Transcript: Podcast 14- Gap in Theistic Arguments

21 February 2008

For today’s episode we will take a look at a common objection to arguments for God’s existence. This common strategy attempts to show that arguments for the existence of God do not actually show that God exists. In particular, we will look at how the prominent atheist philosopher Michael Martin handles this line of attack. For the book reviews we will look at God and Time: Four Views, which presents four major options Christians have with regard to their beliefs of God’s relationship to time. We will also look at a short book titled Resurrected? An Atheist and Theist Dialogue, which is the transcript of a debate between Gary Habermas and Antony Flew. For the audience question we will take another look at personal experiences, and what role they play in our justification for religious belief. But first, here’s the news,

News

Dr. Grant Mathews, an astrophysicist and a professor at Notre Dame, has recently proposed a new explanation for the Star of Bethlehem that is reported in the New Testament to have guided the wise men to the places of Jesus’ birth.

Dr. Mathews found that a supernova called Kestovan 75 had appeared in the sky approximately 2,000 years ago. A supernova is a collapse of a star many times the size of our sun which creates a tremendous amount of energy and light. It is difficult to know for sure if the supernova would have appeared at the correct time to coincide with Christ’s birth, but Mathews hopes that new technology will allow him to refine the measurements further to see if the timeframes line up. He hopes to publish a book on his research next year. 1

Main Feature: The Gap in Theistic Arguments

In this show during past episodes I have looked at several arguments for God’s existence, the cosmological argument and the teleological, or design argument. While popular and, in my opinion, quite persuasive, these are by no means the only arguments for God’s existence, and others will probably be discussed in future podcast episodes. These arguments have all been extensively critiqued by their detractors. But, in addition to the specific critiques that are applied to each argument, another popular objection to God’s existence is frequently applied across the board. According to this line of objection, none of the arguments for God’s existence, even if successful, actually demonstrate that God exists. They may prove that there is a creator of the universe, but there is no way to know that this supposed creator is all-knowing, all-powerful, all-good, etc. The arguments certainly don’t establish the existence of the Triune God of Christian theism.

This line to attack can be found in almost any critique of the arguments for God’s existence, but Michael Martin provides a summary of this strategy in his article “The Gap in Theistic Arguments,” which can be accessed on the Secular Web. 2 In this paper, Martin sets out to demonstrate that all the major theistic proofs contain a gap, and therefore they do not establish the truth of theism even if they are otherwise sound. In this episode I will try to refute critics like Martin and others in two ways. First, I will argue that the critics use an incorrect and inappropriately robust definition of the word “theism” in order to carry their case. Secondly, I will show that their strategy results in a reductio ad absurdum, which would show that it is literally impossible for any evidence to count in favor of theism.

To address the first issue, how should we define theism? The American Heritage Dictionary defines it as

“Belief in the existence of a god or gods, especially belief in a personal God as Creator and ruler of the world.”

According to this definition, polytheism- belief in many Gods- and Deism- belief in a god who simply created the universe but does not actively participate in it- are versions of theism. This makes good sense. As long as you believe in at least one god, whether or not that god is causally active in the universe, you are a theist. As long as you reject belief in one or more gods, you are an atheist.

Now let’s contrast this modest definition with the definition of theism provided by Martin in his article. According to Martin, theism is “belief in one God who is personal and worthy of worship, who transcends the world but takes an active interest in it, and who reveals His goals for human beings through certain individuals, miraculous events or sacred writings. The theistic God is personal in that He can be understood on analogies drawn from a human person and human beings can enter into a personal relation with God, petitioning Him in prayer and referring to Him as ‘Thou.’ He is worthy of worship since He is morally perfect and is infinitely knowledgeable and powerful.”

So, where on earth did Martin get this definition from? You won’t find a definition like this in any dictionary. It appears that he just made it up. But it is entirely unfair to invent definitions in order to discredit an opponents’ viewpoint. It is all too easy to construct definitions that put one’s opponents at a disadvantage, and it is clear that this is what Martin has done here. It is much more difficult to defend theism if it is defined so robustly.

I should make an important note here, because I am not disputing that God does, indeed, have all the properties mentioned by Martin. In fact, Martin’s definition is at least a start towards defining the orthodox Christian understanding of God that I embrace, though his definition is surely not sufficient. What I am disputing here is that one needs to accept all of the tenets of Martin’s definition in order to be a theist.

