Ethical Realism

May 26, 2010

An Argument Against God, a Teapot, and Garvey’s Objection (Part 1)

We want to know, Does God probably exist? Is the belief in god rational? Many people disbelieve in God because there isn’t enough evidence. Some people argue that this is no different than the fact that we think that there probably is no teapot in outer space revolving around the sun.1 We have to admit that a teapot might be revolving around the sun because we haven’t done an extensive search, but we shouldn’t just abstain from judgment. It is most rational to reject the belief of such a teapot and to think such a teapot probably doesn’t exist. In the same way it might be most rational to reject the belief in God and to think that God probably doesn’t exist.2

I will examine an objection to the teapot argument given by Brian Garvey in “Absence of Evidence, Evidence of Absence, and the Atheist’s Teapot,” which was published this year.3 He argues that belief in God is not sufficiently analogous to belief in a teapot, and he ultimately concludes that that argument concerning God’s existence will get us nowhere. Belief in God can be more rational than belief in the teapot because God could have an effect on the world and the teapot can’t, and arguments concerning God will get us nowhere because the effect that God has on the universe is not found in the everyday physical events that are studied by science. Instead, the effect that God might have on the world would involve the creation of the universe itself.

I will then present two challenges to Garvey’s argument. I agree that belief in the teapot might not be perfectly analogous to the belief in God, but I find the teapot argument to be sufficiently analogous to raise an important issue in an imperfect common sense fashion. The belief in aliens or bigfoot might be even more analogous to the belief in God, and the challenge to the belief in God is still a serious one. I also agree that science might not be relevant to legitimizing the belief in God, but Garvey doesn’t seem to consider that philosophy itself can be used to analyze whether or not the belief in God can be rational.

1. The Teapot Argument

My understanding of the teapot argument is the following:

  1. We should disbelieve in a strange entity unless such a belief is necessary to best explain some phenomenon. (This is pretty much just Occam’s razor.)
  2. A teapot revolving around the sun is a strange entity that is not necessary to best explain some phenomenon.
  3. God is a strange entity that is not necessary to best explain some phenomenon.
  4. Therefore, we should reject the teapot’s existence.
  5. Therefore, we should reject God’s existence.

This is not a knock down argument against God’s existence because God might best explain some phenomenon. However, philosophers could argue that we don’t yet know of any such phenomenon. There are arguments that God is necessary to best explain some phenomenon, such as the existence of the universe, but all such arguments have been found to be unpersuasive by most philosophers.4

We are often tempted to think that various strange things exist based on our experiences, such as aliens from other planets who visit Earth, ghosts, bigfoot, and so on. There might be some evidence that such things actually exist, but most scientists agree that there is insufficient evidence and the most rational thing to do is to reject their existence. Consider the following:

  1. My keys aren’t where I left them.
  2. I didn’t move my keys.
  3. No other human or animal moved my keys.
  4. Therefore, a ghost moved my keys.

Although it is possible to believe that ghosts exist and such an entity’s existence could explain why my keys were in an unexpected place, a ghost’s existence doesn’t best explain the situation.

The teapot argument reflects Occam’s razor, the idea that we shouldn’t believe something if there is a more simple explanation available. If we can explain winning the lottery by chance instead of through a miracle, then it is pretty silly to think that winning the lottery proved that miracles exist. Additionally, the teapot argument reflects the idea that arguments need appropriately modest conclusions.5 To conclude that God probably exits is very ambitious and will not be easy to prove. Extraordinary beliefs require extraordinary evidence.

Occam’s razor gives us reason to reject far-fetched entities rather than entities we find to be common. If I speculate that there is a person inside of a house, then all things being equal my speculation would be plausible (probably true or sufficiently reasonable) just because we know there are often people inside of houses. The belief in a person inside of a house should not be rejected right off the bat. We would have a good reason to suspend judgment concerning there being a person inside of a house.

2. Garvey’s Argument

Garvey doesn’t seem to object to Occam’s razor or the idea that extraordinary beliefs require extraordinary evidence. Instead, he argues that the teapot analogy is misleading, and he suggests that believing in God is just as necessary as other possible foundational beliefs, and we currently have no way to know which foundational belief is the most legitimate. (Foundational beliefs are beliefs that can’t be proven, but might be needed to be assumed in an argument.) I understand his argument as the following:

Part 1

  1. God and the teapot are not analogous because God could potentially explain a phenomenon right now.6
  2. We should reject the existence of the teapot because it couldn’t explain any phenomenon right now.”7
  3. We should only reject the existence of God if it doesn’t explain anything right now.
  4. But the existence of God could potentially explain something right now.8
  5. So, we shouldn’t reject the existence of God.

Garvey rejects the teapot argument for one main reason, which (if sound) is sufficient to defeat the teapot argument – He doesn’t think that we should reject a strange entity just because it fails to be the best explanation for a phenomena right now.. We just need the entity to be the potentially best explanation for a phenomenon. We agree that the teapot’s existence should be rejected because it couldn’t possibly explain any phenomenon right now, but that doesn’t follow when it comes to God.

Notice that Garvey doesn’t argue that we should believe in God. He wants to argue that the belief in God is just as reasonable as the rejection of God’s existence and ultimately we will not be able to use reason to find one belief to be better than the other.

Part 2

  1. We can’t decide which foundational beliefs to have based on reason and observation alone.9
  2. The rejection of God’s existence requires a foundational belief.10
  3. So, we can’t decide to reject God’s existence based on reason and observation alone.11

The argument above was not intended to be a essential part of Garvey’s argument. It is not fully defended and Garvey merely presents this line of reasoning in his conclusion as a suggestion. If his suggestion is correct, he would prove that being a theist is just as rational as being an atheist because arguments concerning God’s existence don’t do anything. We can neither show that God probably exists nor that he probably doesn’t. This position seems to totally reject the use of philosophy with regards to God’s existence (and any other foundational belief). I find this line of reasoning to be flawedand I will discuss it further later.

3. My Challenges to Garvey’s Argument

Objection 1: We rationally reject entities even if they do explain something.

I agree that the teapot argument is insufficient in the sense that it might imply that we should only reject strange entities when “no evidence is given or could be given at the moment.” However, I don’t think that the argument was supposed to imply that. We should reject the existence of strange entities whenever we simply lack sufficient evidence. Aliens, ghosts, and bigfoot can potentially explain something right now, but they are simply too far-fetched and insufficient evidence is given for their existence. We should disbelieve in strange entities unless they offer the best explanation for a phenomena. We can often offer alternative explanations to strange entities that are more plausible. For example, a UFO is more likely man-made than a space craft from another planet.

I am not convinced that God offers the best explanation possible and Garvey agrees that there is insufficient evidence of God. He thinks that atheism and theism are equally rational. However, it isn’t clear that atheism and theism are equally rational. If there could be a non-supernatural explanation rather than a supernatural one, then we should probably prefer the non-supernatural one. The existence of the universe doesn’t seem to require a supernatural explanation. It is only rational to believe in God if it offers a superior explanation for a phenomenon, but it isn’t clear that it does.

Objection 2: Philosophy offers a rational way to provide foundational beliefs.

Garvey suggests that we can’t argue that God’s existence is plausible or implausible just because it can’t be confirmed or disconfirmed by science. I find this line of reasoning to be flawed because I reject his first premise, “We can’t decide which foundational beliefs to have based on reason and observation alone.” Philosophers argue about the plausibility of many things that are currently outside the domain of science, such as the plausibility of an external reality. We can consider the various pros and cons involved with accepting one hypothesis over another, even when observation is insufficient to determine which hypothesis is the most rational. A hypothesis should be coherent, modest, clear, and reflect common sense when possible. For example, the argument of evil suggests that our common sense notions and observations of evil seems to be at odds with the traditional view of God. Additionally, the hypothesis that God exists is an extraordinary hypothesis rather than a modest one, and it tends to be vague rather than clear.

Conclusions

Garvey successfully pointed out a weakness in the teacup argument, but the teacup argument still seems to successfully illustrate the fact that it is most rational to reject the existence of strange entities unless there is sufficient evidence. Moreover, Garvey failed to give us any good reason to think that arguments can’t help us decide if God’s existence is sufficiently reasonable. He seems to think that either science or religion must be able to provide us with knowledge and just seems to reject the possibility that secular philosophy can provide us with knowledge without a second thought. This is nothing more than a common prejudice people have against philosophy.

The fact that Garvey assumes that the teapot argument only discusses scientific evidence seems strange considering that the argument’s creator, Bertrand Russell, was a philosopher, logician, and mathematician with a large interest in nonscientific philosophy. The fact that virtues and vices of reason can involve logic is at least one good reason to think that philosophy can help us figure out which beliefs are the most reasonable.

