1. Definitions of “Atheism”
“Atheism” is typically defined in terms of “theism”. Theism, in turn, is best understood as a proposition—something that is either true or false. It is often defined as “the belief that God exists”, but here “belief” means “something believed”. It refers to the propositional content of belief, not to the attitude or psychological state of believing. This is why it makes sense to say that theism is true or false and to argue for or against theism. If, however, “atheism” is defined in terms of theism and theism is the proposition that God exists and not the psychological condition of believing that there is a God, then it follows that atheism is not the absence of the psychological condition of believing that God exists (more on this below). The “a-” in “atheism” must be understood as negation instead of absence, as “not” instead of “without”. Therefore, in philosophy at least, atheism should be construed as the proposition that God does not exist (or, more broadly, the proposition that there are no gods).
This definition has the added virtue of making atheism a direct answer to one of the most important metaphysical questions in philosophy of religion, namely, “Is there a God?” There are only two possible direct answers to this question: “yes”, which is theism, and “no”, which is atheism. Answers like “I don’t know”, “no one knows”, “I don’t care”, “an affirmative answer has never been established”, or “the question is meaningless” are not direct answers to this question.
While identifying atheism with the metaphysical claim that there is no God (or that there are no gods) is particularly useful for doing philosophy, it is important to recognize that the term “atheism” is polysemous—i.e., it has more than one related meaning—even within philosophy. For example, many writers at least implicitly identify atheism with a positive metaphysical theory like naturalism or even materialism. Given this sense of the word, the meaning of “atheism” is not straightforwardly derived from the meaning of “theism”. While this might seem etymologically bizarre, perhaps a case can be made for the claim that something like (metaphysical) naturalism was originally labeled “atheism” only because of the cultural dominance of non-naturalist forms of theism, not because the view being labeled was nothing more than the denial of theism. On this view, there would have been atheists even if no theists ever existed—they just wouldn’t have been called “atheists”. (Baggini  suggests this line of thought, though his “official” definition is the standard metaphysical one.) Although this definition of “atheism” is a legitimate one, it is often accompanied by fallacious inferences from the (alleged) falsity or probable falsity of atheism (= naturalism) to the truth or probable truth of theism.
Departing even more radically from the norm in philosophy, a few philosophers and quite a few non-philosophers claim that “atheism” shouldn’t be defined as a proposition at all, even if theism is a proposition. Instead, “atheism” should be defined as a psychological state: the state of not believing in the existence of God (or gods). This view was famously proposed by the philosopher Antony Flew and arguably played a role in his (1972) defense of an alleged presumption of “atheism”. The editors of the Oxford Handbook of Atheism (Bullivant & Ruse 2013) also favor this definition and one of them, Stephen Bullivant (2013), defends it on grounds of scholarly utility. His argument is that this definition can best serve as an umbrella term for a wide variety of positions that have been identified with atheism. Scholars can then use adjectives like “strong” and “weak” to develop a taxonomy that differentiates various specific atheisms. Unfortunately, this argument overlooks the fact that, if atheism is defined as a psychological state, then no proposition can count as a form of atheism because a proposition is not a psychological state. This undermines his argument in defense of Flew’s definition; for it implies that what he calls “strong atheism”—the proposition (or belief in the sense of “something believed”) that there is no God—is not really a variety of atheism at all. In short, his proposed “umbrella” term leaves strong atheism out in the rain.
Although Flew’s definition of “atheism” fails as an umbrella term, it is certainly a legitimate definition in the sense that it reports how a significant number of people use the term. Again, there is more than one “correct” definition of “atheism”. The issue for philosophy is which definition is the most useful for scholarly or, more narrowly, philosophical purposes. In other contexts, of course, the issue of how to define “atheism” or “atheist” may look very different. For example, in some contexts the crucial issue may be which definition of “atheist” (as opposed to “atheism”) is the most useful politically, especially in light of the bigotry that those who identify as atheists face. The fact that there is strength in numbers may recommend a very inclusive definition of “atheist” that brings anyone who is not a theist into the fold. Having said that, one would think that it would further no good cause, political or otherwise, to attack fellow non-theists who do not identify as atheists simply because they choose to use the term “atheist” in some other, equally legitimate sense.
If atheism is usually and best understood in philosophy as the metaphysical claim that God does not exist, then what, one might wonder, should philosophers do with the popular term, “New Atheism”? Philosophers write articles on and have devoted journal issues (French & Wettstein 2013) to the New Atheism, but there is nothing close to a consensus on how that term should be defined. Fortunately, there is no real need for one, because the term “New Atheism” does not pick out some distinctive philosophical position or phenomenon. Instead, it is a popular label for a movement prominently represented by four authors—Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens—whose work is uniformly critical of religion, but beyond that appears to be unified only by timing and popularity. Further, one might question what is new about the New Atheism. The specific criticisms of religion and of arguments used to defend religion are not new. For example, an arguably more sophisticated and convincing version of Dawkins’ central atheistic argument can be found in Hume’s Dialogues (Wielenberg 2009). Also, while Dennett (2006) makes a passionate call for the scientific study of religion as a natural phenomenon, such study existed long before this call. Indeed, even the cognitive science of religion was well established by the 1990s, and the anthropology of religion can be traced back at least to the nineteenth century. Shifting from content to style, many are surprised by the militancy of some New Atheists, but there were plenty of aggressive atheists who were quite disrespectful to religion long before Harris, Dawkins, and Hitchens. (Dennett is not especially militant.) Finally, the stereotype that New Atheism is religious or quasi-religious or ideological in some unprecedented way is clearly a false one and one that New Atheists reject. (For elaboration of these points, see Zenk 2013.)
Another subcategory of atheism is “friendly atheism”, which William Rowe (1979) defines as the position that, although God does not exist, some (intellectually sophisticated) people are justified in believing that God exists. Rowe, a friendly atheist himself, contrasts friendly atheism with unfriendly atheism and indifferent atheism. Unfriendly atheism is the view that atheism is true and that no (sophisticated) theistic belief is justified. In spite of its highly misleading name, this view might be held by the friendliest, most open-minded and religiously tolerant person imaginable. Finally, although Rowe refers to “indifferent atheism” as a “position”, it is not a proposition but instead a psychological state, specifically, the state of being an atheist who is neither friendly nor unfriendly—that is, who neither believes that friendly atheism is true nor believes that unfriendly atheism is true.
Perhaps an even more interesting distinction is between pro-God atheism and anti-God atheism. A pro-God atheist like John Schellenberg (who coined the term) is someone who in some real sense loves God or at least the idea of God, who tries very hard to imagine what sorts of wonderful worlds such a being might create (instead of just assuming that such a being would create a world something like the world we observe), and who (at least partly) for that very reason believes that God does not exist. Such an atheist might be sympathetic to the following sentiments:
It is an insult to God to believe in God. For on the one hand it is to suppose that he has perpetrated acts of incalculable cruelty. On the other hand, it is to suppose that he has perversely given his human creatures an instrument—their intellect—which must inevitably lead them, if they are dispassionate and honest, to deny his existence. It is tempting to conclude that if he exists, it is the atheists and agnostics that he loves best, among those with any pretensions to education. For they are the ones who have taken him most seriously. (Strawson 1990)
By contrast, anti-God atheists like Thomas Nagel (1997: 130–131) find the whole idea of a God offensive and hence not only believe but also hope very much that no such being exists. Nagel is often called an “antitheist” (e.g., Kahane 2011), but that term is purposely avoided here, as it has many different senses (Kahane 2011: note 9). Also, in none of those senses is one required to be an atheist in order to be an antitheist, so antitheism is not a variety of atheism.
2. Definitions of “Agnosticism”
The terms “agnostic” and “agnosticism” were famously coined in the late nineteenth century by the English biologist, T.H. Huxley. He said that he originally
invented the word “Agnostic” to denote people who, like [himself], confess themselves to be hopelessly ignorant concerning a variety of matters, about which metaphysicians and theologians, both orthodox and heterodox, dogmatise with the utmost confidence. (1884)
including of course the matter of God’s existence. He did not, however, define “agnosticism” simply as the state of being an agnostic. Instead, he often used that term to refer to a normative epistemological principle, something similar to (though weaker than) what we now call “evidentialism”. Roughly, Huxley’s principle says that it is wrong to say that one knows or believes that a proposition is true without logically satisfactory evidence (Huxley 1884 and 1889). But it was Huxley’s application of this principle to theistic and atheistic belief that ultimately had the greatest influence on the meaning of the term. He argued that, since neither of those beliefs is adequately supported by evidence, we ought to suspend judgment on the issue of whether or not there is a God.
Nowadays, the term “agnostic” is often used (when the issue is God’s existence) to refer to those who follow the recommendation expressed in the conclusion of Huxley’s argument: an agnostic is a person who has entertained the proposition that there is a God but believes neither that it is true nor that it is false. Not surprisingly, then, the term “agnosticism” is often defined, both in and outside of philosophy, not as a principle or any other sort of proposition but instead as the psychological state of being an agnostic. Call this the “psychological” sense of the term. It is certainly useful to have a term to refer to people who are neither theists nor atheists, but philosophers might wish that some other term besides “agnostic” (“theological skeptic”, perhaps?) were used. The problem is that it is also very useful for philosophical purposes to have a name for the epistemological position that follows from the premise of Huxley’s argument, the position that neither theism nor atheism is known, or most ambitiously, that neither the belief that God exists nor the belief that God does not exist has positive epistemic status of any sort. Just as the metaphysical question of God’s existence is central to philosophy of religion, so too is the epistemological question of whether or not theism or atheism is known or has some other sort of positive epistemic status. And given the etymology of “agnostic”, what better term could there be for a negative answer to that epistemological question than “agnosticism”? Further, as suggested earlier, it is, for very good reason, typical in philosophy to use the suffix “-ism” to refer to a proposition instead of to a state or condition, since only the former can sensibly be tested by argument.
If, however, “agnosticism” is defined as a proposition, then “agnostic” must be defined in terms of “agnosticism” instead of the other way around. Specifically, “agnostic” must be defined as a person who believes that the proposition “agnosticism” is true instead of “agnosticism” being defined as the state of being an agnostic. And if the proposition in question is that neither theism nor atheism is known to be true, then the term “agnostic” can no longer serve as a label for those who are neither theists nor atheists since one can consistently believe that atheism (or theism) is true while denying that atheism (or theism) is known to be true.
When used in this epistemological sense, the term “agnosticism” can very naturally be extended beyond the issue of what is or can be known to cover a large family of positions, depending on what sort of “positive epistemic status” is at issue. For example, it might be identified with any of the following positions: that neither theistic belief nor atheistic belief is justified, that neither theistic belief nor atheistic belief is rationally required, that neither belief is rationally permissible, that neither has warrant, that neither is reasonable, or that neither is probable. Also, in order to avoid the vexed issue of the nature of knowledge, one can simply distinguish as distinct members of the “agnosticism family” each of the following claims about intellectually sophisticated people: (i) neither theism nor atheism is adequately supported by the internal states of such people, (ii) neither theistic belief nor atheistic belief coheres with the rest of their beliefs, (iii) neither theistic nor atheistic belief results from reliable belief-producing processes, (iv) neither theistic belief nor atheistic belief results from faculties aimed at truth that are functioning properly in an appropriate environment, and so on.
