Beta testing a book: Chapter 7: There are no good arguments for the existence of God

Okay, here’s another round of revisions on my chapter titled, There are no good arguments for the existence of God, which, thanks to some rearranging/cutting of material from old chapters 6-8, is now chapter 7. Main changes from the previous version of the chapter are that I’ve changed my mind somewhat on Aquinas et al., and added a brief discussion of the ontological argument.

ETA - One specific thing I want feedback on: I decided that the chapter was long enough in the version you see here, so I ended up spending less time than initially planned berating people for wasting everyone’s time by doing something other than actually arguing for the existence of God. And mostly I think I did an adequate job of doing that as-is.

But a side-effect of that is that I cut my rebuttal to Ed Feser. Which part of me likes, because Feser’s shtick is all about complaining that people don’t pay enough attention to him, which is behavior I don’t want to reward by paying attention to him. On the other hand, Feser has been pretty successful in drawing attention to himself, which some people mistake for his having something worthwhile to say, so maybe I should correct them.

  • Ryan M

    What did you change your mind about regarding Aquinas?

    • Chris Hallquist

      I’ve rejected the idea that a main reason Aquinas’ arguments are no longer popular is because of changing underlying assumptions.

  • Ray

    You miss by far the biggest problem with most Bayesian arguments for God:

    Setting the prior probability of God’s existence to 1/2.

    It’s a little bit annoying to explain why this is wrong, but it really is the crux of the problem with most Bayesian arguments for God. Probably the simplest way to state this is that a universe with a God is much more complicated than one without (no matter how many times the Theists assert without justification the doctrine of divine simplicity.) Thus, in order not to privilege the hypothesis, you need to discount the prior for God by a factor of two for each extra bit of complexity he adds to your picture of the world. If anyone doubts that divine simplicity is wrong, note how much ink has been spilled arguing without resolution, which of the many creedal expressions of the trinity are an accurate description of God — even if you accept that God is the one expressed in the Nicene creed, you still have to argue over filoque, monophysite/miaphysite/chalcedonian etc. Even then, the part that adds the most complexity is the assertion that God has the quality of mind/intellect/intelligence, which is a spectacularly complicated concept.

    Worse still, unlike contingent entities, this God is supposed to be the most powerful entity in all of existence .
    If that’s even a coherent description — and if it’s not, God cannot exist — that narrows us down to one entity. That entity is either mental (with all the complexity that that entails) or non-mental (this covers the VAST majority of possibilities,) trinitarian or unitarian, good or evil, chalcedonian or monophysite etc. Any one of these assumptions doesn’t go the way you want it to, and this ontologically basic entity is not the droid you’re looking for as it were. Hence, in order to treat all the widely disparate non-God possibilities fairly, without all the probabilities adding up to more than one, God’s prior probability needs to be orders of magnitude smaller than 1/2.

    • Chris Hallquist

      Not all Bayesian arguments for God necessarily do that, though.

      • Ray

        Depends how generally you want to interpret my objection. It is certainly true that any argument for an implausible conclusion using bayesian methods can be construed as setting a prior probability too high somewhere. Even problems with ignoring evidence can be taken this way — the Theist may be entirely right “If God were a TRUE Scotsman, we’d see exactly the evidence we do see.” It’s just they haven’t reduced their prior to compensate for the fact that God the TRUE Scotsman has a lower prior probability than God the apparent Scotsman. Anyway, literally setting God’s prior to 1/2 is sufficiently common and sufficiently representative of the sorts of egregious mistakes in theses arguments that I’d think it would be worth pointing out. But then, it’s not my book.

  • MNb

    I would reverse the order of “Historically reliability” and “Bayesian arguments”. The latter are sometimes used by philosophers, thus it makes sense to place this section after “The ontological argument”. Perhaps it’s even best to place the “Historically reliability” section as first as it is one of the lightest ones. Bill Reilly isn’t hard to digest either; it always works well psychologically to go from the light stuff to the harder stuff. The McGrew quote would then work as a closer of a circle.
    All in all it’s excellent stuff and a great (re)read.

  • Darren

    I linked to this chapter in a discussion on Unequally Yoked. I had done so as a, IMO, reasonable summary of thoughts similar to mine vis.a.vis the arguments for God’s existence. One of the regular commenters was not impressed. His comment is linked below, and my reply follows:

    Unequally Yoked commenter is unimpressed

    Randy, as promised I have reread Chapter 7 of Hallquist’s book. I am going to cross-post this on his site, as he is beta-testing the book and it would be a shame for him to miss constructive criticism.

    In your comments, I believe that you have:

    1. Misread / misunderstood what is claimed in the chapter; and / or
    2. Applied the filter of your own beliefs, rejecting arguments, not because they are wrong or invalid, but because they disagree.

    Similar claims might apply to me, but by rereading this morning I feel reasonably confident that I am not falling victim to #1. If I fall victim to the inverse of #2, well, we shall see. :)

    Now, on to your specific comments / questions.

    ”So that chapter from Hallquist is supposed to be convincing?”

    I linked to that chapter as I thought it to be a useful summary of thinking very similar to my own, and where there was shortage, the other chapters and related blog-posts filled those out. A link to the other chapters might help, if you are interested:

    The Whole Book

    ”He mostly just begs the question.”

    Now, this was one of the reasons I wanted to reread Chapter 7. I have to say, I don’t see this. I did not see a single instance of this. I see dismissals, I see arguments against, but not a question begging. Perhaps you could give me an example?