I have not presented an argument that atheism is more rational than theism. My intention with this discussion was merely to prove that Garvey’s arguments were not persuasive. The teapot argument seems to be a problem for theism even though the teapot argument is not a knock-down argument. Philosophy could be an appropriate way to decide if theism is plausible or not.

Garvey has responded to this post with objections (see comments), and I have posted them and my reply here.

Notes

1 This argument was presented by Bertrand Russell in his 1952 essay, “Is there a God?” <http://evans-experientialism.freewebspace.com/russell10.htm>.

2 Compare this argument to the John Mackie’s Argument from Queerness. I discussed the Argument from Queerness in my essay, “Objections to Moral Realism Part 3: Argument from Queerness” found at <http://ethicalrealism.wordpress.com/2009/11/06/objections-to-moral-realism-part-3-argument-from-queerness/>.

4 The argument that God exists because he created the world is called “The Cosmological Argument” and you can read about it at <http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/cosmological-argument/>.

5 See my essay, “Four Requirements for Good Arguments” found at <http://ethicalrealism.wordpress.com/2010/02/24/four-requirements-for-good-arguments/>.

6 “So, when we say that there is no evidence for the teapot, and when we say that there is no evidence for God, we are saying two very different things. In the first case, we are saying that there haven’t been any sightings; in the second we are saying that there is nothing for which God is the best explanation” (15-16).

7 “So the analogy is meant to be: there is no empirical evidence for either” (12-13).

8 “God is invoked as an explanation for (for example) why the universe exists at all, why it is intelligible, why it is governed by laws, why it is governed by the laws it is rather than some other laws, and doubtless many more things” (18).

9 He argues that God in particular can’t be proven through the use of science. “if there is a God, then God belongs to this more fundamental region of reality, the question of God’s existence is similarly beyond science’s scope. It may be thought that this ought to be obvious, but it is possible for people to be wrong-footed on the question of God’s existence by approaching it as if it were a scientific question. I see the atheist’s teapot argument as an instance of just such wrong-footedness.” (20-21)

10The atheist is thus committed to more than just the denial of something’s existence, he is committed to there being some other explanation for all the things that that thing might be invoked to explain. This does not mean that the atheist is committed to one particular explanation, and neither does it mean that the atheist can’t simply say ‘I don’t know’. But it does mean that the question immediately raises itself, and that the atheist is committed to there being some non-God-involving answer” (18),

11 Some people “might feel that it is not worth debating the issue in this way at all, that the issue between atheism and theism cannot be settled by argument, that the atheist simply starts with assumptions that the theist need not accept, and that consequently the theist should simply refuse to engage with the atheist. I agree with the second of these – that the issue cannot be settled by argument” (21).

Updated 6/6/2010

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15 Comments »

  1. Hello James, nice to meet you, I’m Jason. :) I wrote an article on proof God exists that you might find interesting. Here’s the link:

    http://jasonbrophy.wordpress.com/2010/05/25/proof-god-exists/

    Comment by Jason Brophy — May 28, 2010 @ 12:59 am | Reply

  2. Hi James,

    A friend pointed me to this discussion of my paper. I greatly appreciate your thoughtful analysis and critique, and just thought I’d reply to a couple of points briefly:

    (1) Your characterisation of Occam’s razor is that it calls on us to reject “strange entities” unless they’re the best explanation of some phenomenon. And elsewhere you say that it “gives us reason to reject far-fetched entities”. And you say that God, like the teapot, is a “strange entity”. But this seems to me to be begging the question in a way that I precisely wanted to oppose in my paper. Why is God “strange” or “far-fetched”? Surely that depends on what your general beliefs, prejudices (call them what you will) are. In fact, your characterisation of Ockham’s razor seems quite close to Quine’s:

    “Simplicity is not easy to define. But it may be expected, whatever it is, to be relative to the texture of a conceptual scheme. If the basic concepts of one conceptual scheme are the derivative concepts of another, and vice versa, presumably one of two hypotheses could count as simpler for the one scheme and the other for the other.” [Quine: The Ways of Paradox, Random House, 1966, p. 242]

    But that means that what one person will find “strange” another will find perfectly natural. Why is materialism not “strange”?

    (2) You say “We can often offer alternative explanations to strange entities that are more plausible.”
    OK, but what’s the alternative explanation for why the universe exists, why it has the laws it has, etc., and why is that alternative “more plausible”? Moreover, you go on to make the even stronger claim that “The existence of the universe doesn’t seem to require a supernatural explanation. It is only rational to believe in God if it offers a superior explanation for a phenomenon, but it isn’t clear that it does.”

    Why does it have to be a “superior” explanation? I’m not claiming to give an argument for the existence of God, just that believing in God is *as* rational as not believing. So believing in God only has to provide *as good* an explanation.

    (3) You say that my conclusion “would seem to lead to a kind of extremist relativism: “Just believe what you want, all theological beliefs are equal!””
    It’s not at all clear to me how this follows from what I say. I am just saying that theism is reasonable in virtue of the fact that it provides a *possible* explanation of various things. It follows from this (although I probably didn’t make it clear enough) that it’s only insofar as it does this that it’s reasonable. Attributes like omnipotence, benevolence, etc. *might* play a part in an explanation for why the world is the way it is. But there are lots of attributes that one might ascribe to a deity (e.g. having one eye, being a dragon) that would play no such explanatory role. So my view would not imply that it’s rational to believe in any old deity whatsoever.

    Still, I’m glad you said “I hope this is not what he means to say” – it certainly isn’t!

    Cheers,
    B.G.

    Comment by Brian Garvey — May 31, 2010 @ 1:57 pm | Reply

    • Brian Garvey,

      Thank you for taking a look at the four requirements of a good argument and I decided I had to make some changes.

      The issue of modest and ambitious conclusions might not be adequately discussed there to apply to our current discussion. The illegitimately absurd argument issue might be relevant.

      The point is really more of an Occam’s Razor issue, and I already responded to that statement.

      Comment by James Gray — May 31, 2010 @ 11:00 pm | Reply

  3. Garvey,

    Thank you for the compliments. I am honored that you have taken the time to reply to my arguments, and I will reply to your objections.

    We agree that if God is a superior explanation for a phenomenon all things considered, then we have a reason to believe in God. I admit that the teapot argument (what I take to be an argument that God is not adequately proven) might fail, but philosophers in general have not accepted a single argument that God is the best explanation for something.

    But that means that what one person will find “strange” another will find perfectly natural. Why is materialism not “strange”?

    We might be able to replace “strange” with “metaphysically loaded” or with “ambitious conclusions concerning metaphysics.” If we can explain a phenomenon with few or modest metaphysical assertions rather than ambitious ones, then we should prefer the modest ones. Consider my ghost/keys scenario. “My keys were moved by myself and I just forgot” would be metaphysically modest compared to “A ghost moved them.”

    (See my essay, “Four Requirements for Good Arguments” where I talk about “evidence” and “overly ambitious conclusions” found at http://ethicalrealism.wordpress.com/2010/02/24/four-requirements-for-good-arguments/ for more information.)

    Additionally, there is a problem where arguments for God tend not to be adequately proven. The premises tend to be uncertain assumptions that therefore beg the question. I realize that you didn’t actually argue that God exists, but those arguments are the whole point of “rationally” believing in God as far as I can tell.

    Materialism is not strange in the sense that material reality is not strange. I take it that you are not an idealist. Materialism is the idea that only material reality exists. That is a modest position because it requires fewer entities and sorts of reality to believe in. It is not metaphysically loaded.)

    I don’t know that I am technically a materialist. My personal views were discussed here: http://ethicalrealism.wordpress.com/2010/05/14/emergence-a-new-worldview-of-reality/

    (2) You say “We can often offer alternative explanations to strange entities that are more plausible.”

    OK, but what’s the alternative explanation for why the universe exists, why it has the laws it has, etc., and why is that alternative “more plausible”? Moreover, you go on to make the even stronger claim that “The existence of the universe doesn’t seem to require a supernatural explanation. It is only rational to believe in God if it offers a superior explanation for a phenomenon, but it isn’t clear that it does.”

    You already mentioned the possibility that there might be nothing to explain in the first place. The universe could have always existed. I am not a cosmologist and I know relatively little about it, but I can use a little common sense on the matter. Let’s consider the worry that the universe just “popped into existence.” The whole problem with that explanation is that we assume that scientists are correct that energy cannot be created or destroyed. We have a choice: Either scientists are incorrect or the universe always existed, or something supernatural is involved. Why not something supernatural? That explanation still seems worse than just admitting scientists could be wrong that energy can’t be created or destroyed.