This confusion concerning the definition of theism already delivers a devastating blow to Martin’s case, but a further problem plagues his argument. It can be shown, using Martin’s own line of reasoning, that it is literally impossible for any evidence, real or imagined, to provide support for theism. This is the case because he incorporates infinite attributes into his definition. Thus, according to Martin, if an argument does not provide evidence for an all-powerful, all-knowing, all-good being, then it provides no evidence for God. So let’s take a brief look at just one of these attributes- being all-powerful, or, in more technical language, omnipotent.

Although defining omnipotence adequately is a tricky philosophical issue, omnipotence roughly means that God is able to do anything which it is logically possible for Him to do. If we follow Martin’s line of thinking, then any argument that actually supports theism must be incompatible with the Finite God Theory- according to which God is not omnipotent. What possible set of evidence could support theism as defined by Martin but not allow the possibility of Finite God Theory?

As it turns out, there is no set of evidence that meets such criteria. To see this, simply imagine whether God Himself could prove to Michael Martin that He is omnipotent. Perhaps God would create a universe out of nothing in front of Martin’s eyes. ‘Ah,’ says Michael, ‘that’s quite impressive. But surely a finite God could do the same thing. Let’s see you make two universes at the same time.’ If God were to create, instead, 100 million universes at the same time, all as big as our own universe, and all incredibly fine-tuned to allow the possibility of life, Michael could still respond, ‘Yes, but a finite God could do such a thing. Let’s see you make 101 million universes.’

The point is easy to see. God could never fully satisfy Michael because Michael could always want to see God do something slightly more powerful. Therefore, no possible state of affairs could actually be entirely incompatible with the Finite God Theory. This demonstration was made with regards to God’s omnipotence, but similar illustrations could be made with regard to God’s omniscience or moral perfection. It therefore follows from Martin’s reasoning that no conceivable set of evidence supports theism. Martin’s reasoning leads us not merely to conclude that it is impossible to conclusively prove that theism is true, but, rather, that it is impossible for any conceivable set of evidence to even lend support to theism! This would probably strike even most atheists as an inappropriately strong claim and thus we have a successful reductio ad absurdum of Martin.

So if I admit that no conceivable set of evidence can undermine the Finite God Theory, what possible justification could I have for believing in the God of Christian theism? The key point here is to recognize that there are many ways we can discriminate between different views even if the evidence is strictly compatible with both views. We do this all the time. In fact, no matter what the evidence, it will always be compatible with at least two entirely different views. My fingerprints on the murder weapon is compatible both with my being responsible for the murder of Jones and my being framed by Smith. Indeed, it is even compatible with the hypothesis that a super-advanced alien race has tinkered with the gun to make it appear that my fingerprints are on it. Yet, just because a position is compatible with the evidence we have does not mean that it is on equal footing. Everyone would reject the alien hypothesis immediately and would probably decide about the probability of my being framed on the basis of other considerations.

Here I will mention four ways in which one view may be considered more plausible than another even though both views are strictly compatible with the evidence, and show how these factors can have relevance for belief in the existence of God.

1. Evidence may argue more strongly for one position than the other.

Sometimes evidence simply meshes more nicely with one position than another. For example, the historical evidence for the resurrection of Jesus Christ is theoretically compatible with polytheism, but it certainly meshes more nicely with monotheistic Christian faith.

2. We may be inclined to accept the simpler, less ad hoc hypothesis.

This principle follows the well-known maxim, Ockham’s Razor, according to which, all things being equal, we should prefer the simpler hypothesis which requires less ad hoc rationalizations. This is a very important principle that has relevance for many of the arguments for God’s existence. For example, many critics point out that quite a few arguments, including the cosmological and design arguments, are compatible with polytheism. But if we are to follow Ockham’s Razor, we will favor the simpler hypothesis of monotheism unless there is specific evidence for multiple gods. Richard Swinburne has argued that it is simpler and less ad hoc to suppose that God is all-powerful rather than having some limited amount of power, and the same thing goes for omniscience and moral perfection.

3. One position may be justified by properly basic beliefs.

To explain this third point, I need to provide a brief explanation of foundationalism. 3 Foundationalism is a theory which attempts to explain how we are justified in our knowledge. According to this view, all beliefs are either basic or nonbasic. Basic beliefs are immediately justified, and nonbasic beliefs are mediately justified in some way by their relationship to the basic beliefs. A properly basic belief is a belief that is basic and also meets some other condition that makes the belief proper. For example, the belief that I hear a thud on the door might be considered properly basic. The belief that Jim has come over and is knocking on the door is a nonbasic belief that may or may not be justified on the basis of evidence. My belief that Jim is causing the thud on the door might be supported with evidence such as 1.) You invited Jim over, 2.) People often knock on the door when they are invited over.

