Transcript: Podcast 5- The Argument from Nonbelief

18 May 2007

This episode we’re going to take a look at the Argument from Nonbelief, which is one of the most popular arguments against God’s existence. For the book reviews we’re going to look at C.S. Lewis’s classic work Mere Christianity and a new book by physicist Victor Stenger titled God: The Failed Hypothesis. For the audience question we’re going to see if atom decay and quantum uncertainty undermines the causal premise that everything which begins to exist has a cause. But before we get to any of that, let’s take a brief look at the news.

News

Richard Dawkins is continuing to have a big influence these days, as he was given a spot on Time magazines top 100 most influential people. There was actually a bit of controversy because Michael Behe, author of Darwin’s Black Box and an Intelligent Design proponent, wrote the brief write up. In addition to writing The God Delusion, Dawkins has recently been very involved in the public scene promoting atheism, including his involvement in a three man team arguing that we’d be better off without religion in a recent debate in London. 1

Another atheist stirring things up is Christopher Hitchens, who also participated in the debate just mentioned. Hitchens has written a book titled God is Not Great, and he has been in the news discussing his book both in mainstream media 2 and on popular shows like The Daily Show. Hitchen’s book seems to be another attempt to demonstrate that religion is harmful and intrinsically evil, up the same alley as Sam Harris’s recent books as well as much of The God Delusion.

William Lane Craig, a well-known Christian theologian, philosopher, and apologist has recently started up a new website at reasonablefaith.org. In addition to a plethora of articles and debates, Craig has started two new podcasts which can be found at the site as well. You should definitely check the site out, there is a lot of great content and Craig is an excellent Christian scholar who has been very influential in my personal development as a Christian.

Lastly, James Patrick Holding from tektonics.org has now released a new book entitled The Impossible Faith. This book is based off a popular article on his website where he explains the numerous things Christianity did wrong in order to be a successful religion. This includes having a savior who dies on a cross, a despicable and dishonorable form of death in a society which valued honor as of primary importance, and the large role played by women, who at the time held little or no social status. Although I haven’t had a chance to read the book, Holding is another apologist who has had a big impact on me and I definitely recommend this new book. It can be found at amazon.com.

Main Feature: The Argument from Nonbelief

Today I want to take a look at the Argument from Nonbelief, also known as the Problem of Divine Hiddenness. It is a relatively new topic in the philosophy of religion. The argument was first raised by J.L. Shellenberg, who argued that the existence of reasonable nonbelief is inconsistent with God’s existence. A second version, primarily promoted by the philosopher Theodore Drange, argues that the existence of nonbelief per se is inconsistent with God’s existence. Drange thinks that whether such nonbelief is reasonable or not is irrelevant.

The second version of the argument is more difficult to defeat, because it does not rely on the additional assumption that nonbelief is reasonable. In this episode I will take a look at Drange’s argument. If Drange’s argument is shown to be mistaken, then Shellenberg’s version will be undermined as well.

Drange’s formulation of the Argument from Nonbelief is relatively complex, so I will try to simplify it as much as possible. 3 He begins by identifying a set of beliefs that God would have a reason to ensure that all people knew by the time of their physical death, including

- There exists a being who rules the entire universe. – That being loves humanity. – Humanity has been provided with an afterlife.

From here, Drange claims that God would be able to ensure that people knew these three facts, he would want it to be the case, and he would not want anything else that conflicts with his desire to bring about the situation as strongly as it.

As Drange himself recognizes, the hardest statement to defend is that God has no conflicting desires that override his desire that all people believe the three propositions. Most Christians would hold that God has the ability to cause most people to believe the three facts, and most would also say that, minimally, God desires people to believe the three facts, all things being equal. But are all things equal? That is the question we must address. I would like to look at several considerations that tend to show that God may not have an overriding desire to ensure that all people believe the three facts mentioned by Drange.