    1. God making energy pop into existence doesn’t seem to explain anything better than scientists being wrong.
    2. The whole idea that God exists is metaphysically loaded (and a very ambitious inference) even compared to the possibility that scientists could be wrong.
    3. We should rationally prefer the less ambitious of two conclusions.
    4. Therefore, we can’t rationally prefer to agree that God created the universe.

    This argument works in my mind using my limited understanding of cosmology.

    What is the best answer? It might be that the universe always existed because it seems to require the least metaphysical assumptions.

    I talk about some possible explanations of the universe here: http://ethicalrealism.wordpress.com/2010/05/08/worldviews-of-reality/

    I talk a little about the theistic viewpoint here: http://ethicalrealism.wordpress.com/2010/05/12/the-theological-worldview/

    Why does it have to be a “superior” explanation? I’m not claiming to give an argument for the existence of God, just that believing in God is *as* rational as not believing. So believing in God only has to provide *as good* an explanation.

    It might depend a little on what you mean by “best explanation.” A strange entity could sometimes be the “best explanation” in the sense that tells us the most about why something happened, but it might not be the best explanation insofar as it is overly ambitious.

    I tried to make this point when it comes to ghosts and bigfoot. Bigfoot is one explanation for various footprints and so forth, but there are other explanations, such as “an unknown creature” and “hoaxes.” It is more ambitious to say it was bigfoot than “an unknown creature.”

    Perhaps we really don’t know if bigfoot exists or not and belief in bigfoot is rational. In that case I would need to think of another example, but I think that the point is clear. The idea is “if two explanations are equally good, then we should prefer the least ambitious explanation.”

    (3) You say that my conclusion “would seem to lead to a kind of extremist relativism: “Just believe what you want, all theological beliefs are equal!””

    It’s not at all clear to me how this follows from what I say. I am just saying that theism is reasonable in virtue of the fact that it provides a *possible* explanation of various things. It follows from this (although I probably didn’t make it clear enough) that it’s only insofar as it does this that it’s reasonable. Attributes like omnipotence, benevolence, etc. *might* play a part in an explanation for why the world is the way it is. But there are lots of attributes that one might ascribe to a deity (e.g. having one eye, being a dragon) that would play no such explanatory role. So my view would not imply that it’s rational to believe in any old deity whatsoever.

    Right, I admitted that you might not want to say that. My relativism comment went a little over the top. However, I still think that the relativism comment had an element of truth that I exaggerated. We could believe whatever we want insofar as it “could” be an explanation for something (such as the universe’s existence). We could “rationally” believe in anything foundational and a possible explanation.

    But rationally plays a small role in theism or atheism given your argument. Such beliefs are “rationally permissible” because we can’t rationally argue about such things. I take your arguments to be giving up on philosophy because you give up on using reason at least given the topic of conversation involving God’s existence.

    When I mentioned the relativism charge I said I would discuss it further later. It was here that I was rejecting your premise, “We can’t decide which foundational beliefs to have based on reason and observation alone.” When I discussed “it” further, I actually said little about relativism and talked more about how philosophy seems relevant to how rational it is to believe in God. Many theologians think that believing in God is rational because arguments for God can work. You seem to give up on even that. If believing in God (or atheism) can’t be made probable given arguments (and our current information), then you are rejecting the use of philosophy in a traditional role philosophy has played throughout history.

    I will change my essay slightly to incorporate this discussion concerning the relativism charge. I think it could be more clear on that point.

    Comment by James Gray — May 31, 2010 @ 9:20 pm | Reply

  4. Hi again James,

    You say: “We might be able to replace “strange” with “metaphysically loaded” or with “ambitious conclusions concerning metaphysics.” If we can explain a phenomenon with few or modest metaphysical assertions rather than ambitious ones, then we should prefer the modest ones.”

    But that seems to be begging the question just as much as saying “strange” or “far-fetched”. You are assuming that belief in God is more metaphysically loaded than the alternatives. An obvious problem with this is that it’s not clear what the alternatives actually are. As I tried to argue in the paper, an atheist is committed, not just to denying the existence of God, but to there being some other explanation for the universe’s existence . That’s so even if the explanation is “it’s just there” (which we couldn’t know was true), or even if the atheist just says we don’t know what the explanation is. But until the atheist has an alternative explanation on the table, they’re not in any position to say that belief God is any more “metaphysically loaded”. The most obvious alternative is materialism, but it’s not at all clear (to me anyway) that that’s not metaphysically loaded or overly ambitious.

    Saying that it’s not strange just because material reality is not strange, as you suggest, is not sufficient. For a start, it’s not exactly clear what we mean by ‘matter’ in the first place. (Is it supposed to be what everything is made of? Then what’s it made of? Is matter made of whatever the ultimate particles are, or are they made of matter? Either sounds paradoxical.)

    I’m not sure why you think I’m “rejecting the role of philosophy” At no point did I say that there couldn’t be a philosophical argument for or against the existence of God. My argument in the final section (not counting the concluding remarks) was not that science can’t prove God’s existence or no-existence, as you took it to be. Rather, my argument was there can’t be a scientific explanation for why the universe has physical laws. This is because science explains things in terms of laws, and so has to take laws as the starting point of any explanation.

    And this is relevant to another point you made in your critique. You say: “If there could be a non-supernatural explanation rather than a supernatural one, then we should probably prefer the non-supernatural one.” I take it that by “non-supernatural” you mean “naturalistic”, but a naturalistic explanation can only be an explanation that takes it as a given that there are natural laws. Hence, if my argument is right, there can’t be a natural explanation for why the universe has laws. NB That’s *not* to say that there can’t be an explanation that doesn’t involve God. Atheists are very fond of saying that the burden of proof is on theists. (In fact, all your talk about hypotheses being “strange”, “metaphysically loaded” etc., seems to me to be just repeating this claim over and over.) But to my mind the burden of proof lies equally heavily on both sides. That’s not to say that I think the atheist has to prove God’s non-existence (which is fortunate, as I wouldn’t hold out much hope of that ever happening). Rather, it’s that the atheist has to either produce an explanation that’s better than one in terms of God, or show why he doesn’t have to.

    But I want to return to your claim that I underestimate the role that philosophy can play in this. You say that Bertrand Russell was not a scientist but a mathematician, logician and philosopher. That’s true, but I take it it’s clear that the teapot argument doesn’t benefit n the least from his expertise in mathematics or logic. It’s an appeal to an analogy, an analogy which I think (based on what I thought was a philosophical argument) is a rather poor one. But I think it’s extremely unlikely that philosophy will ever finally settle the question of God’s existence one way or another. (In fact, I seriously doubt that philosophy ever finally settles *any* question one way or another.)

    I like your way of describing my position as being that theism and atheism are both “rationally permissible”. That is indeed what I’m trying to argue. Since you’ve grasped that, I don’t understand why you say: “I realize that you didn’t actually argue that God exists, but those arguments are the whole point of “rationally” believing in God as far as I can tell.” Rationally permissible is not the same as rationally vindicated.

    One final point: you keep talking about “foundational beliefs”. At one point, in your original critique, you even put into my mouth the words: “The rejection of God’s existence requires a foundational belief.” I would really like to know what, in my paper, gave you the impression that I think this. I’m not 100% sure what you mean by “foundational beliefs”. It sounds rather Cartesian to me, and I am pretty sure that I believe that there is no such thing as foundational beliefs. I’m holist (in the manner of Quine or Davidson) where it comes to beliefs. In that respect, I think, I’m more naturalistic than you.

    Cheers again,
    B.G.

    Comment by Brian Garvey — May 31, 2010 @ 11:50 pm | Reply

  5. Brian Garvey,

    Thank you for the quick and thoughtful response. I will take the time to reply to your comments and clarify my position.

    You say: “We might be able to replace “strange” with “metaphysically loaded” or with “ambitious conclusions concerning metaphysics.” If we can explain a phenomenon with few or modest metaphysical assertions rather than ambitious ones, then we should prefer the modest ones.”

    But that seems to be begging the question just as much as saying “strange” or “far-fetched”. You are assuming that belief in God is more metaphysically loaded than the alternatives. An obvious problem with this is that it’s not clear what the alternatives actually are. As I tried to argue in the paper, an atheist is committed, not just to denying the existence of God, but to there being some other explanation for the universe’s existence . That’s so even if the explanation is “it’s just there” (which we couldn’t know was true), or even if the atheist just says we don’t know what the explanation is. But until the atheist has an alternative explanation on the table, they’re not in any position to say that belief God is any more “metaphysically loaded”. The most obvious alternative is materialism, but it’s not at all clear (to me anyway) that that’s not metaphysically loaded or overly ambitious.

    Atheists do have alternatives. We can take a closer look to see which hypothesis is more “metaphysically loaded.” I think the view that the universe has always existed is probably the least metaphysically loaded view.

