Responding to Philosophical Arguments – The High Road & The Low Road

I want to look at two different ways of responding to philosophical arguments: one I call the “High Road” and the other the “Low Road.” “What do these terms mean, Stephen?” I’m very glad you asked dear Reader. I’ll briefly discuss each with appropriate examples.

William Lane Craig’s Challenge

In his debates it’s common for Craig to present an argument such as the Kalam Cosmological Argument:

1. Everything that begins to exist has a cause.
2. The universe began to exist.
3. Therefore the universe has a cause.
4. [And Craig goes on to argue that this cause must be timeless, incorporeal, and personal]

Craig then throws down the gauntlet to his opponent: you need to defeat this argument by saying which of the premises you are rejecting and why. Now, I suspect this might be a debate tactic on Craig’s part, but it seems as if he thinks that in order to rationally reject an argument you must dispute or falsify at least one of the premises, or at least show that it’s not as plausible as its negation. But, this is incorrect. We don’t necessarily have to dispute the premises of an argument to be justified in rejecting the conclusion.

Take the Kalam argument above (which I’m incredibly fond of). The atheist might not know which premise is wrong. In fact, both might strike him as prima facie true. But, does that mean he must accept the conclusion on pain of irrationality? I don’t think so. He might not be able to claim: “Not (1),” or be able to demonstrate “Not (2),” however, he might still be within his rational rights in asserting: “Not (1) and (2).”

At first glance this might strike someone as suspect, but it’s perfectly legitimate and incredibly common. In the case above the atheist who doesn’t know how to challenge premise 1 or 2 might still have other overriding evidence or reasons against the conclusion. For example, perhaps he holds there is good reason to think the concept of a timeless incorporeal person is incoherent. Therefore, since this argument leads to the existence of a timeless incorporeal person it must be defective somewhere, even though he might be stumped as to precisely which premise is wrong.

The Low Road

What this example illustrates is the “low road” approach to responding to philosophical arguments: rejecting the conclusion without attacking a specific premise.

Take another example, this time from Justin Schieber, co-host at Reasonable Doubts. In his debate last year with Max Andrews, Schieber offered this argument against the existence of the Christian God:

(1) If the Christian God exists, then “GodWorld” [a world containing no non-God objects] is the unique Best Possible World.
(2) If GodWorld is the unique Best Possible World, then the Christian God would maintain GodWorld.
(3) GodWorld is false because the universe exists
(4) Therefore the Christian God does not exist.

Now, here again the “low road” approach can be utilized. We can illustrate this by the following Leibnizian counter-argument:

(5) If GodWorld is the unique best possible world, then the Christian God would maintain GodWorld.
(6) The Christian God has not maintained GodWorld
(7) Therefore GodWorld is not the unique best possible world.

Leibniz is approaching the question from a different position altogether. Leibniz’s notion that we live in the BPW follows from his belief in an omnipotent and perfectly good creator. Leibniz is also famous for a contingency argument in favour of God, and many other Christians have offered a variety of other arguments in favour of their worldview. Some claim particular religious experiences; others that their belief is in some way “basic.” Before such types Schieber’s argument is likely to fall flat. Why? Because even if they can’t say where his argument goes wrong, they may have reason to reject the conclusion. They can, in effect, say “there’s something wrong here because 4 is in fact false.” Such Christians might well be stumped as to precisely where the argument goes wrong, but that it goes wrong they may well be fairly confident.

The Leibnizian counter-argument, then, effectively flips Schieber’s argument: agreeing that God will create the best possible world, but arguing that because this universe exists then GodWorld is not in fact the unique best possible world.

The High Road

But, of course, Leibniz wouldn’t leave the matter there. He would also adopt what I call the “high road.” The reader can probably already guess what this is: rejecting an argument by undercutting at least one of the premises. Leibniz, I think, would agree with premise (2) of Schieber’s argument – and in fact his own theodicy turns on the fact that God has made the best possible world – so would turn his fire on premise (1). Leibniz might point out that God is inherently creative, desiring to create in order share his goodness beyond the bounds of his own being. So, if the Christian God exists then non-God objects are precisely the kinds of things to be expected, and premise 1 would be patently false. So, if God exists and desires to create finite beings to express his creativity and love then GodWorld would not be the unique Best Possible World.

