Plantinga on the Alleged “Irrationality” of Atheism

Alvin Plantinga

 

I want to comment on Gary Gutting’s recent interview of Alvin Plantinga in the New York Times. Unless otherwise indicated, the quotations are quotations of Plantinga.

Still, that’s not nearly sufficient for atheism. In the British newspaper The Independent, the scientist Richard Dawkins was recently asked the following question: “If you died and arrived at the gates of heaven, what would you say to God to justify your lifelong atheism?” His response: “I’d quote Bertrand Russell: ‘Not enough evidence, God! Not enough evidence!’” But lack of evidence, if indeed evidence is lacking, is no grounds for atheism. No one thinks there is good evidence for the proposition that there are an even number of stars; but also, no one thinks the right conclusion to draw is that there are an uneven number of stars. The right conclusion would instead be agnosticism.

In the same way, the failure of the theistic arguments, if indeed they do fail, might conceivably be good grounds for agnosticism, but not for atheism. Atheism, like even-star-ism, would presumably be the sort of belief you can hold rationally only if you have strong arguments or evidence.

1. Unlike some people who identify as atheists, I’m fine with joining Plantinga in defining atheism as the belief that there is no God. Notice, however, that there is an equivocation or, at least, a sort of ‘translation error’ here on Plantinga’s part. What Plantinga seems to forget is that many of the people who identify as atheists don’t use the definition of atheism Plantinga (and I) do; they define atheism as merely the lack of belief that God exists. As such, they are precisely what Plantinga would call an agnostic. So when those people say “the lack of evidence for theism is justification for atheism,” they are NOT saying “the lack of evidence for God’s existence is evidence against God’s existence.” Rather, they are are saying, “the lack of evidence for God’s existence is justification for lacking the belief that God exists.”

2. On the other hand, there are some atheists who indeed do argue that the lack of evidence for God’s existence is evidence against God’s existence. Atheist philosopher Theodore Drange calls that argument the “lack of evidence argument” (LEA). Drange has refuted that argument; I join both Plantinga and Drange in rejecting it.

3. While I agree that atheism (the belief that God does not exist version) does have a burden of proof, atheism doesn’t have nearly the same burden of proof as theism. Why? Because theism has a lower prior probability than naturalism and naturalism entails atheism. This contradicts Plantinga’s claim, “Atheism, like even-star-ism, would presumably be the sort of belief you can hold rationally only if you have strong arguments or evidence” (my italics).

The so-called “problem of evil” would presumably be the strongest (and maybe the only) evidence against theism. It does indeed have some strength; it makes sense to think that the probability of theism, given the existence of all the suffering and evil our world contains, is fairly low. But of course there are also arguments for theism. Indeed, there are at least a couple of dozen good theistic arguments. So the atheist would have to try to synthesize and balance the probabilities. This isn’t at all easy to do, but it’s pretty obvious that the result wouldn’t anywhere nearly support straight-out atheism as opposed to agnosticism. (emphasis mine)

1. The text I have italicized and boldfaced is ridiculous. His “two dozen or so” theistic arguments, philosophically speaking, consist of practically everything but the kitchen sink as evidence for theism. When it comes to arguments for atheism, however, he writes as if the argument from evil is the only argument for atheism (or, at least, the only argument for atheism that provides evidence against theism.) This reeks of a double standard. Plantinga knows very well that atheists have offered serious arguments for naturalism (which entails atheism), including the argument from nonculpable nonbelief (aka “divine hiddenness”), the evidential argument from biological evolution, and the evidential argument from mind-brain dependence. Once we consider the total evidence, it’s far from obvious that it ‘nearly supports straight-out theism as opposed to agnosticism.’

2. Indeed, this paragraph is notable for the fact that it refers to one or more arguments which commit the fallacy of understated evidence. By way of review: in the context of arguments for theism and against naturalism, proponents of a theistic argument are guilty of this fallacy if they “successfully identify some general fact F about a topic X that is antecedently more likely on theism than on naturalism, but ignore other more specific facts about X, facts that, given F, are more likely on naturalism than on theism.” (More on that in a moment.)

I should make clear first that I don’t think arguments are needed for rational belief in God. In this regard belief in God is like belief in other minds, or belief in the past. Belief in God is grounded in experience, or in the sensus divinitatis, John Calvin’s term for an inborn inclination to form beliefs about God in a wide variety of circumstances.