    Saying that it’s not strange just because material reality is not strange, as you suggest, is not sufficient. For a start, it’s not exactly clear what we mean by ‘matter’ in the first place. (Is it supposed to be what everything is made of? Then what’s it made of? Is matter made of whatever the ultimate particles are, or are they made of matter? Either sounds paradoxical.)

    Atheists and materialists alike agree that material/physical reality exists. Material reality is the world as described by scientists. There is a unity of causal relations involving atoms, biology, chemistry, and so on. It might be that we don’t fully understand physical reality, but that is no reason to reject it.

    Material reality might be “metaphysically loaded” to some extent, but we still find it a good hypothesis because it is absolutely essential to make sense out of the world. Even most “instrumentalists” agree that science correctly represents observable parts of material reality.

    Naturalism is a popular view among philosophers. If you really think you can show philosophers that material reality is an implausible view, then you are one of the greatest minds in the entire world. I think an appeal to authority is good enough here. Almost everyone agrees that material reality exists. There is a lot going on in philosophy of science and metaphysical philosophy that offer arguments, but even religious philosophers believe in material reality.

    I’m not sure why you think I’m “rejecting the role of philosophy” At no point did I say that there couldn’t be a philosophical argument for or against the existence of God. My argument in the final section (not counting the concluding remarks) was not that science can’t prove God’s existence or no-existence, as you took it to be. Rather, my argument was there can’t be a scientific explanation for why the universe has physical laws. This is because science explains things in terms of laws, and so has to take laws as the starting point of any explanation.

    This is what I read to be a rejection of philosophy concerning God’s existence:

    Some people “might feel that it is not worth debating the issue in this way at all, that the issue between atheism and theism cannot be settled by argument, that the atheist simply starts with assumptions that the theist need not accept, and that consequently the theist should simply refuse to engage with the atheist. I agree with the second of these – that the issue cannot be settled by argument” (21).

    You said atheists merely start with different assumptions and the issue can’t be settled by argument. I took that to be an argument that philosophers can’t tell us which belief is more rational. How should I understand your position?

    And this is relevant to another point you made in your critique. You say: “If there could be a non-supernatural explanation rather than a supernatural one, then we should probably prefer the non-supernatural one.” I take it that by “non-supernatural” you mean “naturalistic”, but a naturalistic explanation can only be an explanation that takes it as a given that there are natural laws. Hence, if my argument is right, there can’t be a natural explanation for why the universe has laws. NB That’s *not* to say that there can’t be an explanation that doesn’t involve God. Atheists are very fond of saying that the burden of proof is on theists. (In fact, all your talk about hypotheses being “strange”, “metaphysically loaded” etc., seems to me to be just repeating this claim over and over.) But to my mind the burden of proof lies equally heavily on both sides. That’s not to say that I think the atheist has to prove God’s non-existence (which is fortunate, as I wouldn’t hold out much hope of that ever happening). Rather, it’s that the atheist has to either produce an explanation that’s better than one in terms of God, or show why he doesn’t have to.

    “Supernatural” does not necessary mean “non-naturalistic.” Some philosophers seem to think that Plato’s forms are non-natural, but not supernatural. I don’t really know a lot about the difference, but I know that it has been argued that morality is non-naturalistic without being supernatural. The word “natural” gets a bit confusing.

    Some philosophers are naturalists and think that everything can be discovered from something like science, but many atheistic philosophers think there are other non-scientific methods to find the truth. Both groups might be materialists. This epistemological distinction is relevant because you found that “science” was unable to discover certain truths.

    I admitted that the teapot was not a knock-down argument against God precisely because God might be the best explanation (or equal explanation) of something all things considered. I understand that philosophers have not yet found a phenomena that God best explains all things considered. If I am wrong, point me in the right direction.

    But I want to return to your claim that I underestimate the role that philosophy can play in this. You say that Bertrand Russell was not a scientist but a mathematician, logician and philosopher. That’s true, but I take it it’s clear that the teapot argument doesn’t benefit n the least from his expertise in mathematics or logic. It’s an appeal to an analogy, an analogy which I think (based on what I thought was a philosophical argument) is a rather poor one. But I think it’s extremely unlikely that philosophy will ever finally settle the question of God’s existence one way or another. (In fact, I seriously doubt that philosophy ever finally settles *any* question one way or another.)

    That does lead to a sort of skepticism that my relativism comment alluded to. I don’t know if philosophy can settle anything “once and for all” just like nothing might be settled in that way from any method of knowledge. The main idea here is whether or not philosophy can give tell us if we have better reason to agree to atheism or theism at this moment of time given current information. I guess you might agree with that.

    I like your way of describing my position as being that theism and atheism are both “rationally permissible”. That is indeed what I’m trying to argue. Since you’ve grasped that, I don’t understand why you say: “I realize that you didn’t actually argue that God exists, but those arguments are the whole point of “rationally” believing in God as far as I can tell.” Rationally permissible is not the same as rationally vindicated.

    We want to be able to deny the existence of bigfoot, aliens visiting the earth, memories of past lives (reincarnation), ghosts, and so forth. These things can potentially explain phenomena, just like God. But we tend to think there is insufficient evidence to believe in these things. I think Occam’s Razor can tell us why these entities or “explanations” should be rejected. I think there is good reason to think that it would be irrational to believe in these entities based on our current information. Perhaps you disagree, but I would like to know what you have to say about such things.

    One final point: you keep talking about “foundational beliefs”. At one point, in your original critique, you even put into my mouth the words: “The rejection of God’s existence requires a foundational belief.” I would really like to know what, in my paper, gave you the impression that I think this. I’m not 100% sure what you mean by “foundational beliefs”. It sounds rather Cartesian to me, and I am pretty sure that I believe that there is no such thing as foundational beliefs. I’m holist (in the manner of Quine or Davidson) where it comes to beliefs. In that respect, I think, I’m more naturalistic than you.

    I defined them as the following: Foundational beliefs are beliefs that can’t be proven, but might be needed to be assumed in an argument.

    You might have called them “fundamental” beliefs. Here was one of the relevant quotations that I cited:

    He argues that God in particular can’t be proven through the use of science. “if there is a God, then God belongs to this more fundamental region of reality, the question of God’s existence is similarly beyond science’s scope. It may be thought that this ought to be obvious, but it is possible for people to be wrong-footed on the question of God’s existence by approaching it as if it were a scientific question. I see the atheist’s teapot argument as an instance of just such wrong-footedness.” (20-21)

    If I mischaracterized your argument involving starting assumptions and what you want to say about philosophy, just let me know. Although what you had to say sounded to me like you were rejecting and ignoring philosophy’s importance to the debate, we might not really disagree on the topic after all.

    Comment by James Gray — June 1, 2010 @ 1:46 am | Reply

  6. Hi again James,

    OK, yur latest set of comments has been very helpful, and now I think the differences between us are becoming clearer. You say that the idea that the universe has already existed is less metaphysically loaded than the idea that God exists. But I have to ask why you think this is so. Similarly with materialism. I think this discussion has been a bit wrong-footed by there being two different meanings of ‘materialism’ in play. One meaning of materialism is that matter exists, but another is that matter provides the explanation for everything. But all your arguments have been to the effect that the first is true – “Atheists and materialists alike agree that material/physical reality exists.” But that doesn’t go any way at all to justifying the materialism in the second sense. And it’s the second sense of materialism that is needed to provide an alternative to belief in God.

    Incidentally, your willingness to entertain Platonism and explanations that are non-supernatural but not naturalistic suggests that you yourself have doubts about the materialism in the second sense. It was never my intention to claim that ‘material reality is an implausible view’. Although I can’t help pointng out that some major players in the history of philosophy have thought this – Hume and Russell, for example.

    I see you’ve once again quoted me saying: “I agree with the second of these – that the issue cannot be settled by argument” As it happens I do think this, and would merely point to the history of the debate as evidence of this. But this was just obiter dicta, and certainly not what the argument in the paper was meant to prove. Nor was it a premise of the argument in the paper.

    I think the examples of Bigfoot, aliens etc. are no better as analogies than the teapot itself is. Firstly, there’s nothing metaphysically loaded about believing in either Bigfoot or aliens – they both, if they exist, are perfectly natural entities. Ghosts are, however, a different matter I admit. But in all these cases the phenomena that they might be invoked to explain – footprints, UFO’s and so forth – are things we can easily think up naturalistic explanations for. But, as I’ve already already argued, I don’t think there can be a naturalistic explanation for why there are laws of nature.