The Free Will Defense

As with the Argument from Evil, an important foundational response to the Argument from Nonbelief is the Free Will Defense. According to the Free Will Defense, God values human free will and allows us to make real choices. Therefore, though God may want people to believe the three facts, and though he may have the ability to bring it about that people believe the three facts, He may not want to interfere with free will. Since God does not wish to make people believe these facts, it is possible that some people will fail to accept them.

This response seems to me quite reasonable because free will is such a valuable thing. Without free will, humans would lack the very things that made them human- and they would essentially be little different from robots. Without free will there is no possibility of genuine love, there is no possibility for people to affect themselves or the world around them for better or for worse.

However, the bare existence of free will, it could be argued, is not necessarily all that important. A man trapped in a small room for all eternity may have the free will to kick the walls or do jumping jacks, but this sort of freedom does not seem to be very valuable. He cannot interact with other free agents, nor can he improve or change his own situation in any way. So, it is not the existence of ‘free will’ per se that is valuable, but the existence of significant free will that matters.

This is an important distinction to make, because it helps us answer a common objection to the Free Will Defense. According to Drange, God could bring about the situation where almost everybody believes the three facts without resorting to violation of our free will. If God constantly bombarded us with miracles, displays of His power, and personal revelation, arguably, most people would believe.

So, while God could cause most people to believe the three facts without violating free will, it is not clear that He could do so without violating significant free will. Belief in God would become trivial and easy. This is not to say that God provides no evidence of His existence, or that He is completely hidden away. In fact, I believe that there is excellent evidence for God’s existence. However, belief in God is not trivial like belief that the sun exists. It’s a real and reasonable possibility that God has revealed Himself to an adequate extent to ensure that humans can make significantly free decisions about what they believe. As Blaise Pascal put it:

“It was not then right that He should appear in a manner manifestly divine, and completely capable of convincing all men; but it was also not right that He should come in so hidden a manner that He could not be known by those who should sincerely seek Him. He has willed to make Himself quite recognizable by those; and thus, willing to appear openly to those who seek Him with all their heart, and to be hidden from those who flee from Him with all their heart, He so regulates the knowledge of Himself that He has given signs of Himself, visible to those who seek Him, and not to those who seek Him not. There is enough light for those who only desire to see, and enough obscurity for those who have a contrary disposition.” 4

If Pascal is right, then the Free Will Defense is an adequate response to the Argument from Nonbelief.

Quality Relationships

Although I will concede that, minimally, God desires for people to believe the three facts, from a Christian point of view I don’t think this desire is enough to carry the argument. According to Christian theology, God does not desire mere knowledge of Him, but love of Him. Indeed, this loving relationship is necessary for a human beings’ satisfaction as well. Thus, I would replace Drange’s three facts with the following proposition:

God desires the situation where all, or almost all, humans come to love Him with all their heart, soul, mind, and strength.

It is clear, at least concerning Christian theology, that this desire is greater than the desire that all people believe the three facts. Moreover, it seems clear that people would not necessarily love God with all their heart, soul, mind, and strength even if they believed Drange’s three facts.

It is also clear that, while God might be able to ensure that most people accept Drange’s three facts, it is not necessarily possible for God to ensure that most people love Him, without a blatant interference with free will.

Salvation and Justice

In Drange’s Argument from Nonbelief, it seems that one of the main reasons he believes that God wants us to believe the three facts is that our salvation is dependent upon it. Yet, even if it is true that God’s primary objective is to save the maximum number of people, with no concern for the type or the quality of believer, then Drange’s argument will still not work. According to Christian theology, belief in the three facts Drange mentions are not sufficient for salvation anyways, and so it is not clear that God really would have a strong overriding desire to ensure that all people accept the facts.

