Four Common Christian Mistakes

by Luke Muehlhauser on March 22, 2009 in General Atheism

We look at the ancient Greeks with their gods on a mountaintop throwing lightning bolts and say, “Those ancient Greeks. They were so silly. So primitive and naive. Not like our religions. We have burning bushes talking to people and guys walking on water. We’re… sophisticated.

Paul Provenza

Every Christian argument has an element of Common Christian Mistake #1, special thinking. To believe their religious doctrines, Christians must use a double standard. They must apply a common way of reasoning – a common sense – to the vast majority of their beliefs. And then they use a different logic to justify their religious ideas. I talk more about special thinking here.

I also want to mention three other errors of thinking common to Christian arguments. When a Christian starts defending their faith, you will usually hear one of these within 30 seconds. Listen for them, and call them out by name.

Retreat to the possible

One common mistake is the retreat to the possible. Christians often say, “If X is true, then it’s still possible that God exists.” But truth-seekers are not interested in what is merely possible. We want to know what is probable.

After all, it’s possible there are green men on Mars. It’s possible that the African tribal god Mbombo got a stomach ache and vomited the sun, moon, and stars into existence. It’s possible that the alignment of stars and planets affects our personality. It’s possible that Yahweh created the earth only 6,000 years ago and will return with an army of angels to slaughter the unbelievers.

But unless we have some good reason to believe any of these things, their chances of being true are virtually nil, along with a trillion other wild ideas.

Dinesh D’Souza made an astonishing retreat to the possible in a debate with Christopher Hitchens.1 Hitchens pointed out that the laws of physics are not broken, despite Christianity’s claims that, “Ah! Those laws can be suspended. And in your favor, too! …if you make the right prayers… A virgin can conceive, a dead body can walk again!”

D’Souza replied that “there is no scientific law at all for which we could say that there are no exceptions… How do we know [the speed of light]? We’ve measured it. One time. Two times. Ten times. A million times. [But] how do we know that on a distant star 5 million light-years away, light travels at that speed? Do we know? We do not know… And if scientific laws do admit the possibility of exceptions, miracles are possible.”

But, Dinesh: if we measure something a million times and it always comes out the same way, are you going to bet against those one million measurements? D’Souza seems to admit he is betting on something that contradicts all our evidence and experience – merely because it is theoretically possible. But so is the Flying Spaghetti Monster. You cannot disprove him, either.

Shifting the burden of proof

A related mistake is shifting the burden of proof. Christians say, “But that doesn’t disprove God!” And they are usually right. It’s hard to prove a negative. We cannot disprove Thor, either.

But this is misleading. It is Christians who are making a claim that some exists: that an all-powerful, all-knowing invisible being created the universe and its humans, listens to their prayers, breaks the laws of physics on their behalf, helped write a bunch of ancient books, and hates gays. It is not the atheist’s job to disprove that. It is the Christian’s job to give some reasons to think all that is true.

If I said there is a magical teapot orbiting the sun between Earth and Mars, would it be your duty to prove me wrong? No! It would be my duty to provide some reason to believe in the magical teapot.

A Christian might say I have a burden of proof because I’m claiming there are no gods. Not really. I’m just saying that nobody ever gave me a good reason to believe in any gods, so I reject them along with the tooth fairy and Santa Claus.

When pressed, I don’t claim that “There are no gods.” I claim that “There is no better reason to believe in Yahweh or Allah than there is to believe in the Flying Spaghetti Monster, pagan gods, an all-evil god, or fairies.” So every time a Christian gives me some reason to believe in their God, I try to show them why that argument fails miserably under common sense.

Argument from ignorance

A fourth mistake is the argument from ignorance. We humans don’t like to be ignorant. When we don’t know how something works, we just invent an explanation and feel content that we “know.” As Edward Abbey put it, “Whatever we cannot easily understand we call God; this saves much wear and tear on our brain tissues.”

Humans have a long history of this. When we didn’t know how anything worked, we just said there were little spirits inside everything. Little spirits made rocks fall, trees grow, dogs run, rivers flow.2

We didn’t understand how the weather, crop failure, or childbirth worked, so we made up invisible gods who would accept sacrifices. That way we felt we had some control over these things. If your health was failing, make some sacrifices and you’d eventually get better. Maybe. If the gods felt like it.

Christians often say, “Science cannot explain X,” as if God is therefore the best explanation. This is no better than the ancient Greeks saying, “Our science cannot explain lightning, therefore Zeus makes it.”

Christianity can explain many things that science cannot. So can Scientology. So can Islam. David Shotwell has an idea that explains some things that science cannot: every subatomic particle is inhabited by a ghostly little gremlin, which maintains order via instantaneous telepathic communication with all other ghostly gremlins.

None of these ideas are “better” than science because they “explain more.” They explain more because they have no standards for evidence.

And in fact, these theories don’t really “explain” anything. If you ask, “How did God create the universe?” or “How did God create consciousness?” or “How do the gremlins communicate telepathically?” the answer is, basically: “Magic.” That doesn’t explain anything.

Christians often point out flaws or limitations in science as if they made Christian ideas more likely. That doesn’t work, in the same way that pointing to flaws or gaps in our understanding doesn’t increase the chances that Zeus or Allah or unicorns exist.

That ain’t no reason…

If you’re a believer, my hope is that after each of my posts on common arguments for the existence of God, you’ll think, “There may be good reasons to believe in God, but I can see why that isn’t one of them.”

After a while, you may see there are no reasons left. That’s what happened to me. I wanted to believe in God so badly that I looked for any reason I could find to believe. One by one, I had to admit that each argument failed. Finally, left with no more reason to believe in God than in The Flying Spaghetti Monster, I reluctantly gave up my faith.

Months later, I discovered what a gift I’d given myself. But that’s another story. For now, I hope atheists and Christians will call out these four common thinking mistakes when they see them.