Other philosophers – Aquinas, for example – would attack premises (1) and (2) for using what Aquinas regarded as an incoherent notion: the “best possible world.” I disagree with Aquinas on this point, but his comments are instructive if only to illumine just how slippery the concept of the “best possible world” actually is. How are worlds to be compared in order to judge World 1 better than World 2? Anyone seeking to make use of the concept needs to give a precise definition and account of what they mean by the term. Some people mean a world that contains no creaturely imperfection. Others mean a world in which the greatest number of compossible beings exist. In fact, how are we to understand the word “best”? Best for whom? For God? For the beings that exist in some given world? Or do we mean best in some kind of impersonal ontological sense like “most perfect kinds of being?” We quickly see that the concept of the best possible world is typically laden with all kinds of assumptions and value judgements (not to mention confusions!). In fact, I think John Hick is ultimately quite right when he says: “The question whether this is the best possible world will…depend upon a prior question concerning God’s purpose in creating man and setting him within the kind of world in which he finds himself. The best possible world will be that which best serves the purpose that God is seeking to fulfill by means of it.” This view of “best” is instrumental in nature and inextricably linked to God’s purposes. If Hick is correct – and there’s much to unpack here – then asking the question about the best possible world aside from any consideration of God’s purpose in creating will always misfire.

But I digress. The point here isn’t to refute Schieber’s argument, but rather to illustrate the different strategies that could be employed in such a refutation. Ideally I think we should always strive for a “high road” response. The “low road,” whilst perfectly intellectually feasible still leaves us with the puzzle of where some argument goes wrong. That might satisfy some people, but it shouldn’t be enough for those of us with some degree of intellectual curiosity.

Stephen J Graham

The Andrews v Schieber debate can be listened to here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jFrqeaV0YVo

Blogger SKepticism First has written a companion piece to this article, which can be read here:

http://skeptischism.com/skepticismfirst/2014/03/14/two-roads-diverged-in-a-liebnizian-wood/

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3 Comments

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3 responses to “Responding to Philosophical Arguments – The High Road & The Low Road

  1. I think you might have missed one possible avenue (or road, if you prefer :p) of objecting to an argument, which I’ll just call the “Meta Road”. Basically, it’s an objection to some particular assumption of the argument, usually a metaphysical one. So for the Kalam cosmological argument, one could reject, say, the A-theory of time or the position that actual infinities cannot exist.

    However, I suppose you could say that this is really the High Road if you take those to merely be hidden premises of the argument. 🙂

    2¢ given. :3

    • Thanks for the comment and please forgive my tardiness in replying! I agree with your point here in terms of the Kalam Argument. I like the Kalam argument and I think that critics either fail to engage with it properly or else they misfire in their criticisms. After studying it for years I’m convinced that the only hopeful way of rejecting it is to reject the theory of time that undergirds it. In other words, reject the A-Theory of time and adopt the B-Theory. Now, we could call this the “Meta Road” – you are right that there are ways of undercutting arguments by objecting to hidden assumptions. In the particular case of Kalam however I think that rejecting the A-Theory of time isn’t so much as to reject a hidden assumption but rather to reject premise 2: The universe began to exist. If the A-theory of time is wrong and temporaral becoming is not a real and objective feature of the universe, then premise two is false. So, in this case I think it’s an example of the High Road.

  2. Nice post! Thought I might just poke my beak in here and mention another that springs to mind: you could reject an argument on the grounds that the terms are being used inconsistently across premises.

    Taking Kalam for example, someone may agree that both ‘the universe began to exist’ and ‘everything that begins to exist has a cause’ are true, but that the sense of ‘beginning’ which makes them true is different in each case. What this amounts to is a rejection of the validity of the argument.

    Sam

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