Now, Drange offers some arguments, both Biblical and philosophical, which attempt to show that God really would have an overriding desire to ensure that everyone believes the three facts. He argues that, since belief in the facts is necessary for salvation, God should desire it. In order to love God you must know that He exists, in order to receive salvation you must know that the afterlife exists, etc. However, though belief in the three facts is necessary for salvation, it is clearly not sufficient for salvation. Therefore, it seems entirely speculative to say that God should have an overriding desire for everyone to believe the three facts. Why would He, if this doesn’t really improve the situation anyways? God may desire that everyone believe the three facts, but He may only desire it insofar as such a situation increases the number of people saved. Therefore, Drange must demonstrate that it is likely the case that, if everyone believed the three facts, there would be a net increase of saved individuals in the world. The prospects, however, for demonstrating such a thing to be the case are rather bleak.

If everyone were forced to believe the three facts, or were compelled to believe them because of constant miraculous displays of divine power, then they may accept Christ as their savior, not out of love and respect for God, but for the merely practical reason of securing eternal reward. However, it is not clear if one really can be saved without sincere love and respect for God. So, it is not necessarily the case that more people would be saved if everyone accepted the three facts.

Indeed, it seems to me quite likely that many people would fail to love God even if they knew the three facts. Many people, if they knew that God existed, would still not approve of the way He runs the universe. Consider the fact that many people complain about the way the universe is run now, whether or not they believe in God’s existence. Atheists frequently claim that, even if God existed, they would not worship Him because they think that there is too much suffering in the world and God is to blame. If everyone knew God existed, then they may despise Him for suffering they endure, for failed prayers, and for anything else they dislike about the world. If many people make these types of complaints now, then why should we think that they would sincerely love God if they knew He existed?

Conclusion

So, Drange’s Argument from Nonbelief has several problems. There are several overriding factors which could easily conflict with God’s desire to ensure that everybody accepts Drange’s three facts. Christian theology has a perfect answer to the problem of nonbelief- it is not mere belief or factual knowledge that God desires, but a sincere, loving relationship that results in salvation. Moreover, He has given us significant free will to make important choices in our lives. Therefore, there is little reason to regard nonbelief as evidence against Christian theism.

Book Reviews

Mere Christianity

C.S. Lewis’s book Mere Christianity is widely known as one of the best works of Christian apologetics of all time. Adapted from a series of radio talks given in the 1940s, Lewis’s book provides both a powerful defense of the Christian faith and an important reminder of the importance that faith should have in our lives.

In the first portion of the book, Lewis defends the existence of God with a presentation of the Moral Argument. He argues that all humans have a basic moral code which we know should be followed, even though we often fail to follow it. Lewis claims that, without God, this prescriptive moral law does not make sense. This is certainly the most elegant presentation of the Moral Argument I have ever read, and Lewis writes with an engaging style that makes it enjoyable to read.

In addition to defending the Christian faith and arguing for the existence of God, however, Lewis also spends several chapters discussing important issues of morality. His discussion of the vices and virtues of the Christian life is extremely rewarding.

I have never read a book that combined a rational defense of the Christian faith and a convicting message about morality as effectively as Mere Christianity. If there is one piece of Christian literature you should make sure to read, this is the one to look at. My rating for this book: 5 stars out of 5.

God: The Failed Hypothesis

Victor Stenger is the author of another popular atheist book, released in late January of this year. In the book, Stenger aims to show that science, far from providing evidence for the existence of God, actually demonstrates that He does not exist.

Although I liked the straightforward approach of the book, it loses much of its value because it does not go into nearly enough depth on any one topic. Stenger simply covers too much in too little space, and he ends up with very little substantive content. Many of his arguments are simply asserted, often with a footnote referencing the reader to read one of the author’s other books. This is fine if done occasionally, but in this book it is done so much that the book itself does not accomplish very much.

Another big problem with the book is that Stenger tries to avoid addressing philosophy in order to focus on science. But this approach is flawed, both because science itself involves a good deal of philosophy, and also because philosophy is a great support of theism. For example, when discussing whether there is evidence for a soul or any reality outside the physical world, Stenger addresses scientific discoveries concerning the correlation between brain states and conscious experience. However, he does not address the more interesting philosophical question of ‘why do we have felt conscious experience?’