    As regards foundational beliefs, thank you for the clarification. But what I was talking about in the passage you quote is beliefs about the fundamental nature of reality – e.g. about whether it’s fundamentally material or not. Beliefs that are *ontologically* fundamental. But your definition of foundational beliefs sounds like you mean *epistemically* fundamenal. However, you do seem to only mean “foundational” in a very mild sense, and I’m sorry I accused you of being a Cartesian.

    All the best,
    B.G.

    Comment by Brian Garvey — June 1, 2010 @ 6:29 am | Reply

    • I’m still a little confused about the second of your arguments that I presented. You said something about how argument will be fruitless. Do you want to qualify that? Do you just state it in the essay without an argument or did you imply the argument as I thought you did?

      OK, yur latest set of comments has been very helpful, and now I think the differences between us are becoming clearer. You say that the idea that the universe has already existed is less metaphysically loaded than the idea that God exists. But I have to ask why you think this is so. Similarly with materialism. I think this discussion has been a bit wrong-footed by there being two different meanings of ‘materialism’ in play. One meaning of materialism is that matter exists, but another is that matter provides the explanation for everything. But all your arguments have been to the effect that the first is true – “Atheists and materialists alike agree that material/physical reality exists.” But that doesn’t go any way at all to justifying the materialism in the second sense. And it’s the second sense of materialism that is needed to provide an alternative to belief in God.

      Yes, materialism and material reality are two different things, but they are very related. I think that materialism is plausible precisely because material reality is plausible. It isn’t metaphysically loaded because it only posits the part of reality that everyone agrees exists. That is also why the idea that material reality “always existed” seems to be less metaphysically loaded than the idea that God created material reality. Materialists want to admit that the universe can be eternal, which is slightly confusing and might have some presumptive scientific implications involving entropy, but the view that God exists is to posit an entirely separate realm of reality. If we have a choice of one realm of reality or two, we would prefer one.

      Incidentally, your willingness to entertain Platonism and explanations that are non-supernatural but not naturalistic suggests that you yourself have doubts about the materialism in the second sense. It was never my intention to claim that ‘material reality is an implausible view’. Although I can’t help pointng out that some major players in the history of philosophy have thought this – Hume and Russell, for example.

      I didn’t think you wanted to say such a thing. I just wanted to make a point about how unusual it would be to do so.

      I see you’ve once again quoted me saying: “I agree with the second of these – that the issue cannot be settled by argument” As it happens I do think this, and would merely point to the history of the debate as evidence of this. But this was just obiter dicta, and certainly not what the argument in the paper was meant to prove. Nor was it a premise of the argument in the paper.

      I find it somewhat misleading if there is no argument of this sort implied at all. I would like you to say more about that. I thought that I did a good job at trying to make sense of your implied argument. Do you disagree with it as I formulated it?

      In philosophy we tend not to want to make any unsupported claims in an essay (without making it clear that it is merely a personal belief), so I might have read what you said wrong, but other people might get a similar impression.

      My discussion of the supposed argument in my post might still be fruitful to the extent that it can show that people tend to be dismissive of philosophy and why I think such a dismissive attitude seems unfounded.

      I don’t see the history of the God debate to be evidence that philosophy is not a good way to find out what we should believe anymore than the history of the debate about slavery being wrong was proof that philosophy was the wrong way to deal with the issue. Philosophy can take a look at impossible issues and use available evidence and methods of reasoning to find out what is true while being respectful of people as human beings rather than coercive and so forth.

      I think that the idea that the history of philosophy shows philosophy to be no use in one area could show the same thing in about any area, but we know that philosophy has had a great deal of progress and sometimes it has achieved something of great worth. Science itself is really just a branch of empirical philosophy that has become quite successful.

      I think the examples of Bigfoot, aliens etc. are no better as analogies than the teapot itself is. Firstly, there’s nothing metaphysically loaded about believing in either Bigfoot or aliens – they both, if they exist, are perfectly natural entities. Ghosts are, however, a different matter I admit. But in all these cases the phenomena that they might be invoked to explain – footprints, UFO’s and so forth – are things we can easily think up naturalistic explanations for. But, as I’ve already already argued, I don’t think there can be a naturalistic explanation for why there are laws of nature.

      They aren’t metaphysically loaded in the sense of saying something about the nature of reality as a while, but they are loaded claims about part of reality. If “metaphysically loaded” doesn’t capture the issue at hand, then “overly ambitious” might due. The existence of bigfoot and God might be overly ambitious hypothesis to explain something that could have a more modest answer. That is the analogy that I see.

      It might not perfectly line up as ideal analogies, but almost no analogies are ideal. I think the analogies bring out the general virtue of giving modest conclusions and hypotheses over ambitious ones.

      If the analogy fails, it should be because God was not an overly ambitious entity when the other entities are. That might be right, but I think we at least can see some reason to think that the theist might have the burden of proof. God on the face of it is something that might not exist and it would be more modest to explain phenomenon using parts of reality that we all agree exists instead. If God provides the best explanation for a phenomena all things considered, then I agree that it is rational to be a theist.

      Laws of nature is a tricky issue but I think the idea that laws of nature have always existed can make just as much sense as the universe always existing. You seemed to imply in your essay that there are atheistic explanations for the laws of nature despite not being a scientific/naturalistic explanation.

      As regards foundational beliefs, thank you for the clarification. But what I was talking about in the passage you quote is beliefs about the fundamental nature of reality – e.g. about whether it’s fundamentally material or not. Beliefs that are *ontologically* fundamental. But your definition of foundational beliefs sounds like you mean *epistemically* fundamenal. However, you do seem to only mean “foundational” in a very mild sense, and I’m sorry I accused you of being a Cartesian.

      You said that you think we start with certain assumptions, such as materialism or theism. I agree that such assumptions can be ontological. I am not entirely against the idea of starting with assumptions, but I still think that our starting assumptions could be proven to be irrational (or inadequately rational) in various ways. Occam’s razor, for example, could be one important standard at judging assumptions.

      Comment by James Gray — June 1, 2010 @ 7:00 am | Reply

    • Brian Garvey,

      Here is my current understanding of our discussion, which might help focus on what is most relevant:

      Occam’s Razor

      Occam’s Razor was once the idea that we shouldn’t “multiply entities beyond necessity.” The main idea of Occam’s Razor is that some hypotheses, entities, and explanations are more ambitious than others, and we would prefer a less ambitious explanation to a less ambitious one. Ambitious explanations are considered to be implausible and “probably false” unless they are necessary to explain a phenomena. If an equally good but less ambitious explanation exists, then it is more likely to be true.

      God’s existence is (to the very least) controversial. It could be more rational to disbelieve in God than believe in God, similar to how I suggest that it is more rational to disbelieve in bigfoot. It might also be irrational to believe in God if belief is found to be insufficiently rational (similar to how belief in ghosts seems to be irrational).

      The whole point of the analogies involving the teapot, aliens, bigfoot, and ghosts is merely to reflect that we accept Occam’s Razor when it comes to many entities that (a) might exist and (b) we might have some reason to believe in. I don’t think the analogies fail in this minimal extent, and almost no analogies are “perfect.” Analogies are meant to show some element of similarity given two different things. That element of similarity is Occam’s Razor and the intuitive position that it can be more rational to reject a “questionable” (or “strange”) entity’s existence even if (a) that entity can’t be disproven and (b) there is some evidence for the entity..

      What does it mean to be questionable or strange given Occam’s Razor?

      “Questionable” or “Strange” can mean “ambitious,” “controversial,” “far-fetched,” or “metaphysically loaded” (ambitious claims about reality). Claims that we should accept new sorts of entities are ambitious claims that ask us to “multiply entities” as Occam said. Germs and electrons are some entities that were controversial and perhaps even “far-fetched” until we had sufficient evidence of their existence. Some scientists are still not convinced that electrons exist, but almost all scientists agree that we should act “as if” electrons exist since doing so has been so fruitful.

      Rationality

      If an explanation is probably false, then it might still be rational to believe in it ( it would be “rationally permissible”), but it might also be irrational (rationally impermissible). Bigfoot’s existence is controversial. The fact that some experts might be believers could be taken to be evidence that such beliefs could be sufficiently rational (“rationally permissible”) despite the fact that we have “insufficient proof” of bigfoot’s existence and disbelief in bigfoot seems to be more rational than belief.

      On the other hand some beliefs, such as the belief that someone is inside of a house are not particularly “strange” or “controversial” and we have good reason to withhold judgment when someone speculates that someone is inside of a house. It would seem to be irrational to believe or disbelieve that someone is inside of a house without evidence.

      Is God strange or questionable?

      Metaphysically, God usually represents a part of reality quite unlike material reality. He is eternal, unchanging, and outside space and time. This understanding of God is strange in the sense that it represent a non-material reality.