1. As Paul Draper has argued, “if theism does make it likely that some human beings have a properly functioning sensus divinitatis, then it makes it likely that everyone has one or at least that everyone who is not resistant to belief in God has one, which, pace John Calvin, is not what we observe.”

2. Furthermore, as Draper goes on to point out,

… the cognitive science of religion is not wholly supportive of Plantinga’s position. Human beings instinctively believe in all sorts of invisible agents, not just in gods and certainly not just in a single creator-God let alone the specific creator-God of metaphysical theism. So we seem to have a broad sensus actoris instead of a narrow sensus divinitatis. (Cognitive scientists sometimes use the term “hyperactive agency detector,” which sounds so much less impressive than a “sensus divinitatis.”) …

3. As Keith Parsons has argued, the non-existence of the sensus divinitatis is evidence for the non-existence of God.

My argument is simple. I think that Alvin Plantinga is right. If God exists, humans will very likely possess a sensus divinitatis, a God-detecting faculty, which, when functioning properly and in the appropriate circumstances, will present us with warrant-basic (both warranted and epistemologically basic) awareness of his existence. If this is so, and if God does exist, then humans, provided that their sinfulness has not impaired the proper functioning of their sensus, will have a warrant-basic awareness of God’s existence. On the other hand, if there is no God, it is extremely unlikely that humans would possess a cognitive faculty that would produce the warranted (but false) belief that God exists. In this case, evidence that belief in God is not caused by a warrant-conferring cognitive faculty, but rather is generated by a noncognitive process that does not confer warrant on that belief, will, ipso facto, constitute evidence against the existence of God. An atheological argument can therefore be set out semi-formally like this:

1) If God exists, then humans very likely possess a sensus divinitatis, a cognitive faculty which, when functioning properly and in the appropriate circumstances, produces the warrant-basic belief that God exists.
2) If there is no sensus divinitatis, then God probably does not exist, unless the background probability of his existence is very high.
3) It is not the case that the background probability of God’s existence is very high.
4) There is no sensus divinitatis.
5) Therefore, God probably does not exist.

Let’s move on and return to quoting Plantinga.

One presently rather popular argument: fine-tuning. Scientists tell us that there are many properties our universe displays such that if they were even slightly different from what they are in fact, life, or at least our kind of life, would not be possible. The universe seems to be fine-tuned for life. For example, if the force of the Big Bang had been different by one part in 10 to the 60th, life of our sort would not have been possible. The same goes for the ratio of the gravitational force to the force driving the expansion of the universe: If it had been even slightly different, our kind of life would not have been possible. In fact the universe seems to be fine-tuned, not just for life, but for intelligent life. This fine-tuning is vastly more likely given theism than given atheism.

This would be exhibit A of the fallacy of understated evidence in Plantinga’s interview. For the sake of argument, let’s grant that cosmological fine-tuning is evidence for theism over naturalism (and hence atheism). Given that the universe is fine-tuned, however, there are three more specific facts which favor naturalism over theism. First, the only intelligent life we know of is human and it exists in this universe. As Paul Draper explains:

“while it may be true that on single-universe naturalism the existence of anything as impressive as human beings is very unlikely, it is also true that on theism the existence of intelligent beings as unimpressive and flawed as humans is very unlikely. Further, given that human beings do exist, it is certain on single-universe naturalism, but not on theism, that they exist in this universe (i.e., in the one universe that we know to exist).”

Second, intelligent life is the result of evolutionGiven that intelligent life of some sort exists in some universe, the fact that it developed as a result of biological evolution is more probable on naturalism than on it is on theism.

Third, so much of the universe is hostile to lifeGiven that intelligent life of some sort exists in some universe, the fact that so much of our universe is highly hostile to life–such as containing vast amounts of empty space, temperatures near absolute zero, cosmic radiation, and so forth–is more probable on naturalism than it is on theism.

The upshot is this. Even if the general fact of cosmic “fine-tuning” is more probable on the assumption that theism is true than on the assumption that naturalism is true, there are other, more specific facts about cosmic “fine-tuning,” facts that, given cosmic “fine-tuning,” are more likely on naturalism than on theism. Once all of the evidence about cosmic “fine-tuning” has been fully stated, it’s far from obvious that facts about cosmic “fine-tuning” favor theism over naturalism.

