The God Non-Hypothesis

by David Ottlinger

“The problem of evil, in the sense in which I am using this phrase, is essentially a logical problem: it sets the theist the task of clarifying and if possible reconciling the several beliefs which he holds. It is not a scientific problem that might be solved by further discoveries…” [1]

                                                                                         -JL Mackie, The Miracle of Theism p 150

There is a great deal of insight packed in to this little passage. In two sentences Mackie makes the case that the problem of evil, the problem of reconciling the existence of evil to belief in God, is a problem radically unlike a scientific problem. I am inclined to believe that the same is true for every argument for and against the existence of God, for the reasons Mackie provides. If I am right, then accepting this little argument means accepting something quite important and general about the God debate. Further, if I am right, the conclusion of this argument would cast a pall of suspicion over the scientific language and trappings of many atheists and some Christian apologists. We hear often of the “God hypothesis” and “scientific evidence” of God’s existence and that modern science “disproves” God. There are even calls for a “science” of religion. Such language, of course, does not entail that the existence or inexistence of God is a scientific question but suggests that debate over the existence of God can and should be modeled on scientific debate. Most of this, I believe, is profoundly misguided and these few lines can show us why. Accordingly I want to blow up what I take to be Mackie’s argument, as one would a photograph, to make its logic more perspicuous. In enlarging the argument, undoubtedly, I will fill in some details of my own, of which Mackie will be innocent, but I believe the basic shape of the argument will remain the same. Mackie argues the nature of the question of God, by examining how the question is answered. On this basis he calls the problem “logical”, a term I find misleading as he deploys no formal logic. I would prefer to say that the problem of evil and the existence of God are philosophical problems. I shall try to say what this means and why it must be so.

In saying this, I anticipate two objections. First, some accuse philosophers of “defending their turf,” in the sense that they are trying to discourage others from commenting on subjects traditionally considered their own. Secondly they accuse philosophers of making recondite, hair-splitting distinctions, in order to make questions appear a matter for their own expertise. To the first charge, it should be noted that there is nothing unique in a discipline feeling it has a privilege of place, in relation to certain questions. No one would doubt that some matters fall within biology, others history. There is no reason to think philosophy should not have its own domain, or, in principle, that arguments concerning the existence of God should be within it. I will be making the case that the question of the existence of God falls naturally within that domain. Furthermore those who decry philosophers defending their “turf” do so just when they would have all the territory for themselves, as many view science as having the answers to everything from astronomy to ethics, biology to mathematics, all of which seems at least as suspect. (It should also be said that it is the most uncharitable kind of argument that completely by-passes the logic of what a person is saying and explains their disagreement by attributing to them bad motives.)

To the second charge, I have more sympathy. Philosophy does indeed frequently deal with fine, conceptual distinctions. And it is not infrequently the case that in addressing one philosophical question, one can find oneself suddenly addressing something that seemed far afield and almost irrelevant, as many of Socrates’ consternated conversation partners discovered (and as many undergraduates are still discovering in introductory courses some little while later). Philosophical arguments are protracted and as Nietzsche once wrote, things that are protracted are difficult to see. Yet, I will be defending these careful distinctions, as fine as they may seem, as deeply important. A complex argument can turn on a careful distinction, in the same way that the huge mass of a bank vault’s door can turn on a hinge.

As one last piece of ground-clearing, I want to make clear what I am not saying. By suggesting that the existence of God is not a scientific question or even very much like a scientific question, I am not thereby rendering science irrelevant. Science may furnish premises and undermine or disprove claims about the material world that a theist may want to make. As such science may play an important role in debating the question, but even though the arguments may be concerned with science and scientific facts, this does not make them scientific arguments. I realize that this may sound like a cavil or triviality. But in the end it makes all the difference, because it will determine how we attempt to answer the question of God’s existence, and whether the paths we pursue are promising ones.

Wittgenstein famously suggested that instead of asking what the meaning of a word was, we should ask how we would explain the meaning of that word. As he put it, “The way this question helps us is analogous to the way the question ‘how do we measure a length’ helps us to understand the problem ‘what is length?’” [2] I want to suggest a similar strategy for understanding the question of God’s existence. What kind of evidence matters in weighing such a question? What sort of answers would we find convincing? How would we dispute answers? The meaning of a question is revealed in the answers to these and similar statements. With these questions in mind I want to briefly rehearse to of the most famous arguments in the God debate, one for the existence of God and the other against. These arguments, however summarily treated, will, I believe, give us a sense of how the question of the existence of God is disputed and ultimately yield insight into the nature of the question itself.

One of the key arguments for the existence of God concerns elements of the natural world that  evince design or purpose. [3] It is inferred from the existence of such phenomena that a supernatural mind must have had some part in their creation. As the classic version of the argument runs, suppose we find a watch alone in a field. The watch has certain complex features that work together, in intricate and interdependent ways, to serve a common purpose, namely, displaying the time. Finding such an object, we would immediately infer that it had been created by an intelligence. But of course, natural phenomena have in common with the watch and other artifacts many of the same remarkable features. The human eye or hand have many complex features that work in confluence to serve their natural functions. The parts of the eye—retina, cornea, iris, optical nerve, rods, cones and much else—all interact in a functional complexity that would put a Breitling to shame. The argument then concludes that we ought to do in the case of the eye what we do in the case of the watch and infer that it was designed by some intelligence for some purpose. Since the functional features of the eye pervade the natural world, it is usually thought that the creative designer must be some supernatural intelligence, beyond and outside of nature. With some further expenditure of energy which need not detain us here it is concluded that the designing intelligence must be a great deal like the God of traditional theism, and so is taken as evidence for his existence.