  1. Watch the debate between Dinesh D’souza and Christopher Hitchens here. Dinesh makes the same retreat to the possible in chapter 16 of his book What’s So Great About Christianity. []
  2. The origins of religion are hotly debated, and animism – little spirits in everything – is but one theory. Nevertheless, it is an ancient belief system, and still the dominant worldview in Botswana, Liberia, Guinea-Bissau, and other countries. A scholarly but readable history of the idea of god is found in Karen Armstrong’s A History of God. []

Previous post:

Next post:

{ 31 comments… read them below or add one }

Alden March 23, 2009 at 12:00 am

I think you are wrong here, on all 4 points. In fact, this post could be renamed “4 common atheist mistakes.” Showing possibility is entirely appropriate against the claim that it is impossible; the same goes for shifting the burden of proof. After all, that's what atheists try to do as well. As far as the argument from ignorance goes, I don't think you understand Christian apologetics that well.

You have made a common atheist error in setting up false criteria that Christianity is supposed to meet for you to be able to accept it. However, the philosophical underpinnings of your criteria are flawed; your “standards of evidence” don't stand up to your own standards. Materialistic, scientific criteria are by definition limited; however, science cannot prove that this is, in fact, proper. When it's all boiled down, science relies on faith in materialistic presuppositions. You have no basis, therefore, to question Christianity at all, except by experience and choice.

  (Quote)

aaron March 23, 2009 at 6:57 am

Alden, couldn't i just as easily say the following to anybody who does not believe in Thor?

You have made a common a-Thorist error in setting up false criteria that Thorism is supposed to meet for you to be able to accept it. However, the philosophical underpinnings of your criteria are flawed; your “standards of evidence” don't stand up to your own standards. Materialistic, scientific criteria are by definition limited; however, science cannot prove that this is, in fact, proper. When it's all boiled down, science relies on faith in materialistic presuppositions. You have no basis, therefore, to question the existence of Thor at all, except by experience and choice.

And yet neither you, Alden, nor Luke believes in Thor. Is this correct?

  (Quote)

nal March 23, 2009 at 2:29 pm

Alden:
Showing possibility is entirely appropriate against the claim that it is impossible

Nice strawman argument. However, there was no clalim of impossibility. Even Dawkins doesn't claim that God is impossible.

  (Quote)

akakiwibear March 23, 2009 at 4:24 pm

Special thinking I agree that for many there is a temptation to apply different rules when evaluating other beliefs. We see it among the holders of all beliefs – it is not unique to Christians or atheists or Hindus.
Common sense requires that one be equally sceptical about ones own beliefs and those of others – without this you are not being honest with yourself. So does the atheist argument really stack up?

Retreat to the possible I think the real point here is that there is no proof absolute one way or the other – for or against the existence of God. Therefore we all take a position that what we believe is possible – we should also accept that it is possible that we are wrong.

If we choose to take a position, atheist or theist, then the main issue is how big the leap of faith is to get to our position after taking account of all the evidence and argument. At this point a common sense test is the very least of the requirements.

Shifting the burden of proof: This is boring. The question of shifting the burden is irrelevant. Either you have good reasons for believing what you believe or you don’t.
To argue that the other side has not convinced you is stating the obvious. To ask the other side for their argument is simply intelligent.

The question is, have you been honest in evaluating the case of both sides … or have you invested all your energy in finding the flaws in the opposite point of view to the extent that you have ignored the flaws in your own argument. Remember there is no proof absolute – atheism or theism is a personal choice.

Argument from ignorance: Certainly, “I don’t know so God did it” is not a valid argument and few who have thought about their theist position would ever advance it.

However this position should not be confused with the valid stance of “I don’t understand how it works, but the evidence suggests that …”. This position is adopted by theists and atheists alike and shifts the emphasis to where it belongs – the evidence or the argument.

“An unflinching determination to take the whole evidence into account is the only method of preservation against the fluctuating extremes of fashionable opinion” Alfred North Whitehead.

Sala kahle -peace

  (Quote)

anselm March 23, 2009 at 7:51 pm

Another friendly rebuttal, if you don't mind :)

(1) Retreat to the possible. I'm afraid you don't seem to understand the purpose of this sort of argument. An exercise in defensive, as opposed to affirmative, apologetics is entirely legitimate. For example, if the atheist asserts that miracles are logically impossible and that therefore the resurrection of Jesus, for example, cannot have occurred, then establishing that miracles ARE logically possible successfully deflects that attack (just as philosopher John Earman successfully rebutted Hume's assertion that it is impossible to establish miracles by testimony in his book “Hume's Abject Failure”–see http://tinyurl.com/cdpa64). Similarly, as I pointed out in a comment on another post, evolutionary biologists Kenneth Miller's and Francis Collins' argument that evolution is entirely consistent with theism is an exercise in defensive apologetics against the assertion made by some that evolution and theism cannot be believed at the same time (as argued, e.g., by prominent atheist evolutionary scientist Jerry Coyne–see http://tinyurl.com/c39ygt).

(2) Burden of proof. The problem is that you are asserting a presumption of atheism as the default position. The theist is under no rational obligation to accept that presumption. As Ronald Nash points out (in “Faith and Reason”–see http://tinyurl.com/cew6kz):

“Though handicaps in sports like golf make sense, moves like the one atheists make by presuming atheism are normally what we have in mind when we say that so-and-so has pulled a fast one. The theist is epistemically warranted in his belief in God prior to consideration of any evidence. Some human beliefs–notably scientific beliefs–are evidence essential. That is, if our belief (e.g., that the earth orbits around the sun) lacked relevant evidence, we'd be justified in regarding the belief as in serious trouble. But many important human beliefs are not evidence-essential in the sense that their rationality requires supporting evidence. An example of this second kind of belief is my belief in the existence of other minds, or my belief that the world continues to exist even when I do not perceive it. Our belief that other selves exist, that they are persons and not androids, etc. is not proportioned to proofs or arguments–it is “properly basic”. Belief in God and belief in other minds are in the same epistemological boat. Since belief in other minds is rational without supporting evidence, so too is belief in God–it is “properly basic”. (See also Alvin Plantinga, “Warranted Christian Belief”–free ebook version available at http://tinyurl.com/cvk3qa)

Of course, that does not mean that theism is necessarily true, just that it is rational to believe it, and that the theist's belief constitutes warranted knowledge (absent a successful “defeater”) prior to mustering evidence in defense of it. It also means that the atheist must shoulder the burden of proof when initiating the case against God (i.e., must supply a “defeater” for the theist's warranted belief).

