Continuing in my current series trying to explain why I doubt the existence of gods, I’d like to start talking about the philosophical arguments for gods (the popular ones are formed as trying to prove a traditional monotheistic God, so I’ll stick to those.)
As an introduction to this topic I’d like to talk more generally about my own perspectives regarding arguments for and against the existence of God. I’ve found some theists who have expressed my own ideas better than I can. I’ve tried my best to not twist their quotes out of context but I’ll include links to all of their interviews from the Closer To Truth website so my readers can make their own judgments. There are tons of related interviews on that website with both theists as well as atheists that I’ve spent way too many hours listening to, but I’ve found many of them helpful.
While many of my readers (perhaps all) don’t need to hear this, it is important for some believers to hear that philosophers agree that we cannot get complete certainty from philosophical arguments for/against the existence of God (actually uncertainty in philosophy extends way beyond this subject). This seems to be the consensus even among conservative theistic scholars. Some theists go further than only suggesting that you can’t get complete certainty and those are the perspectives I’d like to share here.
First a short clip from Peter van Inwagen:
This may have been one of those one off comments but it fits the context of what he was expressing in the interview. Either way It matches my own view. Take a look here at polls of philosophers on different topics. What I see from that is that opinions are all over the map on many different topics. Not only is there lack of complete certainty but there is much honest disagreement on deep philosophical questions.
Next a longer one from John Cottingham:
Cottingham doesn’t get into much detail here but his points are well taken – for many people these arguments likely won’t get them anywhere and they are even unhelpful. I’m sure Cottingham would agree with me that there are exceptions to this, and frankly I want philosophical discussions to continue because the pursuit of truth needs to continue with all ideas on the table and discussed back and forth with rigor – but the point is that we need to have a practical as well as respectful view of the fact that these arguments at least at this point remain intellectually unconvincing to many who are both sincere and well informed.
People can provide their air-tight syllogisms and tout philosophical rigor above those they disagree with but they should be aware that many of those they disagree with are quite aware of the difference between logical validity and logical soundness. They are very aware that the premises of many of these arguments are questionable often in several different ways, and that it is mainly the discussion of the premises where the confusion and honest disagreement always lies.
Then there is more insight from William Dembsky:
Similar things here regarding this kind of perspective regarding arguments. I totally agree with him regarding the ontological argument and many (not all) of the theists interviewed tend to express the same concession. Like him, I also feel like the ontological argument is a word game where the existence of God somehow “pops out”. Usually after reading these kind of ontological arguments I end up feeling similar to how I feel after I’ve been scammed by a sneaky telemarketer. I don’t plan on discussing the ontological argument much, although I would say that I think that some laypeople (even theists) who speak against it don’t properly understand the argument. Some feel that it just says “if you can think about something then it exists”. This isn’t quite right, but either way many experts who are better informed (both theists as well as atheists) agree that the argument is fallacious.
Dembski precisely hits the nail on the head regarding the problem I’ve always felt plagues the Cosmological argument and frankly I don’t understand why people are so enamored with this one. Since it is so popular later on I will likely post on some of the other issues with it. Quoting Dembski on this: “…explanations always run out at some point. There’s a natural resting place or final resting place of explanation, and it seems we can end it in nature or we can end it in God. I’m not sure you can adjudicate that on any sort of logical grounds that stand outside and can say ok well it’s really God and not nature.” If he was being more precise he would have exhausted all possibilities by saying “we can end it in something natural or we can end it in something not natural”, but this was an informal setting.
Dembski expressed that he is personally persuaded by the moral argument (Cottingham is also) as well as intelligent design (irreducible complexity) as you can see in the rest of the interview. I’ve already discussed why the moral argument is not convincing to me. While the moral argument is a popular one, Dembski seems to be in the minority among theist philosophers interviewed regarding intelligent design. This is likely because the consensus among scientists in the field is against this view. Francis Collins is one of many well informed theists who disagree with Dembski on this. Which brings me to another very interesting point – there seems to be much disagreement among theists about which arguments are convincing and which are not, even among the experts. Again, par for the course when it comes to philosophy. I’m not all that negative on intelligent design, but I’ll need a separate post to fit all the ideas I have on that (sorry I keep doing that).
And last but not least a kind offer of respect from theist John Polkinghorne:
I just love Polkinghorne’s attitude here. He mentions Steven Weinberg and I am similar to Steven in that I often talk about religion with my friends who have an interest in it. Face to face these kinds of discussions can actually be enjoyable even with lack of agreement because a lot of my theistic friends can have a similar attitude as Polkinghorne. Unfortunately, given the nature of the online medium it is much more difficult to have this kind of conversation (but not impossible) in the virtual world.
In my next post I will dig deep into one of the more popular arguments. Likely fine-tuning.