, over-extended and under-cooked dollops of empty verbiage I have had the misfortune of being exposed to in a very long time. It was fun joining the RDF pile-on last night but it rapidly became clear that we were dealing with people who are very, very determined not only to see Hart's New Clothes but to kiss their hem incessantly as well.

Lisa said...

I'm quite delighted by all the responses this "flea" has attracted, here and at RD.net, many of them quite erudite and far beyond anything I could come up with! Perhaps I should stop visiting the "theist" sites for raw material, but it's difficult when the results can be so entertaining.

My problem is that when I read something like that, I start thinking, "Well, perhaps he's right...I haven't given X, Y and Z enough thought..." I suppose I'm too quick to doubt my own opinions and to think that "I'm ignorant, so I should listen to what they have to say."

Russell Blackford said...

Actually, Lisa, I don't think that's a fault. And thanks for being the first person to draw the thing to my attention.

Brian said...

I'm lost. To what thing did Lisa draw attention? That apologists can sound quite convincing? Or that there are good replies? I don't mean any snark. Just a moment when again I feel that I'm intellectually sub-par.

Brian said...

I'm lost. To what thing did Lisa draw attention? That apologists can sound quite convincing? Or that there are good replies? I don't mean any snark. Just a moment when again I feel that I'm intellectually sub-par.

Russell Blackford said...

She was first to draw my attention to the piece by Hart at First Things.

Ophelia Benson said...

Gee, thanks, Brian.

Lisa said...

Brian --

The article! That's the "thing" in question!

Lisa said...

Sorry Russell -- I suppose our comments went up at the same time.

I also think a willingness to listen is a good trait to have, but like anything else, it can be taken too far!