(3) Argument for Ignorance. Here it appears you are embracing not just “science” but “scientism”, which is a classic example of a self-refuting principle, namely:

The statement 'no statements are true unless they can be proven scientifically', is self-refuting insofar as it cannot be proven scientifically

Surely you do not mean to assert that?

  (Quote)

lukeprog March 24, 2009 at 7:52 am

You think we should take positions that are merely possible, not probable? Then, you think it is rational to believe in unicorns, in the Flying Spaghetti Monster?

Usually, when Christians say, “I don't understand how it works, but the evidence suggests that…” they do not have a clear notion of what positive evidence is. They are actually just pointing to another gap in our knowledge and saying, “Goddidit!” A mere gap in our knowledge does not “suggest” Yahweh's action any more than it suggests the action of a company of gods, or undetected aliens, or a math student in a higher dimension, or some hitherto undiscovered natural force (as has been the case with all past arguments from ignorance).

  (Quote)

lukeprog March 24, 2009 at 8:00 am

(1) Retreat to the possible. There are certainly valid uses for this – I'm responding to those Christian apologists who seem to think that demonstrating the mere possibility of God's existence is a positive argument, or for example that a “tiny possibility defense” to the Problem of Evil blunts its force any more than such an argument would blunt the force of a Problem of Good argument against a posited all-evil god.

I shall have to write a post on Earman's paper. He is right on some points and wrong on others.

(2) Burden of proof. I do not make a presumption of atheism here. What I'm saying is that it's bunk for theists to assert that if God cannot be disproven, then belief in God is rational. Also, both of Plantinga's arguments for God as a properly basic belief are astonishingly vacuous, as I will show in a later part of my review of Carrier's Sense and Goodness Without God.

(3) I do not assert verificationism, and I don't know how you read that into what I've written above. All I said above was that ignorance is not evidence. Lack of knowledge is not positive evidence for anything. Can you explain how “We don't understand how such a complex universe arose, thus God probably did it” is any less flawed in form than “We ancient Greeks don't understand how lightning works, therefore Zeus did it”?

  (Quote)

anselm March 24, 2009 at 9:01 am

1) Actually the example of the Problem of Evil is a perfect example of the power of defensive apologetics. For decades, the “logical problem of evil” was considered to be a demonstration that the concept of God was incoherent and was thus a “disproof” of God's existence. After Plantinga's work on the Free Will Defense, atheist philosophers conceded that Plantinga had solved the problem, and they abandoned their position. See http://tinyurl.com/csqhpa
Not bad for a mode of reasoning you term an “error of thinking.”

As for the so-called “probabilistic” problem of evil, the atheist faces another dilemma of self-refutation. For if he concedes that evil exists objectively in order to make the argument against God from the fact of evil, then he bolsters the moral argument for God's existence (for as you noted in another post, atheist have not been able to come up with a naturalistic account of objective moral values):

1) If God did not exist, then objective moral values would not exist
2) Evil exists
3)Therefore, objective moral values exist
4) Therefore, God exists

Of course, the atheist can deny that evil exists objectively (as many do); but then if there is no evil, the “probabilistic problem of evil” ceases to be a “problem”

2) I will be interested to hear your refutation of Plantinga's epistemology, since atheist philosopher Quentin Smith conceded that the most prominent names in atheist philosophy have been scrambling to figure out how to refute him: see http://tinyurl.com/cb5s7n

3) Your argument sounds like scientism when you say things like:

“None of these ideas are “better” than science because they “explain more.” They explain more because they have no standards for evidence.”

Science is not the only means of explanation. When science reaches the limits of its ability to explain something, other modes of reasoning (e.g., philosophy) can still be applicable. Your argument implies that if science hits a limit we can have no knowledge. I hope you believe that we can have true, justified beliefs outside of science (e.g., red is a color, torturing babies for fun is wrong, I am now thinking about science)?

  (Quote)

akakiwibear March 24, 2009 at 4:21 pm

they do not have a clear notion of what positive evidence is .Oh really? and what is the positive evidence you seek? Are you looking for the proof absolute which clearly does not exist … or are you referring to evidence that presents a solid case, beyond reasonable doubt, but one that is still not proof absolute.

Either you take an irrational position that says you will believe nothing without proof absolute or you make a rational decision based on the evidence available and acknowledge the possibility that you may be wrong.

So you can approach the positive evidence for theism in a rational way – open to any outcome that is supported by the evidence – or, irrationally – reject the evidence as a matter of principle because it is both contrary to your requirement that it be proof absolute and your belief that there is no God.

As I said an atheist position is a matter of choice – don't kid yourself that it is the only rational conclusion of a substantive investigation.

… and by the way do you have positive evidence that supports your atheist position? … or even a positive argument? It seems to me that most of the reasons you present for your atheism are negative – flaws in minority Christian doctrine.

  (Quote)

lukeprog March 24, 2009 at 6:34 pm

No, I totally agree that Plantinga's free will defense is a perfect example of successful defensive apologetics. With “retreat to the possible” I am speaking more of the tactic to pretend that demonstrating the possibility of God does anything to demonstrate his probability.

The existence of evil only “bolsters” the moral argument if one grants that objective moral values cannot exist, which is a silly argument. Why on earth would we suspect that without God, objective moral values don't exist, and that with God, they do? Because you define God that way? I might as well define Vahiguru as the perfect being who is the source of all moral values. Do I thereby have a powerful argument that without Vahiguru, objective morals don't exist? Ridiculous.

2) Yeah, I like Smith because he's willing to present the academic debate more or less than it really is. But I don't think refuting the Giant Pumpkin Epistemologist is difficult.

