January 19, 2009

Alex Byrne on Contemporary Debate About the Existence of God

The latest edition of the Boston Review is running an article by MIT philosopher Alex Byrne on the state of philosophical debate about the existence of God. For a popular article, it is in many ways quite good. It focuses on the ontological argument and the teleological argument (although it doesn't consider versions of the latter like the one I advocate), which are probably the two most interesting of the traditional arguments, and it has interesting things to say about each of them. I do, however, have a few complaints.

First, early in the article we find this colorful phrase: "Contemporary Christian philosophers often content themselves with pulling up the drawbridge and manning the barricades, rather than crusading against the infidel." Now, it is true, as Byrne points out, that some of the best recent Christian philosophers - he mentions Alvin Plantinga - have indeed been concerned primarily with defending the consistency and/or rationality of Christian belief for Christians and have not tried to argue for the irrationality of non-belief. So my complaint is not that this is false. The colorful image is perhaps slightly offensive or demeaning, but this is not my complaint either. Rather, the article fails to note the phenomenon of 'friendly atheism' which amounts to much the same thing, on the other side. Friendly atheism is the name some philosophers have given to the view that, although there is not, in fact, any divine being, some people are justified in believing that there is. (By 'justified in believing' I mean simply 'not irrational in believing'.) The fact is that an increasing number of philosophers who specialize in religion are now of the opinion that argument from widely accepted premises cannot settle the matter of the existence of God. Some, like Alvin Plantinga, suppose that some people simply find that they believe in God and, since the arguments are inconclusive, may rationally go on believing it. Similarly for people who find themselves disbelieving. (Plantinga is a Calvinist, so this presumably corresponds to the doctrine of election.) The drive that makes some people believe in God is called the 'divine nisus' (the term evidently comes from Aquinas).

Alternatively, some people have supposed that arguments from religious experience create evidence that is subjective but nevertheless rationally acceptable. Here is a comparison: suppose that I see Bigfoot. I see him from a very short distance quite clearly, and can tell that he is clearly neither a human nor any familiar sort of ape. I was not sleep-deprived or using any substances at the time, and I have never had a hallucination before or since, and have no medical conditions known to cause hallucinations. In these circumstances, I am probably rationally justified in believing in Bigfoot. However, even if you know me quite well and think me to be generally reliable, my testimony might not be sufficient for you to be justified in believing in Bigfoot. You might be more reasonable to suppose that I hallucinated, that I mis-remember my experience, or even that I am making the story up for reasons of my own. Some philosophers suppose that many religious believes have religious experiences in which they have experiences of God or the supernatural that are like my (fictional) experience of Bigfoot. If this is the case, then people who have such experiences will be justified in believing in God, but people who don't won't.

It's important to note that both the 'divine nisus' camp and the 'religious experience' camp have both theist and atheist adherents: there are atheists who just find that they disbelieve in God, and note that other people find themselves believing in God and think that, since the arguments are inconclusive, both are equally reasonable. There are also atheists who think that some people have experiences that make it reasonable for them to believe in God or the supernatural, but who have not had such experiences themselves, and so do not themselves believe.

It is also important to note that this is not a form of relativisim. It is not the case that there are two 'equally valid' worldviews. One, or perhaps both, of them is false. The claim is simply that the objective evidence available is such that there can be a reasonable difference of opinion. Similarly, there can be a reasonable difference of opinion, based on the objective evidence, on whether slavery could have been ended without fighting the Civil War, whether some form of String Theory is true, or who will win the Super Bowl, but in all of these cases there is one fact of the matter, and anyone who disagrees, however reasonable their disagreement may be, is simply wrong. (Some philosophers would claim that the first example, being a counterfactual statement involving the actions of human beings, is actually a bad one because, they claim, there is no fact of the matter about such claims, but leave that aside.)

Finally, it is important that this is not the position of the majority of philosophers. It is probably true that the majority of professional philosophers are 'unfriendly' atheists. Byrne quotes the respected Christian philosopher Dean Zimmerman: ""although numerous outspoken Christians are highly respected in analytic circles, many of our colleagues still regard the persistence of religious belief among otherwise intelligent philosophers as a strange aberration, a pocket of irrationality." However, it is my impression that there are increasingly many agnostics in the field, and that 'friendly atheism' is increasingly prominent among those who specialize in philosophy of religion. (The truth is, most people who specialize in philosophy of religion are Christians of some sort or other - most atheist/agnostic philosophers don't seem to think that religion, as a subject matter, is worth their time and are annoyed at the persistent demand for undergraduate courses on philosophy of religion. Many philosophy departments at secular institutions don't have a specialist in this area, so someone who isn't very interested gets stuck teaching it.)

My second complaint is that Byrne treats the contemporary literature on the teleological argument as essentially a debate between Richard Dawkins and Michael Behe. If these are the best contemporary disputants on the subject, then we should be asking why the argument died and when, and we should go back and discuss the objection that killed it. Dawkins and Behe are, for the most part, probably not worth our time. The historical portion of this discussion, which focuses, rightly, on William Paley, is quite good. A recent version of the teleological argument which is perhaps not as good as it could be, but nevertheless more worthy of attention than Dawkins and Behe, is "The Anthropic Teleological Argument" by L. Stafford Betty and Bruce Cordel. This paper originally appeared in International Philosophical Quarterly in December 1987, and some significant excerpts of it are printed in Michael Peterson, et al., Philosophy of Religion: Selected Readings. Betty and Cordell try to construct a 'cumulative case' from a number of different factors (ranging from the 'fine tuning' of the physical laws to the complexity of life) that the existence of some God-like being who created the world on purpose is the best explanation of the facts. I think a lot more work could be done on this argument, pro and con, by respectable philosophers, but some has already been done, and I am puzzled that Byrne doesn't bother to cite any of it. The relevant section of the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy lists George Schlesinger, Robin Collins, and Richard Swinburne as proponents and J. L. Mackie, Michael Martin, and Nicholas Everitt as opponents.

These are my two criticisms. The article as a whole is, however, quite good, especially the portion on the ontological argument, which I have so far said very little about. I recommend it.

Posted by Kenny at January 19, 2009 11:04 AM
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