An all too quick survey of anti-theistic arguments
Philosophy of religion has been my “chosen specialist subject” for the past 18 years (half my life now!) and in all that time I’ve come across many arguments for and against God, ranging from the standard arguments of “Philosophy 101” classes to the often weird and wonderful musings of internet “philosophers.”
As a theist I believe there are good arguments in favour of the existence of God, but I’ve been asked on previous occasions what I consider to be the best arguments against the existence of God. Considering the various arguments against one’s position is a good exercise for anyone to do: theists, atheists, Kantians, utilitarians, socialists, libertarians, physicalists, dualists, a-theorists, b-theorists, and agnostics.
So, what is the best anti-theistic argument?
Many of the offerings floating around cyberspace can be ruled out straight away as little more than lazy slogans. For instance, some atheists will argue against the existence of God with the slogan that “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.” The existence of God is, apparently, an extraordinary claim and therefore in the absence of “extraordinary evidence” we should reject it. It’s rarely spelled out exactly what amounts to an “extraordinary” claim or “extraordinary” evidence. In any event it’s patently false to think that as the extraordinariness of a claim goes up so must the extraordinariness of the evidence. For example, if my wife makes the rather ordinary claim that there is a red car outside then all I need to do is look out of the window to verify it. But if my wife makes the much more extraordinary claim that there is a herd of elephants down the street, how do I verify this? In exactly the same way: with nothing more extraordinary than the ‘miracle’ of sight. In any event, probability theorists are well aware that it simply isn’t the case that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence to establish their probability.
Other silly arguments that are all too common include: “Who created God!?” and “Can God make a stone so big he can’t lift it?!” The former question is typically asked by those who don’t understand the nature of theistic arguments and the sort of being they conclude to. For example, many theistic arguments conclude to a being that is uncaused. To ask who created this being is therefore an incoherent question: Who caused this uncaused being to exist? That’s meaningless. [for more on this point see: HERE] A similar point holds with respect to God making a stone so heavy he can’t lift it. It’s a meaningless task. There are various versions of the concept of divine omnipotence, but no one I’m aware of defines it as God’s ability to do the logically impossible (Descartes was an exception). Omnipotence is more often defined in terms of God’s ability to actualize certain states of affairs along such lines as logical possibility and consistency with God’s good nature and character.
Of course there are also good arguments against the existence of God. Two of the most popular are the problem of evil and the problem of divine hiddenness.
The former comes in various guises and I have written about it on several occasions on this blog and elsewhere [see: HERE and HERE]. Even in its strongest versions I find the argument far from conclusive. The logical problem of evil has been more or less abandoned even by atheist philosophers, while the probabilistic problem is contentious on several points. (1) The incredible difficulty of assigning meaningful probabilities in a case such as this. (2) Even if we can conclude that the existence of God is improbable given evil, this doesn’t tell us anything about the rationality of theism whatsoever, which could still be rationally held given other evidence we have. (3) The fact that humans are finite – limited in space, time, intelligence and insight – makes it highly dubious that we can with any certainty make such judgments about whether or not there are morally sufficient reasons for God to permit the various evils we find in the world. (4) Most damning, the fact that even if successful the problem of evil wouldn’t show that God does not exist, unless it can be shown that necessarily if God exists he is both omnipotent and all-loving.
Is the divine hiddenness objection any better than the objection from evil? Well, like the problem of evil it’s certainly a worthy argument. However, in the same way it can never be conclusive. This argument says that God, if He existed, would leave more evidence of his existence. God could very easily have made his existence obvious and prevented unbelief entirely. However, why would God do that? If, for instance, Christianity is true, then it doesn’t chiefly matter to God whether people believe He exists or not. God is primarily interested in people coming to saving faith in Him. Do we know that in a world where more people believe God exists that more would come to have such saving faith? It seems we have no way of knowing that at all. And if so then there is little in the claim that if God existed there would be more evidence. Christian philosopher William Lane Craig goes even further: “if God is endowed with middle knowledge, so that He knows how any free person would act under any circumstances in which God might place him, then God can have so providentially ordered the actual world as to provide just those evidences and gifts of the Holy Spirit which He knew would be adequate for bringing those with an open heart and mind to saving faith. Thus, the evidence is as adequate as needs be.”
