Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Arguments that don't mix part II

Here's a pair of arguments dear to the heart of atheists which I think cannot be consistently used together. One of them is the god-of-the-gaps objection to various theistic arguments like the argument from design. According to the GGO, finding an explanatory gap for the naturalist is not the same as refuting naturalism. Further evidence may come in which shows that the gap in question is not a real gap at all.

The other is the argument from evil. What the argument from evil points to is the fact that some evils are unexplained from the point of view of theism. There is, as it were, an explanatory gap for the theist, something the theist can't explain. Now how is it possible for atheists to use the argument from evil against theism, but then use the god of the gaps objection to theistic arguments. If a gap is fatal in the one case, it should be fatal in the other. If the gap is nonfatal in one case, it should be nonfatal in the other. What gives?


JD Walters said...

I am reading Willem Drees' "Religion, Science and Naturalism" right now. Drees is a liberal (VERY liberal) Protestant theologian who thinks that naturalism is the most adequate interpretation of the success and spirit of the natural sciences, but he subtly plays down problems with his approach that would be fatal to his project. For instance, he says that "My naturalism is a metaphysical position. It goes beyond the details of the inisghts offered by the various sciences as an attempt to present a general view of the reality in which we live and of which we are a part. However, it is a rather 'low-level' metaphysics in that it stays close to the insights offered and the concepts developed in the sciences..." (p.11). On the other hand, he notes that "The fact that there are disagreements, especially disagreements with respect to traditional metaphysical issues such as ultimate origins and the temporality of the Universe, does support the conviction that one should be modest in building metaphysical claims upon contemporary science" (p.12). The claim that the natural world is all there is seems to be a rather big humdinger of a metaphysical claim to me.

But more relevant to Vic's argument about arguments that don't mix is his insistence that, even though "the provisional character of our knowledge undermines more elaborate metaphysical interpretations", "this provisional character and the incompleteness of scientific explanations does not count against the naturalist view; even if all phenomena in the world cannot be explained, they can none the less be understood as phenomena in a naturalistically understood world" (p.50). That seems to me to be quite a double standard, and guilty precisely of the "god-of-the-gaps" strategy that Vic is talking about here. And he does not give a good reason why his naturalism is in fact a more 'modest' metaphysical position than any other.

Even so, Drees offers a very sophisticated argument for scientific materialism and he does try to engage the most sophisticated alternatives, including theistic philosophies such as those of William Alston and Richard Swinburne. I think it deserves careful attention, because he does challenge theists to think more about what it means to take science seriously.

stunster said...

According to the GGO, finding an explanatory gap for the naturalist is not the same as refuting naturalism. Further evidence may come in which shows that the gap in question is not a real gap at all.

Is it not open to the theist to respond by saying that a complete or ideal science would in fact posit the existence of God (albeit after a radical revision of our current scientific concepts)?

stunster said...

Interesting 'take' by a well-known atheist philosopher:

The Metaphilosophy of Naturalism
by Quentin Smith

Abstract:- The metaphilosophy of naturalism is about the nature and goals of naturalist philosophy. A real or hypothetical person who knows the nature, goals and consequences of naturalist philosophy may be called an “informed naturalist.” An informed naturalist is justified in drawing certain conclusions about the current state of naturalism and the research program that naturalist philosophers ought to undertake. One conclusion is that the great majority of naturalist philosophers have an unjustified belief that naturalism is true and an unjustified belief that theism (or supernaturalism) is false. I explain this epistemic situation in this paper. I also articulate the goals an informed naturalist would recommend to remedy this situation....


Anonymous said...


I pointed out the same problem in my first debate with Loftus. So far, I've come across five or six inconsistencies in the atheist position.

Peter said...

It seems to me that strictly speaking atheists cannot consistently use these arguments together; but on the other hand, the lack of an explanation for evil is more `embarrassing' (for lack of a better word) for theists than the lack of naturalistic explanations is for naturalists. The point is that there are many gaps that have been filled by scientific discoveries, including big gaps like the origin of the Earth and of the species. Since theism is not primarily an explanatory framework, it is hard to point to similar successes for theism.