Interestingly there is no doubt, among theists or atheists, what the greatest argument against God’s existence is. The argument from evil argues against God’s existence by assuming, according to traditional theism, that God is both omnipotent and all good. It is argued then that God’s existence is inconsistent with the many evils that are all too obvious in a world full of pain, injustice, sickness, pestilence, and death. For a human being at least, permitting such evils to go unrectified, especially if they are easily correctible, would impute a great deal of moral blame. Someone who watched someone be robbed or attacked when they could easily prevent it, would not be a good person. If God seems to allow these blights in the world, that is not consistent with his goodness. If he is unable to rectify them, this is inconsistent with his omnipotence. It is then neatly concluded that no being like God could exist.

What kind of arguments are these? How are they to be decided? Well, Mackie has some very helpful notes. Referring to the problem of evil, he writes that “it sets the theist the task of clarifying and if possible reconciling the several beliefs which he holds.” This seems to me essentially right and equally true of the design argument as it is of the argument from evil. In the first case we are asked how it is possible to believe in God and simultaneously believe in the existence of evil. In the second we are asked how we are able to make a ready inference in one case and not in a strongly parallel case. Both then deal with the consequences of beliefs and how they cohere with other beliefs. Accordingly, these are essentially conceptual arguments. They are driven by what is internal to the concepts and what follows from them. The argument from evil turns on the fact that the concept of God contains the content of ‘omnipotent’ and ‘wholly good’. The design argument turns on the content of concept ‘design’, including ‘function’ and ‘interdependence’. It forces us to ask how we can describe some things (the watch) as designed, and impute a designer, but not other strongly parallel things (the eye). Again it is argued that making the inference in the former case without making it in the latter case would be incoherent. Both deal with prima facie contradictions which, as Mackie notes, have to be “reconciled” as much as possible.

Second, Mackie notes that “It is not a scientific problem that might be solved by further discoveries…” Again this seems to be true of both arguments. It is perfectly true that both arguments turn on facts about the world. The argument from evil turns on the fact that there are seemingly unjustifiable instances of suffering and deprivation in the world. The design argument turns on the fact that things in the natural evince remarkable functional complexity. Now these are indeed empirical beliefs, but they are not the kind that are going to leave anyone gobsmacked. They are about as obvious and familiar as anything can be. In fact, evidence of natural evil and natural design are so ubiquitous that no new, undiscovered example is likely to seriously impact the problem. The greatest natural disasters and human atrocities down to every stubbed toe adds to the sum of human evil. Likewise every eye, hand, fin and scale has functional complexity of the requisite type to become fodder for the design argument.

A full discussion of either argument would involve taking on board and examining some more fine-grained facts. This is usually where science plays a role. For instance, the design argument suggests a parallel between natural function and the function of artifacts. Examining how well this parallel holds often involves taking on board some serious biology. Unfortunately, it can also be the case that to counter certain objections to the problem of evil, one has to consider the grisly details of what evil there is and what it is like. But for all that, I think it is clear that these arguments are relatively free from the facts; what really drives them is the concepts. In discussing the problem of evil, for instance, we do not necessarily have to discuss any real life evil. Indeed some imagined but plausible evil, one which we can reasonably infer happened or would be similar to one which did happen, will do as well as anything else.

So far I have said that arguments for and against the existence of God, insofar as they are represented in the design argument and the argument from evil, are largely concerned with the coherence of prior beliefs, are largely driven by the content of concepts, and are largely indifferent to new empirical discoveries.  And while they may be concerned with genuine facts, they are largely a priori and can be discussed with a great deal of supposition. Given these considerations, Mackie was moved to call them “logical” arguments, and there is a certain appeal to this, insofar as logic certainly meets all the criteria just mentioned. But ‘logic’ is a term with its own history which I will, contra Mackie, reserve for arguments which deploy the formal symbolisms we call logic. What I want to stress now is how atypical these features would be for scientific arguments. Now describing in general what scientific arguments are like, supposing such a thing was possible, would involve spilling a good deal more virtual ink than I can afford at the moment. But I think that each one of the above characteristics would be considered atypical of scientific arguments. Scientific arguments generally deal not with how beliefs cohere with one another, but how they agree with the empirical evidence. They are driven by the nature of the evidence, not the content of the concepts. They are highly responsive to new empirical evidence. Supposition and a priori reasoning is meant to be used sparingly if at all. It seems, then, that arguments for and against the existence of God typically evince features that are quite uncommon among scientific arguments. This is a strong basis on which we could say that arguments for and against the existence of God are radically unlike scientific arguments and should not be modeled on them.

However the proof, as they say, is in the pudding. Some brash advocates on both sides might be willing to say farewell to the old traditional arguments and embrace a new, more scientific era of the God debate. Well, how do they fare? To my eye the person who cleaves most closely to these ideals is the physicist Victor Stenger, so his work naturally suggests itself as a test case. [5] His book is tellingly titled God: The Failed Hypothesis, and written just below the title “How Science Shows That God Does Not Exist.” There is no messing around here. In fact, the arrangement of the book apes that of a scientific paper. It begins, in the first chapter, by laying out methodology much as a paper in experimental science would. In this portion, Stenger lays out what he considers to be adequate conditions to accept extraordinary claims and other considerations. Each chapter then constitutes an “experiment” — or at least, a survey — of the evidence to see which competing hypothesis, theism or atheism, fairs better. Every chapter ends in the same tedious way: “Indeed, Earth and life look just as they can be expected to look if there is no designer God.” (71) “The observed universe and the laws and parameters pf physics look just as they can be expected to look if there is no God. From this we can conclude, beyond a reasonable doubt, that such a God does not exist.” (164) “The information and insights contained in the scriptures and other revelations look just as they can be expected to look if there is no God who revealed truths to humanity that were recorded in sacred texts.” (189). And much more.