Notice too that, even if agnosticism were defined as the rather extreme position that neither theistic belief nor atheistic belief ever has positive epistemic status of any sort, it wouldn’t follow by definition that no agnostic is either a theist or an atheist. Some fideists, for example, believe that neither atheistic belief nor theistic belief is supported or sanctioned in any way at all by reason because reason leaves the matter of God’s existence completely unresolved. Yet they have faith that God exists and such faith (at least in some cases) involves belief. Thus, some fideists are extreme agnostics in the epistemological sense even though they are not agnostics in the psychological sense.
It is also worth mentioning that, even in Huxley’s time, some apophatic theists embraced the term “agnostic”, claiming that all good Christians worshipped an “unknown God”. More recently, some atheists proudly call themselves “agnostic atheists”, although with further reflection the symmetry between this position and fideism might give them pause. More likely, though, what is being claimed by these self-identified agnostic atheists is that, while their belief that God does not exist has positive epistemic status of some sort (minimally, it is not irrational), it does not have the sort of positive epistemic status that can turn true belief into knowledge.
No doubt both senses of “agnosticism”, the psychological and the epistemological, will continue to be used both inside and outside of philosophy. Hopefully, context will help to disambiguate. In the remainder of this entry, however, the term “agnosticism” will be used in its epistemological sense. This makes a huge difference to the issue of justification. Consider, for example, this passage written by the agnostic, Anthony Kenny (1983: 84–85):
I do not myself know of any argument for the existence of God which I find convincing; in all of them I think I can find flaws. Equally, I do not know of any argument against the existence of God which is totally convincing; in the arguments I know against the existence of God I can equally find flaws. So that my own position on the existence of God is agnostic.
It is one thing to ask whether Kenny’s inability to find arguments that convince him of God’s existence or non-existence justifies him personally in suspending judgment about the existence of God. It is quite another to ask whether this inability (or anything else) would justify his believing that no one (or at least no one who is sufficiently intelligent and well-informed) has a justified belief about God’s existence.
If agnosticism (in one sense of the word) is the position that neither theism nor atheism is known, then it might be useful to use the term “gnosticism” to refer to the contradictory of that position, that is, to the position that either theism or atheism is known. That view would, of course, come in two flavors: theistic gnosticism—the view that theism is known (and hence atheism is not)—and atheistic gnosticism—the view that atheism is known (and hence theism is not).
3. Global Atheism Versus Local Atheisms
Jeanine Diller (2016) points out that, just as most theists have a particular concept of God in mind when they assert that God exists, most atheists have a particular concept of God in mind when they assert that God does not exist. Indeed, many atheists are only vaguely aware of the variety of concepts of God that there are. For example, there are the Gods of classical and neo-classical theism: the Anselmian God, for instance, or, more modestly, the all-powerful, all-knowing, and perfectly good creator-God that receives so much attention in contemporary philosophy of religion. There are also the Gods of specific Western theistic religions like Christianity, Islam, Judaism, and Sikhism, which may or may not be best understood as classical or neo-classical Gods. There are also panentheistic and process theistic Gods, as well as a variety of other God-concepts, both of Western and non-Western origin, that are largely ignored by even the most well-informed atheists. (Philosophically sophisticated theists, for their part, often act as if refuting naturalism establishes the existence of the particular sort of God in which they believe.) Diller distinguishes local atheism, which denies the existence of one sort of God, from global atheism, which is the proposition that there are no Gods of any sort—that all legitimate concepts of God lack instances.
Global atheism is a very difficult position to justify (Diller 2016: 11–16). Indeed, very few atheists have any good reason to believe that it is true since the vast majority of atheists have made no attempt to reflect on more than one or two of the many legitimate concepts of God that exist both inside and outside of various religious communities. Nor have they reflected on what criteria must be satisfied in order for a concept of God to count as “legitimate”, let alone on the possibility of legitimate God concepts that have not yet been conceived and on the implications of that possibility for the issue of whether or not global atheism is justified. Furthermore, the most ambitious atheistic arguments popular with philosophers, which attempt to show that the concept of God is incoherent or that God’s existence is logically incompatible either with the existence of certain sorts of evil or with the existence of certain sorts of non-belief [Schellenberg 2007]), certainly won’t suffice to justify global atheism; for even if they are sound, they assume that to be God a being must be omnipotent, omniscient, and perfectly good, and as the character Cleanthes points out at the beginning of Part XI of Hume’s Dialogues (see also Nagasawa 2008), there are religiously adequate God-concepts that don’t require God to have those attributes.
Global atheists might object that, even if atheism and (metaphysical) naturalism are not identical, a belief in the former can be based on a belief in the latter; in other words, if one has good arguments for the view that nature is a closed system, then that removes any burden to consider each God-concept separately, so long as all legitimate concepts of God imply that God is a supernatural entity—that is, an entity that is not natural, yet affects nature. Whether or not this strategy for justifying global atheism works depends on whether it is possible to define “naturalism” narrowly enough to imply the non-existence of all Gods but not so narrowly that no convincing arguments can be given for its truth. This is no easy task, especially given recent work on naturalist forms of theism (e.g., Bishop 2008; Buckareff & Nagasawa 2016: Part V; Diller & Kasher 2013: Part X; and Ellis 2014). Nor is it obvious that evidential arguments from evil can be extended to cover all legitimate God concepts, though if all genuine theisms entail that ultimate reality is both aligned with the good and salvific (in some religiously adequate sense of “ultimate” and “salvific”), then perhaps they can. The crucial point, however, is that no one has yet made that case.
Concerning the issue of what exactly counts as a legitimate or religiously adequate concept of God, various approaches might be taken. One general strategy is to identify the religious role or roles that anything deserving of the name or title “God” must play and then distinguish legitimate or illegitimate concepts of God depending on whether anything falling under the concept in question could or would successfully play that role. (See, for example, Le Poidevin 2010: 52; and Leftow 2016: 66–71.)
A second approach (compatible with the first) assumes plausibly that the word “God” is a title instead of a proper name and then asks what qualifications are required to bear that title (Pike 1970). The fact that most titles indicate either rank or function suggests that the meaning of “God” has something to do either with occupying a position in a hierarchy or performing some function. For example, the common dictionary definition of “God” as the Supreme Being and the Anselmian idea of God as the greatest possible being suggest that the title “God” is rank-indicating, while the definition of “God” as “ruler of the universe” fits well with the view that “God” is function-indicating and explains why the ordinary class noun, “god”, might be defined as “ruler of some part of the universe or of some sphere of human activity” (e.g., Neptune, god of the sea, and Mars, god of war).
A third approach (compatible with the first two) is to start from the close connection in meaning between “God” and “worship”. Worship appears to be essential to theistic religions and thus an essential role that any being must play to qualify for the title “God” is to be an appropriate object of worship. Indeed, although there is risk of circularity here if “worship” is defined in terms of the actions or attitudes appropriately directed towards “God”, it would not be obviously mistaken to claim that being worthy of some form of religious worship is not just necessary for divinity but sufficient as well, especially if worthiness of worship entails worthiness of allegiance. Of course, forms of worship vary widely from one religion to another, so even if worthiness of worship is the sole defining feature of a God, that doesn’t mean that beliefs about what these Gods are like won’t vary widely from one religion to another. In some religions, especially (but not only) certain Western monotheistic ones, worship involves total devotion and unconditional commitment. To be worthy of that sort of worship (if that is even possible when the pool of potential worshipers are autonomous agents like most adult humans) requires an especially impressive God, though it is controversial whether or not it requires a perfect one.
If the ambiguity that results from defining “God” in terms of worthiness of worship is virtuous, then one might be tempted to adopt the following account of global atheism and its opposite, “versatile theism”:
global atheism: there are no beings worthy of religious worship.
versatile theism: there exists at least one being that is worthy of some form of religious worship.
Notice that on this account of “global atheism”, the atheist only denies the existence of beings that are worthy of worship. Thus, not even a global atheist is committed to denying the existence of everything that someone has called a god or “God”. For example, even if the ancient Egyptians worshipped the Sun and regarded it as worthy of such worship, the global atheist need not deny the existence of the Sun. Instead, the global atheist can claim that the ancient Egyptians were mistaken in thinking that the Sun is worthy of religious worship.
Similarly, consider this passage at the beginning of Section XI of David Hume’s Natural History of Religion:
If we examine, without prejudice, the ancient heathen mythology, as contained in the poets, we shall not discover in it any such monstrous absurdity, as we may at first be apt to apprehend. Where is the difficulty in conceiving, that the same powers or principles, whatever they were, which formed this visible world, men and animals, produced also a species of intelligent creatures, of more refined substance and greater authority than the rest? That these creatures may be capricious, revengeful, passionate, voluptuous, is easily conceived; nor is any circumstance more apt, among ourselves, to engender such vices, than the license of absolute authority. And in short, the whole mythological system is so natural, that, in the vast variety of planets and world[s], contained in this universe, it seems more than probable, that, somewhere or other, it is really carried into execution. (Hume  1956: 53, emphasis added)
There is much debate about whether Hume was an atheist or a deist or neither, but no one uses this passage to support the view that he was actually a polytheist. Perhaps this is because, even if there are natural alien beings that, much like the ancient Greek and Roman gods, are far superior in power to humans but quite similar in their moral and other psychological qualities, presumably no one, at least nowadays, would be tempted to regard them as worthy of religious worship.
One possible flaw in the proposed account of global atheism is that it seems to imply overlap between deism and atheism. Of course, it wasn’t that long ago when all deists were widely regarded as atheists. These days, however, the term “deistic atheist” or “atheistic deist” has an oxymoronic ring to it. Of course, not all deists would count as atheists on the proposed account, but some would. For example, consider a deist who believes that, while a supernatural person intentionally designed the universe, that deity did not specifically intend for intelligent life to evolve and has no interest whatsoever in the condition or fate of such life. Such a deity would not be worthy of anyone’s worship, especially if worthiness of worship entails worthiness of allegiance, and so would arguably not be a (theistic) god, which implies that an atheist could on the proposed definition consistently believe in the existence of such a deity. Perhaps, then, “global atheism” should be defined as the position that both versatile theism and (versatile) deism are false—that there are no beings worthy of religious worship and also no cosmic creators or intelligent designers whether worthy of worship (and allegiance) or not. Even this account of “global atheism”, however, may not be sufficiently inclusive since there are religious roles closely associated with the title “God” (and thus arguably legitimate notions of God) that could be played by something that is neither an appropriate object of worship nor a cosmic designer or creator.
4. An Argument for Agnosticism
According to one relatively modest form of agnosticism, neither versatile theism nor its denial, global atheism, is known to be true. Robin Le Poidevin (2010: 76) argues for this position as follows:
- (1)There is no firm basis upon which to judge that theism or atheism is intrinsically more probable than the other.
- (2)There is no firm basis upon which to judge that the total evidence favors theism or atheism over the other.
- (3)There is no firm basis upon which to judge that theism or atheism is more probable than the other.
- (4)Agnosticism is true: neither theism nor atheism is known to be true.
