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.)

  • Annatar

    I’m not all that familiar with van Inwagen, other than that he revived (is that the right word?) libertarian free-will. Is he just as loony as Plantinga or Craig? He always struck me as being relatively benign.

    • Chris Hallquist

      He’s pretty similar to Plantinga. Craig IMO is in a whole nother class of awful from either of them.

    • ‘Tis Himself

      Considering that Plantinga and van Inwagen both teach at Notre Dame, they probably have some influence on each other.

      Both of them like to set up strawmen arguments and ineptly demolish them. For years Plantinga has been rebutting something he calls “naturalism” which holds little relationship to what other people mean when they talk about naturalism. Van Inwagen has done something similar to what he calls “the Enlightenment.”

    • rayndeon

      To be fair to van Inwagen, his regular work in metaphysics is generally good. Just see any of his non-religiously oriented work. The man is also extremely skeptical of just about every theistic argument out there as well; he actually has one of the best arguments out there against the cosmological arguments (the ones from contingency anyway).

  • mnb0

    Replace pleasure by happiness and Van Ingwegen gives a pretty accurate discription of my views.
    Now I am not a philosopher, so my simple question is: what’s wrong with being happy?!

  • James Sweet

    Nitpick: Jefferson wasn’t really a deist (Paine was, of course). Not only did he disclaim the moniker, but he also made comments which made it clear he believed that god intervened in the world. Jefferson was certainly pretty irreligious by modern standards, and held a deep suspicion of churches, but he was ultimately a theistic Christian (albeit a highly unorthodox and freethinking one).

    And yeah, I agree that van Inwagen’s “Enlightenment creed” is bizarre. I would have gone as far as accepting perhaps an expression of philosophical naturalism in such a “creed”, but too many of the things he puts in there are either a) not foundational beliefs, but rather naturally derived beliefs based on a combination of other foundational premises together with observation; or b) even worse, stuff that many (occasionally most) Enlightment thinkers just don’t even believe to begin with. Yick. It’s not just a strawman, it’s a bizarre and obvious strawman.

  • Chrissetti

    It reminds me of people who try to argue for creationism by arguing against evolution. Even if evolution by natural selection was demonstrated conclusively to be wrong tomorrow, it would not follow that the Christian god popped everything into existence ~6,000 years ago.

  • Ben

    You write that “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.” That may be so, but too many atheists seem to think that unless an argument proves the existence of one particular deity then atheism must be true. But that’s just misdirection. A strong argument for the existence of a creator isn’t weakened because it doesn’t specify exactly which claimant is the true god, atheism is undermined regardless.

    • Bronze Dog

      Until someone proves to me that at least one unicorn exists, I’m not going to believe in unicorns.

      If you’ve got a generic god hypothesis, make a prediction that we can test. Make sure that it predicts something we don’t already expect.

    • Aspect Sign

      That may be so, but too many atheists seem to think that unless an argument proves the existence of one particular deity then atheism must be true. But that’s just misdirection. A strong argument for the existence of a creator isn’t weakened because it doesn’t specify exactly which claimant is the true god,

      Sorry, but the misdirection is your own. If you are suggesting that atheist go around arguing against Thor and Odin and Anubis and that that proves god doesn’t exist then you are either not listening or being disingenuous to support your own point. Yes, atheist argue against gods with particular qualities because all gods proposed have particular qualities.
      While suggesting that it is not, in your own example you propose a particular god, with definable properties, creator and true. That particular god can be argued against. If you wish to take the next step and propose a god with no definable properties, well that would make the whole discussion pointless as a god with no qualities is indistinguishable from a non-existent god which eliminates your strong argument or any argument at all.
      If you are just taking the position that there are features of the universe without any or sufficient explanation and are taking a god of the gaps position that is by no means a strong argument. No atheist would disagree that there are gaps in our knowledge of the universe, just with making stuff up to fill them in. Not knowing is just fine.
      All you have done here is accuse atheists of misdirection by making a misdirecting claim about atheists followed by a misdirecting claim about god. You really need to try a little harder.

