Using vs. mentioning arguments

Note: the following bit is something I wrote specifically for a new book I’m working on, tentatively titled: Angry Atheists?: Why Anti-Atheist Backlash is Silly. At the end, I’ll throw in a bit of explanation of where the book will take the discussion from there, and I’d very much like feed back on it, whether or not you think that’s a good plan for this section of the book.

In debates about religion, arguments for the existence of God can show up in two very different ways. Sometimes, people will actually use an argument. They’ll say, “you atheists are all wrong, because if there’s no God, where did the universe come from?” or “you atheists are all wrong, because if there’s no God, where do we get our morality from?”

But sometimes, they’ll merely mention an argument without actually claiming it shows that there is a God. Instead, they’ll suggest that the mere existence of the argument is evidence for some meta-point about religion debates. For example: “N. T. Wright’s argument for the resurrection is very sophisticated, and until you’ve dealt with it, you can’t claim to have dealt with the best arguments for the other side.” Or: “You can’t deny that there are intellectually respectable reasons for believing in God, after all, Plantinga’s ontological argument is very sophisticated.”

In general, the arguments that get used tend to be very different than the ones that are merely mentioned. Many arguments that believers actually use would be quickly dismissed by professional philosophers as not very good, but they’re almost at least somewhat good-sounding. That is, I can usually understand, to some degree, why someone might think it was a good argument.

On the other hand, the when an argument is merely mention, it’s usually one with a reputation for sophistication, and at the very least it’s usually the type of argument that impresses academics. But they also tend to be the type of arguments that would sound completely ridiculous if written up in a blog comment. The academics who come up with this sort of argument seem more concerned with impressing their peers with their “sophistication” than with actually convincing anyone.

For example, I’ve heard Richard Swinburne’s The Existence of God cited, more than once, as giving one of the best cases for theism ever produced. The core of the argument is the claim that the universe we observe is much more likely on theism than on atheism. Swinburne develops this simple idea using a framework known as Bayesianism, and the way he does this has been praised for its sophistication.

What I never hear Swinburne praised for, though, is actually producing a terribly compelling argument. More importantly, I never hear him praised for giving really good reasons to think this universe is much more likely on theism than atheism. Without that, Swinburne’s argument isn’t much of an argument, no matter how sophisticated his use of Bayesianism may be. And that, I think, explains why no one actually uses Swinburne’s arguments in any normal context.

However, the fact that mentioned arguments often aren’t very good is just part of the real problem with this tactic. When someone tries to prove a point by just mentioning an argument, they’re assuming that in some sense it’s a good argument, and we should all be able to agree on that without even discussing the argument. Trouble is, sometimes we won’t all agree. In fact, I think all arguments for the existence of God are pretty terrible. I think atheists can’t be criticized for not dealing with the “best” arguments because there aren’t any “best” arguments.

And theists themselves don’t agree on what the best arguments are. Ask ten religious thinkers, and one will give you Aquinas’ five ways, another will tell you about his cutting-edge formulation(s) of the ontological argument, a third will claim the Quran is so perfect that God must be the author, and so on, until you get to the handful of guys saying you shouldn’t look for arguments. This means that no matter what arguments an author like Dawkins chooses to address, someone will always be able complain he didn’t choose the “best” ones, making that criticism especially unfair.

From here in the book, I’m planning on talking a bit more about arguments for the existence of God in general, and some flaws that are common to many theistic arguments. However, I plan on spending the bulk of the book’s “arguments for God” section on William Lane Craig, especially the latest edition of his book Reasonable Faith. My reason is that while Craig’s arguments are terrible, he at least knows how to produce good-sounding arguments, the kind of arguments people actually use. But I’m open to hearing I should take a different approach.

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17 Comments.

  1. Chris — where can I purchase a .pdf or .mobi file of your first book? I’ve tried many times to contact the publisher and every email is rejected saying their box is full.

  2. I dunno how much I can help you. I fall into that unfortunate handful of guys who think that arguments aren’t what will ultimately settle these scores.

    I’ll just point out that atheists don’t have it much harder on this point than those who attack philosophical theses in general. The response “you haven’t dealt with the most important/sophisticated/detailed argument for this position” is thrown around a lot, sometimes with justification and sometimes not. This seems to me to be the case also in atheist vs. theist debates. I think it would be difficult to say anything general about the use of the mere mentioning of arguments in the course of these debates — sometimes mentioning them will be justified, sometimes not, depending upon the actual content of the arguments, of course, but initially also on the general respectability of the persons who develop/buy the argument in question. (Determining whether they are respectable or not, of course, offers many delightfully tempting chances to beg the question, but that’s nothing new.)