Le Poidevin takes “theism” in its broadest sense (which I call to refer to the proposition that there exists a being that is the ultimate and intentional cause of the universe’s existence and the ultimate source of love and moral knowledge (2010: 52). (He doesn’t use the term “versatile theism”, but this would be his account of its meaning.) By the “intrinsic probability” of a proposition, he means, roughly, the probability that a proposition has “before the evidence starts to come in” (2010: 49). This probability depends solely on a priori considerations like the intrinsic features of the content of the proposition in question (e.g., the size of that content).
Le Poidevin defends the first premise of this argument by stating that, while intrinsic probability plausibly depends inversely on the specificity of a claim (the less specific the claim, the more ways there are for it to be true and so the more probable it is that it is true), it is impossible to show that versatile theism is more specific or less specific than its denial. This defense appears to be incomplete, for Le Poidevin never shows that the intrinsic probability of a proposition depends only on its specificity, and there are good reasons to believe that this is not the case (see, for example, Swinburne 2001: 80–102). Le Poidevin could respond, however, that specificity is the only uncontroversial criterion of intrinsic probability, and this lack of consensus on other criteria is all that is needed to adequately defend premise (1).
One way to defend the second premise is to review the relevant evidence and argue that it is ambiguous (Le Poidevin 2010: chapter 4; and Draper 2002). Another way is to point out that atheism, which is just the proposition that theism is false, is compatible with a variety of very different hypotheses, and these hypotheses vary widely in how well they account for the total evidence. Thus, to assess how well atheism accounts for the total evidence, one would have to calculate a weighted average of how well these different atheistic hypotheses account for the total evidence, where the weights would be the different intrinsic probabilities of each of these atheistic hypotheses. This task seems prohibitively difficult (Draper 2016) and in any case has not been attempted, which supports the claim that there is no firm basis upon which to judge whether the total evidence supports theism or atheism.
So-called “Reformed epistemologists” (e.g., Plantinga 2000) might challenge the second premise of the argument on the grounds that many beliefs about God, like many beliefs about the past, are “properly basic”—a result of the functioning of a basic cognitive faculty called the “sensus divinitatis”—and so are, in effect, a part of the total evidence with respect to which the probability of any statement depends. The agnostic, however, might reply that this sense of the divine, unlike memory, operates at most sporadically and far from universally. Also, unlike other basic cognitive faculties, it can easily be resisted, and the existence of the beliefs it is supposed to produce can easily be explained without supposing that the faculty exists at all. Thus, the analogy to memory is weak. Therefore, in the absence of some firmer basis upon which to judge that beliefs about God are properly a part of the foundation of some theists’ belief systems, premise (2) stands.
Of course, even if the two premises of Le Poidevin’s argument are true, it doesn’t follow that the argument is a good one. For the argument also contains two inferences (from steps 1 and 2 to step 3 and from step 3 to step 4), neither of which is obviously correct. Concerning the first inference, suppose, for example, that even though there is no firm basis upon which to judge which of theism and atheism is intrinsically more probable (that is, Le Poidevin’s first premise is true), there is firm basis upon which to judge that theism is not many times more probable intrinsically than some specific version of atheism, say, reductive physicalism. And suppose that, even though there is no firm basis upon which to judge which of theism and atheism is favored by the total evidence (that is, Le Poidevin’s second premise is true), there is firm basis upon which to judge that the total evidence very strongly favors reductive physicalism over theism (in the sense that it is antecedently very many times more probable given reductive physicalism than it is given theism). Then it follows that both of Le Poidevin’s premises are true and yet (3) is false: there is a firm basis (that includes the odds version of Bayes’ theorem applied to theism and reductive physicalism instead of to theism and atheism) to judge that reductive physicalism is more probable or even many times more probable than theism and hence that theism is probably or even very probably false. Arguably, no similar strategy could be used to show that theism is probably true in spite of Le Poidevin’s premises both being true. So it may be that Le Poidevin’s premises, if adequately supported, establish that theistic gnosticism is false (that is, that either agnosticism or atheistic gnosticism is true) even if they don’t establish that agnosticism is true.
5. An Argument for Global Atheism?
Almost all well-known arguments for atheism are arguments for a particular version of local atheism. One possible exception to this rule is an argument recently made popular by some New Atheists, although it was not invented by them. Gary Gutting (2013) calls this argument the “no arguments argument” for atheism:
- (1)The absence of good reasons to believe that God exists is itself a good reason to believe that God does not exist.
- (2)There is no good reason to believe that God exists.
- (3)There is good reason to believe that God does not exist.
Notice the obvious relevance of this argument to agnosticism. According to one prominent member of the agnosticism family, we have no good reason to believe that God exists and no good reason to believe that God does not exist. Clearly, if the first premise of this argument is true, then this version of agnosticism must be false.
Can the no arguments argument be construed as an argument for global atheism? One might object that it is not, strictly speaking, an argument for any sort of atheism since its conclusion is not that atheism is true but instead that there is good reason to believe that atheism is true. But that is just a quibble. Ultimately, whether this argument can be used to defend global atheism depends on how its first premise is defended.
The usual way of defending it is to derive it from some general principle according to which lacking grounds for claims of a certain sort is good reason to reject those claims. The restriction of this principle to claims “of a certain sort” is crucial, since the principle that the absence of grounds for a claim is in all cases a good reason to believe that the claim is false is rather obviously false. One might, for example, lack grounds for believing that the next time one flips a coin it will come up heads, but that is not a good reason to believe that it won’t come up heads.
A more promising approach restricts the principle to existence claims, thereby turning it into a version of Ockham’s razor. According to this version of the principle, the absence of grounds supporting a positive existential statement (like “God exists”—however “God” is understood) is a good reason to believe that the statement is false (McLaughlin 1984). One objection to this principle is that not every sort of thing is such that, if it existed, then we would likely have good reason to believe that it exists. Consider, for example, intelligent life in distant galaxies (cf. Morris 1985).
Perhaps, however, an even more narrowly restricted principle would do the trick: whenever the assumption that a positive existential claim is true would lead one to expect to have grounds for its truth, the absence of such grounds is a good reason to believe that the claim is false. It might then be argued that (i) a God would be likely to provide us with convincing evidence of Her existence and so (ii) the absence of such evidence is a good reason to believe that God does not exist. This transforms the no arguments argument into an argument from divine hiddenness. It also transforms it into at best an argument for local atheism, since even if the God of, say, classical theism would not hide, not all legitimate God-concepts are such that a being instantiating that concept would be likely to provide us with convincing evidence of its existence.
6. Two Arguments for Local Atheism
6.1 How to Argue for Local Atheism
The sort of God in whose non-existence philosophers seem most interested is the eternal, non-physical, omnipotent, omniscient, and omnibenevolent (i.e., morally perfect) creator-God worshipped by many theologically orthodox Muslims, Jews, and Christians. Let’s call the proposition that a God of this sort exists “omni-theism”. One interesting question, then, is how best to argue for atheism understood locally as the proposition that omni-theism is false.
It is often claimed that a good argument for atheism is impossible because, while it is at least possible to prove that something of a certain sort exists, it is impossible to prove that nothing of that sort exists. One reason to reject this claim is that the descriptions of some kinds of objects are self-contradictory. For example, we can prove that no circular square exists because such an object would have to be both circular and non-circular, which is impossible. Thus, one way to argue for the nonexistence of the God of omni-theism (or “omni-God” for short) is to argue that such a God is an impossible object like a circular square.
Many attempts have been made to construct such arguments. For example, it has been claimed that an omnibenevolent being would be impeccable and so incapable of wrongdoing, while an omnipotent being would be quite capable of doing things that would be wrong to do. There are, however, sophisticated and plausible replies to arguments like these. More importantly, even if such an argument succeeded, omni-theists could plausibly claim that, by “omnipotent”, they mean, not maximally powerful, but optimally powerful, where the optimal degree of power may not be maximal if maximal power rules out possessing the optimal degree of some other perfection like moral goodness.
Similar problems face attempts to show that omni-theism must be false because it is incompatible with certain known facts about the world. Such arguments typically depend on detailed and contested interpretations of divine attributes like omnibenevolence.
A very different approach is based on the idea that disproof need not be demonstrative. The goal of this approach is to show that the existence of an omni-God is so improbable that confident belief in the non-existence of such a God is justified. Two such arguments are discussed in detail below: the “low priors argument” and the “decisive evidence argument”. Each of these arguments employs the same specific strategy, which is to argue that some alternative hypothesis to omni-theism is many times more probable than omni-theism. This doesn’t imply that the alternative hypothesis is probably true, but it does imply that omni-theism is very probably false. In the case of the second argument, the alternative hypothesis (aesthetic deism) is arguably a form of theism, and even in the case of the first argument it is arguable that the alternative hypothesis (source physicalism) is compatible with some forms of theism (in particular ones in which God is an emergent entity). This is not a problem for either argument, however, precisely because both are arguments for local atheism instead of global atheism.
6.2 The Low Priors Argument
The basic idea behind the low priors argument is that, even if the agnostic is right that, when it comes to God’s existence, the evidence is ambiguous or absent altogether, what follows is not that theism has a middling probability all things considered, but instead that theism is very probably false. This is said to follow because theism starts out with a very low probability before taking into account any evidence. (“Evidence” in this context refers to factors extrinsic to a hypothesis that raise or lower its probability.) Since ambiguous or absent evidence has no effect on that prior or intrinsic probability, the posterior or all-things-considered probability of theism is also very low. If, however, theism is very probably false, then atheism must be very probably true and this implies (according to the defender of the argument) that atheistic belief is justified. (This last alleged implication is examined in section 7.)
This sort of argument is very relevant to the issue of which of atheism and theism is the appropriate “default” position. If theism has a sufficiently low intrinsic probability, then atheism is arguably the correct default position in the sense that ambiguous or absent evidence will justify, not suspending judgment on the issue of God’s existence, but instead believing that God does not exist. This is why Le Poidevin’s argument for agnosticism includes, not just a premise asserting that the relevant evidence is ambiguous, but also one asserting that, at least in the case of versatile theism, we are in the dark when it comes to the issue of which of theism and atheism has a higher intrinsic probability. Unfortunately, much discussion of the issue of which position is the correct “default position” or of who has the “burden of proof” gets sidetracked by bad analogies to Santa Claus, flying spaghetti monsters, and Bertrand Russell’s ( 1997) famous china teapot in elliptical orbit around the sun (see Garvey 2010 and van Inwagen 2012 for criticism of some of these analogies). The low priors argument implicitly addresses this important issue in a much more sophisticated and promising way.
In the version of the low priors argument formulated below, the basic approach described above is improved by comparing omni-theism, not simply to its denial, but instead to a more specific atheistic hypothesis called “source physicalism”. Unlike ontological physicalism, source physicalism is a claim about the source of mental entities, not about their nature. Source physicalists, whether they are ontological physicalists or ontological dualists, believe that the physical world existed before the mental world and caused the mental world to come into existence, which implies that all mental entities are causally dependent on physical entities. Further, even if they are ontological dualists, source physicalists need not claim that mental entities never cause physical entities or other mental entities, but they must claim that there would be no mental entities were it not for the prior existence (and causal powers) of one or more physical entities. The argument proceeds as follows:
- (1)The total evidence does not favor omni-theism over source physicalism.