      If God is part of the material world (as the Stoics thought), then he is strange in quite the same way as bigfoot. God could have some effects on the world. There could be some physical evidence of God’s existence. However, there might still be a lack of evidence that would make belief in God less rational than disbelief.

      Aliens visiting the Earth, ghosts, and reincarnation are all overly ambitious explanations for a phenomenon, and we can take look at how Occam’s Razor applies to each of these topics to see if belief in God is similar (and similarly overly ambitious). How Occam’s Razor seems to apply to such far-fetched and controversial entities is evidence that we accept Occam’s Razor. If God is not sufficiently analogous to belief in any of these things, then Occam’s Razor could still be applicable to God and we might need a good reason to believe in God to justify the fact that God is necessary to explain a phenomenon.

      Objections

      1. God is not strange

      I have already responded to this issue above.

      2. Some of the analogies were not for “metaphysically loaded” hypotheses.

      It was argued that bigfoot and aliens visiting the Earth are not “metaphysically loaded” because they aren’t “metaphysical,” but they are far-fetched claims about reality. They multiply entities beyond necessity based on the current information and evidence we have.

      Even if aliens visiting the Earth are not “metaphysically loaded,” they would still be “far-fetched” (and certainly “controversial”). God’s existence could also be far-fetched, and it’s certainly controversial.

      Additionally, ghosts and reincarnation might be “metaphysically loaded” in a very similar way that God is because they might posit an entirely different sort of reality other than material reality.

      3. Occam’s Razor doesn’t apply to God because God is a “starting assumption.”

      I don’t know if you actually argued this, but it might have been implied.

      It could be argued that theism and atheism are merely different starting assumptions and are beyond rational criticism or argument, but such “starting assumptions” could be criticized rationally with Occam’s Razor. If we accept Occam’s Razor, then we need some overriding reason to accept God’s existence because God’s existence is controversial and it would add a new element to reality that might not be necessary. Right now just about everyone believes in a material reality including theists, but it isn’t clear that adding a new element of reality (God) is necessary (to explain some phenomena).

      God’s existence might be necessary to explain some phenomena and in that case Occam’s Razor would not provide reason to disbelieve in God after all.

      4. Theism is no more objectionable than atheism.

      Finally, it was argued that “materialism” (or perhaps atheism in general) is far-fetched, but material reality itself is not controversial. Materialism merely claims that only material reality exists. That is not a violation of Occam’s Razor at all. Of course, materialism could be shown to be false if we can prove that a non-material realm of reality is necessary to explain a phenomena.

      Material reality might be “metaphysically loaded” but no more than any other claim about the nature of reality as a whole. It is the least controversial of any realm of reality and even theists rarely doubt its existence.

      It was mentioned that Hume and Russell seemed to have doubts about material reality. I don’t think they said material reality doesn’t exist. Instead, they might have found it to be rational to withhold judgment concerning its existence. My assumption is that it is rational to speculate about the existence of material reality and whatever else might be necessary to explain our observations. If I am right, then belief in material reality does not in any way legitimize the belief in God.

      You have argued that God is not “strange,” that atheism might be just as strange as theism, and (perhaps) that Occam’s Razor doesn’t apply to God because it is based on starting assumptions. Do you agree that Occam’s Razor is relevant to starting assumptions? If so, philosophy can be relevant to whether theism and atheism are rational after all, and argument might be fruitful concerning God’s existence.

      Comment by James Gray — June 2, 2010 @ 6:32 am | Reply

  7. Hi again,

    I think you’re getting far too worked up about my saying that I don’t believe that the question of God’s existence can be settled by argument. In my paper that appears under the heading “Concluding Remarks”. That by itself, I would have thought, was sufficient to let readers know that it didn’t form a premise of the paper’s argument, but was just obiter dicta.

    I don’t think you can claim that materialism is better than theism by Occam’s razor just because it involves one less entity. You yourself seem to reject the understnading of Occam’s razor as simply meaning that we shouldn’t multiply entities beyond necessity. At least that’s what I take you to be saying when you say:
    “Occam’s razor *was once* the idea that we shouldn’t “multiply entities beyond necessity.” The main idea of Occam’s Razor is that some hypotheses, entities, and explanations are more ambitious than others, and we would prefer a less ambitious explanation to a less ambitious one. Ambitious explanations are considered to be implausible and “probably false” unless they are necessary to explain a phenomena.” [Emphasis added]

    Moreover, I think you’ve made it clear enough by other things you’ve said that you think Occam’s razor means we should reject hypotheses that are “strange”, “far-fetched”, “metaphysically ambitious”, etc. So the burden of justification is on you to show that God is more strange [etc.] than materialism. As I’e argued and you seemed to accept, the fact that we know (or reasonable people accept) that matter exists won’t give you what your argument needs. Materialism says a lot more than that – it says that matter is capable of explaining everything about the universe, including whay it exists and has laws. That sounds very metaphysically ambitious to me!

    I think you missed the point of why I think the analogy with Bigfoot, aliens etc. was a bad one. It’s not because Bigfoot would be a natural entity if he existed. It’s that the phenomena that Bigfoot etc. might be used to explain are the *kind of things* that can be given naturalistic explanations. The difference between this and God is that God has been used to explain why the Universe exists at all, and why it has laws, and these things (or at least I tried to argue in the paper) are not the kinds of things that can be given naturalistic explanations.

    Your suggested alternative (the Universe has always been there) is not an explanation; it’s effectively the same as saying “it just is that way”. That’s not to say that you mightn’t be right, but it doesn’t seem to me to be any less metaphysically loaded than saing that God exists. (I’ll return to this last point in a few paargraphs’ time – I think it’s the crux of our disagreement).

    If I was being uncharitable, I might say that your appeal to Occam’s razor consists of little more than you saying “I find belief in God far-fetched, Occam’s razor says we shouldn’t believe far-fetched things, therefore we shouldn’t believe in God.” In an earler post you even go so far as to say: “the idea that material reality “always existed” seems to be less metaphysically loaded than the idea that God created material reality.” But (1) the idea that the material universe has always existed leads to notorious paradoxes. (It would mean that an infinite amount of time has passed to get to now, something that led Leibniz to rejec the idea that time was infinite, and formed part of one of Kant’s antinomies.) (2) Apart from that, and as you well know, it would also fly in the face of our best current science, which holds that the Universe had a beginning. So, your conviction that materialism is less “strange” than God is so great that you are willing to accept paradoxical beliefs *and* reject science. And you say that I’m the one who doesn’t have enough faith in rationality!

    You’ll probably say that the idea of God leads to paradoxes as well. And maybe it does. But bear in mind that I’m not arguing *for* God’s existence – just for the view that atheism is no more rational than theism.

    I know that atheists get extremely annoyed when people say what I’m about to say, so take a deep breath. I wish that atheists would admit that atheism is faith just as much as theism is. I have no problem with people who say that they don’t find theism plausible. But I do have a problem with people who try to make out that that implausibility is anything other than a psychological fact about themselves, and try to claim the rational high ground based on it.

    You make much of the fact that belief in God is “controversial”. And so it is. Atheism is also controversial. And so is flying in the face of science.

    All the best,
    B.G.

    Comment by Brian Garvey — June 2, 2010 @ 6:38 pm | Reply

    • I think you’re getting far too worked up about my saying that I don’t believe that the question of God’s existence can be settled by argument. In my paper that appears under the heading “Concluding Remarks”. That by itself, I would have thought, was sufficient to let readers know that it didn’t form a premise of the paper’s argument, but was just obiter dicta.

      I would like to know what you think because I want to know if I need to change the post above to be more charitable. So far it sounds to me like you might agree with the argument above as I formulated it even though it was in your conclusion.

      I don’t think you can claim that materialism is better than theism by Occam’s razor just because it involves one less entity. You yourself seem to reject the understnading of Occam’s razor as simply meaning that we shouldn’t multiply entities beyond necessity. At least that’s what I take you to be saying when you say:

      “Occam’s razor *was once* the idea that we shouldn’t “multiply entities beyond necessity.” The main idea of Occam’s Razor is that some hypotheses, entities, and explanations are more ambitious than others, and we would prefer a less ambitious explanation to a less ambitious one. Ambitious explanations are considered to be implausible and “probably false” unless they are necessary to explain a phenomena.” [Emphasis added]

      Multiplying entities beyond necessity is being overly ambitious, but Occam’s Razor is more than merely multiplying entities and it can be used in epistemology and almost any subject rather than merely metaphysics.

      Moreover, I think you’ve made it clear enough by other things you’ve said that you think Occam’s razor means we should reject hypotheses that are “strange”, “far-fetched”, “metaphysically ambitious”, etc. So the burden of justification is on you to show that God is more strange [etc.] than materialism. As I’e argued and you seemed to accept, the fact that we know (or reasonable people accept) that matter exists won’t give you what your argument needs. Materialism says a lot more than that – it says that matter is capable of explaining everything about the universe, including whay it exists and has laws. That sounds very metaphysically ambitious to me!

