Peter van Inwagen’s argument for Christianity

My previous post brings me back to a point I made in chapter 1: too many attempts to refute “atheism” fail to understand that atheism is just thinking there aren’t any gods. They think that refuting “naturalism” or “materialism” or whatever is somehow evidence that their god exists. I’m now going to give a somewhat longer example of that, the argument for Christianity that philosopher Peter van Inwagen makes in his essay “Quam Dilecta”:

As regards questions about the nature of the world as a whole and the place of humanity in the world, it is statistically very likely that you trust one or the other of two authorities: the Church or the Enlightenment. (But some readers of this essay wil l trust the Torah or the Koran or even–I suppose this is remotely possible–a person or book that claims access to some occult, esoteric wisdom.) What I propose to do in the sequel is to explain why I, who once trusted the Enlightenment, now trust the Church.

There is, I believe, an identifiable and cohesive historical phenomenon that named itself the Enlightenment in the eighteenth century, and which, although it long ago abandoned the name, still exists.

Van Inwagen claims “the Enlightenment” (I use scare quotes because he’s using the word in a way no one else does) has a creed that can be written down.  Here is a slightly shortened version of van Inwagen’s “Enlightenment creed”:

There is no God. There is, in fact, nothing besides the physical cosmos that science investigates. Human beings… do not survive death. Human beings… differ from other animals only in being more complex… In the end, the only evil is pain and the only good is pleasure. The only purpose of morality and politics is the minimization of pain and the maximization of pleasure… Religions invent complicated and arbitrary moral codes and fantastic future rewards and punishments in order to consolidate their own power. Fortunately, they are gradually but steadily being exposed as frauds by the progress of science (which was invented by strong-minded progressives), and they will gradually disappear through the agency of scientific education and enlightened journalism.

All this is completely bizarre. Van Inwagen can’t seem to seriously consider the possibility that some people think for themselves, rather than just picking an authority and trusting it. Are there some sources of information I just trust? Yes. I trust science for one, though in that I doubt I’m much different from van Inwagen, at least when it comes to things like physics and chemistry (van Inwagen has some of the watered-down anti-evolutionism I’ve talked about elsewhere with Alvin Plantinga.)

But I don’t even know how I’d go about looking to “the Enlightenment” for answers on the points mentioned in van Inwagen’s “Enlightenment creed.” Christians have the Bible, they have various official creeds from the first few centuries of Christianity, and (if they are Catholic) they have more recent official pronouncements of the Catholic Church. I don’t know how to answer those questions, though, except by trying to look at the evidence and arguments.

More importantly (because this mistake is more common), after the first sentence the points in van Inwagen’s creed have little to do with whether there are any gods. For example, even if you could show that there’s something beyond the physical cosmos, that alone would not show that that something is a god. And the view that pleasure is the only good may or may not be crazy depending on what you mean by “pleasure,” but even many atheist philosophers reject even the less-crazy interpretations of the view.

As van Inwagen goes about criticizing “the Enlightenment,” he seems to add more things to its creed to make it easier to attack. For example, several paragraphs after the initial creed, van Inwagen declares, “The Enlightenment holds either that human beings are naturally good, or that they are neither good nor bad but simply infinitely malleable.”

Maybe this is true (I have no idea, because I don’t know what the hell van Inwagen means by “the Enlightenment”), but if you want to know about atheists, the fact is that many atheists, from Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) to modern evolutionary psychologists, have been famous for their dim view of human nature. (If you want an excellent explanation, written by an atheist, of why human beings are neither naturally good nor infinitely malleable, I recommend Steven Pinker’s The Blank Slate.)

Van Inwagen’s talk of “the Enlightenment” is also made ridiculous by the fact that many of his examples of Enlightenment thinkers clearly would not have accepted his “Enlightenment creed.” Two, Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826) and Thomas Paine, were deists and therefore believed in God. Another, Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778), spent his adult life as first a Catholic and later a Calvinist. That should be enough to tell you that van Inwagen’s description of “the Enlightenment” has no basis in the actual history of Western thought.

There’s a lot more problems with van Inwagen’s essay, but the main point is that nothing he says has very much to do with whether there are any gods, much less whether the specific god of Christianity exists. In other words, his arguments for Christianity are no better than Bill O’Reilly’s. And van Inwagen is a respected metaphysician teaching at one of the world’s top philosophy departments (at the University of Notre Dame.)

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