- (2)Source physicalism is many times more probable intrinsically than omni-theism.
- (3)Source physicalism is many times more probable than omni-theism.
- (4)Omni-theism is very probably false.
- (5)Atheism (understood here as the denial of omni-theism) is very probably true.
Only the argument’s two premises—steps (1) and (2)—are controversial. The other steps in the argument all clearly follow from previous steps.
A thorough examination of the arguments for and against premise (1) is obviously impossible here, but it is worth mentioning that a defense of this premise need not claim that the known facts typically thought by natural theologians to favor omni-theism over competing hypotheses like source physicalism have no force. Instead, it could be claimed that whatever force they have is offset at least to some significant degree by more specific facts favoring source physicalism over omni-theism. Natural theologians routinely ignore these more specific facts and thus appear to commit what might be called “the fallacy of understated evidence”. More precisely, the point is this. Even when natural theologians successfully identify some general fact about a topic that is more probable given omni-theism than given source physicalism, they ignore other more specific facts about that same topic, facts that, given the general fact, appear to be significantly more probable given source physicalism than given omni-theism.
For example, even if omni-theism is supported by the general fact that the universe is complex, one should not ignore the more specific fact, discovered by scientists, that underlying this complexity at the level at which we experience the universe, is a much simpler early universe from which this complexity arose, and also a much simpler contemporary universe at the micro-level, one consisting of a relatively small number of different kinds of particles all of which exist in one of a relatively small number of different states. In short, it is important to take into account, not just the general fact that the universe that we directly experience with our senses is extremely complex, but also the more specific fact that two sorts of hidden simplicity within the universe can explain that complexity. Given that a complex universe exists, this more specific fact is exactly what one would expect on source physicalism, because, as the best natural theologians (e.g., Swinburne 2004) say, the complexity of the universe cries out for explanation in terms of something simpler. There is, however, no reason at all to expect this more specific fact on omni-theism since, if those same natural theologians are correct, then a simple God provides a simple explanation for the observed complexity of the universe whether or not that complexity is also explained by any simpler mediate physical causes.
Another example concerns consciousness. Its existence really does seem to be more likely given omni-theism than given source physicalism (and thus to raise the ratio of the probability of omni-theism to the probability of source physicalism). But we know a lot more about consciousness than just that it exists. We also know, thanks in part to the relatively new discipline of neuroscience, that conscious states in general and even the very integrity of our personalities, not to mention the apparent unity of the self, are dependent to a very high degree on physical events occurring in the brain. Given the general fact that consciousness exists, we have reason on source physicalism that we do not have on theism to expect these more specific facts. Given theism, it would not be surprising at all if our minds were more independent of the brain than they in fact are. After all, if omni-theism is true, then at least one mind, God’s, does not depend at all on anything physical. Thus, when the available evidence about consciousness is fully stated, it is far from clear that it significantly favors omni-theism.
Similar problems threaten to undermine appeals to fine-tuning—that is, appeals to the fact that a number of apparently independent physical parameters have values that, while not fixed by current physical theory, nevertheless happen to fall within a relatively narrow “life-permitting” range assuming no changes to other parameters. Arguably, given that fine-tuning is required for intelligent life and that an omni-God has reason to create intelligent life, we have more reason to expect fine-tuning on omni-theism than on source physicalism. Given such fine-tuning, however, it is far more surprising on omni-theism than on source physicalism that our universe is not teeming with intelligent life and that the most impressive intelligent organisms we know to exist are merely human: self-centered and aggressive primates who far too often kill, rape, and torture each other.
In fairness to omni-theism, however, most of those humans are moral agents and many have religious experiences apparently of God. The problem is that, while the existence of moral agents is “predicted” by omni-theism better than by source physicalism, it is also true that, given their existence, the variety and frequency of easily avoidable conditions that promote morally bad behavior and that severely limit the freedom, agency, and autonomy of countless human beings are much more likely on source physicalism. And while religious experiences apparently of God are no doubt more to be expected if an omni-God exists than if human beings are the product of blind physical forces, it is also true that, given that such experiences do occur, various facts about their distribution that should be surprising to theists are exactly what one would expect on source physicalism, such as the fact that many people never have them and the fact that those who do have them almost always have either a prior belief in God or extensive exposure to a theistic religion.
It seems, then, that when it comes to evidence favoring omni-theism over source physicalism, the Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away. Further, when combined with the fact that what we know about the level of well-being of sentient beings and the extent of their suffering is arguably vastly more probable on source physicalism than on theism, a very strong though admittedly controversial case for premise (1) can be made.
What about premise (2)? Again, a serious case can be made for its truth. Such a case first compares source physicalism, not to omni-theism, but to its opposite, source idealism. Source idealists believe that the mental world existed before the physical world and caused the physical world to come into existence. This view is consistent with both ontological idealism and ontological dualism, and also with physical entities having both physical and mental effects. It entails, however, that all physical entities are, ultimately, causally dependent on one or more mental entities, and so is not consistent with ontological physicalism. The symmetry of source physicalism and source idealism is a good pro tanto reason to believe they are equally probable intrinsically. They are equally specific, they have the same ontological commitments, neither can be formulated more elegantly than the other, and each appears to be equally coherent and equally intelligible. They differ on the issue of what is causally dependent on what, but if Hume is right and causal dependence relations can only be discovered by observation and not a priori, then that won’t affect the intrinsic probabilities of the two hypotheses.
Omni-theism, however, is a very specific version of source idealism; it entails that source idealism is true but goes far beyond source idealism by making a number of very specific claims about the sort of “mental world” that produced the physical world. For example, it adds the claim that a single mind created the physical universe and that this mind is not just powerful but specifically omnipotent and not just knowledgeable but specifically omniscient. In addition, it presupposes a number of controversial metaphysical and meta-ethical claims by asserting in addition that this being is both eternal and objectively morally perfect. If any of these specific claims and presuppositions is false, then omni-theism is false. Thus, omni-theism is a very specific and thus intrinsically very risky form of source idealism, and thus is many times less probable intrinsically than source idealism. Therefore, if, as argued above, source physicalism and source idealism are equally probable intrinsically, then it follows that premise (2) is true: source physicalism is many times more probable intrinsically than omni-theism.
6.3 The Decisive Evidence Argument
Notice that the general strategy of the particular version of the low priors argument discussed above is to find an alternative to omni-theism that is much less specific than omni-theism (and partly for that reason much more probable intrinsically), while at the same time having enough content of the right sort to fit the totality of the relevant data at least as well as theism does. In other words, the goal is to find a runner like source physicalism that begins the race with a large head start and thus wins by a large margin because it runs the race for supporting evidence and thus for probability at roughly the same speed as omni-theism does. This doesn’t show that source physicalism is probable (a “large margin” in this context means a large ratio of one probability to another, not a large difference between the probabilities), because there may be even better runners in the race; it does, however, show that omni-theism loses the race by a large margin and thus is very probably false.
An alternative strategy is to find a runner that begins the race tied with omni-theism, but runs the race for evidential support much faster than omni-theism does, thus once again winning the race by a margin that is sufficiently large for the rest of the argument to go through. A good name for an argument pursuing this second strategy is the “decisive evidence argument”. The choice of alternative hypothesis is crucial here just as it was in the low priors argument. One promising choice is “aesthetic deism”. (Another would be a more detailed version of source physicalism that, unlike source physicalism in general, makes the relevant data antecedently much more probable than theism does.) In order to help ensure that omni-theism and aesthetic deism begin the race at the same starting line—that is, have the same intrinsic probability—“aesthetic deism” is best defined in such a way that it is almost identical to omni-theism. Thus, it may be stipulated that, like omni-theism, aesthetic deism implies that an eternal, non-physical, omnipotent, and omniscient being created the physical world. The only difference, then, between the God of omni-theism and the deity of aesthetic deism is what motivates them. An omni-theistic God would be morally perfect and so strongly motivated by considerations of the well-being of sentient creatures. An aesthetic deistic God, on the other hand, would prioritize aesthetic goods over moral ones. While such a being would want a beautiful universe, perhaps the best metaphor here is not that of a cosmic artist, but instead that of a cosmic playwright: an author of nature who wants above all to write an interesting story.
As everyone knows, good stories never begin with the line “and they lived happily ever after”, and that line is the last line of any story that contains it. Further, containing such a line is hardly necessary for a story to be good. If aesthetic deism is true, then it may very well be true that, “all the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players” (emphasis added). In any case, the hypothesis of aesthetic deism makes “predictions” about the condition of sentient beings in the world that are very different from the ones that the hypothesis of omni-theism makes. After all, what makes a good story good is often some intense struggle between good and evil, and all good stories contain some mixture of benefit and harm. This suggests that the observed mixture of good and evil in our world decisively favors aesthetic deism over omni-theism. And if that’s right, then aesthetic deism pulls far ahead of omni-theism in the race for probability, thereby proving that omni-theism is very improbable.
Here is one possible formulation of this argument:
- (1)Aesthetic deism is at least as probable intrinsically as omni-theism.
- (2)The total evidence excluding “the data of good and evil” does not favor omni-theism over aesthetic deism.
- (3)Given the total evidence excluding the data of good and evil, the data of good and evil strongly favor aesthetic deism over omni-theism.
- (4)Aesthetic deism is many times more probable than omni-theism.
- (5)Omni-theism is very probably false.
- (6)Atheism (understood here as the denial of omni-theism) is very probably true.
Steps (4)–(6) of this argument are the same as steps (3)–(5) of the low priors argument except that “source physicalism” in step (3) of the low priors argument is replaced by “aesthetic deism” in step (4) of the decisive evidence argument. This makes no difference as far as the inference from step (4) to step (5) is concerned. That inference, like the inferences from steps (1)–(3) to step (4) and from step (5) to step (6), is clearly correct. The key question, then, is whether premises (1), (2), and (3) are all true.
In spite of the nearly complete overlap between omni-theism and aesthetic deism, Richard Swinburne (2004: 96–109) would challenge premise (1) on the grounds that aesthetic deism, unlike omni-theism, must posit a bad desire to account for why the deity does not do what is morally best. Omni-theism need not do this, according to Swinburne, because what is morally best just is what is overall best, and thus an omniscient being will of necessity do what is morally best so long as it has no desires other than the desires it has simply by virtue of knowing what the best thing to do is in any given situation. This challenge depends, however, on a highly questionable motivational intellectualism: it succeeds only if merely believing that an action is good entails a desire to do it. On most theories of motivation, there is a logical gap between the intellect and desire. If such a gap exists, then it would seem that omni-theism is no more probable intrinsically than aesthetic deism.
It’s hard to think of a plausible challenge to premise (2) because, at least when it comes to the usual evidence taken to favor theism over competing hypotheses like naturalism, aesthetic deism accounts for that evidence at least as well as omni-theism does. For example, a deity interested in good narrative would want a world that is complex and yet ordered, that contains beauty, consciousness, intelligence, and moral agency. Perhaps there is more reason to expect the existence of libertarian free will on omni-theism than on aesthetic deism; but unless one starts from the truth of omni-theism, there seems to be little reason to believe that we have such freedom. And even if one takes seriously introspective or other non-theological evidence for libertarian free will, it is not difficult to construct a “de-odicy” here: a good explanation in terms of aesthetic deism either of the existence of libertarian free will or of why there is apparently strong but ultimately misleading evidence for its existence. For example, if open theists are right that not even an omniscient being can know with certainty what (libertarian) free choices will be made in the future, then aesthetic deism could account for libertarian free will and other sorts of indeterminacy by claiming that a story with genuine surprises is better than one that is completely predictable. Alternatively, what might be important for the story is only that the characters think they have free will, not that they really have it.
