Tuesday, August 17, 2010

What Should We Learn From Arguments for Atheism?

In his recent contribution to NYT's "The Stone," Gary Gutting wrote a somewhat bland column on philosophy of religion. Perhaps bland isn't the right word: I am guessing plenty of non-philosophers may have appreciated it. It is only uninformative to someone who has taught philosophy of religion and may thus be puzzled by just what Gutting is recommending (actually, I read it with great interest up until the last few paragraphs, and then felt a bit let down). While his argument—that reason has a place in making sense of faith—is appreciated, one may have liked to see a stronger defense of that point. His claim here is mainly that reason and philosophy are needed in helping believers to justify their own particular religious narrative against other traditions. This is a legitimate point, but I think far stronger defenses for the place of reason in religion can be found in classic sources like Augustine, Anselm, Averroes ("the Law has rendered obligatory the study of beings by the intellect"), Maimonides, and Aquinas, among others. While Gutting is surely right that students—especially those already strongly committed to a particular faith tradition—need a hook to help them see the value of philosophy for faith, I wonder whether such a hook is something that needs to be given to them up front, or whether it is not best to help them uncover it through a study of the texts themselves.

In any case, here I want to take a look at Gutting follow-up article, where he attempts to defend his claim that defenses of atheism by Dawkins (and others) are "entirely based on demonstrably faulty arguments." Two points in particular interest me; while I am no fan of the so-called new atheists, I find the arguments Dawkins uses persuasive. Dawkins is not, of course, the originator of these arguments; they are ones many atheists immediately and naturally appeal to, and I've found them fairly compelling since long before I had even heard of Dawkins. They've been around for a while, and I am not likely to say anything new about them here. My aim is only to look at the appeal of the arguments (and not at Dawkins's formulation or use of them), take a glance at Gutting's responses to them, and suggest that he is far more dismissive of them than he should be: they say something important about the relation between theism and atheism and, also, about the relation between reason and faith, that both theists and atheists too often overlook. The two arguments are (1) the complexity argument and (2) the "no-arguments argument." Let me take them up in turn.

(1) The basic idea behind the complexity argument goes something like this: The world is complex. If God is to serve as an explanation of the world—as its creator—then God must be, if anything, even more complex than the world. But if so, then an appeal to God helps us explain the world's complexity only by means of inserting an even more complex explanandum—God—and thus fails to provide a satisfactory explanation of the initial perplexity. Gutting's response is that the argument begs the question by postulating that God is complex and material, or at least functions in a way similar to creatures. But, as Gutting correctly notes, there is a long history in the philosophy of religion of attempting to explain how a simple God can create a complex world, of trying to make sense of God's simplicity, and so on, and by failing to address these issues, Dawkins fails to make his case. This may be right as far as it goes, but a deeper problem lurks here. The conclusion that God must be even more complex than the world and thus fails to provide an explanation of the world's complexity is only one direction we could go here. What happens, from the atheist perspective, if we claim that God is simple, immaterial, and so on? Well, from the atheist perspective, this takes us nowhere: for now we have gone from trying to explain natural phenomena to trying to explain a supernatural phenomenon. But the argument seems to depend on a theist premise: that (a simple and immaterial) God can explain the complexity of the natural world. If you've granted this premise, you are already at least half-way to being a theist. But most atheists would simply reject it: they would respond that it makes no sense to try to explain natural phenomena by means of an appeal to supernatural ones. So the atheist response here could be that the theist argument doesn't even get off the ground unless one has already accepted the theist perspective, or at least something like it. So what we have here is not a genuine argument, but an incommensurability of perspectives: on one perspective, it makes sense to think of God as providing a feasible explanation of the world's complexity; on the other perspective, it does not. Whether or not one then moves on to defend some version of such an explanation, then, depends on whether or not one is already a theist. But then we run into a problem: the world's complexity can function as support for the existence of God only for someone who is already disposed to believe in God. There is no argument genuinely addressed to the atheist.

(2) The no-arguments argument is one I have always found appealing, and I want to quote at some length from Gutting's summary of and response to it:

To say that the universe was created by a good and powerful being who cares about us is an extraordinary claim, so improbable to begin with that we surely should deny it unless there are decisive arguments for it (arguments showing that it is highly probable). Even if Dawkins' arguments against theism are faulty, can't he cite the inconclusiveness of even the most well-worked-out theistic arguments as grounds for denying God's existence?

He can if he has good reason to think that, apart from specific theistic arguments, God's existence is highly unlikely. Besides what we can prove from arguments, how probable is it that God exists? Here Dawkins refers to Bertrand Russell's example of the orbiting teapot. We would require very strong evidence before agreeing that there was a teapot in orbit around the sun, and lacking such evidence would deny and not remain merely agnostic about such a claim. This is because there is nothing in our experience suggesting that the claim might be true; it has no significant intrinsic probability.

But suppose that several astronauts reported seeing something that looked very much like a teapot and, later, a number of reputable space scientists interpreted certain satellite data as showing the presence of a teapot-shaped object, even though other space scientists questioned this interpretation. Then it would be gratuitous to reject the hypothesis out of hand, even without decisive proof that it was true. We should just remain agnostic about it.

The claim that God exists is much closer to this second case. There are sensible people who report having had some kind of direct awareness of a divine being, and there are competent philosophers who endorse arguments for God's existence. Therefore, an agnostic stance seems preferable atheism [sic].