      I thought that I already made this argument, but I understand that you are providing a new objection to it. I don’t know that the material world can explain everything in an espistemological sense. I am only talking about metaphysics here and I believe you are as well.

      So, when you say “explain” you mean something like “causally explain” and I think that the fact that the material realm of reality, as far as we can tell, can causally explain everything (insofar as nothing is outside of the material realm) is precisely what makes materialism preferable. We shouldn’t reject materialism unless it has sufficiently serious flaws that some other theory can offer a superior explanation.

      To posit the existence of God is to posit an entirely extra realm of reality and all sorts of things that go against our everyday understanding of the world. That is strange in the sense of being metaphysically loaded.

      This challenge to theism is much like Mackie’s argument from queerness against moral realism, which I discussed here. This was my understanding of that argument:

      1. Moral experience requires substantial metaphysical claims.
      2. Substantial metaphysical claims should be rejected unless they are appropriately justified.
      3. Ethical metaphysical claims are not appropriately justified.
      4. Therefore, we should reject ethical metaphysical claims.

      I find the argument from queerness to be relevant when it comes to moral realism even though I think it fails because moral realism is necessary to explain certain facts about reality. I certainly wouldn’t argue that moral realism is an equal “substantial metaphysical claim” to anti-realism just because anti-realism purports to explain all moral facts without an irreducible moral element of reality.

      I think you missed the point of why I think the analogy with Bigfoot, aliens etc. was a bad one. It’s not because Bigfoot would be a natural entity if he existed. It’s that the phenomena that Bigfoot etc. might be used to explain are the *kind of things* that can be given naturalistic explanations. The difference between this and God is that God has been used to explain why the Universe exists at all, and why it has laws, and these things (or at least I tried to argue in the paper) are not the kinds of things that can be given naturalistic explanations.

      “Naturalism” can be taken to be the view that the scientific method can find the answer to all issues or that the world is made of material. Either claim is preferable given that both sorts of naturalism are necessary for science and therefore any other sort of knowledge or reality must be cut away by Occam’s Razor unless they are necessary. I find materialism (metaphysical naturalism) to be more plausible than epistemological naturalism, and that is what we should be discussing here.

      Do you want to say that the material world couldn’t possibly explain the universe’s existence or tell us why no such explanation is needed?

      Whether an entity is used to explain the beginning of the universe or a natural event the entity is still used to explain something and reveals that Occam’s Razor is being accepted. How exactly do you understand the bigfoot analogy in the first place? There is an similarity in rejecting one belief because of Occam’s Razor and rejecting another.

      If I was being uncharitable, I might say that your appeal to Occam’s razor consists of little more than you saying “I find belief in God far-fetched, Occam’s razor says we shouldn’t believe far-fetched things, therefore we shouldn’t believe in God.” In an earler post you even go so far as to say: “the idea that material reality “always existed” seems to be less metaphysically loaded than the idea that God created material reality.” But (1) the idea that the material universe has always existed leads to notorious paradoxes. (It would mean that an infinite amount of time has passed to get to now, something that led Leibniz to rejec the idea that time was infinite, and formed part of one of Kant’s antinomies.) (2) Apart from that, and as you well know, it would also fly in the face of our best current science, which holds that the Universe had a beginning. So, your conviction that materialism is less “strange” than God is so great that you are willing to accept paradoxical beliefs
      *and* reject science. And you say that I’m the one who doesn’t have enough faith in rationality!

      If the universe always existing doesn’t explain what you want it to explain, then I think the idea is that no explanation might be needed and such a fact could help us understand why. The idea of no explanation existing or being needed seems preferable with Occam’s Razor.

      Yes, there are some problems with saying that the universe always existed, but there are also problems with saying God exists. We should compare the two in order to know which explanation is better or if they are equally good.

      Are you sure scientists want to say that the universe had a beginning? Many string theorists think there are multiple big bangs. Not everyone agrees that the big bang is the entire universe.

      You’ll probably say that the idea of God leads to paradoxes as well. And maybe it does. But bear in mind that I’m not arguing *for* God’s existence – just for the view that atheism is no more rational than theism.

      That might be right, but we haven’t got to that point yet. I am not arguing that theism is less rational than atheism. I am arguing that you haven’t proved otherwise and we still have reason to worry that God belief is irrational or less rational than atheism. I suspect that many people are atheists including many philosophers because they think that God is a strange entity (in the sense of being metaphysically loaded) and doesn’t explain anything anymore than.

      Some atheists have compared God’s existence to unicorns and other mythological characters. People are superstitious and have offered many bad explanations way before those explanations could be examined by philosophers and scientists. We can worry that God is one of those explanations. God has been offered as an explanation for many things, but none of them have been persuasive to philosophers and most philosophers have become atheists. The analogy with ghosts might be a good one. Many people believe in ghosts and think ghosts offer a non-material explanation for events that seem to require a non-material explanation. Still, we would prefer a material explanation for all events rather than a supernatural one, if possible.

      I do not deny that belief in God might be sufficiently rational in part because some philosophers are theists and have found belief in God to be reasonable enough.

      I know that atheists get extremely annoyed when people say what I’m about to say, so take a deep breath. I wish that atheists would admit that atheism is faith just as much as theism is. I have no problem with people who say that they don’t find theism plausible. But I do have a problem with people who try to make out that that implausibility is anything other than a psychological fact about themselves, and try to claim the rational high ground based on it.

      I thought you might want to say that given your idea of starting assumptions. Atheism is probably very faith-based for most people because most people aren’t particularly rational and don’t have sufficiently good reasons to have their beliefs. On the other hand I admit that theism is actually rational for many theists given their incomplete information. They have no idea how anything could be explained by an atheist and they just assume it is impossible to do so. Such theists and atheists with relatively rational beliefs formed on ignorance are not relevant to my argument because I want to know how rational theism is “given the current information we have.”

      That said, I don’t see how you can say that either position should be based on faith when we have philosophy to come to the rescue. Philosophy can tell us which hypotheses are the most rational and legitimate given our current information.

      You make much of the fact that belief in God is “controversial”. And so it is. Atheism is also controversial. And so is flying in the face of science.

      We might have no choice but to find science to be inadequate for this topic, as you have argued. That just means philosophy is required and not science.

      Comment by James Gray — June 2, 2010 @ 9:19 pm | Reply

  8. Hi James,

    I’m very impressed by your concern to give my arguments a fair representation. So I’ll try to explain a bit more clearly what I was doung in the section where I argue that science can’t explain why the Universe exists or why there are laws. You’ve interpreted me as arguing that science can’t prove either that God does or doesn’t exist, so nothing can. As you rightly point out, that would be to assume that philosophy can’t settle the question – which I haven’t argued for in this paper, even though it happens to be what I believe. What I was doing in that section was trying to give a further reason why the analogy with God and a teapot is not a good one (an argument that would also apply to analogies with God and Bigfoot, ghosts, etc.) In the previous section I had argued that ex hypothesi (i.e. as the teapot argument is set up) the teapot doesn’t explain anything, and therefore the person who denies the teapot’s existence doesn’t have to produce an alternative explanation for anything. In the section about why science can’t explain why there are laws, I’m trying to argue that there are particular problems with trying to explain why the universe has laws, as compared with trying to explain (e.g) footprints, mysterious radio signals, etc. etc. That’s because in trying to explain any of these other things we can at least imagine that there might be an explanation in terms of natural laws. But there can’t be an explanation in terms of natural laws for why there are natural laws. It may be, as you suggest, that there *is* no explanation, or that there’s a non-God-involving explanation. But my point is that, either way, if we deny that God is the explanation we’re not just denying the existence of something; we’re committed to some positive alternative state of affairs being the case. And whatever that alternative is, it’s going to be metaphysically pretty weighty – in the sense of being a big hypothesis about the underlying nature of the entire universe.

    Overall, my aim in this paper was not to show that any argument against God’s existence is bound to fail. That would probably take several books. I just wanted to show that the teapot argument doesn’t work.

    Anyway, I hope that helps make things a bit clearer. I just want to make a few more remarks. You say: “I don’t see how you can say that either position should be based on faith when we have philosophy to come to the rescue. Philosophy can tell us which hypotheses are the most rational and legitimate given our current information.”
    But for it not to be faith, it would not be enough that philosophy *could* settle the question, it would have to be the case that it [or something else] already *has* settled the question. Even if I was willing to allow, for the sake of argument, that it could, I don’t see why I should think that it has. And moreover, since I think all you are really saying is that it could settle it, you should allow the possibility that philosophy could end up settling the question in favour of theism.