Finally, there is premise (3), which asserts that the data of good and evil decisively favors aesthetic deism over theism. In this context, the “data of good and evil” include everything we know about how sentient beings, including humans, are benefitted or harmed. A full discussion of this premise is not possible here, but recognition of its plausibility appears to be as old as the problem of evil itself. Consider, for example, the Book of Job, whose protagonist, a righteous man who suffers horrifically, accuses God of lacking sufficient commitment to the moral value of justice. The vast majority of commentators agree that God does not directly respond to Job’s charge. Instead, speaking out of the whirlwind, He describes His design of the cosmos and of the animal kingdom in a way clearly intended to emphasize His power and the grandeur of His creation. Were it not for theological worries about God’s moral perfection, the most natural interpretation of this part of the story would be either that God agrees with Job’s charge that He is unjust or that God denies that Job can sensibly apply terms like “just” and “unjust” to Him because He and Job are not members of any shared moral community (Morriston forthcoming; for an opposing view, see Stump 2010: chapter 9). This is why Job’s first response to God’s speech (before capitulating in his second response) is just to refuse to repeat his (unanswered) accusation. On this interpretation, the creator that confronts Job is not the God he expected and definitely not the God of omni-theism, but rather a being much more like the deity of aesthetic deism.
Those who claim that a God might allow evil because it is the inevitable result of the universe being governed by laws of nature also lend support, though unintentionally, to the idea that, if there is an author of nature, then that being is more likely motivated by aesthetic concerns than moral ones. For example, it may be that producing a universe governed by a few laws expressible as elegant mathematical equations is an impressive accomplishment, not just because of the wisdom and power required for such a task, but also because of the aesthetic value of such a universe. That value may very well depend, however, on the creator’s choosing not to intervene regularly in nature to protect His creatures from harm.
Much of the aesthetic value of the animal kingdom may also depend on its being the result of a long evolutionary process driven by mechanisms like natural selection. As Darwin (1859) famously said in the last lines of On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection,
There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and wonderful have been, and are being evolved.
Unfortunately, such a process, if it is to produce sentient life, may also entail much suffering and countless early deaths. One questionable assumption of some natural order theodicists is to think that such connections between aesthetic goods and suffering provide a moral justification for God’s allowing horrific suffering. It is arguably far more plausible that in such a scenario the value of preventing horrendous suffering would, from a moral point of view, far outweigh the value of regularity, sublimity, and narrative. If so, then a morally perfect God would not trade the former for the latter though a deity motivated primarily by aesthetic reasons no doubt would.
To summarize, nearly everyone agrees that the world contains both goods and evils. Pleasure and pain, love and hate, achievement and failure, flourishing and languishing, and virtue and vice all exist in great abundance. In spite of that, some see signs of cosmic teleology. Those who defend the version of the decisive evidence argument stated above need not deny the teleology. They do need to show that it is far easier to make sense of the “strange mixture of good and ill, which appears in life” (Hume Dialogues, XI, 14) when that teleology is interpreted as amoral instead of as moral (cf. Mulgan 2015 and Murphy 2017) and in particular when it is interpreted as directed towards aesthetic ends instead of towards moral ends.
7. An Argument against Agnosticism
The topic in section 4 was Le Poidevin’s argument for the truth of a modest form of agnosticism. In this section, an argument for the falsity of a more ambitious form of agnosticism will be examined. Because the sort of agnosticism addressed in this section is more ambitious than the sort defended by Le Poidevin, it is conceivable that both arguments succeed in establishing their conclusions.
In Le Poidevin’s argument, the term “agnosticism” refers to the position that neither versatile theism nor global atheism is known to be true. In this section, “agnosticism” refers to the position that neither the belief that omni-theism is true nor the belief that it is false is rationally permissible. This form of agnosticism is more ambitious because knowledge is stronger (in the logical sense) than rational permissibility: it can be rationally permissible to believe propositions that are not known to be true, but a proposition cannot be known to be true by someone who is not rationally permitted to believe it. Thus, an appropriate name for this form of agnosticism is “strong agnosticism”.
Another difference concerns the object of the two forms of agnosticism. The agnosticism in Le Poidevin’s argument concerned versatile theism versus global atheism. In this section, the target is omni-theism versus the local atheistic position that omni-theism is false. The previous section focused on two arguments for the conclusion that this form of local atheism is very probably true. In this section, the question is whether or not that conclusion, if established, could ground a successful argument against strong agnosticism.
Such an argument can be formulated as follows:
- (1)Atheism (understood here as the denial of omni-theism) is very probably true.
- (2)If atheism is very probably true, then atheistic belief is rationally permissible.
- (3)Atheistic belief is rationally permissible.
- (4)If strong agnosticism (about omni-theism) is true (that is, if withholding judgment about the truth or falsity of omni-theism is rationally required), then atheistic belief is not rationally permissible.
- (5)Strong agnosticism (about omni-theism) is false.
Premise (1) was defended in section 6, premise (4) is true by the definition of “strong agnosticism”, and steps (3) and (5) follow from earlier steps by modus ponens and modus tollens, respectively. This leaves premise (2), the premise that, if atheism is very probably true, then atheistic belief is rationally permissible.
One might attempt to defend this premise by claiming that the probabilities in premise (2) are rational credences and hence the truth of the so-called Lockean thesis (Foley 1992) justifies (2):
It is rational for a person S to believe a proposition P if and only if it is rational for S’s credence in P to be sufficiently high to make S’s attitude towards P one of belief.
The Lockean thesis, however, is itself in need of justification. Fortunately, though, nothing so strong as the Lockean thesis is needed to defend premise (2). For one thing, all the defender of (2) needs is an “if”, not an “if and only if”. Also, the defender of (2) need not equate, as the Lockean thesis does, the attitude of belief with having a high credence. Thus, all that is required is the following more modest thesis (call it “T”):
- (T) If it is rationally permissible for S’s credence in a proposition P to be (very) high, then it is rationally permissible for S to believe P.
Even this more modest thesis, however, is controversial, because adopting it commits one to the position that rational (i.e., rationally permissible) belief is not closed under conjunction. In other words, it commits one to the position that it is possible for each of a number of beliefs to be rational even though the additional belief that those beliefs are all true is not rational.
To see why this is so, imagine that a million lottery tickets have been sold. Each player purchased only a single ticket, and exactly one of the players is certain to win. Now imagine further that an informed observer has a distinct belief about each of the million individual players that that particular player will lose. According to thesis T, each of those million beliefs is rational. For example, if Sue is one of the players, then according to T the observer’s belief that Sue will lose is rational because it is rational for the observer to have a (very) high credence in the proposition that Sue will lose. Since, however, it is certain that someone will win, it is also rational for the observer to believe that some player will win. It is not rational, however, to have contradictory beliefs, so it is not rational for the observer to believe that no player will win. This implies, however, that rational belief is not closed under conjunction, for the proposition that no player will win just is the conjunction of all of the propositions that say of some individual player that they will lose.
Defenders of premise (2) will claim, very plausibly, that the implication of T that rational belief is not closed under conjunction is completely innocuous. Isn’t it obvious, for example, that it would not be rational for a fallible human being to believe that all of their many beliefs are true, even if each of those beliefs were rational? Others (e.g., Oppy 1994: 151), however, regard the conclusion that rational belief is not closed under conjunction as unacceptable and will for that reason reject premise (2). So even if it can be shown that omni-theism is very probably false, it still won’t be obvious to everyone that it is rationally permissible to be a local atheist about omni-theism and thus it still won’t be obvious to everyone that strong agnosticism about omni-theism is false.
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The author is grateful to the students in his Fall 2016 seminar on atheism and agnosticism: John Absher, Matthew Fritz, Alžbeta Hájková, Vincent Jacobson, Daniel Linford, Adam Nuske, Bianca Oprea, and Luke Wilson. They contributed in a variety of ways to making this entry much better than it would otherwise have been. The author is also grateful to Jeanine Diller and Jeffrey Lowder for helpful comments on a preliminary draft of this entry.
1. The Field and its Significance
The philosophical exploration of religious beliefs and practices is evident in the earliest recorded philosophy, east and west. In the west, throughout Greco-Roman philosophy and the Medieval era, philosophical reflection on God, or gods, reason and faith, the soul, afterlife, and so on were not considered to be a sub-discipline called “philosophy of religion.” The philosophy of God was simply one component among many interwoven philosophical projects. This intermingling of philosophical inquiry with religious themes and the broader enterprises of philosophy (e.g. political theory, epistemology, et al.) is apparent among many early modern philosophers such as Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, and George Berkeley. Only gradually do we find texts devoted exclusively to religious themes. The first use of the term “philosophy of religion” in English occurs in the 17th century work of Ralph Cudworth. Cudworth and his Cambridge University colleague Henry More produced philosophical work with a specific focus on religion and so, if one insisted on dating the beginning of philosophy of religion as a field, there are good reasons for claiming that it began (gradually) in the mid- 17th century (see Taliaferro 2005). Much of the subject matter treated by Cudworth and More is continuous with the current agenda of philosophy of religion (arguments about God's existence, the significance of religious pluralism, the nature of good and evil in relation to God, and so on), and many of the terms that are in current circulation had their origin in Cudworth's and his colleague's work (they coined the terms theism, materialism, consciousness, et al.).
Today philosophy of religion is a robust, intensely active area of philosophy. Almost without exception, any introduction to philosophy text in the Anglophone world includes some philosophy of religion. The importance of philosophy of religion is chiefly due to its subject matter: alternative beliefs about God, Brahman, the sacred, the varieties of religious experience, the interplay between science and religion, the challenge of non-religious philosophies, the nature and scope of good and evil, religious treatments of birth, history, and death, and other substantial terrain. A philosophical exploration of these topics involves fundamental questions about our place in the cosmos and about our relationship to what may transcend the cosmos. Such philosophical work requires an investigation into the nature and limit of human thought. Alongside these complex, ambitious projects, philosophy of religion has at least three factors that contribute to its importance for the overall enterprise of philosophy.
Philosophy of religion addresses embedded social and personal practices. Philosophy of religion is therefore relevant to practical concerns; its subject matter is not all abstract theory. Given the vast percentage of the world population that is either aligned with religion or affected by religion, philosophy of religion has a secure role in addressing people's actual values and commitments. A chief point of reference in much philosophy of religion is the shape and content of living traditions. In this way, philosophy of religion may be informed by the other disciplines that study religious life.
Another reason behind the importance of the field is its breadth. There are few areas of philosophy that are shorn of religious implications. Religious traditions are so comprehensive and all-encompassing in their claims that almost every domain of philosophy may be drawn upon in the philosophical investigation of their coherence, justification, and value.