3) Yes, we can know things outside of science. But whether inside or outside science, we must be careful with how we justify our beliefs. I do not think the idea of filling gaps in our knowledge with the assured answer of “Magic! Poof! YAHWEH!” is being very careful with our justifications. Not at all.

  (Quote)

lukeprog March 24, 2009 at 7:00 pm

akakiwibear,

Positive evidence for something works like this. You propose a theory. You explain what predictions are entailed by that theory, and what findings would falsify your theory. You explain why your theory makes certain predictions instead of other ones. Then you go out in the world and test to see if those predictions come true. Ideally, your theory should predict some things that are not already known. If you do find what your theory predicts, and not something else, then you have positive evidence for the truth of your theory.

Contrast this with common arguments from ignorance, which go like this: “We don't know why the universe is so complex, therefore… MAGIC! is the explanation.”

As for positive evidence for atheism, I'll be happy to give that in the future – but there really isn't much. How can there be positive evidence for a purely negative proposition? In contrast, Christianity is an extremely positive theory – positing hundreds of strange and magical entities and special realms and super powers, none of which we have any positive evidence for.

Asking for positive evidence of atheism is like asking for positive evidence of a-unicornism. But, asking for positive evidence of Christianity is like asking for positive evidence of evolution: the difference is that one doesn't offer any evidence for its truth and the other one (evolution) has thousands of lines of surprising evidence that all point to the same conclusion.

  (Quote)

anselm March 24, 2009 at 7:21 pm

1) Thanks, I think we're in agreement on your first point from the original post :) If a theist believes that demonstrating possibility is the same as demonstrating probability, then he is wrong.

On objective moral values, you say: “The existence of evil only “bolsters” the moral argument if one grants that objective moral values cannot exist, which is a silly argument.”

Well, it's a silly argument embraced by your atheist compatriot John W. Loftus over at “Debunking Christianity” (see http://tinyurl.com/ccczs4), where he says:

“Therefore, there can be no argument for the existence of God based on morality. Human beings make up their own moralities because we're social beings who need to belong and get along. Morality is part of our survival instinct. We need other people to survive! For a Christian who might be stunned by the conclusion that it's probably a nonsensical question whether or not murder, rape, and theft are objectively and universally 'wrong,' then think again.”

I believe his position against the objectivity of morality is more prevalent than you think among atheists, for good reason–it is the view on the nature of morality that fits best with atheism, which lacks God as an anchor point for moral standards.

2) As I said, I am interested to read your refutation. J.L. Mackie and the other atheists who had to concede defeat to Plantinga on the logical problem of evil don't regard him as typically “easy to refute.”

3) I don't think anyone who has read all three, very lengthy, very meticulous volumes of Plantinga's “Warrant” trilogy would say that Christian philosophers are “not careful” with how they justify beliefs–those massive works are aimed entirely at the very question of how we justify our beliefs! (and they are treated very respectfully by atheist philosophers like Quentin Smith).

Thanks again for the opportunity for civil dialogue.

  (Quote)

akakiwibear March 24, 2009 at 9:01 pm

Hi Luke,
I thank you for being a gracious host to my uninvited presence on your blog. I hope we can learn from each other.

I did offer the concession of positive argument – I understand the apparent dualism of setting one standard for the other side and conveniently not being able to meet it oneself by definition.

However you should not be such a defeatist. Apply your positive argument rules to the negative position:
Theory: There is no God
Prediction: There will be NO contra evidence that God exists .
Observation: There is contra evidence
Conclusion: There is a God ;-)

Seriously though my question that merited a reply was the presuppositions that you might bring to evidence. If it is an irrational “There is no God therefore the evidence can't be true” then I would be wasting my time presenting you with a rational evidential argument. Of course the converse is equally true.

We have both made a choice based on incomplete evidence – there is no proof absolute. You have based your choice around the discovery that some of what you held to be true was not. The evidence was that some of it was false so you accepted that as a basis for rejecting the whole – I accept that trying to prove every aspect of Christianity false before you rejected would have been irrational.

… but was your first step rational. An analogy if I may (I like them, helps me explain myself). A pagan believes a rock statue (or the FSM) is god and worships it accordingly. Eventually the pagan decides it is a fraud; the statue is not god – it is damn statue and nothing more. So the pagan has a choice, two alternative conclusions present themselves. EITHER there is no god OR God is not a statue. Reading your story I suggest you have opted for the former. Easier, but not really common sense.

Consider the 4 mistakes of your post.
#1 Special argument. A Buick or dragon in your garage is an example you have quoted. You call for extraordinary proof for the dragon, but not the Buick. If you keep the garage door closed and rely simply on the statement of the owner then you really should stick closer to Schrodinger’s cat. We need substantive evidence for the Buick and/or the dragon, something to tip us away from the balance of Schrodinger's poor cat.
That is common sense. I admit I can mount no substantive evidence for a dragon, but can for a large cat.

#2 – It is possible there is no God … but ANY substantive evidence to the contrary makes that improbable. Just one real miracle, just one actual supernatural experience and atheism is a non-starter. The probability that at least one of a large number of seriously reviewed events did take place is very high – yet your position seems to be that as it is possible that they did not, they did not. Common sense says you have to acknowledge the evidence.

#3 – As I implied above, to claim to be unconvinced by others is not an argument it is a personal observation of no validity – if you can’t present a substantive argument for your position (and problem of evil is a good try) then you are avoiding responsibility for your position – that is common sense.

#4 – I am not suggesting anyone should accept an argument from ignorance, not even you. Yet some of what you say is an argument from ignorance. Your Paul Provenza and Stephen Roberts quotes are both just that. Is it common sense to equate the belief of a few billion monotheists with how many worshippers of Zeus – or is it just plain ignorant?

By the way, I note you have not attempted to reconcile your atheist position with the defeat of the PoE … ? After all without the PoE, as anslem points out, there is really no substantive argument for atheism.