There are many reasons to be dissatisfied with this kind of treatment. Stenger treats theism and atheism as alternative hypotheses and derives what he takes to be straight-forward consequences, which can then be tested against the facts. Such ready inferences may be possible with empirical, scientific hypotheses (without being naïve about the complexities of modern science), but it is not so easy with ideas concerning God and other grand philosophical ideas. How exactly would an all good, all powerful, all knowing being create a world? How could we know? These are not easy questions to answer but Stenger is reliably cavalier. This was pointed out to Stenger by our old friend Massimo Pigliucci in the pages of Science, Religion and Culture. [6] In an original challenge in Midwest Studies in Philosophy, Pigliucci noted that “that there is no coherent or sensible way in which the idea of God can possibly be considered a “hypothesis,” in any sense remotely resembling the scientific sense of the term. The problem is that the supernatural…is simply too swishy to be pinpointed precisely enough.” (148) In the course of his reply, Stenger provided several examples of obviously (to him) testable implications of theism. Here is one of my favorites:

If God is responsible for the complex structure of the world, especially living things, we should see evidence for it in nature. We do not. Complex systems are observed to evolve from simpler ones and show none of the expected signs of design. Indeed, the universe looks as it should look in the absence of design. What is more, well established cosmological knowledge indicates that the universe began with maximum entropy, that is, total chaos with the absence of structure. Thus the universe bears no imprint of a creator.

Obviously Stenger has no truck with the idea that God could be seen to work through evolution, by designing or guiding the process, an article of faith common to most mainstream Christian sects. He is also extremely confident that the idea began in a state of maximum entropy and later developed order is at odds with theism. I see no obvious reason why this should be the case. In fact it seems to agree quite nicely with Genesis 1:1-4: “When God began to create heaven and earth—the earth then being unformed and void, with darkness over the surface of the deep and a wind from God sweeping over the water—God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light.”

But really the problem is with Stenger’s entire approach. He attempts to derive consequences from theistic views and then runs along to try to verify or falsify them. In doing so he gives too little notice to the space of possible implications. What is need is something much more like Mackie’s approach. It starts from the idea that common sense beliefs are in tension with theistic beliefs. Tension is a matter of degree and there can be many strategies for “reconcilement” between prima facie contradictory beliefs. But in the end if the reconcilement fails, and the tension is strong enough, some beliefs will have to be given up. In short, what is needed is the evaluative approach of philosophy that can deal with open-endedness and ambiguities of theistic doctrine in a way that rigid scientifically inspired methods cannot. Pursuing a line suggested by Wittgenstein, I suggested that in order to understand the question of God’s existence we ought to ask what kind of arguments and answers are best suited to settling such a question. I have found that philosophical approaches are very helpful and that approaches modeled on science of really of very little help. On this basis I am happy to conclude that the existence of God is a philosophical and not a scientific question. If that is defending my turf, here I stand, I can do no other.

[1] Mackie, J. L. (1982). _The Miracle of Theism: Arguments for and Against the Existence of God_. Oxford University Press.

[2] Wittgenstein, Ludwig. Major Works. New York: Harper Perennial Modern Classics, 2008. Print.

[3] For more information see here: http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/teleological-arguments/

[4] Again see here: http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/evil/

[5] God: the failed hypothesis Victor J.Stenger – Prometheus Books – 2008

[6] Pigliucci’s opening salvo http://philpapers.org/archive/PIGNAA.pdf

Stenger’s response http://smithandfranklin.com/current-issues/A-Defense-of-New-Atheism-A-Reply-to-Massimo-Pigliucci/9/5/3

Pigliucci’s reply http://smithandfranklin.com/current-issues/A-Muddled-Defense-of-New-Atheism-On-Stengers-response/9/5/4

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90 Comments »

  1. Hi Brent

    “He’s more famous as a philosopher than a scientist because he left out (3). He never bothered to count his wife’s teeth.”

    This is a furphy . Aristotle got it wrong because he trusted an incorrect observation, not because he didn’t think testing by observation was necessary.

    If you look at Aristotle’s actual words he says that this has been observed in three species and that it has not been observed in other animals yet.

    That “yet” clearly shows that he believes further testing is necessary.

    Very little of the observational data that we have, has been observed by us personally. How many of us have actually counted our wives’ or husbands’ teeth?

    In a way you could say that you (and Bertrand Russell) have also failed (3) because you didn’t go to the primary source and check what Aristotle said.

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  2. Okay David and Daniel, if each of you don’t find it useful to define philosophy as a kind of “reality study,” this is fine with me. In fact I don’t mind adopting whatever definitions you prefer for the term. Daniel has mentioned that the field is best in a purely “critical” capacity, and I certainly do have my own such pet peeves to air. Nevertheless my primary interests do concern reality itself (or “science” I suppose), and thus it’s fortunate for me that the EA isn’t simply about philosophy!

    Last comment I mentioned that, yes, the “problem of evil” does suggest to me that if there is a creator with true agency, then it should also be “evil.” This is simply given the potential magnitude for instantaneous suffering over pleasure. I also mentioned that I don’t see why empirically documented evidence couldn’t bear this out, and thus scientifically demonstrate to rational people that any such god would be quite useful to view as “evil.” In fact I believe that this is exactly what will happen some day, though as a side effect from something much greater. So if anyone out there is up for some conceptual science in this regard, then please do let me know. Otherwise I’ll find something to say that has a more critical nature.

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  3. David

    Me – ” There is no recognition of religion except as dogmatic theism, and no suggestion of how philosophy can help decide these matters.”

    Your good self- This is simply not true. Mackie himself provides a discussion of whether or not we have reasons to *believe* in God beyond the arguments for the *truth* of claims about God in a different part of the book. Much has been made of such arguments. On the Christian side there is Kant, James and Kierkegaard. On the atheist side Nietzsche, Clifford and Freud. Again I recommend Kitcher’s Life After Faith as a great book along these lines. But I still think arguments about theistic claims is an important part of the debate as I argued above.”

    I’m sorry, but I do quite not see the relevance of this reply. Maybe my point was unclear. The problem of evil is not a problem for religion, it is a problem for people who have an idea of God that clashes with the occurrence of what they choose to call evil.