In any case, foundationalism is a very popular theory of justification in the philosophical community, and I am persuaded that it is the correct account. Foundationalism is used to counter the common skeptical question, “How do you know you’re not just a brain in a vat?” Foundationalists will deny that it is rational to believe that we are just a brain in a vat, since our belief in the external world is properly basic.

Thus, if foundationalism is true, then we might accept one position rather than another because the position is properly basic.

4. We may consider the cumulative force of several arguments to see whether one position is favored over another.

When considering what we should believe, we often base our reasoning on several different arguments that work together in harmony. Each argument for God’s existence does not need to fully demonstrate theism if several persuasive arguments can work in harmony to demonstrate the view. Thus, the Cosmological Argument demonstrates a Creator of the universe, the Teleological Argument provides evidence that this Creator cares about the universe (proving theism over deism), the Moral Argument shows that this Creator is the locus of moral values, and the evidence for the resurrection demonstrates that this Creator has provided His creatures with revelation. The cumulative force of the arguments for God’s existence are an important factor to take into consideration.

Conclusion

To recap the discussion, we have seen that a common line of objection against arguments for God’s existence asserts that such arguments do not establish theism. These claims, however, are usually based on mistaken definitions of the word ‘theism’ and they establish a burden of proof so high that it makes any evidence in favor of theism literally impossible. When we use appropriate definitions of theism, it becomes apparent that at least some of the arguments for God’s existence establish theism. Additionally, even if these arguments don’t conclusively rule out polytheism, Deism, and the Finite God Theory, there are several methods we can use to evaluate these views over and against the view of theism accepted by Christians.

Book Reviews

God and Time: Four Views

The first book I’d like to review is God and Time: Four Views by Paul Helm, Alan Padgett, William Lane Craig, and Nicholas Wolterstorff. Last episode we took a look at Time and Eternity, which was Craig’s account of his own view of God’s relationship to time. This book provides a broader overview of the different positions a Christian can take with respect to their theory of divine eternity.

Paul Helm defends the traditional view of God as existing absolutely timelessly. His primary argument for this classical view is based on the idea of divine fullness. According to Helm, if God exists in time then this compromises his status, because there would be segments of His life that are already over and segments of His life that lie far in the future. If God is timeless, however, then He experiences all of His life at once- He does not live in the fleeting present.

The view that God exists absolutely timelessly leads to several difficulties. For example, on this view God would not know what time it is ‘now,’ and it is hard to see how He could be causally active in the universe. Helm, unlike a great many defenders of divine timelessness, tries to avert these difficulties by adopting a B-Theory of time, according to which there is no such thing as an objective ‘now.’ All events- past, present, and future- are equally real.

Alan Padgett defends the view of ‘relative timelessness,’ according to which God exists in time, but in a time that is different and distinct from physical space-time with which we are familiar. He adopts this view because he claims it is theologically inadequate to claim that God simply exists in time, since the physical time of the universe is a creation of God. But, says Padgett, we cannot adopt a theory of divine timelessness because that leads to absurdities like the problem of God not knowing the current time. He attempts to show that the B-Theory of time is inadequate and therefore cannot be used to salvage the timelessness model.

William Lane Craig argues that God exists in time since the creation of the universe but timelessly without the universe. This is the view he defended in his book Time and Eternity reviewed last month. Craig rejects strict timelessness because such a view cannot account either for God’s actions in the universe or for His knowledge of tensed facts (such as, ‘It is now 4:00 P.M.’). He rejects the idea of God simply existing in time because it leads inevitably to the question, ‘Why didn’t God create the world sooner?’ Craig argues that the most plausible response is to deny that God exists in time without the universe.

Nicholas Wolterstorff defends unqualified divine temporality, which is simply the view that God exists in time. Wolterstorff contends that a basic reading of the Bible gives the unmistakable impression that God exists in time and has a history. He sees the Incarnation as a definitive example of God acting in time and relating to the created world. Wolterstorff, however, refuses to side with either Craig or Padgett on God’s nature without the universe, a question which he does not address.

As a debate book, God and Time is well-structured; featuring a solid introduction, adequate essay length for the authors to develop their view, and each author is given the chance to respond to the criticisms of their view offered by their colleagues. The book certainly has some technical reading, but I found it very enjoyable and worthwhile. My rating for this book: 4 stars out of 5.