Sala kahle – peace

  (Quote)

lukeprog March 24, 2009 at 9:24 pm

I did not reject Christianity because I realized some of what I'd been taught was false. For example, I accepted evolution (and therefore rejected traditional creationism and the Christian doctrines which depend on it) long before I actually gave up on Christianity wholly.

I rejected Christianity because I spent a lot of time examining all the arguments for and against God's existence, and found that the situation looked pretty similar to the arguments for and against Allah's existence, or for and against the existence of werewolves.

My atheism is not based on presuppositions. My epistemology is not presuppositionalism, or even foundationalism. I do not even have a presupposition against solipsism.

About the “four mistakes”:

1) Yes, we need evidence to accept a claim about a Buick in the garage, but way more evidence to accept a claim about a dragon in the garage. Think of the Bayesian breakdown.

2) “It is possible there is no God … but ANY substantive evidence to the contrary makes that improbable. Just one real miracle, just one actual supernatural experience and atheism is a non-starter. The probability that at least one of a large number of seriously reviewed events did take place is very high.”

Woah, there, think about what you're saying! You might as well have said, “There are millions of reported Muslim miracles. The probability that at least one of them is real is very high, so Allah probably exists.”

Or, “There are thousands of reported quantum healings. The probability is very high that at least one of these is genuine, so quantum healing is probable.”

ad infinitum

3) Can I assume you deny the existence of fairies? What argument can you offer against the existence of fairies? What argument do you have against the Flying Spaghetti Monster? What argument do you have against the existence of unicorns? What argument do you have against the existence of a magical teapot orbiting Pluto?

4) I don't understand your point here. I don't think we're referring to the same kind of “argument from ignorance.”

PoE. I think the traditional logical arguments from evil are defeated. That does not mean that new formulations of the logical problem of evil are defeated. It also does not mean that probabilistic arguments from evil are defeated. It also does not mean there are not a dozen other good arguments for atheism. It also does not mean that lacking good arguments for theism, Occam's razor compels us to seriously doubt the existence of invisible, magical, timeless, spaceless, superpower-endowed sky gods.

  (Quote)

lukeprog March 24, 2009 at 9:32 pm

1) Oops, I meant to type: “The existence of evil only “bolsters” the moral argument if one grants that objective moral values cannot exist without God, which is a silly argument.” Loftus does not defend that position.

I'm aware that moral nihilism, relativism, and social constructivism are popular views among atheists. But I disagree with John and his arguments about morality, and will be happy to rebut his views as best I can in later posts. But my next target is Ebonmuse's Universal Utilitarianism. :)

2) I don't intend to refute Plantinga's free will defense, though I think it is irrelevant. Again, it's like proving the Flying Spaghetti Monster is logically possible, despite being enormously improbable. I will be happy to rebut both his arguments for God as a properly basic belief.

3) Have you seen Carpenter's 100 Proofs the Earth is Not a Globe, published 1895? Word volume does not imply logical carefulness.

In any case, I said that arguments from ignorance do not display great care in justifying our beliefs. It wouldn't surprise me if Plantinga offered arguments from ignorance, but I haven't come across them in the few of his arguments I've read. His EAAN almost qualifies, but… well, I'll say more about that later.

  (Quote)

Richard March 25, 2009 at 5:09 am

Hello. I've only just discovered this blog, and I'm finding it very interesting and well-written. Thank you.

I'm looking forward to when you blog on the subject of morality, as that's a subject I've been thinking about recently. For now I'll just jump in with a quick comment.

You (lukeprog) wrote: “The existence of evil only “bolsters” the moral argument if one grants that objective moral values cannot exist without God, which is a silly argument.”

I would argue that objective moral values cannot exist with or without God. To be more precise, I would argue that the notion of objective moral values is meaningless.

  (Quote)

Richard March 25, 2009 at 5:47 am

P.S. I've only just noticed your “What is Morality?” e-book. I'll take a look at that.

  (Quote)

lukeprog March 25, 2009 at 6:18 am

Sounds like you're non-cognitivist. I have a brief reply to non-cognitivism here.

  (Quote)

akakiwibear March 25, 2009 at 7:49 pm

Let me pick up on some of your comments.

I rejected Christianity because I spent a lot of time examining all the arguments for and against God's existence, and found that the situation looked pretty similar to the arguments for and against Allah's existence, or for and against the existence of werewolves.

Now I suppose you know that at the very least Islam, Christianity and Judaism recognise the same God – Islam just happen to use the name Allah. So it is no surprise that the arguments looked pretty similar! Does this reflect you examining all the arguments examining all the arguments”? As for werewolves – you have to be kidding! Please share the rational comparisons you made, or refer me to the thousands of years of scholarship relating to werewolves (your reply to #3 is in the same category).

Woah, there, think about what you're saying! I think your are trying to say that there have been some miracles proven false OK but you need to read what I said any SUBSTANTIVE evidence to the contrary makes that improbable. key word is substantive – that implies subjected to scrutiny.

Example; for the Catholics to acknowledge a healing miracle it must meet three criteria (1) it must be an immediate response to prayer (2) it must be an enduring cure and (3) there must be no medical explanation as attested to by an expert panel including non-Catholic specialists in the specific discipline.

Now you said You might as well have said, “There are millions of reported Muslim miracles. The probability that at least one of them is real is very high, so Allah probably exists.” … and your point is? Have you seriously not extended your study to the three Abrahamic religions?

What about Hindu? It is also a monotheistic religion that shares the concept of the Trinity with Christianity and so should we include Hindu miracles and hey why not include Zoroastrianism – also arguably the same God as Christianity. Yet you say you have spent a lot of time examining all the arguments for and against God's existence

But note I select recent Catholic miracles specifically because of the level of rigorous study applied before they are recognised.

You say It also does not mean there are not a dozen other good arguments for atheism. oh really? For example …

On Occam's razor compels us … COMPELS ??? by the way Occam was a monk with a strong Christian belief, oops?