    The whole problem arises from a muddle of unnecessary assumptions. By framing the debate narrowly within a dogmatic theist context we take it our of philosophy and into the realm of superstition and, imho, waffle. If we approach the problem from within philosophy we see immediately that we have no idea what we mean by ‘God’ or ‘evil’ and the problem becomes difficult to even define.

    Let us complain about dogmatism and the problems it causes, but let’s not take them on board unexamined in philosophy. There is no problem of evil unless we define God and evil so as to create one. The presence of so much earthly suffering tells us something about God, if there is such a thing, and this seems about all that can be said other than that it renders some ideas of God ridiculous. .

    Because all the talk is of commonplace theism the problem appears difficult.But it is a problem for commonplace theism ,not for philosophy. The Principle of Charity suggests we should not take the least plausible view of God as our target, nor worry much about the problems it creates. I see the article (in itself) as a good account of the problems facing one particular naive conjectural concept of God, but does anyone here hold such a view?

    I would suggest that moving the problem into philosophy would mean watching it evaporate. . .

    — “First I said above that I did not necessarily disagree that suffering may be ineluctable. Second I don’t think we need a “counter-proof”. The “counter-proof” is life. Do you think, as Richard Swinbourne has argued, that the Holocaust was a net good for humanity because it was an occasion for many people to show compassion? If you want to explain *all* evils in this way, you have to take those kinds of positions.”

    I don’t believe in evil so do not need to explain it, and can easily reconcile suffering with my notion of God. I don;t worry about trying to convince, say, evangelical protestants who have no interest in philosophy since they are unreachable.

    Life means death. The only way to avoid suffering would therefore be to avoid living, as mysticism proposes.

    Just giving another view – please don’t feel obliged to respond. There’s a lot going on here.

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  4. History indicates that human concepts of God have been falsified repeatedly through the application of common sense. For example, Rome was inhabited by hundreds of gods, even families had their own. Then the Christians arrived and 300 years later a tripartite monism became the official creed. So much simpler or parsimonious. But this god has also been manipulated over time so that today no feature ascribed to God remains unquestioned. Intelligence (science, philosophy and common sense) has done its job – and we are the better for it.

    What we are left with is a contradiction. We observe ourselves in this vast universe but all is ultimately inexplicable. Human moments of love, beauty and truth seem to make it right.

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  5. Hi all,

    PeterJ,

    I took you to be saying that philosophy of religion can only deal with factual religious claims about the world (I went back and looked at what you wrote before again and it still strikes me that that is what you were saying). I said that was false because philosophy has many great arguments on why people believe as well as ways to engage emotions around their belief. Part of philosophy of religion is debating factual theological claims, but only part.

    As to your claim that I am presupposing some “dogma” to be held by the other side, my target here is theism. All theisms posit some creator God who could make creation in various ways and is morally extremely admirable if not perfect. This is true even of “open” theisms which do not necessarily posit the omni-perfect and necessary God of tradition. If it is a dogma it is not mine. If you have a different view, that is fine but that is not the view addressed by the argument. (Also I am not sure that your view–so far as I understand it–is different in any way that helps. See, if you like, my prior challenge about other kinds of suffering.)

    Liam,
    “Evil is defined as that which causes vicarious suffering for humans. The suffering of animals apparently does not count?”
    Ah. You are right. I should not have said harm only to humans. Animals suffer “natural evil” as well. There is actually a great deal of discussion about this in the literature. One of the most famous papers about this in the past 50 years is William Rowe’s “The Evidential Argument From Evil” which asks theists to justify why a deer would be allowed to die in a forest fire.

    Brent,
    “That’s where I would disagree. Science is just common sense writ large and pursued relentlessly.”
    There are several things wrong with this. It is just wildly out of step with how the word “science” is used including by scientists. It also does not do justice to how science emerges or what it achieves. Phlogistic chemists and geocentrists had common sense (and no they were not merely superstitious and not fully critical, Herbert Butterfield and Thomas Kuhn put that old condescension permanently to bed.) It took a great deal more than “ruthless” common sense to get chemistry, physics and biology going as sciences. My mother taught graduate students to do biological research. She kept me periodically informed of their bumblings and misstarts. Learning to be a scientist means learning more than just “common sense” or any simple “method”.

    “Aristotle thought women had fewer teeth than men. He’s more famous as a philosopher than a scientist because he left out (3). He never bothered to count his wife’s teeth.”
    I want to find whoever started this meme and kick him in the shin. Aristotle, as others pointed, out did a great deal of observing both of animals and foreign human societies. Also when concerned with non-empirical claims we do not decline to go out and gather evidence because we are lazy but because there is no evidence to get. Where should I go to get “evidence” that modus ponens is a good argument form?

    Mark,
    “you are making all sorts of assumptions about science (using a very narrow definition, I might add) and about philosophy which I think are questionable.”
    I am not making assumptions, I am making contentions with arguments. I said the following: “Scientific arguments generally deal not with how beliefs cohere with one another, but how they agree with the empirical evidence. They are driven by the nature of the evidence, not the content of the concepts. They are highly responsive to new empirical evidence. Supposition and a priori reasoning is meant to be used sparingly if at all.” Which of these is mistaken?

    “What puzzles me particularly is this: you reject theism and yet, conceptually, you seem to be working within a traditional religious framework, using the language of natural theology, etc..”
    I don’t quite understand how my framework is religious. Of course it does use terms like “natural theology” because that is the substance of the view I am arguing against.

    “Why are these particular questions important (to an atheist)? Sure, we can talk about the inconsistencies of traditional religious belief, but why are they interesting (to non-believers)?”
    Because I live in a democracy that is 85% Christian. Because I want good, democratic debate and critical thinking. Because most of my fellow citizens get their morality, dogmatically, from their religion and not from moral philosophy and that will probably continue to be the case until Christianity is challenged more effectively. Because I want people to understand atheists and why they believe as they do.

