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Australian philosopher, literary critic, legal scholar, and professional writer. Based in Newcastle, NSW. My latest books are THE TYRANNY OF OPINION: CONFORMITY AND THE FUTURE OF LIBERALISM (2019); AT THE DAWN OF A GREAT TRANSITION: THE QUESTION OF RADICAL ENHANCEMENT (2021); and HOW WE BECAME POST-LIBERAL: THE RISE AND FALL OF TOLERATION (2024).

Thursday, September 08, 2011

Loss of faith - in the arguments for God

I've done a couple of debates with the godly this year: a (relatively) small one against Michael Jensen at Macquarie University back in March; and the big one on Tuesday night in which I joined with Tamas Pataki and Jane Caro against Archbishop Peter Jensen, Tracey Rowland, and Scott Stephens.

One point that I made in the latter, where I was the last speaker for the opposition, was the lack of faith shown by the Christian apologists in the traditional arguments for the existence of God. In fact, none of the four people I've debated this year has used these arguments in any concerted way.

On Tuesday night, there were, perhaps, some vague attempts to evoke (and I do mean evoke, not invoke) the traditional moral argument. These were never developed with any rigour, and didn't require rebuttal (our side would have had to do the other side's work to get the argument into a form worthy of rebutting). In fact, I think they came across more as complaints about the (supposed) moral malaise of secular societies.

Back in March, Michael Jensen did gesture at a transcendental argument based on the need to presume God in order to avoid radical scepticism, and we briefly skirmished about that. Generally, however, the Christian apologists I've encountered have abandoned philosophical arguments and concentrated on (a) the good things done for us by Christianity and (b) the supposed loss of value in societies without God. This is fairly weak, and I don't think it went down well with most of the audience the other night. It's really only going to appeal to people who already hold Christian organisations and moral views in high regard.

I assume that my interlocutors are just not convinced by philosophical arguments and have other reasons for their views, such as what they take to be the inherent plausibility of the gospel narratives. That's up to them, of course, but it weakens their position in debate. William Lane Craig is very formidable as a debater because he really seems to believe in the philosophical arguments, and is able to present them in a more-or-less logically valid form very concisely, quickly, and clearly, forcing his opponents to flounder around unpicking what's wrong with them, or else leave important parts of his presentations unrebutted.

Cardinal Pell relied almost entirely on a cosmic fine tuning argument in his debate against Dan Barker last year, and it didn't go well for him. But at least he had an argument for the existence of God. I went along on Tuesday night ready to debate the alleged cosmic fine tuning, but it wasn't required.

Apart from Pell, most of the Australian debaters don't seem to want to risk their positions on these sorts of arguments, even though it might be better for them tactically - it makes it look as if they don't actually have any good reasons to believe in God, which is pretty fundamental!

Again, it's up to the debaters what arguments they want to run. If they don't think these arguments are conclusive - which Peter Jensen seemed to concede in his summing up the other night - they are just being honest in not relying on them. I'm not saying they should change tack, and I'm certainly not trying to create a sort of witch hunt thread in which we pile on the individuals concerned. I'm just observing something that happened, or failed to happen, in a couple of debates that I've been involved in. Interesting ... or so it struck me.

Has anyone else had similar or contrasting experiences? How would you run the other side's case if you were handed the task?


Alex SL said...

Christian apologists I've encountered have abandoned philosophical arguments and concentrated on (a) the good things done for us by Christianity and (b) the supposed loss of value in societies without God. This is fairly weak...

Understatement of the year! This is not addressing the factual correctness of the assumption that gods exist in any way whatsoever. It sounds as if they do indeed implicitly grant that there is no evidence for their existence.

I have never debated professional apologists, of course, but in discussions with believers that I had over the years, I encountered the following arguments:

(1) A PoMo-inspired insistence that you cannot address everything with reason and/or the argument that they "just feel it in their heart" that souls/god/afterlife exist. The obvious rejoinder is that I feel it in my heart that they owe me a million bucks.

(2) How do you explain that so many people believe in god? It was a Catholic who asked that. I should have pointed out the diversity of religions that people believe in, but was in a cynical mood about humanity that day and instead said that honestly answering his question would be impolite towards himself and believers in general.

(3) But if there is no god and judgment in the afterlife, then there is no justice in the universe! This was from a Muslim colleague. My answer was "yes, that is correct, so what?", to which he would repeat his objection as if it were an argument, and we went round in circles.

