Famous Christian apologist Alvin Plantinga was interviewed in 2014 for the New York Times. He used three arguments that may have originated with him. These are not your typical arguments that end with “So therefore, God exists; QED,” but they could be elements in a larger argument.
The good news is that these are, at least to me, fresh arguments . . . but that’s the extent of the good news. Still, if you want some new chew toys, here you go. Have you way with these arguments and then read my critiques to see if I covered every point.
#1. Are there an even number of stars?
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. . . . Atheism, like even-star-ism, would presumably be the sort of belief you can hold rationally only if you have strong arguments or evidence.
Let’s first address his statement, “lack of evidence . . . is no grounds for atheism.” For most of us, lack of evidence is excellent grounds for atheism.
The problem is his definition of “atheism.” A few sentences earlier, Plantinga had defined atheism as “the belief that there is no such person as the God of the theistic religions.” That’s also the leading definition in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. This strong atheism, which accepts the burden of proof, is probably not how most of us define atheism, but Plantinga is on solid ground with that definition, and he did make his definition clear.
That means his “lack of evidence . . . is no grounds for atheism” applause line is correct using his definition, but it’s irrelevant to the question of God’s existence. Lack of evidence is indeed grounds for atheism if “atheism” is simply a lack of god belief.
Plantinga said, “The right conclusion would instead be agnosticism,” and I am indeed an agnostic because I don’t know. I’m also an atheist because I don’t believe.
Determining the number of stars raises practical questions, but let’s ignore that tangent and simply imagine a star counter changing rapidly (perhaps thousands of times a second). All we care about is that last digit—is it odd or even at any moment? This is identical to the question of whether a flipped coin landed heads up or not. It’s a 50/50 question (that is, 50 percent likelihood of odd or even, or a probability of 0.5).
But is the God question just a coin flip? Is God’s existence as likely as not? Of course not, and his comparison fails.
Plantinga seems to imagine “God exists—true or false?” to be like a stranger saying, “I have a bumfuzzle in this box—true or false?” We don’t know what a bumfuzzle is, how plausible it would be to have one, whether it would fit in a box, and so on, so without any data, we’re stuck at 50/50. If forced to guess at this point on the truth of the bumfuzzle claim, we might as well flip a coin.
By contrast, we already know much about the claims for God. We don’t start at 50/50 (that is, complete ignorance) on the God question. For example, I’ve written a series of silver bullet arguments against Christianity. Any one of these arguments make the God hypothesis very implausible, and I’ve written 26 such arguments (and counting).
Would Plantinga give a 50/50 chance to the likelihood of every supernatural being existing—Xenu, Poseidon, Quetzalcoatl, and all the rest? If instead he assigns the existence of each of these gods a very low probability (as I’m guessing he does), then consistency demands that he accept our doing the same for his god.
Burden of proof
I suspect apologists like Plantinga are simply tired of shouldering the burden of proof, and they want to start the debate at parity with atheism. To see why this fails, let’s return to the two relevant kinds of burdens of proof from a recent post.
- The person making the extraordinary claim has the burden of proof, and the person making the mundane claim doesn’t. For example, if I state that many world leaders aren’t human but actually alien reptoids (and you argue that this hypothesis is false), I have the burden of proof because I’m making the extraordinary claim. If I fail to make my case, you are logically obliged to reject it.
- Anyone who makes a claim is obliged to defend that claim, whether it’s extraordinary or mundane.
No one cares about the number of stars, but religious views are enormously consequential for some. I can appreciate that Plantinga may be tired of shouldering the burden of proof, but in that case he should stop making nutty claims.
Notice the irony in this comparison. We know stars exist. We know that countless things exist. God is the odd exception where we can’t get into a discussion of his properties until his very existence has been demonstrated, and there’s a mountain of evidence against it.
Bertrand Russell’s teapot
The interviewer asked Plantinga about Bertrand Russell’s hypothesized teapot orbiting the sun. Wouldn’t that be a better comparison than even-star speculation? Yes, such a teapot might exist, Russell said, but we have no good reason to think so, and the same thinking applies to God.
Russell’s idea, I take it, is we don’t really have any evidence against teapotism, but we don’t need any; the absence of evidence is evidence of absence, and is enough to support a-teapotism. We don’t need any positive evidence against it to be justified in a-teapotism; and perhaps the same is true of theism.
I disagree: Clearly we have a great deal of evidence against teapotism.
He goes on to list a few things that argue against an orbiting teapot. Such a project would be in the news (like Elon Musk’s personal Tesla, which now orbits the sun), and a secret rocket launch would be unlikely. Space programs don’t have the budget for frivolous projects like this. Therefore, we have good evidence against Russell’s teapot.
Yes, Dr. Plantinga, I agree. Now apply that same skepticism to the God hypothesis and think of things that we would see if God were real.
- Europe during the 1000+ years when Christianity was in charge would’ve looks a lot more enlightened than other world societies. It wasn’t.
- Religion wouldn’t look like just another societal trait. It does.
- The Christian god wouldn’t need praise and worship, like an Iron Age dictator. He does.
- Christian televangelists would know that God’s favor would be far more consequential than mere financial donations, and yet they still ask for donations.
- And lots more here.
So the God question isn’t a 50/50 proposition about which we have no good information (like the number of stars), and it’s very much like Russell’s teapot (which has strong evidence against it). Plantinga is now back at square 1, advancing a ridiculous hypothesis.
And where is Plantinga’s evidence for God? He handwaves a reference to his famous “two dozen or so” arguments for God. He didn’t argue for them, so I won’t respond here, but if you want a critique, Richard Carrier did his typically thorough job on them here.
These Christian arguments are embarrassing and stupid. According to reputation, Plantinga is one of the best that Christianity has to defend their position, but smart high school students could take his arguments apart.
Continue to part 2 for an argument involving the moon.
why would I trust it to get the supernatural right?
— commenter from Castilliano
Image from Lucky Lynda, CC license