Some atheists seem to think that a sufficient reason for atheism is the fact (as they say) that we no longer need God to explain natural phenomena — lightning and thunder for example. We now have science.

As a justification of atheism, this is pretty lame. We no longer need the moon to explain or account for lunacy; it hardly follows that belief in the nonexistence of the moon (a-moonism?) is justified. A-moonism on this ground would be sensible only if the sole ground for belief in the existence of the moon was its explanatory power with respect to lunacy. (And even so, the justified attitude would be agnosticism with respect to the moon, not a-moonism.) The same thing goes with belief in God: Atheism on this sort of basis would be justified only if the explanatory power of theism were the only reason for belief in God. And even then, agnosticism would be the justified attitude, not atheism.

What is lame is Plantinga’s rather uncharitable representation of the evidential argument from the history of science. The explanatory success of non-lunar explanations for lunacy is not greater (or, at least, not significantly greater) on the assumption that a-moonism is true than on the assumption that moonism true. In contrast, the explanatory success of naturalistic explanations is antecedently more likely on naturalism than on theism.

Thomas Nagel, a terrific philosopher and an unusually perceptive atheist, says he simply doesn’t want there to be any such person as God. And it isn’t hard to see why. For one thing, there would be what some would think was an intolerable invasion of privacy: God would know my every thought long before I thought it. For another, my actions and even my thoughts would be a constant subject of judgment and evaluation.

1. This ignores the evidence from the testimony of other atheists, including myself, who say that they wish that theism were true.

2. Even with Nagel, his hope that atheism is true doesn’t entail or make probable that his reasons for atheism are wrong. Consider an analogy. A Holocaust survivor hopes that what the Nazis did was morally wrong, but no one would argue that the Holocaust survivor is incorrect simply because they hoped that the Nazis were morally wrong.

3. It gets worse. To see why, let’s do a thought experiment. Suppose you are arrested, put on trial, convicted for a crime you did commit, and are sentenced to prison. You probably wouldn’t say to yourself, “Well, I don’t want to live as if I am going to prison, so I’m going to invent a bunch of arguments in order to justify the belief that I am not going to prison.” While it’s possible that someone might do that, probably virtually everyone would accept the reality that they are going to prison. To be sure, they might complain about things (such as the fairness of the law, the judge, or the sentence), but they wouldn’t deny the reality that they were going to prison.

4. Besides, Plantinga’s dismissive attitude towards the reasons why atheists are atheists just assumes that all atheists want to “live as if God does not exist” and that desire outweighs any other desires atheists might have. So far as I can tell, that assumption is false. First, though I don’t have the data to back this up, I suspect that even most atheists wish that some sort of life after death is true. (They may not want to live forever and they may want a different kind of afterlife than the one offered by Christianity, but that’s beside the point.) And any sane, rational person desires to avoid torture, especially eternal torture in Hell. It’s not obvious why anyone should think that those desires would always be outweighed by the desire to “live as if God does not exist.”

Evolution will have resulted in our having beliefs that are adaptive; that is, beliefs that cause adaptive actions. But as we’ve seen, if materialism is true, the belief does not cause the adaptive action by way of its content: It causes that action by way of its neurophysiological properties. Hence it doesn’t matter what the content of the belief is, and it doesn’t matter whether that content is true or false. All that’s required is that the belief have the right neurophysiologicalproperties. If it’s also true, that’s fine; but if false, that’s equally fine.

Evolution will select for belief-producing processes that produce beliefs with adaptive neurophysiological properties, but not for belief-producing processes that produce true beliefs. Given materialism and evolution, any particular belief is as likely to be false as true.

This is Plantinga’s well-known “Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism” (EAAN).

1. The basic problem with the argument is that it’s false that “Given materialism and evolution, any particular belief is as likely to be false as true.” Rather, as Draper pointed out in his debate with Plantinga, “More generally, the long term survival of our species is much more to be expected if our cognitive faculties are reliable than if they are unreliable, and that entails that the long term survival of our species is strong evidence for R.”