A third reason is historical. Most philosophers throughout the history of ideas, east and west, have addressed religious topics. One cannot undertake a credible history of philosophy without taking philosophy of religion seriously.
While this field is vital for philosophy, philosophy of religion may also make a pivotal contribution to religious studies and theology. Religious studies often involve important methodological assumptions about history and about the nature and limits of religious experience. These invite philosophical assessment and debate. Theology may also benefit from philosophy of religion in at least two areas. Historically, theology has often drawn upon, or been influenced by, philosophy. Platonism and Aristotelianism have had a major influence on the articulation of classical Christian doctrine, and in the modern era theologians have often drawn on work by philosophers (from Hegel to Heidegger and Derrida). Another benefit lies in philosophy's tasks of clarifying, evaluating, and comparing religious beliefs. The evaluation has at times been highly critical and dismissive, but there are abundant periods in the history of ideas when philosophy has positively contributed to the flourishing of religious life. This constructive interplay is not limited to the west. The role of philosophy in distinctive Buddhist views of knowledge and the self has been of great importance. Just as philosophical ideas have fueled theological work, the great themes of theology involving God's transcendence, the divine attributes, providence, and so on, have made substantial impacts on important philosophical projects. (Hilary Putnam, for example, has linked the philosophy of truth with the concept of a God's-eye point of view.)
At the beginning of the 21st century, a more general rationale for philosophy of religion should be cited: it can enhance cross-cultural dialogue. Philosophers of religion now often seek out common as well as distinguishing features of religious belief and practice. This study can enhance communication between traditions, and between religions and secular institutions.
2. The Meaningfulness of Religious Language
A significant amount of work on the meaningfulness of religious language was carried out in the medieval period, with major contributions made by Maimonides (1135–1204), Thomas Aquinas (1225–1274), Duns Scotus (1266–1308), and William of Ockham (1285–1347). This work built on the even earlier work on religious language by Philo (20 BCE–50 CE), Clement (150–215), and Origen of Alexandria (185–259). In the modern era, the greatest concentration on religious language has taken place in response to logical positivism and to the latter work of Wittgenstein (1889–1951). This section and the next highlights these two more recent movements.
Logical positivism promoted an empiricist principle of meaning which was deemed lethal for religious belief. The following empiricist principle is representative: for a propositional claim (statement) to be meaningful, it must either be about the bare formal relations between ideas such as those enshrined in mathematics and analytic definitions (“A is A,” “triangles are three-sided”) or there must in principle be perceptual experience providing evidence of whether the claim is true or false. (The stronger version of positivism is that claims about the world must be verifiable at least in principle). Both the weaker view (with its more open ended reference to evidence) and the strict view (in principle confirmation) delimit meaningful discourse about the world. Ostensibly factual claims that have no implications for our empirical experience are empty of content. In line with this form of positivism, A. J. Ayer (1910–1989) and others claimed that religious beliefs were meaningless. How might one empirically confirm that God is omnipresent or loving or that Krishna is an avatar of Vishnu? In an important debate in the 1950s and 1960s, philosophical arguments about God were likened to debates about the existence and habits of an unobservable gardener, based on a parable by John Wisdom in 1944–1945. The idea of a gardener who is not just invisible but who also cannot be detected by any sensory faculty seemed nonsense. It seemed like nonsense because they said there was no difference between an imperceptible gardener and no gardener at all. Using this garden analogy and others crafted with the same design, Antony Flew (see his essay in Mitchell 1971) made the case that religious claims do not pass the empirical test of meaning. The field of philosophy of religion in the 1950s and 1960s was largely an intellectual battlefield where the debates centered on whether religious beliefs were meaningful or conceptually absurd.
Empirical verificationism is by no means dead. Some critics of the belief in an incorporeal God continue to advance the same critique as that of Flew and Ayer, albeit with further refinements. Michael Martin and Kai Nielsen are representatives of this approach. And yet despite these efforts, empiricist challenges to the meaningfulness of religious belief are now deemed less impressive than they once were.
In the history of the debate over positivism, the most radical charge was that positivism is self-refuting. The empiricist criterion of meaning itself does not seem to be a statement that expresses the formal relation of ideas, nor does it appear to be empirically verifiable. How might one empirically verify the principle? At best, the principle of verification seems to be a recommendation as to how to describe those statements that positivists are prepared to accept as meaningful. But then, how might a dispute about which other statements are meaningful be settled in a non-arbitrary fashion? To religious believers for whom talk of “Brahman” and “God” is at the center stage of meaningful discourse, the use of the principle of empirical verification will seem arbitrary and question-begging. If the positivist principle is tightened up too far, it seems to threaten various propositions that at least appear to be highly respectable, such as scientific claims about physical processes and events that are not publicly observable. For example, what are we to think of states of the universe prior to all observation of physical strata of the cosmos that cannot be observed directly or indirectly but only inferred as part of an overriding scientific theory? Or what about the mental states of other persons, which may ordinarily be reliably judged, but which, some argue, are under-determined by external, public observation? A person's subjective states—how one feels—can be profoundly elusive to external observers and even to the person him or herself. Can you empirically observe another person's sense of happiness? Arguably, the conscious, subjective states of persons resist airtight verification and the evidence of such states does not meet positivist's standards (van Cleve 1999, Taliaferro 1994). Also worrisome was the wholesale rejection by positivists of ethics as a cognitive, normative practice. The dismissal of ethics as non-cognitive had some embarrassing ad hominum force against an empiricist like Ayer, who regarded ethical claims as lacking any truth value and yet at the same time he construed empirical knowledge in terms of having the right to certain beliefs. Can an ethics of belief be preserved if one dispenses with the normativity of ethics?
The strict empiricist account of meaning was also charged as meaningless on the grounds that there is no coherent, clear, basic level of experience with which to test propositional claims. The experiential “given” is simply too malleable (this has been called “the myth of the given”), often reflecting prior conceptual judgments and, once one appreciates the open-textured character of experience, it may be proposed that virtually any experience can verify or provide some evidence for anything. A mystic might well claim to experience the unity of a timeless spirit everywhere present. Ayer allowed that in principle mystical experience might give meaning to religious terms. Those who concede this appeared to be on a slippery slope leading from empirical verificationism to mystical verificationism (Alston 1991). A growing number of philosophers in the 1960s and 1970s were led to conclude that the empiricist challenge was not decisive. Critical assessments of positivism can be found in work by, among others, Alvin Plantinga, Richard Swinburne, and John Foster.
One of the most sustained lessons from the encounter between positivism and the philosophy of religion is the importance of assessing the meaning of individual beliefs in comprehensive terms. Carl Hempel developed the following critique of positivism, pointing the way to a more comprehensive analysis of the meaning of ostensible propositional claims. Hempel's observations apply with equal force to the philosophy of meaning and science, as well as to the philosophy of religion.
But no matter how one might reasonably delimit the class of sentences qualified to introduce empirically significant terms, this new approach [by the positivists] seems to me to lead to the realization that cognitive significance cannot well be construed as a characteristic of individual sentences, but only of more or less comprehensive systems of sentences (corresponding roughly to scientific theories). A closer study of this point suggests strongly that… the idea of cognitive significance, with its suggestion of a sharp distinction between significant and non-significant sentences or systems of such, has lost its promise and fertility… and that it had better be replaced by certain concepts which admit of differences in degree, such as the formal simplicity of a system; its explanatory and predictive power; and its degree of conformation relative to the available evidence. The analysis and theoretical reconstruction of these concepts seems to offer the most promising way of advancing further the clarification of the issues implicit in the idea of cognitive significance. (Hempel 1959, 129)
If Hempel is right, the project initiated by Ayer had to be qualified, taking into account larger theoretical frameworks. Religious claims could not be ruled out at the start but should be allowed a hearing with competing views of cognitive significance. Ronald Hepburn summarizes a widely held conviction that complements Hempel's position: “There can be no short-cut in the philosophy of religion past the painstaking examination and re-examination of problems in the entire field… . No single, decisive verification-test, no solemn Declaration of Meaninglessness, can relieve us of the labor” (Hepburn 1963, 50). Ayer himself later conceded that the positivist account of meaning was unsatisfactory (Ayer 1973).
With the retreat of positivism in the 1970s, philosophers of religion re-introduced concepts of God, competing views of the sacred, and the like, which were backed by arguments that appealed not to narrow scientific confirmation but to broad considerations of coherence, breadth of explanation, simplicity, religious experience, and other factors. But before turning to this material, it is important to consider a debate within philosophy of religion that was largely inspired by the Austrian philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein.
3. Religious Forms of Life and Practices
Wittgenstein launched an attack on what has been called the picture theory of meaning, according to which statements may be judged true or false depending upon whether reality matches the picture represented by the belief. This understanding of truth and beliefs—which is similar to the correspondence theory of truth in which the statement “God exists” is true if and only if God exists—seemed to Wittgenstein to be misguided. It gives rise to insoluble philosophical problems and it misses the whole point of having religious beliefs, which is that the meaning is to be found in the life in which they are employed. By shifting attention away from the referential meaning of words to their use, Wittgenstein promoted the idea that we should attend to what he called forms of life. As this move was applied to religious matters, a number of philosophers either denied or at least played down the extent to which religious forms of life involve metaphysical claims. Norman Malcolm, B. R. Tilghman, and D. Z. Phillips have all promoted this approach to religion. It may be considered non-realist in the sense that it does not treat religious beliefs as straightforward metaphysical claims that can be adjudicated philosophically as either true or false concerning an objective reality. By their lights, the traditional metaphysics of theism got what it deserved when it came under attack in the mid-twentieth century by positivists.
This Wittgensteinian challenge, then, appears to place in check much of the way philosophers in the west have approached religion. When, for example, Descartes, Locke, Leibniz, Berkeley, and Hume argued for and against the justification of belief in God, metaphysics was at the forefront. They were interested in the best possible arguments for and against God's existence. The same preoccupation with the truth or falsehood of religious belief is also central to ancient and medieval philosophical reflection about the Divine. When Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas articulated arguments for God's existence they were engaged in full-fledged metaphysics.
At least two reasons may support recent non-realism. First, it has some credibility based on the sociology of religion. In the practice of religion it appears that we have something more (one might well say something deeper) than “mere” metaphysical theorizing. Religion seems pre-eminently to be focused upon how we live. Phillips has examined different religious practices such as prayer and the belief in an afterlife, concluding that both are intelligible because the motives behind each can be held intact without any of the metaphysical “baggage” traditionally linked with them. For example, prayer to God by parents for the recovery of a child's health may be understood as an expression of their anguish and an effort to center their hope on the child's getting better, and not as an attempt to persuade God to violate the laws of nature by miraculously healing their child.
A second reason that might be offered is that the classical and contemporary arguments for specific views of God have seemed unsuccessful to many philosophers (though not to all, as observed in section 4.2, below). Tilghman takes this line and argues that if the traditional arguments for God's existence are re-interpreted as part of religious life and not treated as if they were adjudicating metaphysical truth-claims, then they have an intelligibility and force that they otherwise lack.