So, in summary: wishful thinking, argumentum ad populum or a deliberate and complete abdication of rationality seem to be the "arguments" for belief among people I know. Not very convincing, I fear.

Jonathan Meddings said...

I had a public discussion about the existence of God with the Catholic Bishop of North Queensland last year. He is probably one of few clergy I have met who accept evolution and do not believe that belief in God is necessary to be moral. Yet he still has unfavourable views of secularism and resorts to deistic arguments like the cosmological argument to support his theism. He attempted to rationalise faith, yet provided no real explanation as to the reasons for his belief in God. At one point he even said God is beyond our comprehension, to which I replied by asking how something beyond comprehension could be known about at all, yet alone in the incredible detail religion describes. It was all very disappointing to be honest, I had hoped for more.

Steve Zara said...

Almost all the believers who arrive on RichardDawkins.net these days seem to be using philosophical arguments of various degrees of rigor. It certainly seems to be the fashion there.

Anonymous said...

My very brief headline summary of the ‘For’ argument:

Jensen: you can’t prove the nonexistence of god (citing the UK advert ‘There probably is no God’) and then a brief mention of historical proofs of the life of Jesus (no further details were provided)

Rowland: Religion has done good things in history and not caused as many wars as you think

Stephens: Series of short words run through a thesaurus to seem more impressive, but no real argument except brief accusations that atheism is just a fashionable trend and religious morals are absolute and needed

I expected the same as you – more of the traditional lines: the Ontological Argument, the Cosmological Argument and some fine-tuning arguments.

I thought yourself, plus Tamas and Jane, did a fine job, but I expected you would have needed to have done more rebuffing of their arguments, but they didn’t really bother forming any!

K said...

What I wonder about the traditional arguments is how many of them are the reason people believe. Put another way, how many would change their minds if the arguments are shown unsound? The only one I can really think of is the design argument. Beyond that, pretty much every other argument put forward seems a foil rather than a reflection of why they believe. William Lane Craig, for all his recitation of the traditional arguments, still includes the non-argument of knowing God personally - something I would bet strikes home much more than an argument over the nature of infinity.

Uhdo again, my experience is limited to online interaction, so how that translates to debates is speculation on my part. Those traditional arguments, as Michael Martin pointed out, don't establish the theirtic conception of God, so maybe it's merely a reflection that the arguments don't reach the intended conclusion - so why waste time arguing them?

K said...

As for making the case for the other side, if it were me I'd focus on a) the personal experience people have with God, b) tales of the miraculous, c) possible arguments for a non-physical mind, and d) what seem fundamental gaps in scientific understanding. Between those, I think there's at least a superficially compelling case to make.

But then again, I'm not a theist nor can I see any reason to be one, so my 'strategy' is probably worse than useless.

Alex SL said...

Put another way, how many would change their minds if the arguments are shown unsound?

But they are unsound - so that should answer your rhetorical question, no?

K said...

Alex SL, I'm not sure what you're getting at there. There's a difference between thinking an argument is good and how good an argument is. Would Craig, if there was a mistake found in the cosmological argument abandon his belief in God? If fine-tuning turned out to be explainable in terms of physical laws, would it cause Pell to cast off his faith?

My contention is that such arguments are foils, where the validity of the argument doesn't really affect one's belief in God either way. The design argument is the one major exception to that because it's between necessity and redundancy.

Svlad Cjelli said...

I would avoid anything measurable. Keep the topics incestuous. There shall be no rebuttals!

Svlad Cjelli said...

Learn from the New Age hobblegrok.

James Sweet said...

This is why I wonder why more theists don't abandon apologetics altogether and simply say, "Yeah, I know it contradicts reason. That's what faith is all about, duh. If I had a reason to believe it, it wouldn't be faith." (Which, by the way, is pretty explicit in the New Testament)

With the exception of the Cosmological Argument (more on this in a second), all arguments for God are either easily refuted by fact (like the Argument from Design) or by reductio ad absurdum (like the Ontological Argument), or else they are not actually arguments for the existence of God at all (like the Argument from Morality). That any educated person presents these arguments with a straight face is baffling to me.