Whilst I think both arguments can be satisfactorily answered, other theists may simply appeal to mystery: we don’t know what the answer is but we know God is all-powerful, all-loving, and just in his dealings with his creatures and therefore we trust that God will do right, and that he has morally sufficient reasons for setting up the world as he has. Hiddenness and evil are then puzzles for the theist, but they need not amount to defeaters of theistic belief.
And this brings me finally to the arguments that I think are best: those against the coherence of the very concept of God. In my view, these arguments are far more threatening to theism. If a successful argument could be constructed along these lines then it’s as close to a disproof of the existence of God as the atheist could ever hope to find. Unfortunately (for the atheist, not for us theists!), such arguments are incredibly difficult to construct, and most versions tend to be highly implausible if not downright fallacious. In fact, the “heavy stone” argument dismissed earlier is a form of this sort of argument. What tends to help the theist out with respect to incoherence arguments is the fact that theologians and philosophers of God enjoy incredible latitude in drafting coherent accounts of the various attributes of God.
However, there are two incoherence arguments that I think amount to the best arguments against theism (note, I don’t say either is a good argument!).
(1) The argument against the possibility of a timeless person
(2) The argument against the possibility of a bodiless person
If it could be shown that either idea was incoherent then theism would be in real difficulties. The reason is that God, if he exists, is supposed to be personal, and if personhood is incompatible with the mode of God’s existence then the concept is flat out incoherent.
Some theologians might deny that God is “timeless,” and perhaps claim that he is everlasting through time – from infinity past. To my mind this escape isn’t satisfactory. Firstly, it faces the problem of traversing the infinite. Secondly, it faces the problem of the existence of an actual infinite. Thirdly, there’s Leibniz’s interesting question: why didn’t God create the world sooner? Lastly, there are good reasons – scientific as well as philosophical – to hold that time itself had a beginning at the Big Bang. The philosopher of religion must hold that either God is necessarily timeless, or at least timeless without creation – and either way must face the problem of timeless personhood.
These are the two arguments I’m currently working on, so I’d like to wrap up with some pointers towards a solution to each.
With respect to timelessness and personhood much will depend on what criteria we lay down necessary for personhood. This is a question that’s hotly disputed in other areas of philosophy such as the ethics of abortion and artificial intelligence. Two strategies can be adopted by the defender of timeless personhood: (1) He could deny that the criteria given by the critic are in fact necessary for personhood at all. (2) He could agree that the criteria are necessary for personhood but show how a timeless being could possess them.
Three broad areas of personhood criteria tend to be proffered: criteria on the basis of conscious states, criteria on the basis of intentionality, and criteria on the basis of inter-personal relationships. Minimally, I think, a person should be a self-conscious being, but I fail to see why a timeless entity couldn’t be self-conscious. With respect to intentionality there is no necessity that intentionality need be inherently future directed. Lastly, a timeless God could be capable of inter-personal relationships even if it is the case that were he to enter into such relationships by creating persons He would no longer be timeless. In any event, the Christian doctrine of the trinity (and in particular the notion of perichoresis) shows how the persons of the Godhead exist in inter-personal relations timelessly. So much more needs to be fleshed out here, and I am currently writing a research paper to that end – snippets of which will appear on this blog site in the coming weeks.
What, then, about the coherence of incorporeal personality? It seems to me that much here will depend on wider debates in the philosophy of mind between physicalists and dualists. Arguably, even human persons are not essentially physical either. So says the dualist and not without reason. For example, the dualist will point out that mental states are not identical with brain states. The former have properties – for instance, intentionality or “aboutness” – that the latter do not possess. As with the argument from timelessness, much will depend on what we mean by a person. If being a person is an inherently physical and temporal notion then the concept of God is in trouble. Whether or not there is any reason to limit personhood in this way is far from contentious. On the contrary, it strikes me as false, which is what I intend to show in my paper.
Stephen J Graham