Sunday, January 10, 2010

Know Your Godless Heathens

The discussion between believers and non-believers on the web is filled with sweeping generalities about atheists’ believing this and believing that. Atheists are guilty of it too. Unfortunately, lots of the people making these claims are not taking the time to actually find out what atheists have been arguing. As a result, the characterizations they are giving of atheist positions and arguments have little to do with reality. I’ve presented a long bibliography of the important sources of atheist thought in the last hundred years here:  Atheism Bibliography.  But I acknowledge that that is a substantial homework assignment. Nevertheless, if you are going to take this topic seriously, you need to work your way through the important works on the topic. A physicist couldn’t expect to follow what’s going on if she hadn’t read Feynman, Einstein, and Newton, after all. And a biologist couldn’t get by without Darwin, Mendel, and Gould.

So here’s a much shorter list of some essential works in philosophical atheism from the last 30 years or so. A few are articles, one is my overview of the field that’s going up at the Internet Encyclopedia (It’s posted here:  Arguments for Atheism in the mean time.) And there are several book length topics. If you read these and understand the arguments, you’ll have a good handle on all the big issues and arguments in the field. The Rowe article from 1979 is the watershed presentation of the inductive problem of evil argument (and restated in 2006). To date, the strongest response that’s been given to it is pretty puny: we just can’t be sure if there have been instances of completely pointless suffering out there.

Start reading:

Drange, Theodore (1998b). “Incompatible Properties Arguments: A Survey.” Philo 1 (2), 49-60. On the web here.

  • [A useful discussion of several property pairs that are not logically compatible in the same being such as: perfection-creator, immutable-creator, immutable-omniscient, and transcendence-omnipresence.]

Everitt, Nicholas (2004). The Non-Existence of God, London: Routledge.

  • [Everitt considers and rejects significant recent arguments for the existence of God. Offers insightful analyses of ontological, cosmological, teleological, miracle, and pragmatic arguments. The argument from scale and deductive atheological arguments are of interest.]

Gale, Richard (1991). On the Nature and Existence of God, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

  • [Gale gives a careful, advanced analysis of several important deductive atheological arguments as well as the ontological and cosmological arguments, and concludes that none for theism are successful. But he does not address inductive arguments and therefore says that he cannot answer the general question of God’s existence.]

Mackie, J.L. (1982). The Miracle of Theism, New York: Oxford University Press.

  • [Influential and comprehensive work. He rejects many classic and contemporary ontological, cosmological, moral, teleological, evil, and pragmatic arguments.]

Manson, Neil A. (ed.), (2003). God and Design, London: Routledge

  • [Perhaps the best recent academic collection of discussions of the design argument.]

Martin, Michael (1990). Atheism: A Philosophical Justification, Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1990.

  • [A careful and comprehensive work that surveys and rejects a broad range of arguments for God’s existence. Particularly clear and structured. Many penetrating objections. One of the very best attempts to give a comprehensive argument for atheism.]

Martin, Michael and Ricki Monnier (eds.). (2003). The Impossibility of God. Amherst, N.Y.: Prometheus Press.

  • [An important collection of deductive atheological arguments—the only one of its kind. A significant body of articles arguing for the conclusion that God not only does not exist, but is impossible.]

Martin, Michael and Ricki Monnier (eds.). (2006). The Improbability of God, Amherst, N.Y.: Prometheus Press.

  • [The companion to The Impossibility of God. An important collection of inductive atheological arguments distinct from the problem of evil. God’s existence is unreasonable. The only one of its kind.]

McCormick, Matt. (2009) “Atheism” Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. forthcoming: www.iep.utm.edu.

  • [A more detailed survey of the atheism literature and the families of arguments that have become influential in the 20th and 21st century, parallels this bibliography.]

Oppy, Graham (2006). Arguing About Gods, N.Y.: Cambridge University Press.

  • [Main thesis: there are no successful arguments for the existence of orthodoxly conceived monotheistic gods. This project includes some very good, up to date, analyses of rational belief and belief revision, ontological arguments, cosmological arguments, teleological arguments, Pascal’s wager, and evil. He sees these all as fitting into a larger argument for agnosticism.]

Rowe, William (1979). "The Problem of Evil and Some Varieties of Atheism," American Philosophical Quarterly 16, 335-41. On the web here

  • [Very important work. Rowe insists that even if there are some natural or moral evils that God could have had a good reason for creating, there are instances of pointless evil that God could have prevented, then there is no God. And there are instances of pointless evil, such as the isolated suffering of a fawn burned in a forest fire. So it is reasonable to conclude that there is no God. This work provokes an enormous response in the modern literature.]

Rowe, William (2006). "Friendly Atheism, Skeptical Theism, and the Problem of Evil," International Journal for Philosophy of Religion 59, 79–92

  • [Twenty five years after the publication of “The Problem of Evil and Some Varieties of Atheism,” Rowe elaborates on and summarizes the multitude of developments in the argument and his position.]

Schellenberg, J.L. (1993). Divine Hiddenness and Human Reason, Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press.

  • [Schellenberg argues that the absence of strong evidence for theism implies that atheism is true. Important development of a new argument.]

8 comments:

Bud said...

Thank you for this. I plan on adding much to my current list of "homework" assignments.

