The Debate is Heating Up

by Luke Muehlhauser on February 25, 2009 in General Atheism

The debate over the existence of God has never been this hot or well-argued – by both sides – in human history. It’s an exciting time to be, at least in a very minor role, part of such a massive debate. Sometimes I can almost see the giants of Theism and Atheism swinging their city-sized swords above the earth, blocking each attack in a shattering crunch and then spinning around with a counter-attack – like something out of the recent Transformers movie, but much bigger.

The debate seemed to be over in the 1960s, and Time magazine asked “Is God Dead?” on their front cover. But then analytic Christian philosophers started to fight back. Landmark works by Plantinga, Craig, Swinburne, and others began to shake up the philosophical landscape. Of course, atheists struck back with major works by Mackie, Smith, and Martin.

Not only that, but the debate over the resurrection of Jesus has heated up, too. In the 50s and 60s, Historical Jesus research was dominated by the views of Schweitzer and Bultmann, and it was generally felt that almost nothing could be known about the Historical Jesus, and we certainly couldn’t know whether or not he rose from the dead.

But that has changed. Books by Dunn, Craig, Habermas, and Wright tried to show that, using standard historical methods, we could show that the resurrection of Jesus was the best explanation for the facts of ancient history. Secular scholars like the Jesus Seminar, and the new mythicists like Doherty and Carrier, have struck back with forceful arguments of their own.

Both debates have also hit a fever pitch in the public sphere, where there is less reason and more ranting. Popular books by atheists (Dawkins, Harris, Hitchens) and theists (Strobel, McDowell, Comfort) do not advance the state of knowledge, and in many ways obfuscate the true debate, but nevertheless they have brought the issues and arguments at stake to the public’s attention. So, too, did the well-publicized political and legal debates about Creationism (in the 1980s) and Intelligent Design (in the 90s and 00s) as alternatives to evolution.

Recently, major blows to theism were dealt by Sobel, Schellenberg, and Oppy. But theism will strike back this May with a massive and important volume called The Blackwell Companion to Natural Theology, edited by Craig and Moreland, which will probably end up being the standard for a philosophical defense of theism for at least a decade. (That is, if anyone writes for or against theism after The Blackwell Companion to Natural Theology, they will probably have to respond to what is said in this book.)

As Craig explains, the book will collect full-length chapters about all the major arguments in favor of God and the resurrection of Jesus by their foremost living defenders. Contents:

  1. The Project of Natural Theology (Charles Taliaferro)
  2. The Leibnizian Cosmological Argument (Alexander R. Pruss) [read it online]
  3. The Kalam Cosmological Argument (William Lane Craig and James D. Sinclair)
  4. The Teleological Argument (Robin Collins)
  5. The Argument from Consciousness (J. P. Moreland)
  6. The Argument from Reason (Victor Reppert)
  7. The Moral Argument (Mark D. Linville) [read it online]
  8. The Argument from Evil (a defense against it, by Stewart Goetz)
  9. The Argument from Religious Experience (Kai-man Kwan)
  10. The Ontological Argument (Robert Maydole)
  11. The Argument from Miracles (Lydia McGrew and Timothy McGrew) [read it online]

Frankly, I couldn’t be more excited. On the other hand, it is astonishing to me that people can so persuasively and philosophically defend what I sometimes call “the Invisible Friend Theory.” Some day I would love to read a massive satirical volume that defends the existence of the Flying Spaghetti Monster with such philosophical rigor!

It should be noted that the debate is not really between atheism and theism, but between atheism and Christianity. Though apologists for other religions exist, there hasn’t been a significant contribution to the philosophy of religion from another religion that I’m aware of since the 12th century. Even Islam and Judaism, which at times had fine intellectual histories, have not mounted much of a philosophical defense for their religions since the middle ages. And frankly, I don’t see them coming back.

For atheists, I suppose this is good news. Atheism has intellectually defeated hundreds of religions, and only one remains with a credible defense among scholars: Christianity. If Christianity is discredited, then perhaps we as a society can shift our attention from the Invisible Friend Debate to the real problems of human existence about, say, political philosophy or moral ontology.

Edit: As my commentors have pointed out, faiths have not often fallen to atheism, but usually to other faiths. What I meant is that only atheism and Christianity seem to have a significant defense in modern analytic philosophy.

Also, when speaking of  the “real” problems of human existence, of course we must also get on with taking care of 6 billion people – what I mentioned above were significant philosophical problems that could be partly solved if we didn’t spend so much time arguing about gods. (But then, it is so fun!)