    “to the extent that it is not a religious question it seems more a scientific than a philosophical one”
    I just argued at length about why I think this is mistaken. If you tell me where you think my argument is unsatisfying maybe I can help, but not really otherwise.

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  6. David Ottlinger,

    Yes, and “as in” is generally understood to indicate that an example follows. I will admit I overlooked mathematics as another form of studying abstract concepts.

    But essentially what you are saying is this. While thinking critically about gods is automatically philosophy, looking at evidence is not automatically science, and if we are using evidence that has been gathered “prior to beginning an enquiry” we can completely ignore that that evidence still had to be gathered at some point. That is very convenient for your argument. However, if that is really what the discussion is about then it reduces to different circumscriptions of what counts as science, and thus it would a bit much to claim that Stenger was mistaken. At most you could claim that he was using a different, equally legitimate definition.

    This squabbling about the definition of science is not in itself very productive. So perhaps let me consider your observation that the exploration of god(s) tends to take the shape of endless philosophical and apologetic discussions rather than straightforward examination of empirical evidence. Why is that so? Is it because that is the nature of the question? Or is it perhaps simply because the quests for relevant evidence have consistently failed? As a thought experiment, does anybody really believe we would be having these rarefied discussions if a Catholic priest praying in Latin could heal people from cancer, regrow lost limbs and call rains of fire down onto the armies of non-Catholic countries? If angels or demons could be summoned into magical circles to provide testable information that would not otherwise be available? If there was no evidence for the existence of the planet before 4004 BCE, and somewhere in the Middle East was a portal guarded by an invincible angel with a sword of fire?

    I think we all know the answer. The only dodge is the usual “but what if it is just aliens messing with us?”, but that kind of brain in a tank solipsism never leads anywhere.

    Daniel Kaufman,

    You could just as well argue that “at a deeper level”, existence claims are essentially mathematical because we have to count if there is one or zero. Again, trying to claim everything for the one’s favourite intellectual exercise while wiping those of other fields off the table isn’t useful. As long as you want to figure out what is out there in the world you can’t do without empirics either, end of story, and the question is just whether you redefine looking at empirical evidence as “not science”.

    What is more, and without doubting that the clarification of concepts is essential, we can discuss whether there is a wall or a wallity-moment until we turn blue, but if we try to walk through we will still bump our noses. It exists as a matter of empirical reality regardless of the word games of armchair reasoning, and as a wasp can’t fly through the wall it exists materially even to organisms that do not have a language, much less an understanding of ontology.

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  7. Robin Herbert wrote (in response to my question to David about what interest or importance atheists or non-believers might find in theological issues like the problem of evil):

    “… [I]f an atheist is not interested in convincing anyone to their point of view then I can’t imagine why they would be interested other than a general interest in people and their beliefs.”

    Thanks for that. You seem to see the matter more or less as I do.

    “You are imagining believers fretting and biting their fingernails about the problem of evil… ”

    Well, you are imagining I am imagining this, but I readily acknowledge that many who claim to believe in the Christian God seem to be totally unfazed by what I happen to see as a big problem for them.

    I am probably less inclined than you appear to be to raise this matter with them however!

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  8. David, I wish you would elaborate on this part in a remark you made above, “Because I want people to understand atheists and why they believe as they do.” This position frequently comes up in discussions between theists and atheists. Would you say, for example, that a theist could not endorse secular humanism on the one hand while also being a theist on the other? Or would a theist have to describe himself. as many do, as simply a humanist? Or, are you simply engaging fundamentalist or evangelical Christians who sometimes characterize humanists as being atheists. There seem to be misbegotten political undertones here.

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  9. This is comment #3 for me here, and the recap is that I’ve decided to no longer reference any existence claims under “philosophy.” Thus the essential nature of good/bad for us, or the dynamics of consciousness, or even how we might usefully judge a divine creator, shall instead be referenced under the field of “science.” Conversely philosophers shall frame questions and ponder their coherence against others, not suggest answers. The field from my definition shall essentially provide needed criticism on a host of topics, by means of language and logic.

    As such, the contribution to philosophy which I’m most hopeful about, concerns my ideas on the nature of definition. The heuristic would be that we must not ask “What is/are…” anything. For example, I see no “true” definitions for the terms “philosophy,” “consciousness,” “life,” “mass,” “two,” or any others. Instead I see more and less “useful” definitions in respect to their associated arguments. If accepted, theorists would then be free to design their terms however they deem appropriate, while critics would formally be in error for disputing them.

    I’ll certainly take questions and comments about this position, though let me remind you that I did earlier leave something else one the table. I believe that the PoE will one day become empirically validated, though I’ve decided to not specifically describe how, without formally being asked.

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  10. Hi David

    “All theisms posit some creator God who could make creation in various ways and is morally extremely admirable if not perfect.”

    Well, not in my world. In my world it would not be correct to say that God exists or does not exist, and He would have all properties and no properties, and created phenomenon would be unreal . I mention this just to suggest that the issue may be far more subtle than it appears to be when we stick to discussing folk-theism. I sometimes think that religious discussion must be very difficult in the US, so dominant and vocal are the dogmatic sects and their preachers that they create an opposition in their own image. Must be the tax-breaks.

    Would not the question of whether God is a scientific hypothesis depend entirely on whether the hypothesis makes any testable predictions for science? This would be a matter of fact. If some particular idea of God implies no scientific predictions then it cannot be scientific. So wouldn’t the essay title be a case-by-case question, depending on how we are defining God in each case?

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  11. David

    You say you don’t make assumptions. *Everybody* makes assumptions. I have trouble with a lot of the philosophical literature precisely because I balk at certain (often implicit) claims or assumptions on which arguments are often predicated.