I suggest that Occam’s razor cuts more deeply into atheism than theism. Theism offers a simple explanation supported by the evidence whereas atheism requires complex argument to dispel the evidence and then posit an alternative which is without foundation.

e.g. Miracle healing associated with St Faustina where solid medical review can offer no precedent or explanation to an immediate and enduring cure.
Criteria “one should not increase, beyond what is necessary, the number of entities required to explain anything.”
The simplest explanation consistent with the facts is:
accept the evidence + recognise strong correlation with similar events + immediate cause/effect = the event falls with a pattern of events called miracles.

Please let me know the “cleaner” atheist cut of the razor – or does “contrary to my beliefs” constitute the simplest explanation?

Sala kahle – peace

  (Quote)

lukeprog March 25, 2009 at 8:39 pm

“As for werewolves – you have to be kidding! Please share the rational comparisons you made, or refer me to the thousands of years of scholarship relating to werewolves”

I'm not comparing the amount of ink spilled on werewolves and Yahweh, nor their number of adherents. I'm comparing the mettle of the arguments given for each. Perhaps a better comparison would be Carpenter's 100 Proofs the Earth is Not a Globe.

“key word is substantive – that implies subjected to scrutiny.”

All kinds of crazy psychic and astrological ideas have been subjected to scrutiny, and have serious intellectual defenders. That doesn't mean their claims have mettle, or that it's likely that at least one piece of evidence for quantum healing or astrological personality imprinting is true.

Regarding the Catholics' criterion for declaring something a miracle, I'm not impressed. (1) Religious people tend to pray an awful lot, especially when they're sick. Thus, whenever they get better – whether it's next week or after 20 years of suffering, it will be an “immediate” answer to yesterday's prayer. (2) Yes, people get better all the time. Out of millions of illnesses, a great number are bound to stay better. This is not surprising at all, but statistically necessary. (3) Again, it's not at all surprising that we have no medical explanation for all kinds of things. The Catholic church here is explicitly employing an argument from ignorance. Again, out of millions of illnesses, it is not surprising but statistically necessary that some people every week get better and stay better for reasons we do not yet understand.

ME: Now you said You might as well have said, “There are millions of reported Muslim miracles. The probability that at least one of them is real is very high, so Allah probably exists.”

YOU: “and your point is? Have you seriously not extended your study to the three Abrahamic religions? What about Hindu? It is also a monotheistic religion that shares the concept of the Trinity with Christianity and so should we include Hindu miracles and hey why not include Zoroastrianism – also arguably the same God as Christianity. Yet you say you have spent a lot of time examining all the arguments for and against God's existence “

All I was saying is that an abundance of unexplained phenomena does not mean it's likely one of them is a miracle, as you claimed. An abundance of flawed arguments does not equal one good argument. And yes, it would be just as silly to point to the hundreds of Hindu or Zoroastrian or Jain or Baha'i miracles and claim that one of them must have been true, therefore the Hindu gods, or Zoroastrian gods, or Jain spirits, or Baha'i god exists. That only strengthens my point.

Okay, about Occam. Occam was right about the principle that has taken his namesake. He was wrong about the existence of his invisible friend. There's no “oops” there on my part. Newton was right about gravity (well, kinda) but that doesn't mean I'm embarrassed by his work in alchemy.

If you think Occam's razor suggests we should accept the simplest explanation for any given phenomena, you are mistaken. “Magic!” is indeed a “simpler” explanation for lightning than a paragraph about electrical charges, in terms of syllables used, anyway. Likewise, “Goddidit!” is “simpler” than a book explaining how evolution generates speciation.

But that's not what Occam's razor recommends. Rather, it recommends that – all else being equal – we should prefer explanations that do not multiply unnecessary assumptions. Naturalistic explanations tend to explain things in terms of what is already known and proven. Magical explanations depend on all kinds of unproven assumptions – for example that there are magical powers, and they are possessed by a superbeing called God, and that he – unlike everything else we know of – can have existed forever, and that he – unlike everything else we know of – exists outside of space, and that he – unlike every being we know of – is omnipotent, and that he – unlike every being we know of – is perfectly loving, and that he – unlike every other being we know of – is omniscient, etc.

I like the way Angrillori put it:

I've always thought of Occam's razor in simple mathematical terms.

Here's what I mean: no matter how close to 1 a fraction less than 1 is, multiplying it by any other number, a, will result in a product less than a. The more fractions you multiply by, the lower the product will be.

Since our assumptions will never be 100% guaranteed to be correct, then every assumed entity we insert in an explanation lowers our probability of being correct, even if only marginally.

If entities A, B, and C can explain phenomenon X, then assuming entities A, B, C, AND D, will only lessen our chances of being correct as long as we are anything at all less than 100% certain about D. No matter how reasonable D sounds, the best it can hope for is to make us only a little more likely to be wrong.

Now, if an explanation involving A, B, and C is compared to an explanation involving D, E, F, and G, it is a bit more complicated to compare, and the certainties of each of the assumptions, the support for each of the assumptions has to be taken into account.

But if it's a question of combining probabilities of being correct, adding additional factors can only reduce probabilities, and mathematically cannot increase probabilities. (A 100% certainty could maintain levels, I guess, for the sake of completeness.)

  (Quote)

akakiwibear March 25, 2009 at 10:28 pm

You are unimpressed OK, what criteria would you establish for a miracle to recognised as such?

Luke: All I was saying is that an abundance of unexplained phenomena does not mean it's likely one of them is a miracle I thought I covered this off, I am equally unimpressed with unexplained events. I refer to events with causality and which conform to an oft repeated pattern .

Good reply on the razor … but … Naturalistic explanations tend to explain things in terms of what is already known and proven. works equally well for the thoroughly documented miracles. I don’t think Occam’s razor is a viable argument in the a/theist debate because it tends to fall back on the interpretation of “should not increase, beyond what is necessary, the number of entities required to explain anything.” I will always argue that something requires less explanation than nothing, you the converse, we get nowhere. There are more substantive arguments we can explore than this.

Luke: Word volume does not imply logical carefulness. of course not, but real scholarship does.