Resurrected? An Atheist and Theist Dialogue

The second book I’d like to look at is a debate titled Resurrected? An Atheist and Theist Dialogue. In May 2004, John Ankerberg hosted a discussion between Christian theist Gary Habermas and then-atheist philosopher Antony Flew concerning the evidence for Jesus Christ’s resurrection. This book contains this dialogue, as well as a follow-up Q&A session and brief summary articles from the three authors.

Unfortunately, I felt that this book suffered from several flaws. I was expecting more of a debate, and I was disappointed with several facets of the discussion. First of all, Flew didn’t do a good job responding to Habermas or making a strong case for his disbelief in the resurrection. At many times it is simply astounding the amount that Flew is willing to concede without argument. He essentially concedes the entire case to Habermas and chooses to reject the idea of a resurrection because of its miraculous nature. Second of all, the debate wasn’t really all that fair. To give Flew some credit, he really had to debate two people. Ankerberg, who was supposed to be a moderator, was very involved in the discussion and was extremely biased in favor of Habermas. I just didn’t think it was fair for Flew to be forced to address two debate opponents, and this flaw led to an even further lopsided discussion. Finally, the book is too short to develop substantive content. Habermas does seem to make a strong case, but he is rarely challenged and so the discussion doesn’t really develop past surface level. Unfortunately, Resurrected? suffers from too many shortcomings to be of much use. If you are looking for a good debate on the resurrection of Jesus Christ, you must look elsewhere. My rating: 2 stars out of 5.

Audience Question

Today’s audience question was received in an email, and it relates to an objection posted by Simon concerning the 9th episode of the podcast, where I claim that personal experience can form the rational basis for Christian or religious belief. The question is, “Why is a Christian’s personal experience more valued than someone from another faith?” One of the objections posed by Simon was, “Just because a person has experienced something that seems to them like God, doesn’t mean that it is God. Psychological experiments prove that humans (adults as much as children) are prone to looking for patterns where there are none – it’s how our brains work.”

In order to answer this question and this objection, it is important to understand exactly what I’m saying when I claim that personal experiences can justify a religious belief. All I am claiming is that they can be good, perhaps definitive, evidence for the person who has the experiences. This does not necessarily mean that these experiences are evidentially ‘better’ than the claimed experiences of other religious adherents. That is why I don’t recommend using personal experiences when offering an apologetic for the Christian faith. I completely agree with Simon that, just because a person has experienced something that seems to them like God, that therefore God exists. Of course that is a possibility. However, just because I see a lamp in front of me doesn’t mean that there is really a lamp there. It could be an illusion or a mistake, or I could be dreaming, or I could be a brain in a vat that is being prodded in just the right way to have a lamp-like experience nearby. These are all possibilities, but they do not undermine my general confidence in the presence of the lamp.

Simon concedes that, if God were to come down and show him physical miracles, he would admit that God exists. This demonstrates that there is nothing inherently irrational about accepting personal experience. He claims that most personal experiences aren’t anything half as substantial, and that they boil down to wishful thinking. But where does Simon get the authority to tell me, another Christian, or even another Buddhist, that his personal experience is insubstantial and based on wishful thinking? Simon cannot know what those personal experiences are like, which is why they are identified as personal experiences in the first place.

It is therefore up to the individual who has the experience to decide whether or not that experience provides good evidence for their religious belief. To return to the question, though, there is a way for us to discriminate among religious experiences to decide if some are more valuable than others. This can be accomplished by looking at the external evidence for any given religion. In my opinion, the external evidence for Christianity is strong, while other religions lack a strong external confirmation. Therefore, the Christian who has strong personal experiences can be doubly confident- not only does the personal experience give him or her justification for belief, but the external evidence bears out the same conclusion.

In any case, it is very important to recognize that personal experiences are only evidence to the person who has the experiences and the person may or may not recognize the experiences as conclusive or good evidence for their religious belief. However, I think it is hard to deny that personal experiences at least potentially can be a source of justification for belief. If we deny this possibility, it becomes difficult to see how I am justified in my belief in the lamp on my desk.

NOTES:

1. Kehoe, T. (2007, December 24). Notre Dame professor tries to solve mystery behind the Star of Bethlehem. Retrieved February 23, 2008, from http://www.wsbt.com/news/local/12804447.html.

2. Martin, M. (n.d.). The Gap in Theistic Arguments. Retrieved February 23, 2008, from http://www.infidels.org/library/modern/michael_martin/gap.html.

3. Fumerton, R. (2005, March 23). Foundationalist Theories of Epistemic Justification (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy). Retrieved February 23, 2008, from http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/justep-foundational/.

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