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{ 21 comments… read them below or add one }

IbnAbuTalib February 25, 2009 at 10:43 pm

Luke:Even Islam and Judaism, which at times had fine intellectual histories, have not mounted much of a philosophical defense for their religions since the middle ages.

At least you admit that Islam had a rich intellectual history. Most critics tend to downplay the contributions of Islam to science and philosophy.

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Samuel Skinner February 25, 2009 at 11:07 pm

“Some day I would love to read a massive satirical volume that defends the existence of the Flying Spaghetti Monster with such philosophical rigor!”

Just use word substitution.

“At least you admit that Islam had a rich intellectual history. Most critics tend to downplay the contributions of Islam to science and philosophy.”

Then the Mongols came… half a milenia of progress halted in a few short bloody years.

“It should be noted that the debate is not really between atheism and theism, but between atheism and Christianity. Though apologists for other religions exist, there hasn’t been a significant contribution to the philosophy of religion from another religion that I’m aware of since the 12th century. Even Islam and Judaism, which at times had fine intellectual histories, have not mounted much of a philosophical defense for their religions since the middle ages. And frankly, I don’t see them coming back.”

That is the miracle of the net- I’ve seen Muslim, Hindu, Buddism and more arguing the truth of their faith on the net. You don’t see them because the US tends to only get the Christian stuff in print.

“Atheism has intellectually defeated hundreds of religions, and only one remains with a credible defense among scholars: Christianity.”

Atheism has never destroyed a religion- all faiths have fallen to other faiths. At long last we might see a different victory than one madness for another.

“human existence about, say, political philosophy or moral ontology.”

I thought taking care of 8 billion people was higher on the list.

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Crazy Religious Nut February 26, 2009 at 8:08 am

Wait… so Atheism gets credit for \defeating\ Islam? Christians are the ones who directly engage Muslims in debate. How often do you see an atheism vs. Islam debate? The fact that Christians are the only ones who are willing to stand up and debate Atheism is FAR more of a credit to Christianity’s validity than to atheism’s.

Give credit where credit is due.

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Samuel Skinner February 26, 2009 at 8:20 am

“Christians are the ones who directly engage Muslims in debate.”

Not inside the Islamic world.

“How often do you see an atheism vs. Islam debate? ”

How about you look at the Islamic blogs on the internet?

“The fact that communists are the only ones who are willing to stand up and debate capitalism is FAR more of a credit to communism’s validity than to capitalism’s.”

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Kevin Harris February 26, 2009 at 8:58 am

Frankly, I couldn’t be more excited. On the other hand, it is astonishing to me that people can so persuasively and philosophically defend what I sometimes call “the Invisible Friend Theory.” Some day I would love to read a massive satirical volume that defends the existence of the Flying Spaghetti Monster with such philosophical rigor!

KH> Wow! And you were doing such an excellent job chronicling the debate! And in one fell swoop you screwed it up!

Bringing up the Flying Spaghetti Monster shows you either don’t know what a Category Error is, or you accidentally missed it. Flying (spatial) Spaghetti (material) Monster (a limited monstrosity).

Thanks for linking to my podcast with Bill Craig. Let me know what you think of some of the others.

Kevin

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Crazy Religious Nut February 26, 2009 at 12:58 pm

“The fact that communists are the only ones who are willing to stand up and debate capitalism is FAR more of a credit to communism’s validity than to capitalism’s.”

Wow, what a killer analogy. Yep, politics=metaphysics, for sure. :rolleyes:

Islamic blogs? You do realize I was talking about formal debates… right?

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DW February 26, 2009 at 5:03 pm

“Bringing up the Flying Spaghetti Monster shows you either don’t know what a Category Error is, or you accidentally missed it. Flying (spatial) Spaghetti (material) Monster (a limited monstrosity).”

His noodlyness is offended by the suggestion that he doesn’t belong in the same category as his Jahwehness.

Genesis 3:8 – Then the man and his wife heard the sound of the LORD God walking in the garden at the time of the evening breeze (spatial)

Genesis 12:7 – So Abram built an altar there to the LORD who had appeared to him (material)

I Samuel 6:19-And he smote the men of Bethshemesh, because they had looked into the ark of the LORD, even he smote of the people fifty thousand and threescore and ten men
Numbers 25:4-Take all the heads of the people and hang them up before the LORD against the sun
Numbers 16:35-And there came out a fire from the LORD, and consumed the two hundred and fifty men that offered incense
(limited monstrosity)

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lukeprog February 26, 2009 at 8:08 pm

That is lovely, DW.