JD: I have read some bits and pieces from Drees, and while he raises very important questions (what does it mean if we take science seriously, and what are the implications for religious faith?), I have the feeling that he is a bit too proud of his extreme liberalism; he seems to be more concerned about the integrity of the natural world, and about the inspiring stories of religious tradition, than about the possibility of an actual revelation of God.

Anonymous said...

The difference is that when atheists see a gap in our understanding of the natural world, we try to explain it. We do research and test our hypotheses until we come up with an explanation that fits the facts and is testable and verifiable.

The theist on the other hand, is reduced to saying "there must be a good explanation for why things are the way they are (because god has to exist and must be good) but we don't know what it is and can never know what it is. We can speculate but there's no way to test it and prove or disprove our guesses." And in the case of speculation on the POE, the hypotheses don't even remotely begin to explain the facts.

JD Walters said...


I agree that Drees is a bit too enamoured of this idea of the 'integrity' of the natural world. He almost sounds like one of those 18th century Deists who were motivated by their abhorrence of the idea that God would do something as vulgar as perform a miracle or reveal Himself through special revelation. His arguments from naturalistic explanations of religious experience and morality are only damning to theism if one already accepts the naturalist framework, so they are question begging.

But anyway, you also raise another good point, that one should not push the 'explanatory' aspects of theism too far. While the 'God Hypothesis' is certainly a helpful way of conceptualizing the intellectual resources and credibility of faith, Christian doctrine primarily ascribes the reason for believing to actually encountering God, through scripture, the pangs of conscience, the beauty of creation, etc. It is not as if theism and naturalism are two competing scientific hypotheses (though if naturalism is true theism is probably false). I don't think evil is a more 'embarassing' problem for theists than naturalistic gaps are for naturalists, for the simple reason that naturalists shouldn't take any credit for the advances of science. Naturalists just ride piggy-back on the successes of science, but I cannot see how science lends more credence to a naturalistic view over a theistic one, which with robust doctrines of creation and providence would not lead us to expect otherwise (than that the world is generally a fruitfully ordered place).

Heraplem said...

Dr. Reppert, there does appear to be an inconsitency lurking when these two arguments are used together. I'd argue further that the gap atheists rely on in the evidential argument from evil is much wider (and therefore, perhaps, more fatal) than any gap theists use in design arguments.

Consider first your standard evidential argument from evil (here I have in mind Rowe's formulation or something similar). There is no indication whatever, in this case, that forthcoming discoveries in science will provide us with the sort of information we need to infer that God has no morally sufficient reason to allow the evil we experience. And by extension, there is no indication that forthcoming discoveries in science will enable us to infer that the evil in our world lowers the probability of theism. (In fact, theistic skeptics like Alston argue that, if anything, information of this sort might in principle be unknowable by humans. See Alston's "The Inductive Argument From Evil," in The Evidential Argument From Evil, ed. Howard-Snyder.) Quite a large gap indeed that atheists have here; and there appears to be no hope of scientific discoveries closing it in the near future. One wonders what such discoveries would even look like.

On the other hand, there does seem to be some indication that forthcoming scientific information might provide a basis upon which to infer the existence of a god-like agent. We know that many philosophers and scientists think we already do have such information (e.g. the constants that are now commonly cited in fine-tuning arguments).

The reason the atheist's gap is larger is undoubtedly due to the speculative and unscientific nature of the negative existential claim she is burdened with supporting to get a successful evidential argument from evil up and running. But it's not clear that fine-tuning arguments rely on any such claim, especially when formulated abductively.

Moreover, fine-tuning arguments don't even require us to investigate what reasons a 'fine-tuner' might have for designing such and such. Fundamentally, the big idea being introduced in fine-tuning arguments is agency -- if we get to this point, the fine-tuning argument has done it's job. We needn't inquire into the mind of this agent. Again, not a devastating gap here, and it is no stretch to say that a science free of materialistic shackles might very well provide us with more relevant information to this end.