I should add that I have followed a similar path to you. When I read your story my reaction was “Of course he is an atheist now!”. For me the crunch came when I started to really study the atheist arguments and found that they were weaker than the theist ones. So next step was one back to being agnostic. Then I started a serious review of the evidence for the existence of a God and that brought me to where I am.

If I am correct your atheism is founded on the flawed platform of evangelical Christianity – the literalistic inerrant bible version. OF course you rejected that (the pagan statue analogy works quite well I think) … but then like me you were seduced by the “emperor’s new clothes” of atheism. Look deeper – I know that sounds patronising I got seriously pissed off with similar advice, but eventually I had to admit that they had a point.

That said I think we have appropriately run out of space on this thread. I hope to engage with you on another one.

Sala kahle -peace

  (Quote)

Richard March 26, 2009 at 5:26 am

I haven't read much about this subject. I've just worked things out for myself. So I'm not very familiar with the terminology. Going by Wikipedia, I'm either an individualist ethical subjectivist or a non-cognitivist. I'm having dificulty understanding the difference between the two.

My view is that the proposition “murder is wrong” is meaningless if you try to take it as a statement of objective fact, but it becomes meaningful if you interpret it as “I disapprove of murder” (or something of that sort). “I disapprove of murder” is a meaningful (truth-apt) statement about my state of mind.

I've listened to your recording (DesireUtilitarianismAndOtherEthicalTheories.mp3). Your objection to non-cognitivism and subjectivism is that they don't reflect how we normally talk about morality. True, but that's not a fatal criticism. Our normal ways of talking about things are sometimes flawed. Our language reflects the fact that we have a very strong feeling that morality is objective, but that doesn't make it so.

My challenge to moral realists is to explain what a moral statement, like “murder is wrong”, actually means. Can you explain it in a non-circular way, i.e. without using other moral terms like “ought” and “should”? I don't think you can, because the statement has no meaning other than as a description of one's state of mind.

I've read your “What Is Morality?” document. I found it very interesting, but I'm pretty sure that desire utilitarianism fails to get around this fundamental problem. I'd be interested in discussing it further, if you are. Perhaps it would be worth starting a new blog item for that purpose, or moving to email or a discussion forum.

  (Quote)

lukeprog March 26, 2009 at 8:04 am

Sounds like you're a cognitivist subjectivist.

The reason I reject subjectivism is that it seeks to redefine what we're saying. I say “Murder is wrong.” You say, “No, what you meant to say is, 'I think murder is wrong.” I say, “No, I said muder is wrong. Don't put words in my mouth.”

Now, consider my conversation with an error theorist: I say “Murder is wrong.” He says, “I understand you're trying to make a statement of fact about the world, but as such you are incorrect because objective 'wrongness' does not exist.”

I think error theory is more plausible than subjectivism. An ethical theory must first accurately describe what moral language is actually talking about, and then it must come to empirical conclusions about whether moral claims refer to things that exist or not.

Can I explain moral statements in a non-circular way? Yes. Moral statements are about reasons for action. Reasons for action to feed the poor. Reasons for action to not murder. The statement “Murder is wrong” means “There are reasons for action that exist to not murder.”

Now, the empirical question: Is it true that there are reasons for action that exist in the universe? Intrinsic value could be a reason for action, but it has never been detected. The same is true of gods and intrinsic virtues and many other things. Ah, but one type of reason for action does exist: desires. If I put my hand on a hot stove and desire to not be burned, I have a reason for action to remove my hand from the stove. If I did not have a desire to not be burned, I would have no reason for action to remove my hand from the stove.

  (Quote)

Richard March 26, 2009 at 9:11 am

Thanks for your reply. Could we please move this discussion to somewhere else, as the column is getting too narrow for comfort!

  (Quote)

Nathan June 12, 2009 at 6:55 am

I am a theist and I never use these so i guess I am in the clear right?

  (Quote)

matt February 27, 2010 at 9:25 am

I´m aussuming that this debate is already old and half forgotten, but it seems like a good enough spot to stake out a position on something that’s bothered me every time somebody lets william craig get away with it in a debate. “anselm” i think made the standard apologist move here of countering the probablistic problem of evil with a sort of tu quoque argument about standards of moral judgement: “well, maybe i don´t know why god permits so much evil, but then you don´t know why there´s any good or evil to begin with, ergo there is no problem of evil!” it seems to me that what´s at issue here isn’t theism in general, but the unique recipe for cooking up a christian god: it has to be both all good AND all powerful (and all knowing, which may be part of the latter). the problem of evil is simpy a refutation of the plausible conjoining of these two qualities and says nothing at all about a “divine” origin of morality in some other sense, whatever that might be. by claiming that atheists don´t have a basis for any moral judgements to begin with, the christian apologist (in this case “anselm”) may have deflected attention from this problem, but he hasn´t begun to SOLVE it. in other words, unless the christian goes on to explain why ONLY an all-powerful deity can be the “source” of morality (and in a non-tautological way), such that the obvious improbability of a haitian-earthquake-permitting-omnibenevolent-omnipotent “law giver” turns out to be the ONLY possible solution to the problem of moral value–that is, without a hell of a lot of very burdensome argumentation–this is nothing more than a silly debating trick. in fact, it´s both a red herring and a tu quoque fallacy in one. why craig and others continue to rely on it just baffles me.

  (Quote)

Vlastimil Vohánka October 27, 2010 at 12:47 am

Luke,

I like your blog.

I didn’t read the above discussion. So excuse possible repetition.

1. I am not sure gap arguments from “ignorance” are _always_ bad. Cf. the atheist Bradley Monton in his book on ID: at least some theists’ arguments are not _simply_ saying that we don’t know how this or that evolved, ergo, etc. They are giving a _positive_ argument that it’s unlikely for such and such system to evolve without the intervention of a Designer (pp. 114-116).