2. Furthermore, “In addition, it is very unlikely that belief-producing mechanisms that do not track the truth would systematically promote survival in a very diverse and often rapidly changing environment.”

About Jeffery Jay Lowder

Jeffery Jay Lowder is President Emeritus of Internet Infidels, Inc., which he co-founded in 1995. He is also co-editor of the book, The Empty Tomb: Jesus Beyond the Grave.

  • Diego Vera

    Good words Jeff! I must admit I’m a fan of yours.

    I have two questions:

    1. Where I can find good answers to the fine-tuning argument and the evolutionary argument against naturalism?

    2. Why you would like theism were true?

    • http://secularoutpost.infidels.org/ Jeffery Jay Lowder

      Thanks, Diego! I really appreciate that.

      1. See the “Great Debate” published on the Secular Web at http://infidels.org/library/modern/paul_draper/

      2. If naturalism is true, it’s antecedently improbable–indeed, I think very improbable–that there is an afterlife. If theism is true, on the other hand, an afterlife is much more probable.

  • PDH

    This blog has really been the place to be for people interested in these topics lately. I’m really enjoying this increased activity.

  • patrick.sele

    “What Plantinga seems to forget is that many of
    the people who identify as atheists don’t use the definition of
    atheism Plantinga (and I) do; they define atheism as merely the lack of
    belief that God exists. As such, they are precisely what Plantinga would
    call an agnostic.”

    In my view the
    definition of “atheism” as simply “the lack of belief that God exists” violates
    a principle I would describe as follows: “One should express oneself as
    precisely as possible and avoid ambiguity, if possible”. Such a definition includes
    atheism as defined by Plantinga as well as agnosticism and is therefore less
    precise than Plantinga’s definition.

    “On the other hand, there are some atheists who
    indeed do argue that the lack of evidence for God’s existence is
    evidence against God’s existence.”

    I simply don’t see
    why there is supposed to be no evidence for God’s existence. One might argue
    that there is not sufficient evidence for God’s existence, but the view that
    there is no such evidence simply is false.

    “The explanatory success of non-lunar
    explanations for lunacy is not greater (or, at least, not significantly
    greater) on the assumption that a-moonism is true than on the assumption that
    moonism true. In contrast, the explanatory success of naturalistic explanations
    is antecedently more likely on naturalism than on theism.”

    I don’t think that
    naturalism has a remarkable success track. On the one hand there has been a
    huge number of natural explanations – scientific and non-scientific alike –
    that have turned out to be false. Concentrating on scientific theories this is
    the case with e.g. astrology, the ancient Greek medical theory of the four
    humours, Ptolemy’s geocentricism, mechanical explanations of gravitation or
    Lamarckism. On the other hand, there are still no conclusive natural
    explanations for such basic natural phenomena as the origin of the universe,
    the origin of life, conciousness, and of the origin of species. As for the latter,
    this is even the case if one assumes that evolution is true and that it is
    based on nothing but natural processes. There is still no agreement among evolution
    scientists concerning the mechanism of evolution. Some hold that natural
    selection can account for the origin of species, others hold that it cannot.

    • Cafeeine

      “In my view the definition of “atheism” as simply “the lack of belief that God exists” violates a principle I would describe as follows: (..)”
      While I understand the rationale behind this principle, It is best applied when addressing an individual’s beliefs. There you are better served in being as specific as possible.

      I don’t think it applies in a case where one is responding to a position held by a diverse group. There, a more inclusive definition is necessary to include the greater number of self-proclaimed atheists in his refutation. Alternatively, Plantinga could address several different more precise definitions. What he did however was address a particular precise definition as if it represents the whole, which is not an adequate refutation.

      “I simply don’t see why there is supposed to be no evidence for God’s existence. One might argue that there is not sufficient evidence for God’s existence, but the view that there is no such evidence simply is false.”

      I agree, and I think this there is an assumed “…that meets a reasonable standard” when people claim “There is no evidence for God”.

      • Stevarious

        “I agree, and I think this there is an assumed ‘…that meets a reasonable standard’ when people claim ‘There is no evidence for God’.”

        Most of the atheists that I know, when they talk about it, will qualify with “There is no good evidence for a god” which is the easy way to phrase it properly. There’s plenty of bad evidence for god, just like there’s plenty of bad evidence for homeopathy or astrology. None of it is good, when held up to a reasonable standard, and so it’s not rational to believe these things are real.