    Typically, at almost every step I want to jump in and object. (I am speaking generally here.) It is not relaxing that’s for sure…

    The first example of this in your piece came very early. You quote Mackie, who talked about this issue as basically a logical one, and you immediately want to replace ‘logical’ with ‘philosophical’ on the basis that logic equals formal logic. It may do in philosophical circles, but my guess is that Mackie was just using the word in its ordinary English sense. I haven’t read the book, but I have read other works of his and I know he is a careful writer and I suspect he meant precisely what he said. This is the sort of thing I mean. You have certain strong views (assumptions?) about the nature and role of philosophy which – how shall I put it? – colours your arguments.

    Why not just accept that there are *different* ways of viewing philosophy and its relationship with scientific and other modes of thinking?

    Thanks for answering my key question clearly and directly. I had thought that cultural factors were playing a part, and so it appears.

    You wrote that you are interested in these questions…

    “Because I live in a democracy that is 85% Christian. Because I want good, democratic debate and critical thinking. Because most of my fellow citizens get their morality, dogmatically, from their religion and not from moral philosophy and that will probably continue to be the case until Christianity is challenged more effectively. Because I want people to understand atheists and why they believe as they do.”

    I get it now. You are not interested in the questions themselves because you have reached your own conclusions on these matters (as I have reached my own – probably similar – conclusions). You are mainly interested in discussing them as a means to change the moral thinking etc. of others (and so that others will understand and so presumably be more accepting of atheists and the atheistic point of view).

    My main concern with what you say here relates to the assumption that ‘moral philosophy’ is/should be a (the?) major source of morality. I think this view is seriously mistaken – but I agree with you that taking morality from Christian doctrines, etc. is not the way to go either.

    I also have reservations about seeing philosophy as a means to a particular end. I think it cheapens it. Philosophical thinking should always (I’m sure you agree) remain radically open (as science and music and art and literature are open).

    [This is a general response focusing on my main question. I can certainly elaborate if you like. I may put something together to address your other points also, but a comprehensive response would probably be inappropriate for this format (too drawn out). There is a lot going on in this thread as it is. Congratulations on precipitating a very rich and interesting discussion.]

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  12. I know this is not about the problem of evil, but as it has come up quite a lot, I thought I would put my non-scientist, non-philosopher, non-theologian thinking on the subject.

    The first point is that if there was a God as I have defined above then obviously she could create a world without suffering.

    She could create a world of free, happy and fulfilled beings who had never known suffering and which never will. *

    But she could never create it for an individual such as me, because I am a.vulnerable, fallible being and in any world in which I inhabit there is always the possibility for some suffering, even if not the intensity and type of suffering we see in this world. (You may say that God could always protect vulnerable beings but that would simply be the same as them being invulnerable).

    So the next question is, do we, fallible, vulnerable creatures have value? We can take the value we see in people as evidence of that.

    So the first premise is:

    There are some things of value which could not be achieved without there being at least some suffering.

    Then I ask, suppose all the value in this world could be achieved and the worst suffering that would befall would be the equivalent of a stubbed toe. Would it be better that none of the good things in this world had never happened rather than someone suffer something like a stubbed toe? Again, obviously not.

    So I have my second premise:

    There are some kinds of value which would be worth at least some suffering.

    But of course the suffering in this world is of many, many orders of magnitude greater than that.

    But it seems to me that if I am to confidently say that the problem of evil falsified God I must overcome these premises, so.I must say:

    1. There is no kind of value that could not be achieved without the kind of suffering that exists in the world and;
    2. There is no kind of value that would be worth that suffering.

    I don’t see how I could possibly know that, with my limited understanding.

    I am not sure how science or philosophy or anything could establish that.

    So from my point of view we might say that, cetrera paribus, Naturalism is the better explanation of the suffering of the world.

    But if you are going to talk of it as a problem, or falsification then you would need to have a supporting argument to those points.J

    —–
    * NB Please don’t reply as though I had said she couldn’t create such a world. Just forestalled the inevitable clarification

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    • “1. There is no kind of value that could not be achieved without the kind of suffering that exists in the world and;
      2. There is no kind of value that would be worth that suffering.

      I don’t see how I could possibly know that, with my limited understanding.

      I am not sure how science or philosophy or anything could establish that.

      So from my point of view we might say that, cetrera paribus, Naturalism is the better explanation of the suffering of the world.

      But if you are going to talk of it as a problem, or falsification then you would need to have a supporting argument to those points.J”

      The argument against (1) is simple: God is omnipotent so there need be no nomological connection between suffering events and achieved values.

      As for (2) what kind of value is achieved by the suffering of a twelve year old girl, the daughter of a friend of mine, who died from leukemia in agony that even morphine couldn’t relieve.

      Sure there’s value that that can only be achieved with the possibility of suffering. There would be no value in competitive games if you couldn’t lose. I race motorcycles for sport and part of the sport is the possibility of getting hurt. But those are risks taken voluntarily. My friends daughter didn’t volunteer.

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  13. Well gang, to all good things must come an end. Thank you all for an interesting discussion.

    Thomas,
    For one thing many Christian see atheists as being disingenuous or see their disbelief as issuing from a place of resentment or anger at God. Calmly laying out why atheists think the way they do should at least help to rectify that. Some people also have difficulty understanding how atheists have values and morals, so explaining what moral philosophy is and how we get values from it could help with that also. By definition a theist cannot be a secular humanist but, yes, can be a humanist. I want to engage whoever is interested which, again, going by the many churches, lecture halls and other places that are filled when this stuff is debated, I imagine that is quite a few people.

    Eric,

    “This is comment #3 for me here, and the recap is that I’ve decided to no longer reference any existence claims under “philosophy.” Thus the essential nature of good/bad for us, or the dynamics of consciousness, or even how we might usefully judge a divine creator, shall instead be referenced under the field of “science.” Conversely philosophers shall frame questions and ponder their coherence against others, not suggest answers. The field from my definition shall essentially provide needed criticism on a host of topics, by means of language and logic.”
    I will inform the philosophers of your decision.

    “As such, the contribution to philosophy which I’m most hopeful about, concerns my ideas on the nature of definition”
    That is a place where philosophy is quite useful. Wittgenstein’s comments have had quite a lot of influence.