Non-realist views have their critics from the vantage point both of atheists such as Michael Martin and theists such as Roger Trigg. By way of a preliminary response it may be pointed out that even if a non-realist approach is adopted this would not mean altogether jettisoning the more traditional approach to religious beliefs. If one of the reasons advanced on behalf of non-realism is that the traditional project fails, then ongoing philosophy of religion will still require investigating to determine whether in fact the tradition does fail. As John Dewey once observed, philosophical ideas not only never die, they never fade away.
A more substantial reply to Wittgensteinian non-realism has been the charge that it does not preserve but instead undermines the very intelligibility of religious practice. Let us concede that religious practice is antecedent to philosophical theories that justify the practice—a concession not shared by all. Even so, if one engages in a religious practice, such as prayer to God or Buddhist meditation to see through the illusion of having a substantial, enduring ego, the development of some sort of philosophical theory to make sense of this practice seems inevitable. Once such a theory is in place (and historically there have been no lack of these theories), it makes sense to raise the question of its truth. While Malcolm has proposed that it makes sense to believe in God without believing that God exists, others have submitted that lack of belief that God exists makes belief in God meaningless. Belief that X is prior to belief in X. One may hope that something will occur (a child recovers from illness) without the accompanying belief that it will occur, but it is more puzzling to suppose that one can trust a Divine being without believing or hoping there is some Divine reality there to rely upon.
While non-realism might seem to lay the groundwork for greater tolerance between religions (and between religions and the secular world) because it subverts the battle over which religion has a true picture of the cosmos, critics have lamented the loss of a normative way of choosing between religions, ways that seem to be used in commonplace philosophical reflection on the merits of religion. So, today it is still not at all unusual for people to claim they have changed religions (or stayed with their own or abandoned all religion or converted to a religion), for reasons like the appeal to religious experience, answered or unanswered prayer, miracles or the lack of them, moral and cultural relativism, an overwhelming sense of the reality of good and evil, and so on.
Although realists and non-realists are at odds in debate, each side can learn from the other. Non-realists can consider the realist approach to divine attributes and a philosophy of God as reflections of a religious form of life. And a realist philosophical treatment of God's goodness may reveal important insights about practical religious forms of life. On the other hand, the non-realist approach to religion may offer a fitting caution to realists about approaching religion as a mere theoretical, abstract enterprise. Imagining a middle ground is not easy, however. D. Z. Phillips writes:
To ask whether God exists is not to ask a theoretical question. If it is to mean anything at all, it is to wonder about praising and praying; it is to wonder whether there is anything in all that. This is why philosophy cannot answer the question “Does God exist?” with either an affirmative or a negative reply … . “There is a God”, though it appears to be in the indicative mood, is an expression of faith (Phillips 1976, 181).
To successfully secure a position somewhere in between extreme non-realism and realism, one would need to see the intelligibility of asking both theoretical questions such as “Is there a God?” as well as searching out the meaningful practices of faith, praise, and prayer. Near the end of his life, D.Z. Phillips' own train of thought seemed to land him solidly in Feuerbachian atheism (and thus Phillips concluded his work as a solid realist):
In “God is love,” is the “is” one of predication as in “Tony Blair is prime minister”? In the latter case, I can refer to Tony Blair without knowing that fact…But when I say “God is love,” or “God is gracious,” what is the “it” to which the love or grace are attributed? There is none. That is “the metaphysical subject” which, as Feuerbach says, is an illusion (Phillips 2004, 155).
A better example of someone who was a realist but took religious forms of life as a central reference point is John Clayton (see especially his Religions, Reasons and Gods: Essays in Cross-Cultural Philosophy of Religion).
4. The Concept of God
4.1 Philosophical Reflection on Divine Attributes
Most philosophy of religion in the west has focused on different versions of theism. Ancient philosophy of religion wrestled with the credibility of monotheism and polytheism in opposition to skepticism and very primitive naturalistic schemes. For example, Plato argued that the view that God is singularly good should be preferred to the portrait of the gods that was articulated in Greek poetic tradition, according to which there are many gods, often imperfect and subject to vice and ignorance. The emergence and development of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam on a global scale secured the centrality of theism for philosophical enquiry, but the relevance of a philosophical exploration of theism is not limited to those interested in these religions and the cultures in which they flourish. While theism has generally flourished in religious traditions amid religious practices, one may be a theist without adopting any religion whatever, and one may find theistic elements (however piecemeal) in Confucianism, Hinduism, some versions of Mahayana Buddhism, as well as in the religions of some smaller scale societies. The debate over theism also has currency for secular humanism and religious forms of atheism as in Theravada Buddhist philosophy. Consider first the philosophical project of articulating theism and then the philosophy of divine attributes.
Terms applied both to God and to any aspect of the world have been classified as either univocal (sharing the same sense), equivocal (used in different senses), or analogical. There is a range of accounts of analogous predication, but the most common—and the one assumed here—is that terms are used analogously when their use in different cases (John limps and the argument limps) is based on what is believed to be a resemblance. It seems clear that many terms used to describe God in theistic traditions are used analogously, as when God is referred to as a father, shepherd, or fountain. More difficult to classify are descriptions of God as good, personal, knowing, omnipresent, and creative. Heated philosophical and theological disputes centre on unpacking the meaning of such descriptions, disputes that are often carried out with the use of thought experiments.
In thought experiments, hypothetical cases are described—cases that may or may not represent the way things are. In these descriptions, terms normally used in one context are employed in expanded settings. Thus, in thinking of God as omniscient, one might begin with a non-controversial case of a person knowing that a proposition is true, taking note of what it means for someone to possess that knowledge and of the ways in which the knowledge is secured. A theistic thought experiment would seek to extend our understanding of knowledge as we think of it in our own case, working toward the conception of a maximum or supreme intellectual excellence befitting the religious believers' understanding of God. Various degrees of refinement would then be in order, as one speculates not only about the extent of a maximum set of propositions known but also about how these might be known. That is, in attributing omniscience to God, would one thereby claim God knows all truths in a way that is analogous to the way we come to know truths about the world? Too close an analogy would produce a peculiar picture of God relying upon, for example, induction, sensory evidence, or the testimony of others. One move in the philosophy of God has been to assert that the claim “God knows something” employs the word “knows” univocally when read as picking out the thesis that God knows something, while it uses the term in only a remotely analogical sense if read as identifying how God knows (Swinburne 1977).
Here a medieval distinction comes into play between the res significata (what is asserted—for instance, that God knows X) and modus significandi (the mode or manner in which what is signified is realized or brought about—for instance, how God knows X). We might have a good grasp of what is meant by the claim that a being is omniscient while having little idea of how a being might be so. Thought experiments aimed at giving some sense to the Divine attribute of omniscience have been advanced by drawing attention to the way we know some things immediately (bodily positions, feelings and intentions), and then by extending this, coaxing us into conceiving a being that knows all things about itself and the cosmos immediately (see Beaty 1991 and Zagzebski 2008 for a constructive view, and Blumenfeld in Morris (ed.) 1987 for criticism).
Utilizing thought experiments and language in this way, philosophical theology has a stake in the soundness and richness of the imagination, picturing the way things might be “in one's mind's eye,” whether or not this relies on any actual imagery. Philosophers are now more cautious about drawing such inferences as we are increasingly aware of how some features of an imagined state of affairs might be misconceived or overlooked. Even so, it has been argued that if a state of affairs appears to one to be possible after careful reflection, checking it against one's background knowledge in other areas, then there is at least some warrant in judging the state of affairs to be a bona fide possibility (Sorensen 1992; see also Taliaferro 2002 and Gendler and Hawthorne 2002).
Work on the divine attributes has been vast. To generate a portrait of the literature on divine attributes, consider the issues that arise in reflection on omniscience, eternity, and goodness.
Imagine there is a God who knows the future free action of human beings. If God does know you will freely do some act X, then it is true that you will indeed do X. But if you are free, would you not be free to avoid doing X? Given that it is foreknown you will do X, it appears you would not be free to refrain from the act.
Initially this paradox seems easy to dispel. If God knows about your free action, then God knows that you will freely do something and that you could have refrained from it. God's foreknowing the act does not make it necessary. Does not the paradox only arise because we confuse the proposition, “Necessarily, if God knows X, then X” with “If God knows X, then necessarily X”? After all, it is necessarily the case that if I know you are reading this entry right now, then it follows that you are reading this entry, but your reading this entry may still be seen as a contingent state of affairs. But the problem is not so easily diffused, however, because if God does infallibly know that some state of affairs obtains then it cannot be that the state of affairs does not obtain. Think of what is sometimes called the necessity of the past. Once a state of affairs has obtained, it is unalterably or necessarily the case that it did occur. If the future is known precisely and comprehensively, isn't the future like the past, necessarily or unalterably the case? If the problem is put in first-person terms and one imagines God foreknows you will freely turn to a different entry in this Encyclopedia (moreover, God knows with unsurpassable precision when you will do so, which entry you will select and what you will think about it), then an easy resolution of the paradox seems elusive. To highlight the nature of this problem imagine God tells you what you will freely do in the next hour. Under such conditions, is it still intelligible to believe you have the ability to do otherwise if it is known by God as well as yourself what you will indeed elect to do? Self-foreknowledge, then, produces an additional related problem because the psychology of choice seems to require prior ignorance about what we will choose.
Various replies to the freedom-foreknowledge debate have been given. Some adopt compatibilism, affirming the compatibility of free will and determinism, and conclude that foreknowledge is no more threatening to freedom than determinism. While some prominent philosophical theists in the past have taken this route (most dramatically Jonathan Edwards in the eighteenth century), this seems to be the minority position in philosophy of religion today (exceptions include Paul Helm and Lynne Baker). A second position adheres to the libertarian outlook, which insists that freedom involves a radical, indeterminist exercise of power, and concludes that God cannot know future free action. What prevents such philosophers from denying that God is omniscient is that they contend there are no truths about future free actions, or that while there are truths about the future, God freely decides not to know them in order to preserve free choice. On the first view, prior to someone's doing a free action, there is no fact of the matter that he or she will do a given act. This is in keeping with a traditional, but controversial, interpretation of Aristotle's philosophy of time and truth. Aristotle may have thought it was neither true nor false prior to a given sea battle whether a given side would win it. Some theists, such as Richard Swinburne, adopt this line today, holding that the future cannot be known. If it cannot be known for metaphysical reasons, then omniscience can be analyzed as knowing all that it is possible to know. That God cannot know future free action is no more of a mark against God's being omniscient than God's inability to make square circles is a mark against God's being omnipotent. Other philosophers deny the original paradox. They insist that God's foreknowledge is compatible with libertarian freedom and seek to resolve the quandary by claiming that God is not bound in time (God does not so much foreknow the future as God knows what for us is the future from an eternal viewpoint) and by arguing that the unique vantage point of an omniscient God prevents any impingement on freedom. God can simply know the future without this having to be grounded on an established, determinate future. But this only works if there is no necessity of eternity analogous to the necessity of the past. Why think that we have any more control over God's timeless belief than over God's past belief? If not, then there is an exactly parallel dilemma of timeless knowledge. For outstanding current analysis of freedom and foreknowledge, see the work of Linda Zagzebski.