        • Cafeeine

          The thing is, sometimes this is assumed to go without saying, especially in informal discussions. People will usually make the clarification if asked.

          If a murder was committed in Australia by a blond tall man, that is in fact evidence in favor of any tall blond man being the murderer, but that doesn’t outweigh the evidence that tall blond men in Canada at the time of the murder are very unlikely to have done this murder.

          We easily say “There is no evidence that Cafeeine did that murder in Australia, since he’s in Canada” when we really mean that the weight of the evidence is against it and people understand what we mean. Yet I find theists will grasp at such informal language whenever they can.

          • Stevarious

            And (to borrow your excellent analogy) the number of bad evidences is not helpful to their case, either. A person might argue that not only is the fact that a tall blond man committed a murder in Australia evidence that any given tall blond Canadian man might have done it, it’s also evidence that any given tall blond American man is the culprit, or tall blond French man or German man… In fact, there’s dozens of countries in which tall blond men live, and there’s evidence to link any of them to the crime! So surely, my client, being a tall blond man from Australia, cannot be said to have committed the crime with any reasonable certainty– there’s far too many other possibilities that haven’t even been explored yet and for which there is surely evidence.

            The plural of ‘bad evidence’ is not ‘good evidence’.

    • AxePilot

      //I simply don’t see
      why there is supposed to be no evidence for God’s existence. One might argue
      that there is not sufficient evidence for God’s existence, but the view that
      there is no such evidence simply is false.//

      Really, do reveal the “evidence” then…

    • Magicthighs

      “I simply don’t see why there is supposed to be no evidence for God’s existence. One might argue that there is not sufficient evidence for God’s existence, but the view that there is no such evidence simply is false.”

      That depends on your definition of God. If it’s the god of the bible, an entity purported to have created the universe ex nihilo, drowned the entire population of the world save 8 people in a flood, and had a son that’s somehow himself, then no, I’ve never seen or heard of any evidence that that entity exists.
      I don’t even see how any such evidence could exist, the claim is so incredibly improbably that almost any other explanation of the evidence would be more likely (like, say, aliens did it).

  • http://lippard.blogspot.com/ Jim Lippard

    I think Plantinga’s Evolutionary Argument from Naturalism also misses the boat when you look at how language is acquired by children and develops in a community. C.A.J. Coady’s _Testimony_ has a nice argument that it is incoherent to claim that most of our everyday beliefs about the world which we learn as we learn language could be as likely false as true–if they weren’t mostly true, we couldn’t learn and successfully use language to communicate.

  • AxePilot

    Why would anyone argue for made-up stuff??

  • GGDFan777

    As a theist I very much appreciate your posts Jeff. You seem to be very fair when judging arguments for and against theism / atheism. Hope you continue sharing your arguments and thoughts this way, and I also hope other atheists AND theists will learn from your way of reasoning.

    - GGDFan777

  • Joeru

    I wish to correct a flaw in your proposition, agnosticism does not address belief it addresses knowledge. Where as Theism and Atheism address belief. Of those of us who call ourselves Atheist consider ourselves as Agnostic Atheists because there is no way of knowing to know would make us gnostic atheists which is a very strong position to hold and a foolish one without sufficient evidence.

    Please do some more research before you make unfounded claims such as these.

  • Peter Callan

    Okay, atheism is not a belief that there are no gods. Atheism is the acceptance that there are no gods. It is not a belief. I don’t believe that gods don’t exist. I accept that gods don’t exist. Belief does not enter into it and never will. There is no belief. It’s like saying “I believe in science, or evolution, or that some day I will die”. You don’t believe these things. There is no need to believe in those things. Faith is not a requirement. They are real, they are capable of acceptance and of proof, they exist. Gods, on the other hand, have no discernible evidence, proof, or actual impact on the natural world, other than the ephemeral and ultimately fictional impacts which humans associate with them. Try using the word “accept” occasionally, rather than “faith” or “belief”. Semantics, I know, but it makes all the difference. Oh, and drop the bible from the argument as well, it really has very little to offer in the way of proof or any form of veracity if we are being at all honest.

