CPBD 044: Greg Ganssle – The New Atheism

by Luke Muehlhauser on June 6, 2010 in Podcast

cpbd044

(Listen to other episodes of Conversations from the Pale Blue Dot here.)

Today I interview philosopher Greg Ganssle. Among other things, we discuss:

  • Faith, reason, and evidence
  • How Dawkins defeats biological design arguments but not the fine-tuning argument
  • “Who made God?”
  • Religious pluralism as evidence against God
  • Dawkins’ best argument for atheism

Download CPBD episode 044 with Greg Ganssle. Total time is 49:13.

ganssleGreg Ganssle links:

Links for things we discussed:

Note: in addition to the regular blog feed, there is also a podcast-only feed. You can also subscribe on iTunes.

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{ 28 comments… read them below or add one }

Bill Maher June 6, 2010 at 6:58 am

man, everyone has been up FT’s @$$ lately.

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lukeprog June 6, 2010 at 7:24 am

FT?

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John D June 6, 2010 at 7:38 am

Fine Tuning.

I presume.

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Emil Karlsson June 6, 2010 at 9:14 am

Here are some notes that I wrote down quickly while listening to this podcast. Hope someone finds them useful.

Perhaps Dawkins main argument could be interpreted as a rebuttal to the first cause and design argument showing that such argument is merely circular, as oppose to an actual argument for the non-existence of god?

For instance, the traditional first cause argument has as a premise that everything that exists has a cause (but then tries to say that a god does not need a cause) and the traditional design argument tries to argue that design implies and designer and that this designer must be somehow greater or more complex than the design (you have never seen a painting without a painter, you have never seen a watch without a watchmaker etc.)

These two formulations are clearly either circular or special pleading, which it seems to me that Dawkins is trying to point out.

Ganssle also incorrect describes the plurality argument. The argument is not that the proposition that god exists is false because there is a well-tested scientific explanation to the origin of religion (this would be the genetic fallacy) but the question is that what worldview best explains religious diversity? So the argument from diversity would be an inference to best explanation, going something like this.

Let me defined Basic Teism (BT) as any worldview in which a nonphysical, conscious mind having power, intelligence, and a morally good nature, all far beyond that of any human. This God is distinct from, and the creator of, the universe, and can act upon the universe by simply willing so.

Let me defined philosophical naturalism (henceforth PN) as the position that everything everyone has observed or claimed to observe is the product of fundamentally mindless arrangements and interactions of matter-energy in space-time, leaving no sufficient reason to believe that anything else exists or more generally, the position that nothing that exists is supernatural.

Definitions shamelessly stolen from the Carrier-Wanchick debate from 2006.

P1. If, given all the available evidence, PN best (in the formal Bayesian sense) explains religious diversity over BT then we should believe PN over BT.
P2. Given all the available evidence, PN best (in the formal Bayesian sense) explains religious diversity over BT
C. Therefore, we should believe PN over BT. (from P1&P2 per modus ponens)

Granted, P2 is debatable, but this argument is much less vacuous than saying “the proposition that god exists is false because religion has a naturalistic origin” (which is how Christian apologetics often characterize the argument).

With the sociological, anthropological and psychological data in hand, there is a mostly straight forward explanation for religious diversity on PN and PN might even predict it, but it is not at all clear that this is the case for BT or that BT predicts it.

This, in my opinion, dismisses the notion that atheistic plurality is a problem for atheism or PN. Also, his argument appeals to the fallacy of “two wrongs, make a right”. Even if atheistic diversity was a problem for atheism, it does not stop being a problem for theism.

His argument about consciousness can be countered by the argument from physical minds, that is, if atheism is true, then any existing consciousness has to be a product of a material brain (and this is what we find). However, if theism is true, then this need not be the case, and is indeed not the case, as there are many disembodied minds floating around like a god, angels, demons, spirits, souls and so on. Humans could have disembodied minds or brainless minds as well. This is Carriers argument from Mind-Brain Dysteleology.

As far as order and structure, this may be countered with a form of the anthropic principle, that is, if atheism is true, then the physical constants of our universe must absolutely be compatible with our existence. However, if theism is true, then god could create a universe with other constants, yet make our existence possible by miracle anyway. Notice that if we ever discovered that the physical constants are incompatible with our existence, then this would be very strong evidence for something like theism. So again, we have that our current state of affairs is something that atheism would necessarily predict, whereas theism does not. Maybe the fine tuning argument is an argument for atheism?

The other examples might be treated in a similar fashion, but maybe I am rambling.

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Corso June 6, 2010 at 10:57 am

I’m really getting tired of hearing how bad the new atheists are. They may not be great philosophers, but they do have SOME good ideas. Luke, I really hope you plan on interviewing someone who supports them soon. Also, I second Bill Maher’s point about Fine Tuning. Perhaps another episode with Taner Edis is called for.