The Cosmological Argument (and to a lesser extent, the Argument from Fine-Tuning) is not really an argument for the existence of God either, but it does point out what at least feels like an existential problem with our present scientific knowledge (I am increasingly of the mindset that this existential dissatisfaction is an artifact of our own cognitive biases than any real gap, but nonetheless it sure feels like an "uncaused cause" is a problem for science). God is neither an obvious nor a sufficient answer to this problem, and furthermore it's a real roll of the dice, akin to those who, pre-Darwin, put all their eggs in the Argument from Design basket: History has not been kind to Gap Gods and Goddesses.

All of which I'm just trying to say, I think the Cosmological Argument is a poor one, but (unlike other arguments for God) I don't find it baffling that many people embrace it. Particularly when somebody gets all "nuanced" about what it means to be a "contingent being", outright refutations become more difficult. We are reduced to saying, "There is absolutely no reason to believe that", as opposed to "Here are five reasons NOT to believe that" (which IMO we can do with literally every other argument in favor of God's existence).

But the Argument from Faith, if I may call it that, is irrefutable: "I believe it because I believe it, regardless of the facts." You cannot puncture that. So why don't more theists abandon apologetics and just go with that?

Well, I think I know the answer: Most of them, waaaay deep down, kinda know it's all a game, the same way when you are a kid you kinda know Santa is a game before you are ready to consciously admit it to yourself. As evidence of this, I point to the fact the believers in the afterlife seem to mourn just as much in the face of tragedy as us non-believers.

So instead of just leaning on their faith -- which is deeply tarnished by inevitable doubt -- they invent these dumb-ass apologetics. Sad.

Marshall said...

I would foot the debate as not being about God existing as something apart from the world, for there is nothing apart from everything, but rather put forward God as an interpretation of the world, a human-scale way of relating to the infinite. An embodiment of the voice of important community-maintaining social traditions. A name for the inner voice that tells me what I ought to do, often enough opposed to what I desire to do. In short, a means of putting myself in dialog with my own experience, not just being the object of it.

In my counter-arguments I would expect (depending of course on the other side) to insist that there is no need to be stuck with Russell any more than with Aquinas. Modern thought across a spectrum from Quantum Mechanics to Godel incompleteness to modern linguistics has shown that Logical Positivism can't give a "sufficient" description of the world. There is no "one true way" of deciphering physical reality, let alone our private experience.

God as an objective, external object is an attractive illusion, but as with moral objects or "a theory of everything" it's a bad place to get hung up. We don't give up living moral lives, being concerned with moral questions, just when we give up external, absolute, universally binding moral objects. Rather than either uncritically accepting or rejecting, we should allow religion to progress, acknowledging other streams of modern thought, and take its place in the construction of a humane society.

Ken Pidcock said...

I would attempt, to the extent possible, to shift the question from whether there is any rational basis for believing in the presence of supernatural agents to whether atheists are attacking believers unfairly. Everybody says how sharp William Lane Craig is, but he's still arguing from design, for which support requires a lack of familiarity with exactly what is being asserted.

Bruce S. Springsteen said...

It seems to me that before any argument over the existence of god can be engaged in, some definition of god must be agreed upon. Every definition of god I've ever heard fails at that stage, in one of three ways:

Incoherence. The definition proposed is simply unintelligible in any way that permits a discussion. A gibberish definition cannot be defended or attacked. So when god is described as "that being than which nothing greater can be conceived" or "the ground of all being" or "that which transcends existence" we have failed to place anything comprehensible enough to debate on the table.

Inconsistency. Some definitions fail immediately for being self-contradictory, and therefore logically impossible to defend. The idea of omnipotence in a god is self-annihilating, plunging us into paradoxes where god can create things he can't destroy or destroy things so totally he can't reconstruct. Omniscience lets him try to persuade us to worship him "freely" while knowing certainly whether he will succeed or not, having predetermined all things. Omnipresence means he isn't just within us but he is us, wholly and in every part, and therefore is giving commandments and issuing threats to himself, to save himself from himself or punish himself. Are we separate from god or is god all-encompassing? It can't be both.

Needlessness. The definition simply attaches the word god to something for which we already have another name, like the universe, or love, or mathematics, or nature...

Once his definition has failed in one or more of these three basic ways, what is left for an apologist to do? The race has ended at the first hurdle.

DEEN said...

"It's really only going to appeal to people who already hold Christian organisations and moral views in high regard"
I find this is true for most of the "philosophical" arguments too. That is, the philosophical arguments won't convince you unless you already believe in some form of God.