    PeterJ,
    I am not sure I understand your theology, but it sounds to me like it is not a traditional theism which doesn’t make it wrong, just outside the scope of my argument.

    “I sometimes think that religious discussion must be very difficult in the US, so dominant and vocal are the dogmatic sects and their preachers that they create an opposition in their own image. Must be the tax-breaks.”
    You are not wrong.

    “So wouldn’t the essay title be a case-by-case question, depending on how we are defining God in each case?”
    Maybe. The age of the Earth is verifiable. So I guess you can directly refute a God who is defined, in part, as having created the world 6,000 years ago. Feels like a bit of a cop out though. (Is his having created the world when he did really part of the *definition*? On the whole though, most conceptions of God will need to be argued philosophically for the reasons I tried to outline.

    Mark,
    “*Everybody* makes assumptions.”
    You can’t think I don’t know this. What I said was that I was not making assumptions about the general characteristics of science I gave. I was prepared to defend them, but so far you havent issued any challenges.

    “This is the sort of thing I mean. You have certain strong views (assumptions?) about the nature and role of philosophy which – how shall I put it? – colours your arguments.”
    Views. Not assumptions. I am not “assuming” what philosophy is like, I am making statements about what it is like having immersed myself in the subject for several years and having read it my entire life. I have also studied some significant science as well as the history and philosophy of science so I make some claim to knowing what that is like. I have tried to motivate these views at length, none of which, so far, you have engaged so I am a bit at a loss as to address your concerns. Also I do not understand why you “balk” at a small and essentially lexical point about what is most helpfully termed “logical”.

    “My main concern with what you say here relates to the assumption that ‘moral philosophy’ is/should be a (the?) major source of morality.”
    Again this is not an assumption, it’s a conviction after much study.

    Brent,
    Sorry to hear about your experience, but I agree with you entirely. There is no justifying such events.

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  14. Brent

    “The argument against (1) is simple: God is omnipotent so there need be no nomological connection between suffering events and achieved values.”

    I am not sure if you actually read what I said, or just skimmed. Are you saying that omnipotence mean that God could produce a world without suffering, which was populated by fallible, vulnerable beings?

    “As for (2) what kind of value is achieved by the suffering of a twelve year old girl, the daughter of a friend of mine, who died from leukemia in agony that even morphine couldn’t relieve.”

    I am sorry for your friends and their daughter, but I am not sure why you think that question relates to (2). I didn’t say “achieved by”, nor was that implied.

    So if your question was about (2) then it should have been, “What sort of value would be worth that sort of suffering?”

    If your question was about (1) then it should have been “What sort of value could not have been achieved without this suffering? ”

    In both cases I don’t know, but I don’t know that there is not that kind of value.

    And I was, of course, referring to unchosen suffering throughout, not chosen suffering That should have been obvious from the context

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    • I take a “world” to be a sequence of related states. An omnipotent God can make state X follow state Y independent of any rules or causal laws. So having a cell mutate to become a leukemia cell can be followed by that cell disappearing. Can an omnipotent God make a world without suffering populated by human beings? Religions that postulate an omnipotent God generally suppose He creates a heaven.

      Your contrasting value being achieved through suffering and what sort would be worth the suffering seems like a distinction without a difference. It can only be worth the suffering if the value couldn’t be achieved without the suffering. But it appears that neither of us can think of a value that would redeem the suffering of my friends daughter. But because it’s about “God” we let theologians imagine there could be an excuse – in a way we wouldn’t consider for a second if she’d been the victim of a serial killer. That, I think is the point of the New Atheism; religious ideas aren’t given special exemptions.

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  15. David, would it be wrong to suggest that you have perhaps drifted far afield of your thesis in some of your remarks? I don’t want to mistakenly attribute to you the sort of resentment and proselytising that I find underlying some of Brent’s remarks or that many theists also engage in. I happen to be an agnostic, BTW.

    You note: “Some people also have difficulty understanding how atheists have values and morals, so explaining what moral philosophy is and how we get values from it could help with that also.” Certainly, you are far too intelligent not to detect a somewhat condescending tone here, aren’t you? Those “some people,” I suppose are theists, many of whom–like some atheists–it’s true have not really given much thought to values and morals, or moral philosophy, apart from those espoused by their religious affiliations. At the same time, I think you’ll agree that many theists have devoted considerable time and energy to exploring moral philosophy and still choose to be theists. So your target audience would be?

    As for the subject of humanism, it is notable that today’s secular humanist movement places, IMO, far greater emphasis on scientific theory and empiric evidence than it does on philosophic argumentation in explaining its positions. Consequently, an historic figure that might have been described as Renaissance humanist and a theist is merely someone who suffered the misfortune of being born too early to be acquainted with or fully appreciate Darwin or much scientific discovery in the past two centuries.

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  16. Thanks for the response, David. You imply you are done with the discussion so perhaps this is not the time for me to deal in any comprehensive way with the issues we have been discussing. I hope we shall have opportunities in the future to pursue the main issues further.

    Let me just deal with a couple of points from your last comment.

    Re. assumptions. My original claim was that you were “making all sorts of assumptions about science (using a very narrow definition, I might add) and about philosophy which I think are questionable.”

    There is a misunderstanding here. I was not referring to the explicit definition you quote, but rather to the implicit definition which I discerned to lie behind many of your claims.

    For example, I was thinking of a comment up-thread in which you said that “the disciplines that do have a lot to tell us about religion (history, sociology, religious studies) are not sciences.” I take the social sciences – like sociology – to be sciences. Your view here just seemed unnecessarily narrow.

    But my point was concerned with claims or assumptions (I used both words, I think) about science and philosophy, not just science.