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lukeprog June 6, 2010 at 11:25 am

Corso,

I’ll be happy to write some more positive posts about the new atheists, if that will cheer up my readers! :)

I did just do the PZ Myers post, you know.

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Corso June 6, 2010 at 11:44 am

Luke,

I was not talking about your personal views on the NA (which I find pretty fair BTW). I was referring instead to the guests on your podcast, including the atheist ones.

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J Wahler June 6, 2010 at 5:21 pm

How about a post about how Luke interprets the “New” part of the ‘New Atheist”. What about them is new relative Jean Meslier, Paine, Voltaire, Martin, Russell, d’Holbach? No very new arguments, no new proofs, just a resurgence of pissed off white dudes(plus Ibn Warraq) at silly superstition. After ten years, the next set of great popular atheist will have to be called the neo-new atheist. A bizarre disregard of atheism’s’ long and distinguished history.

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lukeprog June 6, 2010 at 5:40 pm

J Wahler,

Have atheists like Bertrand Russell topped the bestsellers list before? I suspect that’s the only ‘New’ thing.

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oarobin June 6, 2010 at 5:50 pm

another good interview.
thanks.

my problem is the positing of the idea that god exist necessarily not as the logical outcome of a strong, robust deductively sound argument or strong empirical evidence but rather as a definition, especially when the question being ask is does god exist.
do we allow this kind of explanation? Question: do strings, extra dimensions exist (from string theory) answer they exist necessarily! claims about existence (part of objective reality) need to be substantiated or existence becomes a useless word.

also could you in addition to asking your guest about the New Atheist treatment of god also ask your guest if the god they defend is compatible with being prayed to, performs miracles, favours a known creed,favours particular set of persons etc all the trapping of traditional religious worship.if not why not and would they advocate the relinquishing of such a practice. it seems only fair if we are to hear from your guest so often how the new Atheist do not address philosophically sophisticated god concepts, then we also need to hear whether or not these sophisticated god concepts are compatible with popular religious practices and what your guest think of these practices.

on the who design the designer argument check out SisphusRedeemed on youtube(if you have not already seen him) for an argument that the view makes sense on a coherentist epistemology and give us your thoughts on it.

http://www.youtube.com/user/SisyphusRedeemed#p/u/41/5VsvWK6RiLU

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other eric June 6, 2010 at 8:34 pm

does anyone else find the pan on the voices (in my headphones luke’s voice is in my left ear and the guest’s is in my right) in this episode really distracting? i had to keep stopping the playback because it made me physically uncomfortable. is it an experiment or something? where you are the voice of reason talking to the analytical left brain and the theist is the voice of creative fantasy talking to the right brain?
i really hates it.

also, for my part, i doubt i ever would have visited or learned about this blog or others like it without the new atheists. before them i honestly had no idea that anyone besides god-fearin’ parents and their rebel atheist kids discussed these issues seriously.

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lukeprog June 6, 2010 at 9:10 pm

other eric,

Thanks for the feedback; I’ll change that.

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Roman June 6, 2010 at 9:32 pm

I want to say that I really enjoyed this interview and I thought Greg was very reasonable and kind.

Carobin – I think Greg was saying that the definition of God is as a necessary being – that is how believers, when asked to reflect on their concept of God, think of God.

It is separate from the issue of whether the concept of God is instantiated in reality. It is not a claim about existence.

You can believe that the concept of God is as a necessary being, and also that God doesn’t exist (and if you think this, then you should also think that God doesn’t exist in any possible world, that is, he impossible.)

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Roman June 6, 2010 at 9:42 pm

Corso,

Greg agrees with you! You said “They may not be great philosophers, but they do have SOME good ideas.” And that’s exactly what Greg says in the interview.

For example he agrees with Dawkins on his view of the relation between science and religion – namely that religion makes factual claims and is not just about values.

Another good example; he agrees with Dawkins on a key premise in Dawkins’ fittingness argument for atheism. The premise is, roughly, that we have strong evidence to think that life came about through natural selection and that this fits better with atheism than it does with theism. Greg thinks that this is some evidence for atheism.

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TaiChi June 7, 2010 at 3:03 am

You can believe that the concept of God is as a necessary being, and also that God doesn’t exist (and if you think this, then you should also think that God doesn’t exist in any possible world, that is, he impossible.)” ~ Roman

Bill Vallicella had a good point on this. Discussing Anselm’s ontological argument, he thought that Anselm showed that God was a non-contingent being, not that he was a necessary being. A contingent being is one whic possibly exists, and possibly does not exist; so a non-contingent being is a being for which one of the conjuncts is false, i.e., a necessary or impossible being. A useful term, I thought.