    Of course, the mere fact that an argument is “sophisticated” (in the sense that could apply to Swinburne’s probability argument, among other things) is not enough to make it necessary to deal with it. But it would take quite a lot of work, I would think, to show that [i]all[/i] the arguments that get “mentioned” by theists are no more compelling than that. Some of them are likely not only worth wrestling with, but [i]ought[/i] to be wrestled with by an intellectually serious atheist. It should be obvious that finding out which ones those are won’t be settled by polling theists — some theists are really dumb, after all. I don’t have some precise way of determining which are the serious arguments, and which aren’t, but that doesn’t mean there is no such distinction.

  3. I’ve read this through a couple of times now, and I can’t tell just what the point is supposed to be. Maybe that’s because of the missing context. Looking especially at the last paragraph (the schematic one, not the contentual one), my best guess is that you’re trying to respond to something like this argument:
    (1) Atheists are obligated to respond to the best arguments for theism.
    (2) The best arguments for theism are the most intellectually sophisticated arguments for theism.
    (3) Your book doesn’t respond to the most intellectually sophisticated arguments for theism. Therefore etc.

    Your response is to deny (2), and you do this in two ways here: (a) The best arguments are the (most) convincing ones (to whom?); and (some, many, all) the most intellectually sophisticated arguments aren’t (at all?) convincing. (b) Theists can’t agree on which are the best arguments, and (+ implicit premise) hence there are no best arguments.

    If that’s right, then I suppose my suggestion would be to clarify (1) and `convincing’ a bit, and segue to Craig by pointing out that, on the one hand, his arguments are less sophisticated than Plantinga’s, but on the other hand, they’re much more convincing to non-philosophers (who, presumably, think they understand Craig and have no clue what’s going on in Plantinga). In non-academic contexts, convincingness is probably a better metric of quality than sophistication.

  4. Chris Hallquist

    Jordan,

    (1) You make a good point that mentioning arguments comes into play in other philosophical debates. But what kinds of cases can you think of where it might make sense to mention an argument?

    I can think of one case: where someone claims that their objection to one version of an argument deals with all version of that argument. In that case, it could be appropriate to say, “actually, that doesn’t deal with Leibniz’ formulation of the cosmological argument because…” (or whatever).

    But in most cases, I’d advice people inclined to mention arguments to actually sketch the argument, and say a bit about why you think it’s a worthwhile argument.

    (2) Could you elaborate a bit on what you mean, when you talk about arguments that “ought to be wrestled with by an intellectually serious atheist”? Can you give a specific example, and say why you think it is an example?

    I’m a bit uncomfortable with this kind of talk, honestly. When I wrote my post, I was thinking in terms of what people who write books about these issues ought to do, but talk about what the “intellectually sophisticated atheist” ought to do could be potentially applied to atheist waitresses and atheist public health graduate students and so on. I don’t want to say any of them are worse off for not having “wrestled” with the ontological argument.

    (3) Well yes, there are dumb theists out there, but even among religious scholars its going to be hard to get an agreement on what the best arguments are. In contrast, I think a poll of evolutionary biologists would reveal quite a bit of broad-strokes agreement on what the evidence for the theory of common descent is.

  5. Chris Hallquist

    Dan,

    I wouldn’t put it like that. Rather than say “the best arguments are the most convincing ones,” I’d just say “given a choice between discussing bad arguments that don’t appeal to many people, and discussing bad arguments that do appeal to many people, it makes sense to discuss the latter.”

    I would say that Plantinga’s argument is just plain a bad argument. If it were something that had been scrawled on a chalkboard as a joke, it would have been funny (for an academic in-joke). But as a serious argument I don’t think there’s much to be said for it–though I actually plan to explain why in the book, since Craig discusses Plantinga’s argument in Reasonable Faith.

    Anyway, yes, you’re right that I’ll need more of a segue in the finished product. The intro to Craig could be a post-length item unto itself, so here I went for brevity rather than clarity.

    Do you understand the point in the last couple of non-italic paragraphs, thought?

  6. Chris Hallquist

    Ed,

    Unfortunately, the book is only available in print form.

  7. It might be a good idea is to identify some concrete, specific targets. If the target is just identified by saying “I often hear people say such and such”, then it may not be very interesting. It might leave readers with the suspicion that straw men are being targeted. But if the targets are identified and you say “On this blog (or in this paper or in this youtube video) someone says such and such”, that would be more interesting and would remove the suspicions in question.

  8. I think atheists do exactly the same thing, and IMO there is a much more plausible explanation. Basically, the atheist on the message board wants to go for the quick knockdown by citing something that seems popular and persuasive, even though he knows that most of the popular arguments have been picked apart by philosophers. If the popular takedown doesn’t work quickly, he alludes to a much more sophisticated argument that is generally considered persuasive for atheism. It is only a “mention” because:

    1) It would take too long to explain, and people ignore long comments

    2) It shows that there are serious intellectual people who believe atheism, suggesting that the layman theist shouldn’t be too overconfident

    3) He remembers that the argument was persuasive for him, but doesn’t remember all of the details

    Am I being too charitable?