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lukeprog February 26, 2009 at 8:13 pm

IbnAbuTalib,

I recently listed Ibn al-Haytham as the 2nd most important thinker of all time, behind Aristotle:

http://listology.com/content_show.cfm/content_id.37925

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cartesian February 27, 2009 at 12:10 pm

“it is astonishing to me that people can so persuasively and philosophically defend what I sometimes call “the Invisible Friend Theory.” Some day I would love to read a massive satirical volume that defends the existence of the Flying Spaghetti Monster with such philosophical rigor!”

I’ve been trying to communicate to you that belief in God is not best compared to belief in the FSM, a cosmic teacup, fairies, etc.

The burden of proof is certainly on believers in a FSM. But we should agree that the burden of proof is not on believers in other minds, an external world, the reality of the past, etc.

Theists (should) claim that belief in God is more analogous to belief in other minds than belief in a FSM. After all, both belief in other minds and belief in God spontaneously arise in humans. Humans seem ‘hard-wired’ to believe in God, as well as other minds. We watch the behavior of human bodies, and just find ourselves believing that there are other minds. Similarly, we watch a beautiful sunset, or a crazy volcano, or whatever, and just find ourselves believing various things about God.

If we are hard-wired to believe in X, the burden of proof is on the skeptic of X.

We’re not hard-wired to believe in a FSM. But we are to believe in God. So while the burden of proof is on the believer in a FSM, the burden of proof is not on the theist.

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cartesian February 27, 2009 at 12:12 pm

Also, you should check out this debate between Plantinga and Dennett:

http://www.freeratio.org/showthread.php?t=262996

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Kevin Harris February 27, 2009 at 2:07 pm

His noodlyness is offended by the suggestion that he doesn’t belong in the same category as his Jahwehness.

Genesis 3:8 – Then the man and his wife heard the sound of the LORD God walking in the garden at the time of the evening breeze (spatial)

Genesis 12:7 – So Abram built an altar there to the LORD who had appeared to him (material)

I Samuel 6:19-And he smote the men of Bethshemesh, because they had looked into the ark of the LORD, even he smote of the people fifty thousand and threescore and ten men
Numbers 25:4-Take all the heads of the people and hang them up before the LORD against the sun
Numbers 16:35-And there came out a fire from the LORD, and consumed the two hundred and fifty men that offered incense (limited monstrosity)

KH> Nice try! But these are examples of various theophanies and judgements of God (who by nature is immaterial, non-spatial, non-contingent, etc).

The best the FSM adherent can do is offer that his noodlyness is an incarnation (and that without any evidence).

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lukeprog February 27, 2009 at 8:43 pm

cartesian:

You said “If we are hard-wired to believe in X, the burden of proof is on the skeptic of X.”

I feel like this deserves another post. :)

KH: You have not read much FSM theology. The FSM has always been conceived of as immaterial, non-spatial, and non-contingent. In contrast, Yahweh was conceived of as spatial and perhaps even material long before he was Platonized, and you know it.

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lukeprog February 27, 2009 at 9:41 pm

cartesian:

Also, as it turns out I’ve been listening to the Plantinga-Dennett debate in patches throughout the day – a very fun debate! I’m a bigger fan of Plantinga than Dennett (though Dennett is a better writer), but Dennett’s “Superman response” is pretty much what I would have said to Plantinga in that situation.

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cartesian February 28, 2009 at 8:08 am

“Dennett’s “Superman response” is pretty much what I would have said to Plantinga in that situation.”

Um, I don’t know. I don’t think it was an appropriate response. This wasn’t really a debate, you know. It was a paper session at the APA. Dennett was asked to *comment* on Plantinga’s paper. So his task, really, was to engage Plantinga’s arguments. Plantinga was trying to argue that science and religion were compatible, and that naturalism and evolution were incompatible.

Dennett seemed to just grant Plantinga’s point about science and religion being compatible, but then said “So what? Science and supermanism is also compatible. Why is your religion to be preferred over supermanism?” That’s an interesting question and everything, but this really wasn’t a venue to ask Plantinga to make further arguments. Dennett was meant to engage Plantinga’s argument itself, not grant the conclusion and then ask a further question.

I have some experience with this sort of venue (presenting papers at conferences). If someone were to do to me what Dennett did to Plantinga, first I’d be kind of annoyed, because that’s not what a good commenter does, and second I’d think that my arguments were pretty good, since even my very smart commenter was willing to grant them.

You may think: “But who would disagree with Plantinga? It’s obvious that science and religion are compatible!” The fact is that many, many people think that they’re not compatible, that evolution somehow delivers the result that theism is false. Consider Dawkins’ subtitle: “The Blind Watchmaker: How the facts of evolution reveal a world without design” or something like that.