Luke said...

Yup, good list, though I would have added Draper's 1989 paper.

Matt McCormick said...

Yeah, Draper's is on the long bib. Gotta draw the line somewhere. Thanks.

benjamin said...

I look forward to the "Atheism" IEP article. I first found your website after reading your contribution on Kant.

philosopher-animal said...

Does Rowe cite Scriven's _Primary Philosophy_, which if I recall correctly is a decade or so older? He seems to make a very similar argument.

Ron Cram said...

The first link in the list caught my eye on Incompatible Properties Argument. So I clicked the link and I can defeat each of these arguments easily.

Regarding the 'perfection vs. creation' argument:

Version #1
1. If God exists, then he[2] is perfect.
2. If God exists, then he is the creator of the universe.
3. A perfect being can have no needs or wants.
4. If any being created the universe, then he must have had some need or want.
5. Therefore, it is impossible for a perfect being to be the creator of the universe (from 3 and 4).
6. Hence, it is impossible for God to exist (from 1, 2, and 5).

The flaw here is in #3. A perfect being can have no needs is fine, but if a perfect being exists, who is to say that such a being may not have a personality with likes, dislikes and a desire to express his creativity.

Version 2
1. If God exists, then he is perfect.
2. If God exists, then he is the creator of the universe.
3. If a being is perfect, then whatever he creates must be perfect.
4. But the universe is not perfect.
5. Therefore, it is impossible for a perfect being to be the creator of the universe (from 3 and 4).
6. Hence, it is impossible for God to exist (from 1, 2, and 5).

The universe was perfect when it was created, but because God chose to create beings with choice instead of robots, these beings rebelled against him and brought imperfection to the universe.

Regarding the immutability vs creation argument:

1. If God exists, then he is immutable.
2. If God exists, then he is the creator of the universe.
3. An immutable being cannot at one time have an intention and then at a later time not have that intention.
4. For any being to create anything, prior to the creation he must have had the intention to create it, but at a later time, after the creation, no longer have the intention to create it.
5. Thus, it is impossible for an immutable being to have created anything (from 3 and 4).
6. Therefore, it is impossible for God to exist (from 1, 2, and 5)

I accept #1 and #2. The flaw is #3. Conditions change such as when the creation rebels. The problem with these arguments is the assumption the creation has no free will, but it does. The arguments are simply not dealing with reality.

I could go on, but is there any reason to?

Ron Cram said...

I read further down in Drange's comments on the creation vs immutability argument. His thinking is so muddled I thought I should comment. He writes:

"Premise 4 might be attacked in at least two different ways. It has been claimed that both the concept of "prior to the existence of the universe" and the concept of "God existing within time" are bogus. Time is a part or aspect of the universe itself and so there cannot be a time "before the universe." And God is a timeless being, so the idea of God having a certain property at one time but lacking it at a later time is misguided. Since God is not within time, he cannot have properties at particular times.

"My response to both objections is that creation is a temporal concept. This is built into the very definition of "create" as "to cause to come into being." X cannot cause Y to come into being unless X existed temporally prior to Y. Thus, if indeed there was no time prior to the existence of the universe, then it is logically impossible for the universe to have been created. In that case, there could not possibly be a creator of the universe. And, furthermore, if indeed God does not exist within time, then he could not have been the creator of the universe, because, by the very concept of creation, if the universe was created at all, then its creator must have existed temporally prior to it. So if God, being timeless, did not exist temporally prior to anything, then God cannot have been the creator of the universe."

End quote.

God is timeless and exists eternally. Immutability requires eternality. If God had come into being, then he would have changed. God is timeless but he is able to act within time. The spacetime of our universe was created at the Big Bang. God exists outside of our universe (and therefore outside our spacetime) and that is why he is able to create it. But God is also able to act inside our spacetime - to communicate messages, perform miracles and even invade the universe as a human baby. The ability to act inside time does not cause him to lose his timelessness.

Premise #4 does not further the argument. Immutability does not mean God has to do the same acts over and over again - like a toll booth worker. Immutability refers to essential nature - mercy, grace, love, etc. God can have a desire to create and when he is done with the creation, he can destroy it because he accomplished everything he intended to accomplish.

Ron Cram said...

The 'Justice vs Mercy' argument is interesting!

All of the other arguments are extremely easy to defeat, but this one has special importance. The justice of God versus the mercy of God is central to the salvation message known as the gospel.

Here is how Drange expresses the argument:


1. If God exists, then he is an all-just judge.
2. If God exists, then he is an all-merciful judge.
3. An all-just judge treats every offender with exactly the severity that he/she deserves.
4. An all-merciful judge treats every offender with less severity than he/she deserves.
5. It is impossible to treat an offender both with exactly the severity that he/she deserves and also with less severity than he/she deserves.
6. Hence, it is impossible for an all-just judge to be an all-merciful judge (from 3-5).
7. Therefore, it is impossible for God to exist (from 1, 2, and 6).

An interesting bit of logic, no?

Here's the explanation of how God is both all-just and all-mercy. God punishes all sin. That's it. That's the answer.

If people believe in Jesus Christ, then Christ paid the penalty of their sin when he died on the cross. Those people receive mercy. If people do not believe, then they pay for their own sin. But the choice belongs to the individual.