  9. Chris:

    (1) Whether it’s appropriate to quickly sketch the argument rather than mentioning it depends on a wide range of interrelating factors. Among them, we might include: whether sketching the argument will take one too far afield of the topic one is ostensibly focusing on, whether the person with whom one is speaking has the intellectual capacity to hold more than one (or two, or three…) argument(s) in his head at once, whether you and your interlocutor have time to discuss another argument, whether one can really do justice to the argument with a “sketch” of it, etc. Perhaps, given ideal debate conditions, it would always be better to actually analyze the argument rather than mention it, as you suggest. But those conditions never hold.

    Another worry is that the level of debate is going to decrease if all that we allow are arguments that can be quickly sketched, and whose “convincingness” (to borrow Dan’s term) or “good-soundingness” (to borrow yours), such as it is, shines through in the sketch. Making the arguments more detailed is likely to make them more unbelievable, but that’s only because it’s easier to believe things when they’re vaguely formulated than it is when their implications have been rigorously spelled out — doing the latter multiplies one’s chances of finding things one cannot accept. But that doesn’t speak against being rigorous about arguments, surely. Perhaps it is often the case, as you suggest, that the people who develop such arguments in favor of theism are trying to impress their peers more than they are trying to actually convince anyone. But I see no reason to believe that that’s always or even usually the case.

    (2) Yeah, I probably stated that too vaguely. I certainly don’t think everyone should be in the business of justifying all their beliefs as much as they can. I just mean that if you’re in the business of justifying your belief in atheism (writing a book on it presumably qualifies you here), there are probably certain theistic arguments you should know, and one good reason for knowing them is that intelligent, well-informed people buy them.

    (3) Yeah, but I don’t think the science comparison is apt here. Religious debates are far more like debates in philosophy than those in science — what counts as evidence for either side is often one of the points on which the two sides disagree.* This is part of the reason why I don’t think argument on its own has a prayer of really settling these debates.

    *No doubt, this happens in science, too, sometimes. But I don’t really wanna get into a philosophy of science discussion here. Dan’s your man for that.

  10. Call me unsophisticated but unless theist X can convince me that an eternity to be spent in Hell is the inevitable consequence of my obstinate disbelief in his deity then it’s just a waste of words. I find Pascal’s Wager to be the “best” argument Christians have produced.

  11. Chris Hallquist

    (1) “Making the arguments more detailed is likely to make them more unbelievable, but that’s only because it’s easier to believe things when they’re vaguely formulated than it is when their implications have been rigorously spelled out — doing the latter multiplies one’s chances of finding things one cannot accept. But that doesn’t speak against being rigorous about arguments, surely.”

    Here, you seem to be conflating “detailed,” “non-vague,” and “rigorous,” but I think that’s a mistake. While writers are sometimes forced to face trade-offs between brevity and clarity, surely it’s possible for an argument to be both simple and clear.

    (2) “There are probably certain theistic arguments you should know, and one good reason for knowing them is that intelligent, well-informed people buy them.”

    This actually strikes me as a good suggestion, but which do you think the arguments are that can boast the most intelligent, well-informed people who buy them? I.e. there may be many intelligent, well-informed people who think Swinburne’s writings are worth reading, but I get the impression that far fewer of them would actually “buy” Swinburne’s arguments at the end of the day.

    (3) Fair enough. It just makes it harder to settle what arguments are worth thinking and writing about (see my original point about “if you asked ten religious thinkers…”)

  12. It occurs to me that the reason to us/mention a specific theistic argument can be quite different to the reason for using/mentioning an popular atheistic argument.

    The common garden variety theist is trying to defend something core to their worldview (and their lifestyle if they’re also religious). Modern theological arguments merely defend the compatibility of this universe with a supreme being.

    And the atheist is defending the specific position that the theist’s god – no matter how clearly defined – is most reasonably attributed to a reification of something hypothetical.

  13. It’s good that you mention off the bat that Plantinga, as well as many contemporary philosiphrs of religion, do not believe God can actually be proven through an argument. This is a point that my theistic friends usually try to ignore :)

    However, it is important to note that, to my knowledge, many still think the arguments that attempt to prove theism work. Althouh I’mn not sure how many theists believe the arguemtns work vs how many of thm don’t. It would be nice to have some statistics.

    Also, if there is one criticism of atheism I see too often its that naturalism is, apparently incoherent. It would be great if you could explore this a little bit more, as I’ve seen far more theists attack naturalism than actually defend their own arguments.

  14. Daniel Almeida

    Blamer:

    You say

    “The common garden variety theist is trying to defend something core to their worldview (and their lifestyle if they’re also religious).”

    I assume you are implying deism as well as christianity since you explicitly mention the “if they’re also religious” part separately. So, do you know how many deists are in philosophy, since I assumed it was all just atheists and christians. Thanks.