Dennett seems to agree with Plantinga that the facts of evolution reveal no such thing, and that further argument is necessary from the atheist. But that’s a very substantial and controversial point.

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lukeprog February 28, 2009 at 12:28 pm

I’m not sure Plantinga’s arguments have much mettle if all they establish is that evolution doesn’t prohibit some kind of intelligence kicking it off or tinkering with it. Anyone who understands the theory understands that immediately.

But now you seem to say “further argument is necessary from the atheist.” That’s rather bizarre. Most evolutionists would say something like, “We have lots of evidence for how life has arise through natural processes, and no evidence that it was created by Superman or Yahweh or advanced aliens or whatever.”

So I think further argument is needed from the Theist to show shy he thinks Yahweh has been tinkering with evolution, but not Superman, advanced aliens, Allah, or millions of other potential designers.

This is a major problem I have with most Christian apologists. They seem to think that establishing the logical possibility of their God is compelling. That’s what analogies to the Invisible Pink Unicorn and The Flying Spaghetti monster are meant to make clear. Billions of absurd magical beings are logically possible, but that takes us no closer to thinking they are probable. This is the “retreat to the possible,” and I’ll keep calling it out wherever I see it, because the audience keeps mistaking logical possibility for real plausibility.

Do Christian apologists not realize that they could replace “Yahweh” with “Flying Spaghetti Monster” in nearly ALL of their arguments (ontological, cosmological, teleological, arguments from miracles, arguments from experience), and come up with the same results? Do they think they’ve thereby demonstrated the plausibility of the FSM?

Also, Dennett did respond directly to Plantinga’s arguments about evolution being incompatible with naturalism, and quite persuasively.

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cartesian March 1, 2009 at 9:21 am

>>I’m not sure Plantinga’s arguments have much mettle if all they establish is that evolution doesn’t prohibit some kind of intelligence kicking it off or tinkering with it. Anyone who understands the theory understands that immediately.>>

Tell that to Richard Dawkins, who wrote a whole book about how the facts of evolution disprove theism. Many other people believe that the science of evolution (not philosophical theorizing) has shown that evolution is unguided, i.e. not the product of design.

What Plantinga is pointing out is that this is false. The SCIENCE shows no such thing. That’s an important point. It’s controversial. And it seems like Plantinga is right, or at least you and Dennett are willing to agree with him.

>>But now you seem to say “further argument is necessary from the atheist.” That’s rather bizarre.>>

The science itself doesn’t disprove or even call into question theism. Pointing to the science will not suffice to argue against God’s existence. What the atheist has to do is offer an additional argument about simplicity, explanatory impotence, etc. But these considerations go beyond what we’ve learned strictly scientifically.

>>Most evolutionists would say something like, “We have lots of evidence for how life has arise through natural processes, and no evidence that it was created by Superman or Yahweh or advanced aliens or whatever.”>>

Yes, I’ve heard (you make) that argument before. That’s the “additional argument” that I was referring to. You can’t just point to the science to get reasons against theism. You have to make this additional step about simplicity, explanatory impotence, etc.

And your argument looks pretty shaky. It looks to make the mistake that Plantinga was warning you about. You say that we have “lots of evidence as to how life arose by natural causes.” What do you mean by “natural causes”? Do you mean that science has given us lots of evidence that natural selection was unguided, undesigned? That’s exactly what Plantinga was arguing against. The science has given us no such evidence. You seem to be assuming that it does. But then you’re making the same mistake that Dawkins makes.

>>This is a major problem I have with most Christian apologists. They seem to think that establishing the logical possibility of their God is compelling.>>

If someone presents an argument against theism, pointing out that the premises MAY all be true even when the conclusion is false is sufficient to show that the argument is invalid. That’s actually a very good response to an argument. I don’t understand why you don’t like it.

>>Also, Dennett did respond directly to Plantinga’s arguments about evolution being incompatible with naturalism, and quite persuasively.>>

I didn’t say that Dennett didn’t respond to that argument. I think he did gesture at a response. But I don’t think it was very good at all. Dennett said that we have good reason to think that natural selection would produce highly reliable syntactic engines. Plantinga is totally willing to grant that. Listen to Plantinga’s discussion of the frog. There’s good reason to think that having accurate indicator content is adaptive. But that’s not what Plantinga is talking about. He’s wondering whether natural selection would produce a highly reliable SEMANTIC engine, i.e. whether creatures like us would have mostly TRUE beliefs, and not just accurate indicator content. Dennett completely missed the boat.