      • Ben

        Aspect Sign, uou’ve managed to misunderstand just about everything I’ve written.

        What I am saying is that when faced with an argument against atheism atheists sometimes say, “You haven’t proved which particular god exists, therefore atheism is true.” But that’s a non sequitur. An argument can provide good reasons for thinking atheism is untrue without proving—or attempting to prove—which particular god exists.

        • Aspect Sign

          Sorry, you’ve neither refuted nor gained any other ground with this reply. You’ve simply repeated your first misdirection and said your second doesn’t need to be a good argument. Not impressed.

    • eric

      A strong argument for the existence of a creator isn’t weakened because it doesn’t specify exactly which claimant is the true god, atheism is undermined regardless.

      I would love to know what this ‘strong argument for the existence of a creator’ is.

      Or was this just a hypothetical counter-argument? Something like “if we DID have A, and A implied B, you’d be wrong to disbelieve B.”

      • Verbose Stoic

        I think the main complaint is against comments like “Even if this argument worked, it wouldn’t establish the CHRISTIAN God”, to which the answer would be “So? If I can establish a theistic God, then atheists are still wrong even if I can’t tell them which God it is”.

        • Ben


  • David Marshall

    One can always quibble, especially with so loose and autobiographical essay as this one. If we’re going to quibble, then, isn’t this post pretty much of a non sequitur? You propose to give an example of a failed attempt at refuting atheism. But that’s not what this essay is. It’s more like a personal account of why Van Inwagen converted from one philosophy to another, which makes no attempt or claim to fill in all the many gaps he recognizes himself as leaving. Of course he thinks his reasons are of more than autobiographical interest (and I think he’s right), but he’s certainly not claiming to “refute atheism” in this essay.

    • josh

      Inwagen claims that most people either accept ‘the Enlightenment’ or Christianity as an authority (after blatantly sweeping aside the billions of people who are neither Christians nor atheists). He says ‘the Enlightenment’ is a cohesive phenomenon with, in fact, a creed which no one ever wrote down but he’ll do it for us. And now he’s going to tell us why he switched from ‘the Enlightenment’ to ‘the Church’.

      Chris is pointing out in the OP that this is kind of a crazy story which is nonetheless a typical example of a type of religious thinking. Basically, it’s a false dichotomy. Inwagen lumps together all these vague beliefs and statements of principle as one side, and since he has issues with some of that, he switched to the [only] other side. Note that this is rather similar to the thrust of Leah’s conversion discussed in these parts and on Daniel Fincke’s blog recently. But disagreeing with one part of this agglomeration of creeds, ‘the Enlightenment’, isn’t a good reason to drop all of them, much less to switch to a different congeries of beliefs called ‘the Church’. This is especially true when ‘the Enlightenment’, doesn’t even have anything recognizable as a central authority or creed from which it’s pieces might be argued to derive.

      Moreover, while we can’t say that Inwagen didn’t actually believe all the jumbled statements of his ‘Enlightenment’ at some point in his life, it’s just not a good description of what, statistically, most people adhere to if they don’t follow his current ‘authority’, ‘the Church.’ Chris’s excerpt of his ‘Enlightenment’ creed is just the beginning. If you edited out about 20% of it, changed the poor wording, and properly explained what the terms mean, it could actually serve as a partial description of what I, but by no means all other atheists, believe. But the stuff that he thinks follows from it, which is the actual basis of his comparison with Christianity, is just crazy.

  • Ben

    We’re not talking about something like a unicorn or anything else that might conceivably exist within creation, we’re talking about a creator—who by definition exists outside it. To demand that theists prove the existence of a creator by pointing to where he exists in creation is nonsensical and asks them to prove something they never claimed in the first place. It’s like saying, “I refuse to believe in an artist unless you show me where he exists in the painting.” The artist isn’t in the painting, but the fact that the painting exists is good evidence for an artist.