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Steve Maitzen June 7, 2010 at 5:43 am

Re: Ontological argument

I appreciated Ganssle’s balanced, charitable perspective. However, whenever someone seems to endorse the ontological argument in any form, I feel the urge to comment. Ganssle said (25:45) that the most controversial step in the ontological argument is the premise that the concept of a necessarily existing God is satisfiable, i.e., possibly satisfied. I think the argument has a pretty clearly false step even if we grant that premise.

In order to establish that God exists, this version of the argument needs the following assumption:

B: If possibly necessarily P, then P,

where the modal operators (“possibly,” “necessarily”) are read in the metaphysical (or what Plantinga calls the “broadly logical”) sense.

The problem is that B can be shown to imply that

C: The only individuals that could have existed (in the metaphysical sense of “could have”) are the individuals that actually exist.

But surely I could have had one more hair on my body than I actually will ever have. I could have had one more hair, even though no actual thing (past, present, or future) is such that it could have been that extra hair: none of my actual hairs could have been that extra hair, none of yours could either, no non-hair (e.g., skin cell) could have been that extra hair; etc. Or at any rate the possible existence of that extra hair doesn’t require the actual existence of something that could have been that hair.

If so, then C is false, in which case B is also false and the modal ontological argument fails even if we grant the premise that Ganssle rightly identifies as controversial.

Not only is the ontological argument flawed (in every version of it I’ve seen anyway), but the idea that gets it started — the idea that God must be unsurpassably great — generates a dilemma (atheism or incoherently radical mysticism) that I think even Anselm may have glimpsed when he offered the argument.

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Keith June 7, 2010 at 7:04 am

I do take exception to Ganssle’s argument about committing oneself 100% to an idea that has less than 100% chance of being true. He uses the analogy of his daily commute: he commits to the commute 100% even though there is a chance that an accident or malfunction will interrupt it. He goes on to say they we should therefore give believers a little slack for committing 100% to a God who may not exist.

But let’s look at the numbers. The only reason you commit to your morning commute is because there is a *good* chance you’ll make it, even if that chance isn’t 100%. If the probability of making your commute was, instead, something like 1%, i.e. if only 1 in every 100 commuters actually made it to work, then it would be utterly daft to commit oneself to the commute, and the most reasonable action would be to work from home.

So it is with belief in God. Yes, it would be reasonable to commit oneself to such a belief if the probability of God’s existence was good: say 90%, or 70%, or even 51%. But that does not seem to be the case. Instead, the probability, as far as I can tell, seems to be vanishingly small. This makes it utterly daft to commit oneself to such a belief.

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David June 7, 2010 at 7:50 am

Not related to the episode at all but more technological: I listen to these with headphones on and it may’ve been the case earlier but it only showed up for me recently, but I dislike the effect of having Luke’s comments coded to come out through the left and the interviewee on the right side of the stereo. I find it disorienting and a totally unnecessary tweak to the process. I can follow the flow of conversation better without that. :)

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Zeb June 7, 2010 at 8:03 am

But surely I could have had one more hair on my body than I actually will ever have.

Steve, wouldn’t you have to explain how you could have had one more hair, and wouldn’t that explanation to positing that either the initial conditions of the universe could have been different, or God’s will could have been different? How could we know, or why should we believe, that either is the case?

BTW I really enjoyed your paper on the ontological proof of atheism. I want to read it several more times, but I found it convincing. It convinced me to come down on the side of ultimate mysticism, not atheism, but it’s a very provisional position at this point.

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Steve Maitzen June 7, 2010 at 8:45 am

Steve, wouldn’t you have to explain how you could have had one more hair, and wouldn’t that explanation to positing that either the initial conditions of the universe could have been different, or God’s will could have been different? How could we know, or why should we believe, that either is the case?

Zeb: I’d have had an extra hair if any of these had been relevantly different: (1) the initial conditions, (2) the laws of nature, or (3) God’s choice of exactly which hairs to create. Or if (4) the laws of nature indeterministically produced an extra hair from the same initial conditions. Someone who denies the possibility of that extra hair has to say that each of (1)-(3) is metaphysically necessary and (4) is metaphysically impossible. I think it’s the denier who owes us the explanation.

BTW I really enjoyed your paper on the ontological proof of atheism. I want to read it several more times, but I found it convincing. It convinced me to come down on the side of ultimate mysticism, not atheism, but it’s a very provisional position at this point.

I’m really glad you enjoyed it, and glad to hear that your utter mysticism is very provisional, since the mysticism in question implies that no human being can have any conception of God at all, a proposition I doubt any properly reflective human being (theist or not) can coherently accept.

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JakeVortex June 7, 2010 at 9:30 am

If we define NB to be the necessary being and ultimate creator of everything else,
and define CU to be the creator of this universe that we live in,
why is it so manifestly clear that NB=CU as to not even warrant comment or question?