Compare this with the evidential argument from evil, which requires us to actually speculate on the mind of 3-O being -- who is stipulated to be infinitely wise -- in such a way that we're forced to flatter our cognitive capacities by asserting that this being would have no morally sufficient reason in mind for allowing some instance of evil. What possible scientific discoveries in the future could help an atheist with such a fantastic endeavor?

Dmitry Chernikov said...

While there can be advances in science that plug the gaps in our knowledge, there can similarly be advances in theology that plug the gaps in our understanding of the divine things. Perhaps someone's next near-death experience will result in the solution to the problem of evil which completes the picture created by the known theodicies, such as soul-making which explains much but not everything (e.g., the question of why young children die without getting an opportunity to develop their personalities).

Jeff G said...

I don't see any logical contradiction between the two arguments. Instead, I simply see two different ways in which presumption and burden of proof are distributed in two different debates. I don't expect this to flat out refute Vic's point, but I do think it forces him to refine his argument a bit.

In the case of the argument from evil, and moral blame in general, unless somebody can provide a compelling reason for their action (or inaction in this case) we simply assume that they have no compelling reason. To deny this would be to radically revamp the judicial process, would it not?

In the case of God of the Gaps, the naturalist is simply objecting to the move which the theist attempts to make from "we don't know" to "we therefore know". This also seems like a fairly safe move.

Of course Vic's point is that this move from "we don't know" to "we therefore know" is exactly what the atheist seems to do in the case of the argument from evil.

This can conflict can, however, be turned against the theist by asking him which point in the atheists reasoning they reject. I think the safest move for the theist would be to reject the argument from evil. It therefore remains for the theist to demonstrate why their rejection of the argument from evil (as I have described it) does not radically revamp the judicial system as it would seem to? In other words, why can't every criminal and wrong-doer simply remain silent in court, while his lawyer claims that he had a perfectly good reason for his action/inaction while at the same time not revealing the reason?

properly basic said...

Off the topic but---

Anyone read the triablogue response to Molinism?


Anonymous said...

The fact that we cannot see any Incredible feats is a bit of a gap for those people who think Mr. Incredible is based on a real character.

Edward T. Babinski said...

One person plays up the mystery of suffering and gaps in human knowledge concerning God's plans; while another person plays up the mystery of gaps in human knowledge about the cosmos.

Whichever "mystery" one focuses on tells us more about that person and their beliefs rather than proving anything to both person's satisfaction.

I'm content to admit that differences in belief will remain even IF science can discover the neural code (the language in which sensations and knowledge are stored in the brain electro-chemically). Such difference of opinion will also continue to exist concerning the sufferings that all organisms are heir to.

Hagen said...

Another interesting point concerning the "God of the Gaps" appeal and the Argument from Reason is how often naturalists appeal to a naturalism of the gaps. It goes something like this:

Theist: Naturalism cannot account for mental causation. Since mental causation is necessarry for reasoning, naturalism cannot account for reasoning. Therefore, either reasoning is invalid, or naturalism is false.

Naturalist: We may not at this time have an explanation for how what we term "mental" can be causal, but give it time and science will pull through.

Of course, it may well be that science will pull through, but what of the problems we see now? Likewise, it may well be that There is an explanation for God allowing evil, but that in itself does not take away the force of the argument. We need to make better arguments. Theists and atheists alike should be consistent.

I like Plantinga's comments regarding God of the Gaps theology:

"This line of thought is at best a kind of anemic and watered-down semi-deism that inserts God's activity into the gaps in scientific knowledge; it is associated, furthermore, with a weak and pallid apologetics, according to which perhaps the main source or motivation for belief in God is that there are some things science can't presently explain. A far cry indeed from what the Scriptures teach!" Methodological Naturalism part 2