I haven't heard Russell's orbiting teapot suggestion before, but have been using a similar analogy for some time, and Gutting's response once again strikes me as the sort of response that could make sense only to a theist. The comparison he gives is with a physical object, and surely we know what it means to have evidence of a certain kind of physical object. But the difference between God and physical objects seems to vitiate the comparison: what would it mean to have evidence suggesting that God exists? In the case of a physical object, we might have eyewitness testimony ("several astronauts reported seeing something that looked very much like a teapot") and data ("showing the presence of a teapot-shaped object"). But God is not physical, and we haven't got a clue as to what could count as analogous evidence of his existence. Gutting seems to disagree: "sensible people who report having had some kind of direct awareness of a divine being" and "competent philosophers who endorse arguments for God's existence" are his analogues. But are these analogues? For one, I recognize that there are people, even sensible people, who claim to have had direct awareness of a divine being. But I don't have a clue what that could mean. This is, after all, an appeal to some kind of experience, and it falls into some well-known standard traps: How could these people know that their experience is an experience of a divine being? I've had all sorts of experiences that I've interpreted in various ways; perhaps their experiences are like some of these, but they interpret them differently. And surely "competent philosophers" endorsing arguments are not like "competent scientists" endorsing an interpretation of data. For one thing, although scientists might disagree about especially vague data, provided there is more data to be gathered, the scientific community should be able to come to a consensus. Non-scientists, ultimately, must rely on expert testimony (either that or become experts themselves). But in the domain of philosophy, we philosophers are the experts and can evaluate for ourselves whether or not the arguments are worth endorsing—after all, if an argument genuinely makes no sense to me and I can correctly use all the terms that make it up, I am unlikely to accept "X is a sensible philosopher and X finds this a plausible argument" as convincing; instead, I am likely to simply be puzzled by why X would find this plausible, or even to doubt whether X is sensible across the board. In fact, if expert consensus is the issue, surely Gutting is on the wrong side of this one: a recent survey of philosophers shows 72.8% of philosophers are atheists compared to only 14.6% theists, surely a fairly decisive consensus! (I am not, of course, claiming that philosophical debates can be resolved by appeal to majority views; my claim is only that Gutting's response to the no-arguments argument rests on a problematic analogy.)

So what, then, should we conclude from this? In the case of (1), I suggested that whether or not one finds the complexity argument decisive depends on whether or not one already has theistic leanings. The same seems to be the case in the no-arguments argument. The argument rests not (I think) on the claim that arguments for God's existence are inconclusive, but rather on the claim that the "evidence" in favor of theism only counts as evidence from the perspective of a theist. It is not that an atheist will not find the suggested "evidence" convincing; rather, the atheist will not recognize it as evidence. This is why debates about whether or not God exists tend to be massively unproductive: the theist will produce arguments; the atheist will accept them as arguments and respond to them as such. But both are speaking past each other: the atheist will not recognize the force of the arguments, that is, he will recognize them as arguments only because of the context in which they are presented. The evidence they adduce will not strike him as evidence: it will not be something that appears to him rationally sound, and he will—in puzzlement—attempt to figure out why someone could find this rationally sound. Meanwhile, the theist will take the atheist's rejection of his evidence as stubbornness, as if the atheist is intentionally failing to recognize good (or at least plausible) arguments as such. But I propose that the problem is more simple than that: theists take as conclusive, or at least strongly suggestive, propositions that to atheists are already loaded. To grant even the plausibility of either the claim that natural phenomena can have supernatural explanations, or that there are people who really do have experiences of the divine is already to go half-way toward abandoning atheism; but there is no argument available to convince atheists to take that step.


  1. “It is wrong always, everywhere, and for anyone to believe anything on insufficient evidence.”

    I take it this is why Platinga's work on epistemic warrantedness, which you seem to be endorsing, is so important theists.

    Ought we to be pluralists about warrant? You make this seem like a merely rhetorical question, especially in your account of God's explanatory power.

  2. I'm not sure how this relates to what I wrote. I certainly don't think it is wrong to believe anything on insufficient evidence; like everyone else, I do it all the time. And I haven't said anything about warrant or whether we ought to be pluralists about it. My suggestion is only that theists and atheists DO have different standards of evidence, not that they ought to (a question I did not address).

  3. I found that to be a really good read, and the last paragraph in particular I felt did a really good job explaining why atheist-theist arguments are so common, charged, and unproductive.

  4. Which things do you believe without sufficient evidence? Why not simply assign those things lower confidence scores in your Bayesian calculations?

    To be clear, I think this is a great post. But it seems strange that you address the warrantedness of some of Guttings premises but retreat to descriptive epistemology in the final paragraph. It looks like an endorsement.

    Treating theistic priors as a warrant for accepting otherwise unwarranted premises is, indeed, to side with Platinga and the pluralists.

  5. I am "retreating" from simply attacking Gutting's premises to the position that they do not make sense from the perspective of an atheist. So you are asking, I take it, why I would bother to do that instead of simply attacking his premises and leaving it at that?

    First, because attacking his premises is easy. There are lots of basic arguments that do that. And the discussions never go anywhere. I am interested less in continuing an endless argument with theists and more in trying to understand why such argument always look so very strange to both sides.

    Second, I am trying to understand something about theist arguments (and about faith, more generally), namely, I want to try to make sense of why so many seemingly reasonable people believe things that don't make much sense to me on the basis of premises that don't make much sense to me. I find that puzzling. Also intriguing. I think trying to make sense of what theists are saying may be a very different project from trying to make sense of it just enough to mount a refutation.

    So yes, there is a descriptive element involved. I am trying to figure out the nature of the disagreement rather than simply contribute to the disagreement.

    [As for Bayesian calculations--I'm afraid that, unlike my co-blogger, I don't have a clue when it comes to Bayes.]