    On the science issue, as far as I know string theory is now considered to have been a failure – see Smolin’s book Trouble With Physics. My point in bringing up this issue was to point out your willingness to reject science if it went against your view that certain hypotheses are “metaphysically ambitious”. You said in an earlier post: “We have a choice: Either scientists are incorrect or the universe always existed, or something supernatural is involved. Why not something supernatural? That explanation still seems worse than just admitting scientists could be wrong that energy can’t be created or destroyed.”
    That seems to me pretty similar to saying (as some religious people do) that if there was a conflict between their faith and science, their faith would win. Hence I think that your atheism rests on faith more than you care to admit.

    As to your question: “Do you want to say that the material world couldn’t possibly explain the universe’s existence or tell us why no such explanation is needed?”
    The material world can’t explain why it has laws because any explanation of anything in materialistic terms has to presuppose that there are laws. It may be, as I’ve already said, that there is indeed no explanation for why there are laws. It may just be a brute fact. But (and I only mentioned this briefly in the paper) even if that was the case we couldn’t know it was the case. A fact that had no explanation would, from our point of view, be impossible to distinguish from a fact whose explanation we didn’t yet know. Unless you have an explanation of why the universe has laws, you have to resort to saying ‘it just does’ – as indeed you have done a number of times. But you can’t know that that’s true, so it is, once again, a declaration of faith.

    You suggest that the universe always existing might itself be a sufficient explanation. (I’m not sure whether you positively endorse this view or not.) But, it seems to me, someone could only think that if they have a very Humean view of explanation. That is, if they think that explaining an event (in this case, the beginning of the universe) means finding out what previous event that caused it was, and that’s that all there is to explanation. But not all explanations are like that, and not all demands for explanation are demands to know what the previous event was. E.g. the properties of atoms are explained in terms of protons, neutrons and electrons, and their properties in terms of quarks, etc. Similarly, even if the Universe always existed we would still need an explanation of why it has the properties it has.

    It occurs to me (and here we may just have to agree to disagree) that *any* explanation of why the universe exists, or has laws – including the ‘explanation’ that says ‘it’s just a brute fact’ – would *have* to be metaphysically ambitious. How could it not be?

    It’s nice to be able to debate this with an atheist who is so civilized and fair-minded. You are a rare breed. I was half-thinking of posting my article on Richard Dawkins’ website, but if you’ve ever looked at that you can easily guess the kind of reaction it would get!

    All the best,
    B.G.

    Comment by Brian Garvey — June 4, 2010 @ 9:44 am | Reply

  9. Thank you for taking the time to reply to my questions. I think I should change my post a bit to reflect your intentions a better. I will probably write another post that takes your objections into account and I will respond to them again despite the fact that you pretty much already know what I have to say.

    Anyway, I hope that helps make things a bit clearer. I just want to make a few more remarks. You say: “I don’t see how you can say that either position should be based on faith when we have philosophy to come to the rescue. Philosophy can tell us which hypotheses are the most rational and legitimate given our current information.”
    But for it not to be faith, it would not be enough that philosophy *could* settle the question, it would have to be the case that it [or something else] already *has* settled the question. Even if I was willing to allow, for the sake of argument, that it could, I don’t see why I should think that it has. And moreover, since I think all you are really saying is that it could settle it, you should allow the possibility that philosophy could end up settling the question in favour of theism.

    I am used to the idea that philosophy doesn’t settle questions once and for all and I don’t think it needs to. We can be rational and decide if a hypothesis has greater merit based on criteria such as Occam’s Razor even when we can’t settle an issue once and for all. I don’t think science can do such a thing either, but it can come very close. We’ve seen germs, so germ theory seems about as plausible as anything can get.

    On the science issue, as far as I know string theory is now considered to have been a failure – see Smolin’s book Trouble With Physics. My point in bringing up this issue was to point out your willingness to reject science if it went against your view that certain hypotheses are “metaphysically ambitious”.

    Only if we have no choice but to reject science, and it might be that we can’t know for sure where science went wrong. The idea that energy can’t be created or destroyed might also be wrong, for example. (Maybe the creation of matter and anti-matter would balance things out.)

    You said in an earlier post: “We have a choice: Either scientists are incorrect or the universe always existed, or something supernatural is involved. Why not something supernatural? That explanation still seems worse than just admitting scientists could be wrong that energy can’t be created or destroyed.”

    That seems to me pretty similar to saying (as some religious people do) that if there was a conflict between their faith and science, their faith would win. Hence I think that your atheism rests on faith more than you care to admit.

    I don’t understand your argument. I never said that I would maintain a materialist worldview at all costs. I am willing to adjust what having a materialist worldview means insofar as it is compatible with science compared to other worldviews. If the materialist worldview is the most compatible view with our observations, then it is the best one.

    Perhaps theism and materialism are equally good insofar as they are compatible with science. In that case science can’t tell us which is probably right. In that case Occam’s Razor and philosophy in general are still relevant.

    As to your question: “Do you want to say that the material world couldn’t possibly explain the universe’s existence or tell us why no such explanation is needed?”

    The material world can’t explain why it has laws because any explanation of anything in materialistic terms has to presuppose that there are laws. It may be, as I’ve already said, that there is indeed no explanation for why there are laws. It may just be a brute fact. But (and I only mentioned this briefly in the paper) even if that was the case we couldn’t know it was the case. A fact that had no explanation would, from our point of view, be impossible to distinguish from a fact whose explanation we didn’t yet know. Unless you have an explanation of why the universe has laws, you have to resort to saying ‘it just does’ – as indeed you have done a number of times. But you can’t know that that’s true, so it is, once again, a declaration of faith.

    Yes, I agree. I don’t see that as a threat to materialism because such a worldview is based on philosophy, not faith or science.

    You suggest that the universe always existing might itself be a sufficient explanation. (I’m not sure whether you positively endorse this view or not.) But, it seems to me, someone could only think that if they have a very Humean view of explanation. That is, if they think that explaining an event (in this case, the beginning of the universe) means finding out what previous event that caused it was, and that’s that all there is to explanation. But not all explanations are like that, and not all demands for explanation are demands to know what the previous event was. E.g. the properties of atoms are explained in terms of protons, neutrons and electrons, and their properties in terms of quarks, etc. Similarly, even if the Universe always existed we would still need an explanation of why it has the properties it has.

    Yes, we are getting into semantics here.

    It occurs to me (and here we may just have to agree to disagree) that *any* explanation of why the universe exists, or has laws – including the ‘explanation’ that says ‘it’s just a brute fact’ – would *have* to be metaphysically ambitious. How could it not be?

    Yes, but some might be more so than others.

    It’s nice to be able to debate this with an atheist who is so civilized and fair-minded. You are a rare breed. I was half-thinking of posting my article on Richard Dawkins’ website, but if you’ve ever looked at that you can easily guess the kind of reaction it would get!

    I would like to be a real philosophy like Socrates, so I am glad that I am doing something right. They are probably not trained philosophers, and I have respect for the possibility of a rational theist despite the fact that I question whether or not belief in God can be rationally permissible “given the current information we have” (including the information scientists and philosophers have.) For one thing I do think people can rationally believe in God given their personal view of the world, which is what we are all stuck with at the end of the day.

    Theists often like to say that atheists have faith, and they certainly have ignorance. If uncertainty is faith, then they have faith. I personally don’t like the word “faith” because (as a virtue) it has been used to value ignorance and uncertainty. The main reason that I think theists like the word “faith” so much despite its history is that it is part of their tradition. Of course, you seem to really think that faith is necessary with regard to starting assumptions.

    I don’t quite understand your rejection of Occam’s Razor given the fact that you just seem to think we are unable to implement it successfully for some reason. We could certainly take a close look to see how to best use Occam’s Razor more rather than less.

    Comment by James Gray — June 4, 2010 @ 12:36 pm | Reply

  10. On the science issue, as far as I know string theory is now considered to have been a failure – see Smolin’s book Trouble With Physics.

    Just a quick look at the wikipedia article makes it clear that this book is very controversial and widely criticized. String Theory is alive and well. One of the major criticisms against String Theory that was plausible is merely that String Theory hasn’t been proven and alternative hypotheses should be investigated.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Trouble_with_Physics

    Even if String Theory is false, we still have no way of knowing that the big bang is all that exists. And even if it is, the idea that God created the universe is still not necessarily a very good explanation.

    Quentin Smith seems to think that the big bang is everything, but thinks that the best worldview to understand the big bang is without God’s involvement. I don’t know if I agree with the argument as it is presented, but you can find it here: http://www.infidels.org/library/modern/quentin_smith/self-caused.html

    Comment by James Gray — June 6, 2010 @ 4:42 am | Reply


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