2. On the prospective purely scientific or naturalistic solutions (whatever they are): are the inductive reasons for them really strong? Even Monton challenges this suggestion: why not be rather pessimistic in the induction than optimistic? (Ibid.) And even if they are strong, it’s really hard to reconstruct the case: cf. my discussion with Lydia McGrew at http://www.whatswrongwiththeworld.net/2009/03/naturalism_science_and_inducti.html

3. Even when we shift from the possible to the probable, the matters are still controversial. As you know.

4. For instance, even if every individual argument for X (say, X-ty) does not, probabilistically, hold the water (which I am far from to be sure about), what about going cumulative? — i.e., saying that the disjunction of the premises of several arguments does?

Cf. Whately, Elements of Logic (1867, p. 139), Easy Lessons on Reasoning (1872, p. 76). This option is standardly mentioned in the Anglican historical apologetic literature (including, if I recall here correctly, Butler’s famous Analogy of Religion, Part 2, ch. 7).

There has in been some discussion of this recently. See Oppy’s general remarks on cumulative cases in his Arguing about Gods (esp. pp. 5-6). Oppy says the larger number of arguments may raise a larger number of objections. Taliaferro (criticizing Oppy in the Companion to Natural Theology, pp. 19-20) and Pruss (criticizing Oppy in at ndpr.nd.edu/review.cfm?id=9563 ) are similar in their reactions. For instance, Alex says: “It would be easy to list a dozen philosophical doctrines each of which I reject in the sense of assigning it a low probability (say, 10%). Nonetheless, unless my rejection of each is on similar grounds, the disjunction of these doctrines may well have a moderately high probability, and I may well have good reason to accept doctrines that follow from their disjunction.” Which reaction is similar to Jason Colwell’s reply (published c. 2001 in IJPR) to Plantinga’s principle of dwindling probabilities: even PDP cuts both ways, at least in the following respect — it can lower the probability of a conjunction having some interesting conclusion as its conjunct, yet it can also raise the probability of a disjunction entailing the same conclusion.

Of course and again, the cumulative and disjunctive hopes cut both ways. One can go cumulative or disjunctive for many theses, including the denials of theism and X-ty. No way round the details if we want more than hopes and hunches (whatever our world-view).

  (Quote)

Peter October 21, 2011 at 3:11 pm

Have some common sense. Do you really believe in a magical man in the sky who has superpowers. Come on, the author’s were the same people who thought the world was flat and the Sun revolved around the Earth. Please sit down and think about all the errors in religion.

  (Quote)

Vlastimil Vohánka October 23, 2011 at 4:35 am

On a fairly common construal, God is not a superman in the sky. Google and consider Edward Feser’s posts on classical theism.

I am not sure the authors (a) believed or (b) asserted in their writings what you ascribe to them. On (a), google and consider, as an analogical case, James Franklin’s page Myths about the middle ages (Franklin is a historian of science). On (b), cf. the common distinction between assertion and conversational presupposition (made by the philosopher of language Keith Donnellan, and employed by Richard Swinburne in his book Revelation, OUP 2007, pp. 29-30, on Google Books). There’s also a distinction between the phenomenological and the astronomical talk. Even today, for instance, we say that the sun “rises.”

But, anyway, an obsolete belief does not, by itself, suffice to make one’s all belief obsolete. Think of the ancient scientists who believed, among many strange things, also many solid facts (Thales et al.).

For a positive argument for Christianity, see “The Argument from Miracles”, co-authored by T. McGrew, an accomplished historian of science. It’s online.

  (Quote)

Lindsay November 17, 2011 at 4:12 pm

Well, I must say I enjoyed your article. :) However, I do have to touch on one thing. In the Bible, it states that believers are to do just that. Believe. If you can not believe without seeing, then you wont see the wonders that are Heaven in your afterlife. No, Christians, Muslims, Jews, Buddhists etc., can’t explain everything. Mostly because we just don’t have the capacity as humans. Neither can scientists or Athiests. Again, because they are human and lack the capacity to understand EVERYTHING. The Bible is based around a simple idea. Faith. Either you can hack it or you can’t. There is no proof of God and I feel this is because God needs to see who His true followers are. Wonderful article!

  (Quote)

Nick December 11, 2011 at 12:06 pm

Great post,
I always enjoy reading or listening to people that think freely. I might not be a good writer but I have few points to make. I was also like you looking for the truth, therefore; I studied all the holy books and did not find a single evidence to help me in my journey. Funny enough, I finally found my answer in a movie, God is just an imaginary friend for grown ups (The Big Bounce-2004). and I would like to add this little story for people with a little sense of humor.
Genie in a Bottle: A young couple is golfing one day on a very exclusive course lined with million-dollar houses. On the third tee, the wife slices her shot right through the large front window of the biggest house along the course. They walk up, knock on the door, and hear a voice say, “Come on in.” Opening the door, they see glass everywhere and a broken bottle lying on the floor.

A man on the couch says, “Are you the people who broke my window?” The husband begins to apologize, but the man cuts him off. “Actually, I want to thank you,I’m a genie who was trapped in that bottle, and your wayward shot released me. I’m allowed to grant three wishes, so what I would like to do is give each of you one wish, and I will keep the last one for myself.”

“Fantastic!” says the husband. “I want a million dollars a year for the rest of my life.”

“No problem,” says the genie, “it’s the least I could do. And you, madam, what do you want?”

“I want a house in every country in the world,” says the wife.

“Consider it done,” the genie replies, turning back to the man. “And now for my wish. Because I’ve been trapped in that bottle, I haven’t had sex in a really long time. My wish is to sleep with your wife.”

The husband takes a long look at his wife and says, “Well, we did get a lot of money and all those houses. If you don’t mind, honey, I don’t either.”

The wife agrees, and the genie takes her upstairs, where he ravishes her for three hours. After he’s through, the genie rolls over, looks at the wife, and asks, “What does your husband do and how old is he, anyway?”

“He is a professor teaching in University and Thirty-five year old,” she replies.

“And he still believes in genies?”

All these so called smart people still have their imaginary friend(GOD) and are willing to kill another human being for their belief. They would recommend you to take your child to a specialist if your child plays with their imaginary friend.

  (Quote)

Leave a Comment