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cartesian March 1, 2009 at 9:52 am

>>This is the “retreat to the possible,” and I’ll keep calling it out wherever I see it, because the audience keeps mistaking logical possibility for real plausibility.>>

You and I look out at the horizon. You say “The Earth seems flat,” and you therefore believe it’s flat. I point out that the horizon would look this way even if the Earth were a giant sphere. So the Earth MAY be spherical, even though the horizon in some sense looks flat. That’s not an illicit retreat to the possible, right? That’s a sensible piece of reasoning.

Similarly, you and I read an evolutionary textbook. You say “Natural selection looks unguided,” and therefore believe that it is. I point out that things would look this way even if God had guided evolution. So natural selection MAY be guided, even though the facts of evolution look just as they do.

If it wasn’t an illicit retreat to the possible in the case of the shape of the Earth, it’s not an illicit retreat to the possible here.

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lukeprog March 1, 2009 at 11:25 am

>>Tell that to Richard Dawkins, who wrote a whole book about how the facts of evolution disprove theism.>>

I didn’t read that anywhere in Dawkins’ book. I think he was saying that evolution makes God even more unnecessary than before.

That said, I have plenty of disagreements with Dawkins!

>>You say that we have “lots of evidence as to how life arose by natural causes.” What do you mean by “natural causes”? Do you mean that science has given us lots of evidence that natural selection was unguided, undesigned? That’s exactly what Plantinga was arguing against. The science has given us no such evidence.>>

Seriously? This is like watching me bake a cake from start to finish, then telling me that I’ve given no evidence that the cake was baked through natural causes, because it’s still possible there was an invisible magical force animating my every movement! The point is that we have lots of evidence for the casual relations between my natural actions and the baked cake, and no evidence for any causal relation between a magical invisible being and the baked cake.

>>If someone presents an argument against theism, pointing out that the premises MAY all be true even when the conclusion is false is sufficient to show that the argument is invalid. That’s actually a very good response to an argument. I don’t understand why you don’t like it.>>

No, no, that’s perfectly fine. The problem is that many Christian apologists seem to think that in establishing the logical possibility of God, they’ve established something more impressive than the logical possibility of the Flying Spaghetti Monster. They need to take further steps if they want to do that.

>>I didn’t say that Dennett didn’t respond to that argument. I think he did gesture at a response. But I don’t think it was very good at all.>>

One of many problems in Plantinga’s argument is that naturalism need not assume the evolved reliability of the senses. In fact, in many cases, we are acutely aware of how our senses are unreliable. Our response has been to constantly seek methods of testing and qualifying the data that comes to us through our senses, through methods such as logic and science. That’s what Dennett was talking about with regard to the straight-edge.

Anyway, I’ll probably eventually write an article about this argument. For now, most of the ground has been covered in the Plantinga/Draper debate that begins here.

>>If it wasn’t an illicit retreat to the possible in the case of the shape of the Earth, it’s not an illicit retreat to the possible here.>>

The difference is that we now have great amounts of evidence for a round earth, but still no evidence (other than arguments from ignorance) that evolution has been guided. If we had tons of evidence for a flat earth (which we never had) and no evidence for a round earth (which was untrue even for the Ancient Greeks), then YES it would be a retreat to the possible to say that the earth COULD be round.

The thing is, every once in a while something is remotely possible IS true. But it’s very rare. Consider JUST god-ideas. There are millions of contradictory god ideas out there that possible – thousands, just counting the CHRISTIAN god ideas. They are all “possible.” But showing they are possible does not take any steps toward showing that any of them are likely to be true.

You have to give some other argument to show that God is probable. And many theists have offered such arguments, and atheists give responses as to why those arguments fail. Atheists also give arguments that assert the improbability and absurdity of popular god-ideas, and theists give responses as to why those arguments fail. This is the debate.

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TheDougr December 31, 2009 at 8:09 am

This is my first time to this site and I have been absolutely captivated! So much to absorb! I’ll be back! Facinating!

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Camus Dude October 6, 2010 at 10:24 pm

Perhaps you’ve changed your mind since you wrote this post nearly a year ago now, but I think you overestimate the weight of any theistic philosophers in the world of academic philosophy. I’m sure you’re familiar with the survey, carried out in Nov 2009, with results released this year, and much discussed on philosophy blogs, that approx 72% of the surveyed and (if the results can be extrapolated – I haven’t read any criticisms of the survey’s representativeness, so perhaps they can) philosophers in general are atheists (in some sense).

In other words, Craig may be a big fish, but he’s in a VERY small, and shrinking, pond.

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