If Stenger discussed issues with a little more depth and was more careful with his philosophical thinking, then this book would be much more useful. As it is, though, God: The Failed Hypothesis is better than quite a bit of atheist literature out there, but ultimately disappointing. My rating for this book: 2.5 stars out of 5.

Audience Question

Now it is time for the audience question. Parvinder asks, Is it possible to reconcile atom decay with the first premise of the kalam argument?

For those who are not familiar with this subject, the kalam argument referred to is an argument for the existence of God based on the existence of the universe. It is the argument that was discussed at length in the second podcast episode. It has three premises, which are the following:

1. Everything which begins to exist has a cause.
2. The universe began to exist.
3. Therefore, the universe has a cause.

Now, as for the question, some people challenge the first premise, that everything which begins to exist has a cause, with a few supposed counterexamples that come up when talking about events at the quantum level. For example, atom decay happens, but as far as we know, it does not happen in a deterministic way. We can only identify the probability of a given atom decay event at a given time, we cannot predict absolutely when it occurs. This is also related to the idea of the uncertainty of the location of a particle based on Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle. Now, it is worth noting that some scientists and philosophers argue for the Bohmian interpretation, or some similar interpretation, of quantum mechanics in which so-called hidden variables account for the supposedly random, nondeterministic nature of quantum events. If this type of interpretation is correct, then quantum events, including atom decay, certainly do not qualify as counters to the first premise.

The Bohmian interpretation, however, is very controversial, and so I will simply assume that there are no hidden variables, and quantum events are actually nondeterministic. But even in this case, atom decay is still not actually an example of something beginning to exist without a cause. The decay of a certain atom is caused by the preceding state of the atom, whether or not anything about that state determined or necessitated that the decay should occur when it did. Atomic decay obviously depends on preexisting states of the atom.

In the case of all quantum events, there are a bunch of physically necessary conditions that must obtain for the event to occur, even though these conditions are not sufficient for the event to happen. So, we should say that atom decay has necessary conditions, which are conditions required for the event to occur, even though it does not have sufficient conditions, meaning that there are no conditions that will guarantee the event occurring. An atom decay event may be considered spontaneous, but it is not absolutely uncaused. To be absolutely uncaused in the relevant sense here, it must not have any non-logical necessary or sufficient conditions at all.

In order to make any sort of objection to the first premise here, one has to assume that uncaused means ‘unpredictable in principle.’

Now, Quentin Smith is an atheist philosopher who has tried to make this argument. By assuming that uncaused merely means ‘unpredictable in principle,’ he has argued that quantum events are a true counterexample to the first premise of the kalam cosmological argument. However, even though philosophers are a long way off from agreeing on a generally accepted account of causality, Smith’s definition is extremely controversial and highly implausible. In fact, it can be shown to be false because we can easily imagine a world in which something is unpredictable in principle even though it is caused. You may recall the Bohmian interpretation of quantum mechanics, according to which there are hidden variables which determine quantum states. Even if this interpretation is wrong, it is at least logically possible. And it is logically possible that these hidden variables might be, in principle, unobservable. This serves as a clear counterexample to Smith’s notion that ‘unpredictability in principle’ is the same thing as uncaused. Once we reject this spurious definition of causality, we can also reject the notion that atom decay constitutes a real counterexample to the first premise of the kalam cosmological argument.

NOTES:

1. See here to hear some of the debate.

2. See here for Hitchen’s discussion with Lou Dobbs of CNN.

3. Theodore M. Drange, The Arguments from Evil and Nonbelief, found at http://www.infidels.org/library/modern/theodore_drange/aeanb.html

4. Blaise Pascal, Pensees, trans. W. F. Trotter (London: J. M. Dent, 1932), no. 430, p. 118.



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