    • busterggi

      ” we’re talking about a creator—who by definition exists outside it.”

      Whose definition – yours?

      My definition of the universe includes everything – anything else is imaginary. Just where would you say outside the universe is as an actual location?

  • hotshoe

    The artist isn’t in the painting, but the fact that the painting exists is good evidence for an artist.

    Dumb analogy. In the real world, the reason why a painting’s existence is good “evidence” for an artist is because we know how paintings are made. We’ve all seen (or at least heard of) the painter preparing the surface, preparing the materials, applying the materials, working and reworking as necessary until the painting is as close to the desired effect as possible, and then allowing us to view the finished art object. In fact, most of us have even been painters ourselves at some time in our lives, so we do indeed have certainty on how the physical existence of a painting relates to the physical existence of its creator.

    And we have literally everything else in the known world to compare it to, to hone our classification of which material objects are “paintings” whose existence imply “artist” and which material objects are random but beautiful algae stains on the cliff, or which are unintentional berry juice spatter next to the coyote poop, or which are merely functional constructions. Think parking garages.

    Your analogy would have been just as dumb if you had said “the fact that the parking garage exists is good evidence for an architect”. Yes, it is. But somehow, I don’t see christian apologists going with that analogy – it’s not special enough for them.

    You’re trying to go for “Oh my god, the universe is such a majestic, awesome, beautiful painting that it had to have been created by a majestic awesome beautiful artist”. Sounds a lot more stupid when you have to admit that your statement is logically equivalent to “Oh my god the universe is such a gargantuan clusterfuck ugly parking garage that it had to have been created by a gargantuan clusterfuck ugly architect”.

    Where you completely lose the plot is in assuming that physical reality as a whole (the cosmos we live in) is somehow evidence for any kind of creator at all. No human has ever seen a god-type artist preparing the materials for a universe. You have absolutely no basis for jumping from the thought “Humans create things, and when I see a thing that matches the definition of human-created thing, I have logical justification for saying that thing was probably created by a human” to the thought “gods create universes and when I see a universe that matches the definition of god-created universe, I have justification for saying that universe was probably created by a god”. That’s nonsense.

    We don’t have anything to compare it to. We don’t have any way to hone our classification of which universes are “created” and therefore imply “creator” versus which universes are merely the equivalent of random but beautiful algae stains which just happened naturally.

    We don’t know. But christian apologists are more than happy to fill in that not-knowing with their illogical certainty that “we don’t know, therefore GOD !!!!”

  • Michael Fugate

    “Human beings… differ from other animals only in being more complex… ”

    There is someone who doesn’t have a clue….

  • eric

    Another problem with van Inwagen’s argument: to the exstent that there is a modern atheistic consensus around some of what he touts as the “enlightenment creed,” its because those claims are results based on empiricism rather than being fundamental credo statements. People who believe there is no soul do so because we’ve been trying to detect a soul for centuries and failed to do so. Just like a luminiferous ether. Would he claim that “there is no luminiferous ether” is a creed? A statement which we all ascribe to out of obedience to an authority? Or is it something a lot simpler: the best explanation for the outcome of our investigations?

    I’d say its the latter. I’d say a lot of what he touts as ‘creed’ is also the latter.

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  • Luke Breuer

    atheism is just thinking there aren’t any gods.

    Boghossian disagrees, hilariously. (A Manual for Creating Atheists)

    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.”

    Ostensibly, in the cultural air you breath. Have you heard the phrase, “He’s a product of his time.”? Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue deeply explores our moral thinking and traces a plausible route for how we got where we are. The person who says he hasn’t been influenced by anyone is the most naive of all. So perhaps you would be willing to explain who has influenced you to adopt your current beliefs? One could then chase the threads backward and see how many are well-rooted in the Enlightenment.