    You express surprise that I ‘balk’ at a mere lexical point. But this relatively trivial-seeming point is emblematic of the problems which I (and some others here apparently) see with the view of philosophy which is implicit in much of what you say. You say it is a considered view and I am not disputing this. Rather I am saying that your claims, while explicitly liberal, are potentially quite the opposite of liberal (in a couple of important senses of this word). They are not, in my opinion, sufficiently open to other perspectives and so – ironically – they could be seen to reflect elements of the dogmatisms you are attacking. We all need to accept, I think, that there is no one correct way of understanding philosophy and its relation to other modes of thinking, nor with dealing with complex practical or moral questions.

    This is not to say that philosophical thinking (whether done by analytic philosophers, other types of philosopher, or non-philosophers) doesn’t have an important role to play in clarifying scientific, practical and moral issues.

    But logic and morality are deeply woven into the fabric of human existence and transcend the (inevitably arbitrary) boundaries of any specific academic discipline or disciplines.

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  17. David I’m sure you know that when your name pops up on the screen, I do pay particular interest. This post, as well as the one on “Philosophobia,” have been both informative for me, as well as great fun. If you’re out for this one, well I do eagerly await your future contributions!

    For those who would nevertheless continue on however, you may note that I’ve left a sizable meatball the table. Perhaps most have decided not to have me cash this in, since I’d probably just make a fool of myself. Thanks for the concern! I do see that there are five days left for this one however, though I’d at least hope for any of the less compassionate out there, to get moving — I haven’t actually prepared anything. So then how is it that I believe science will ultimately take the philosopher’s PoE, and empirically bear this out? Hmm…

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  18. AlexSL wrote:

    You could just as well argue that “at a deeper level”, existence claims are essentially mathematical because we have to count if there is one or zero. Again, trying to claim everything for the one’s favourite intellectual exercise while wiping those of other fields off the table isn’t useful. As long as you want to figure out what is out there in the world you can’t do without empirics either, end of story, and the question is just whether you redefine looking at empirical evidence as “not science”.

    —————————————————————

    Well, until your ready to engage with the actual arguments offered in works like the one’s I cited, this really isn’t very resopnsive. Saying that it’s nothing more than “trying to claim everything for my favorite intellectual exercise” is also unresponsive — and unfair.

    You speak uncritically of “empirical evidence” but that’s exactly the point. One’s empirical evidence is of objects and events, all of which fall under various concepts, employing various — and distinct — principles of individuation. Working out how all of this works is the job of philosophers — and specifically philosophers of language and contemporary researchers in metaphysics. They are not, in themselves, empirical questions. Nothing empirical is going to settle the questions Quine raises in “Translation and Meaning” and “Ontological Relativity,” for they inquire beyond the point of empirical discrimination.

    Accounts of ontological commitment and the ontological role of linguistic frames of reference is something on which philosophers have written quite a lot. It’s not something that physicists or botanists write about at all.

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  19. Philosopher Eric wrote:

    I’ve decided to no longer reference any existence claims under “philosophy.”

    ————————————————————————–

    Er…ok. Nonetheless, ontology is a branch of philosophy.

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  20. Daniel Kaufman,

    Maybe I misunderstood you, but you did not seem to argue merely that working out how concepts work is the job of philosophy, which I would agree with as long as it is understood that no scientist or mathematician can do their job without doing a bit of that also, and that that does not by itself make their job philosophy. But the point of the discussion here is what the existence question of god is, and to me it is the same kind of question as whether gravity or horses exist, i.e. one that would be squarely in the realm of natural history if not for the fact that too many people don’t like the answer that natural history has already provided.

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  21. David, thanks for spelling out the differences between humanism and secular humanism.

    Second, per comments back and forth, tis true your focus is on theism. This gets indirectly at a few of the foxes I set loose; I think others posted thoughts kind of along those lines. Per the old Star Trek episode, if I met “Apollo” today here on earth, or on an alien planet, no, he wouldn’t be god in my book.

    Per Peter J and others, given that, say, Theravada Buddhism is even less amenable to not only scientific, but also to philosophical discourse, why should be even bother? An immaterial life force, but not a personal soul, is reincarnated, you say? How do you put that under either a philosophical or a scientific magnifying glass, other than reversing the polarity on Hume’s idea of “I sleep easy at night” and scoffing at the idea?

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  22. AlexSL:

    That’s why I distinguished between the surface level at which existence claims operate — and with respect to which you are, of course correct — and the deeper level, at which ontological questions are clearly linguistic in nature.

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  23. To a philosopher, the question of the existence of god likely is, unsurprisingly, a philosophical question. If the philosopher happens to be an atheist, as is most often the case, god will likely be liquidated.

    To most scientists, in most fields, the question of the ultimate nature of things (ontology/metaphysics) hinges on the data, less on philosophical/linguistic analysis. (Nota bene Ph. Eric.) All the data collected so far have severely under-cut the historical non-scientific narratives, both religious and philosophic. Stenger, Dawkins and others have effectively presented the evidence against those primitive gods. However, Intelligent Design and pan-psychism still inspire some scientists and others to speculate about god. There is no scientific field of deology since a possible substrate of god has not yet been identified.

    To almost all theologians, the question of God’s existence, is a theological one. Religion is a field that I have not paid much attention to, and I hope to correct the omission, but it apparently predates science and philosophy by millennia. It seems to be a mostly intuitive theory of everything, and the struggle between good (God) and evil (Devil) is an important component of the system. These fundamental belief systems can have very powerful social effects by promoting or inhibiting certain behaviors – sometimes in most disconcerting ways.

    So what is one to do? We all have to make decisions every day and act accordingly, whether one is a professional researcher, as above, or not. Information is always incomplete and unreliable. Nevertheless, we are all responsible for the consequences of our actions, whether we like it or not. All those dead great thinkers of the past are now mute and unable to guide us. Each new generation has so much more information to deal with, and the problems have become more complex. We are obliged to be ‘maximally eclectic’.

    What do I do? I try to be honest with myself, fair to others, be diligent and open to all relevant information. But in the end, I rely on my own judgment. To rely on the judgment of others is very unwise.

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