  • Kerk

    Dr. Lowder, do you not think that various paradoxes and problems of naturalism increase its burden of proof? As I said the other day at Rauser’s, in law, once Plaintiff has established prima facie case, the burden of providing affirmative defense shifts onto Defendant. All I really need to do to establish prima facie case for God is point you to such thing as the Principle of Sufficient Reasoning and how it makes the world around us intelligible. Once I’ve done so, it becomes your job to prove that it does not posit a problem for naturalism. But mere questioning of its plausibility would not be enough. That is why it’s called “affirmative defense.”

    And that’s not all by far. We also got the problem of composition and colocation, old and new problems of induction, scientific anti-realism, the zombie problem, phenomenon of qualia, fine tuning of the universe, and may personal favorite –NDE and telepathy studies that have been receiving a lot of attention lately.

    Bottom line is, all these problems indicate how tremendously counter-intuitive naturalism can really be, to the point of absolutely unintelligible. Does that not increase your burden of proof?

    • http://secularoutpost.infidels.org/ Jeffery Jay Lowder

      1. I agree with you that if the Plaintiff establishes a prima facie case, then the Defendant has the burden of undermining that case.

      2. I don’t think Plantinga succeeded in establishing a prima facie case, for the very reasons I laid out in my OP.

      3. I think metaphysical naturalism does have a burden of proof but to a lesser extent than theism because metaphysical naturalism is intrinsically more probable than theism. To recap what I’ve argued elsewhere, I view intrinsic probability as determined by two things (1) coherence, and (2) modesty. For the sake of argument, I’m going to be charitable and assume that theism is equally coherent as naturalism. But theism is not equally modest as naturalism.

      Why? Naturalism and supernaturalism are equally modest, in the following way. Naturalism says that the physical explains the existence of the mental, whereas supernaturalism says that the mental explains the existence of the physical.

      Theism adds on many specific claims to supernaturalism. So theism is one way, but not the only way, that supernaturalism could be true. In other words, theism entails supernaturalism, but is not entailed by supernaturalism. Or put it another way, even on the assumption that supernaturalism is true, theism is not certainly true. It could still be the case that theism is false.

      If we rank the burden of proof faced by the different options, starting from least to greatest, it looks like this.

      * atheists (in the sense that atheists are people who believe that theism is false) bear no burden of proof at all
      * naturalists and supernaturalists
      * theists

      • Kerk

        Well that’s the thing — I challenge, and so does Plantinga, modesty of naturalism. Internal coherence doesn’t mean much. Solipsism is perfectly coherent. But it’s monstrously counter-intuitive. And so is naturalism, the way I see it.

        Regarding atheism in general, you know well that no one becomes an atheist just for the hell of it. Atheism comes with at least one metaphysical assumption — matter precedes mind.

        • http://secularoutpost.infidels.org/ Jeffery Jay Lowder

          Following Draper, I agree that the degree of a modesty of a hypothesis depends inversely on how much it asserts (that we don’t know by rational intuition to be true).

          Other things held equal, hypotheses that are narrower in scope or less specific assert less and so are less modest than hypotheses that are broader in scope or more specific.

          Metaphysical naturalists claim that the physical world explains the existence or apparent existence of the mental world. Supernaturalists claim that the mental world explains the existence or apparent existence of the physical world.

          So defined, supernaturalism and naturalism are perfectly symmetrical claims. One says the physical causally explains why anything mental exists, and the other says that the mental causally explain why anything physical exists. This symmetry is a good justification for believing that they are equally modest.

        • http://secularoutpost.infidels.org/ Jeffery Jay Lowder

          Regarding coherence, I may be using the word here in a non-standard way, so allow to me to clarify (despite the fact that I’m not claiming enjoys an advantage over theism in terms of coherence). Draper makes the point so well I can’t improve upon it.

          The degree of coherence of a hypothesis depends on how well its parts (i.e. its logical implications) fit together. To the extent that the various claims entailed by a hypothesis support each other (relative only to what we know by rational intuition), the hypothesis is more coherent. To the extent that they count against each other, the hypothesis is less coherent. Hypotheses that postulate objective uniformity are, other things being equal, more coherent than hypotheses that postulate variety, either at a time or over time.

          In this sense, I think coherence does mean much.


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