If NB is distinct from CU then I see no reason why CU must inherit any particular property from NB. Nor do I see how it follows that CU would necessarily be able to observe or manipulate this universe once it was created.

Once you postulate the existents of extra-universal agents, how can you hope to resolve competing models?

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Dan June 7, 2010 at 1:37 pm

His suggestion that the idea of multiple universes is metaphysically of the same ilk as postulating a theistic god to be ridiculous. To postulate that there might be more of the “same thing” as what we already have experience but not necessarily exactly the same is very reasonable. The “same thing” here being universes. Postulating a “god” is to suggest something TOTALLY other to anything we have direct experience of. A far more metaphysically “wacky” and far out proposition.

Consider a man whose tribe lives on an island before it set sail to discover others. Was it so unreasonable to propose for the first time ever that maybe there are other islands out there – but not exatly the same ?.

There was a time when man thought there was only one planet and one sun. Then someone proposed ourse might not be the only solar system. not so long a go we only knew of this galaxy. Now we know there are billions of them. And none exactly the same. To postulate ours is not the only universe “out there” is not unreasonable at all.

I often liken my idea of the multiverse ( i prefere omniverse ) to an apple. Our universe is but a flat slice if this apple that happens to cut right through the core. the myriad of other “slices” simply miss the “core” altogether – the “core” here being those supposedly fine tuned constants.

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Sputnik June 7, 2010 at 2:52 pm

Ganssle: “The problem with the many universe theory is that those things are just as supernatural as God because they are completely outside our scientific world view”

No, not exactly. On the cutting edge of theoretical physics, multiple universes are mathematical predictions of theories which are currently competing for the best explanation of our universe. It’s true that we cannot observe universes outside of our own, but it seems like Ganssle (and many believers) have this erroneous view that theoretical physicists like to just make things up out of thin air (often because they want to counter the lame explanation of “god did it”). No, they actually start with observational data and try to form a consistent theory, through rigorous mathematics, which not only accounts for all the scientific data but also makes new predictions. It may be that eventually one theory wins and not only predicts multiple universes but demands their existence.

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ThePaladin June 7, 2010 at 4:03 pm

How can anyone can look at a universe filled with high energy particle bombardment, vast stellar winds that rip atmospheres from planets, pulsating supergiants that send plasma tongues ripping through solar systems, planets as barren as sterile fluid and see it as fine tuned I will never know.

I think people get carried away with the idea that there is some form of unique coincidence involved in what makes us us. It’s not, really. If you open your eyes and have a little curiousity about things, the “order” in the universe becomes very random indeed.

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ThePaladin June 7, 2010 at 4:12 pm

And no, theoretical physicists do not make things up out of thin air, but speaking as a physicist myself I don’t personally like string theory. I prefer my science to have a bit of rigour and one of my own personal goals is to find an alternative which has experiemental evidence.

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ildi June 7, 2010 at 7:57 pm

Have atheists like Bertrand Russell topped the bestsellers list before? I suspect that’s the only ‘New’ thing.

I thought what distinguished the New Atheists and made their books bestsellers was that they published after 9/11. I know that’s what got me reading their books (that, and Bush’s faith-based “mission from God” presidency).

Carl Sagan’s Demon-Haunted World was a bestseller, but it was published in 1995.

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Zeb June 8, 2010 at 11:15 am

Steve Maitzen

Someone who denies the possibility of that extra hair has to say that each of (1)-(3) is metaphysically necessary and (4) is metaphysically impossible. I think it’s the denier who owes us the explanation.

I agree, though when arguments from contingency or fine tuning come up, atheists often counter that there is really no reason to believe the universe actually could have been different. Just because a different universe is conceivable does not mean it is actually possible. Is there a way to at least strengthen, if not prove, the claim that a different universe is actually possible?

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Steve Maitzen June 8, 2010 at 12:48 pm

I agree, though when arguments from contingency or fine tuning come up, atheists often counter that there is really no reason to believe the universe actually could have been different. Just because a different universe is conceivable does not mean it is actually possible. Is there a way to at least strengthen, if not prove, the claim that a different universe is actually possible?

Zeb: My sense of the fine-tuning arguments is that they invoke causal (or physical) possibility, rather than metaphysical possibility: they claim that the fundamental physical constants must occupy a very narrow range given the laws of nature as they are. Thus, had different metaphysically possible laws of nature obtained instead, the constants could have had much different values and still have permitted the emergence of life as we know it.

But never mind all that. Since the modal ontological argument is offered in support of theism, it’s fair to use theistic assumptions against it. I take it that theists typically hold that God could have made an individual that he didn’t actually make; the individuals God in fact made aren’t the only ones God could have made. If so, then C and hence B (above) are false, and the argument is unsound.

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