    ”He dismisses arguments rather than answering them. With Aquinas he suggests an infinite causality is possible. Yet everyone accepts that the universe began with the big bang. So we must have a big banger. Does he reject that? Then he suggest Aquinas arguments are just not fashionable anymore. That guys like Kant and Hume are now fashionable. I know that. That does not say anything about truth.”

    Hallquist spends less time with Aquinas than I might like, but he gets two pages, plus two more pages on the Ontological argument. At one point Hallquist had a great deal on Feser, which IMO counts as Aquinas, but this part was cut out, though I thought it landed somewhere else (another chapter, perhaps?).

    That said, I believe you are misunderstanding both Aquinas first mover argument as well as what he had to say about Kant and Hume being fashionable.

    The finite .vs. infinite causality chain would have to be something happening “behind” the Big Bang. As we have no conceptual model for what that might be like (at least, I do not), that puts us on a similar footing with a line of infinite causality, which we also have no conceptual model for… Considering that the quantum model is showing us that causality really does not work the way that Aristotle / Aquinas thinks it does (or that most of us think it does), and considering that an uncaused causer on the other side of the BB pushing the first dominoes is a pretty big extra complication, I feel pretty comfortable with defaulting to infinite dominoes until proven otherwise.

    The part about Kant and Hume was that before them it was _illegal_, or at least suicidally imprudent, to _not_ claim that God was logically derivable. After it was not illegal, surprise, surprise, such claims became less “fashionable”.

    ”One needs to understand that bias when it comes to questions about God is huge. Our answer has massive personal implications which almost nobody will ignore. So I tend to find the unfashionable guys more believable. A guy like Ed Feser who’s career has been hurt by his acceptance of Thomism is more credible. Not just because he writes so much more intelligently but because he is not just regurgitating the party line.”

    I am afraid you have a rather naïve view of Mr. Feser’s martyrdom at the hands of the liberal intellectual elite… ;) I suspect his book sales and loyal internet following might salve the pain of mainstream academia not feting him as he otherwise deserves. But, it you would like to delve into the vagaries and petty injustices of the world of academia, I must refer you to Physicist Dave or some other learned Doctor.

    ”Same thing with New Testament scholarship. He kept talking about what most scholars think. The trouble is what most scholars think makes no sense. Again it is what is fashionable because it avoids accepting claims of the supernatural.”

    Well, that is an interesting claim. There were footnotes in the chapter, perhaps you should write to ‘the scholars’ and explain where they have gone wrong… ;)

    Seriously, though, if you would like to explain where biblical scholars are wrong, I will be happy to listen. My knowledge of such matters is incomplete, and I am always willing to learn.

    I do find your repeated claims of martyrdom to be rather amusing, though. Fashionable with whom? Here in the US, we Atheists make up a whopping 0.9% last survey, with Catholics running around 25%. Add in Protestants and the Christian percentage rolls well over 50%.

    Passion of the Christ .vs. uh… what was the last big Atheist apologetics movie?

    ”It also avoids explaining where Christianity came from. Someone at sometime wrote the bible and convinced everyone it was written in the first century and left no trace of their actions.”

    And your counter-offer is?

    ”For some reason this Jesus guy who did no miracles and definitely did not rise from the dead had captured the attention of the entire Roman world. Then somebody decided to make him God and nobody objected.”

    Oh, I think quite a few people objected. They just lost.

    ”Again Hallquist just uncritically swallows the fashionable thought and declares himself to be intelligent for doing so. Why bother to write a book if you can’t do anything more than that?”

    Again, though, I am not sure just who’s fashionable thought he is supposed to be swallowing, but I’ll just have to let Chris Hallquist take that one, if he likes.

    So far as I am concerned, I find the section on privileging the hypothesis to be most representative of my own thoughts are this point. While there are several systems that might end up being true, there are several systems that might end up being true. I am rather fond of Thomism, it being _internally_ consistent and rather aesthetically satisfying (IMO), but as “The Silmarillion” demonstrated to me, internal consistency and aesthetics do not a cosmos make. Thomism comes with some fairly large pills to swallow, though – I would call it a very front loaded system. And I have hardly given Islam or Hinduism enough time to give them a fair critique, although from past experience Santeria is a lot of fun and Germanic Neo-paganism has its appeal…

    Maybe I’ll go dust of my Elegua or my Thor’s Hammer;)

  • Steve Pålsson

    Overall the chapter is a letdown in that it doesn’t deliver on the implied promise in the title. I was hoping to see reasons for the assertion “There are no good arguments for the existence of god.” Actual refutations of the arguments (convincingly showing they ARE NOT GOOD) might be too much to ask for, since actually explaining and detailing those refutations might itself necessitate a book, or perhaps volumes? I don’t know about that but perhaps you could make the chapter a sort of bibliography, where the reader could find the refutations. In particular, the section on Aquinas introduced one of his five ways, began to discuss infinite regress, then just seemed to aimlessly drift without making a point or actually proving anything. The ontological argument section was good as far as it went, but it really needs fleshing out. It’s more of a vague outline describing some of what might go into a refutation rather than a refutation itself. I’ve seen Anselm’s argument criticized with brevity, so I know it’s possible. If you are looking for something to edit out I’d remove the silly Bill O’Reilly diversion and really almost everything in the chapter before “Aquinas’s five ways…” By the way, I’m pretty sure “Aquinas’s” is the correct spelling no matter how you pronounce it, since “Aquinas” is not a plural form of “Aquina.”

    You have to deal with the “argument from design” thing because people nowadays find it convincing for some reason. The way you handle it is the best way perhaps.

  • Steve Pålsson

    This article is old. Sorry, never mind. I don’t know how I wandered here.

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