Arguments for the existence of God are dead

There’s a thread going on at The Secular Outpost that started with JJ Lowder defending William Lane Craig against charges of incompetence and dishonesty. I comment as soon as I saw the post, in part because I think Craig’s dishonesty needs to be more widely recognized, but also because I’m genuinely curious as to what people who aren’t fans of Craig can say in his defense.

After contributing a half-dozen comments, though, I had to stop and wonder: Why am I doing this? Wouldn’t it make more sense to focus my energies on people who are at least honest? But after thinking about it for awhile, I’m not sure, especially if you care about arguments for the existence of God. This is because respectable defenders of arguments for the existence of God (which I’ll call AftEoGs, for short) are in short supply these days.

Consider this list of “Top Philosophers of Religion by Hirsch Numbers” (a measure of how widely cited an academic’s work is in the academic literature). Here’s the top twelve:

1 Alvin Plantinga

2 Bill Alston

3 Nick Wolterstorff

4 Antony Flew

5 Robert Audi

5 Richard Swinburne

5 Peter van Inwagen

5 John Hick

9 Keith DeRose

10 John Hawthorne

10 Robert Adams

10 Eleonore Stump

As far as I know, only three of these names are of people well-known for their AftEoGs: Alvin Plantinga, Richard Swinburne, and Robert Adams (if anyone knows otherwise, please tell me). Yet two of the three aren’t great examples.

While Alvin Plantinga once did a rather silly list of two dozen AftEoGs, the one that’s gotten him actual respect is his version of the ontological argument. Yet Plantinga admits that he doesn’t think his argument proves the existence of God. He just claims the premises are reasonable and therefore it’s reasonable to believe in God. So Plantinga isn’t really a classic defender of an AftEoG.

When I hear Adams cited in connection with an AftEoGs, it’s because of his papers on the moral argument. I tracked down a number of these years ago, and what I got out of them is that Adams is very upfront about the problems with his position, and was very willing to change his position to address objections, but in the end he just ended up looking muddled and not very enthusiastic about his own argument. (But hey, anyone want to go to bat for Adams here? Change my mind about this.)

That leaves Swinburne. Swinburne’s belief in his own arguments is beyond question, so you can’t really say there are no top philosophers who think there are good AftEoGs. Yet I can’t help but think of Swinburne as an exception that proves the rule, especially since so few people seem to think his arguments actually show what they’re supposed to. People who say that Swinburne’s arguments are “good” generally seem to mean “worth reading” and nothing more. (Again, please comment on this post if you disagree with anything I’ve said so far.)

Given all this, it’s clear that Craig is one of the biggest living defenders of AftEoG. Maybe even the biggest. On the Hirsch ranking, he’s not as highly ranked as Swinburne, but he’s still in the top 20, and he managed to grab the position of editor of the The Blackwell Companion to Natural Theology. And unlike Swinburne, he has a serious base of fans who think his arguments work.

But if Craig is the best there is when it comes to defending AftEoG, doing so is basically a dead enterprise. I’ve mentioned before that I’m currently working on a second book, in which the AftEoG section will focus mostly on Craig. I feel incredibly weird about doing this, and keep thinking to myself, “surely there’s someone more deserving of my attention than Craig.” But the more I think about it, the more confident I am that there isn’t.

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  1. You don’t count Plantinga’s “evolutionary argument against naturalism” or “reformed epistemology?” Technically the former is just an argument against naturalism rather than an argument for a god, but its used as an argument for a god. And reformed epistemology is, like his ontological argument, an attempt at demonstrating that naturalists can’t prove that he’s insane or irrational without begging the question on the existence of god, rather than an attempt at proving that he’s right. But if you’re going to include the ontological argument, you might as well include it too.

  2. I agree that focusing on Craig is the right thing to do; he gets far too much respect from the Christian hordes than he deserves. He argues in debates for ontological points rather than any seeking of truth, and to be honest I find most theologians do this as well (Christians love Craig, while theologians love Plantinga … I guess there’s a hierarchical drop to speak of), and it needs to get flushed out as a dishonest approach to getting true knowledge.

  3. Maybe once you publish it, you’ll have a chance to take on Craig in a debate. I’d watch it.

  4. I’d include John Frame on Reformed Epistemology. It isn’t apologetics proper like William Lane Craig’s arguments is but it is treated that way by many seminary students.

  5. Alex, I appreciate your comment, but a far more fundamental problem is whether philosophy or theology are routes to knowledge. They seem to be ways to posit questions or frame issues at best. At least science has gained some knowledge about some aspects of reality, and perhaps more in the future.

  6. @JJ Anderson: Didn’t know I’ve said anything to which you address, but hey, more context and fun. :) I certainly would not disagree with what you’re saying; science is, for me, the only way to knowledge, all the rest are just mental gymnastics. But at least philosophy has some alliances with logic and academia which certainly raises the bar there of how to move forward. I appreciate a lot of philosophy for that reason, even though I in general think (the latter) Wittgenstein was right; too much ontological confusion going on. (And needless to say, I appreciate philosophers who think the same the most) If anything, the ontological wankery of Craig *needs* to be exposed, because it’s pulling wool over the eyes of the believer (who have [mostly] no training in logic or reasonable thought) into thinking his arguments are sane.

    What irks me the most is Craig’s constant harping on his expanded Kaalam argument without anyone pointing out the absurdity of his first and second premise! His argument is valid based on the premises, for sure, and that’s what most people hear, however his argument is deeply flawed. (I just now listening to the debate between him and Stephen Law [who I think is great, and had a most wonderful debate with Alvin Plantinga last year] and Craig did it again and again; “here are my premises, now here’s my argument, and never mind that my premises are completely bollocks, just hear me whine about how precisely my conclusions cut through and how my opponent is talking about something that isn’t relevant to my tiny ontological definition of what the debate is (or is really about) so all of what he says should be laughed at and ignored, while I assert so clearly that it’s impossible for me to be wrong.” This nonsense gets eaten up by the faithful without scrutiny, and it just needs to be pointed out how poor his argument is when you look at it. (Also, his waffling about quantum mechanics for the start and cause of the universe is just driving me seriously up the wall in it’s absurd stupidity, on par with friggin’ Chopra! But that’s another post …)

  7. Patrick- the evolutionary argument against physicalism. “Liberal naturalists”, or atheists who aren’t naturalists aren’t effected by it.

    Chris- I’m looking foward to the book. Craig’s fan base seems to be convinced that he’s the greatest philosopher ever. A book like your may help knock some sense into them.