Could there be a being that is outside time? In the great monotheistic traditions, God is thought of as without any kind of beginning or end. God will never, indeed, can never, cease to be. Some philosophical theists hold that God's temporality is very much like ours in the sense that there is a before, during, and an after for God, or a past, present, and future for God. This view is sometimes referred to as the thesis that God is everlasting. Those adopting a more radical stance claim that God is independent of temporality, arguing either that God is not in time at all, or that God is “simultaneously” at or in all times. This is sometimes called the view that God is eternal as opposed to everlasting.
Why adopt the more radical stance? One reason, already noted, is that if God is not temporally bound, there may be a resolution to the earlier problem of reconciling freedom and foreknowledge. As Augustine put it: “For He does not pass from this to that by transition of thought, but beholds all things with absolute unchangeableness; so that of those things which emerge in time, the future, indeed, are not yet, and the present are now, and the past no longer are; but all of these are by Him comprehended in His stable and eternal presence” (The City of God, 1972, XI, 21). If God is outside time, there may also be a secure foundation explaining God's immutability (changelessness), incorruptibility, and immortality. Furthermore, there may be an opportunity to use God's standing outside of time to launch an argument that God is the creator of time.
Those affirming God to be unbounded by temporal sequences face several puzzles which I note without trying to settle. If God is somehow at or in all times, is God simultaneously at or in each? If so, there is the following problem. If God is simultaneous with the event of Rome burning in 410, and also simultaneous with your reading this entry, then it seems that Rome must be burning at the same time you are reading this entry. (This problem was advanced by Nelson Pike; Stump and Kretzmann have replied that the simultaneity involved in God's eternal knowledge is not transitive). A different problem arises with respect to eternity and omniscience. If God is outside of time, can God know what time it is now? Arguably, there is a fact of the matter that it is now, say, midnight on 1 July 2010. A God outside of time might know that at midnight on 1 July 2010 certain things occur, but could God know when it is now that time? The problem is that the more emphasis we place on the claim that God's supreme existence is independent of time, the more we seem to jeopardize taking seriously time as we know it. Finally, while the great monotheistic traditions provide a portrait of the Divine as supremely different from the creation, there is also an insistence on God's proximity or immanence. For some theists, describing God as a person or person-like (God loves, acts, knows) is not to equivocate. But it is not clear that an eternal God could be personal. For recent work on God's relation to time, see work by Katherin Rogers (Rogers 2007, 2008).
4.1.3 The goodness of God
All known world religions address the nature of good and evil and commend ways of achieving human well-being, whether this be thought of in terms of salvation, liberation, deliverance, enlightenment, tranquility, or an egoless state of Nirvana. Notwithstanding important differences, there is a substantial overlap between many of these conceptions of the good as witnessed by the commending of the Golden Rule (“Do unto others as you would have them do unto you”) in many religions. Some religions construe the Divine as in some respect beyond our human notions of good and evil. In some forms of Hinduism, for example, Brahman has been extolled as possessing a sort of moral transcendence, and some Christian theologians and philosophers have likewise insisted that God is only a moral agent in a highly qualified sense, if at all (Davies 1993). To call God good is, for them, very different from calling a human being good.
Here I note only some of the ways in which philosophers have articulated what it means to call God good. In treating the matter, there has been a tendency either to explain God's goodness in terms of standards that are not God's creation and thus, in some measure, independent of God's will, or in terms of God's will and the standards God has created. The latter view has been termed theistic voluntarism. A common version of theistic voluntarism is the claim that for something to be good or right simply means that it is willed by God and for something to be evil or wrong means that it is forbidden by God.
Theistic voluntarists face several difficulties: moral language seems intelligible without having to be explained in terms of the Divine will. Indeed, many people make what they take to be objective moral judgments without making any reference to God. If they are using moral language intelligibly, how could it be that the very meaning of such moral language should be analyzed in terms of Divine volitions? New work in the philosophy of language may be of use to theistic voluntarists. According to a causal theory of reference, “water” necessarily designates H2O. It is not a contingent fact that water is H2O notwithstanding the fact that many people can use the term “water” without knowing its composition. Similarly, could it not be the case that “good” may refer to that which is willed by God even though many people are not aware of (or even deny) the existence of God? Another difficulty for voluntarism lies in accounting for the apparent meaningful content of claims like “God is good.” It appears that in calling God “good” the religious believer is saying more than “God wills what God wills.” If so, must not the very notion of goodness have some meaning independent of God's will? Also at issue is the worry that if voluntarism is accepted, the theist has threatened the normative objectivity of moral judgments. Could God make it the case that moral judgments were turned upside down? For example, could God make cruelty good? Arguably, the moral universe is not so malleable. In reply, some voluntarists have sought to understand the stability of the moral laws in light of God's immutably fixed, necessary nature.
By understanding God's goodness in terms of God's being (as opposed to God's will alone), we come close to the non-voluntarist stand. Aquinas and others hold that God is essentially good in virtue of God's very being. All such positions are non-voluntarist in so far as they do not claim that what it means for something to be good is that God wills it to be so. The goodness of God may be articulated in various ways, either by arguing that God's perfection requires God being good as an agent or by arguing that God's goodness can be articulated in terms of other Divine attributes such as those outlined above. For example, because knowledge is in itself good, omniscience is a supreme good. God has also been considered good in so far as God has created and conserves in existence a good cosmos. Debates over the problem of evil (if God is indeed omnipotent and perfectly good, why is there evil?) have poignancy precisely because they challenge this chief judgment over God's goodness. (The debate over the problem of evil is taken up in section 4.2.)
The choice between voluntarism and seeing God's very being as good is rarely strict. Some theists who oppose a full-scale voluntarism allow for partial voluntarist elements. According to one such moderate stance, while God cannot make cruelty good, God can make some actions morally required or morally forbidden which otherwise would be morally neutral. Arguments for this have been based on the thesis that the cosmos and all its contents are God's creation. According to some theories of property, an agent making something good gains entitlements over the property. The crucial moves in arguments that the cosmos and its contents belong to their Creator have been to guard against the idea that human parents would then “own” their children (they do not, because parents are not radical creators like God), and the idea that Divine ownership would permit anything, thus construing our duties owed to God as the duties of a slave to a master (a view to which not all theists have objected). Theories spelling out why and how the cosmos belongs to God have been prominent in all three monotheistic traditions. Plato defended the notion, as did Aquinas and Locke. (See Brody 1974 for a defense.)
A new development in theorizing about God's goodness has been advanced in Zagzebski 2004. Zagzebski contends that being an exemplary virtuous person consists in having good motives. Motives have an internal, affective or emotive structure. An emotion is “an affective perception of the world” (Zagzebski 2004, xvi) that “initiates and directs action” (Ibid., 1). The ultimate grounding of what makes human motives good is if they are in accord with the motives of God. Zagzebski's theory is perhaps the most ambitious virtue theory in print, offering an account of human virtues of God. Not all theists resonate with her bold claim that God is a person who has emotions, but many allow that (at least in some analogical sense) God may be see as personal and having affective states.
One other effort worth noting to link judgments of good and evil with judgments about God relies upon the ideal observer theory of ethics. According to this theory, moral judgments can be analyzed in terms of how an ideal observer would judge matters. To say an act is right entails a commitment to holding that if there were an ideal observer, it would approve of the act; to claim an act is wrong entails the thesis that if there were an ideal observer, it would disapprove of it. The theory can be found in works by Hume, Adam Smith, and Hare and Firth (1970). The ideal observer is variously described, but typically is thought of as an impartial omniscient regarding non-moral facts (facts that can be grasped without already knowing the moral status or implications of the fact—for instance, “He did something bad” is a moral fact; “He hit Smith” is not), and as omnipercipient (Firth's term for adopting a position of universal affective appreciation of the points of view of all involved parties). The theory receives some support from the fact that most moral disputes can be analyzed in terms of different parties challenging each other to be impartial, to get their empirical facts straight, and to be more sensitive—for example, by realizing what it feels like to be disadvantaged. The theory has formidable critics and defenders. If true, it does not follow that there is an ideal observer, but if it is true and moral judgments are coherent, then the idea of an ideal observer is coherent. Given certain conceptions of God in the three great monotheistic traditions, God fits the ideal observer description (and more besides, of course). Should an ideal observer theory be cogent, a theist would have some reason for claiming that atheists committed to normative, ethical judgments are also committed to the idea of a God or a God-like being. (For a defense of a theistic form of the ideal observer theory, see Taliaferro 2005; for criticism see Anderson, 2005.)
4.2 God's Existence
In some introductory philosophy textbooks and anthologies, the arguments for God's existence are presented as ostensible proofs which are then shown to be fallible. For example, an argument from the apparent order and purposive nature of the cosmos will be criticized on the grounds that, at best, the argument would establish there is a purposive, designing intelligence at work in the cosmos. This falls far short of establishing that there is a God who is omnipotent, omniscient, benevolent, and so on. But two comments need to be made: First, that “meager” conclusion alone would be enough to disturb a scientific naturalist who wishes to rule out all such transcendent intelligence. Second, few philosophers today advance a single argument as a proof. Customarily, a design argument might be advanced alongside an argument from religious experience, and the other arguments to be considered below. True to Hempel's advice (cited earlier) about comprehensive inquiry, it is increasingly common to see philosophies—scientific naturalism or theism—advanced with cumulative arguments, a whole range of considerations, and not with a supposed knock-down, single proof.
One reason why the case for and against major, comprehensive philosophies are mostly cumulative is because of discontent in what is often called foundationalism. In one classical form of foundationalism, one secures first and foremost a basis of beliefs which one may see to be true with certainty. The base may be cast as indubitable or infallible. One then slowly builds up the justification for one's other, more extensive beliefs about oneself and the world. Many (but not all) philosophers now see justification as more complex and interwoven; the proper object of philosophical inquiry is overall coherence, not a series of distinguishable building operations beginning with a foundation.
One way of carrying out philosophy of religion along non-foundationalist lines has been to build a case for the comparative rationality of a religious view of the world. It has been argued that the intellectual integrity of a religious world view can be secured if it can be shown to be no less rational than the available alternatives. It need only achieve intellectual parity. John Hick and others emphasize the integrity of religious ways of seeing the world that are holistic, internally coherent, and open to criticism along various external lines (see Hick 2004, 2006). On the latter front, if a religious way of conceiving the world is at complete odds with contemporary science, that would count as grounds for revising the religious outlook. The case for religion need not, however, be scientific or even analogous to science. If Hick is right, religious ways of seeing the world are not incompatible with science, but complementary. Independent of Hick but in the same spirit, Plantinga has proposed that belief in God's existence may be taken as properly basic and fully warranted without having to be justified in relation to standard arguments for God from design, miracles, and so on. Plantinga argues that the tendency to believe in God follows natural tendencies of the human mind. This stance comprises what is commonly referred to as Reformed Epistemology because of its connection to the work of the Reformed theologian John Calvin (1509–1564) who maintained that we have a sense of God (sensus divinitatis) leading us to see God in the world around us. Plantinga has thereby couched the question of justification within the larger arena of metaphysics. By advancing an intricate, comprehensive picture of how beliefs can be warranted when they function as God designed them, he has provided what some believe to be a combined metaphysical and epistemic case for the rationality of religious convictions (see Beilby (ed.) 2002).
Who has the burden of proof in a debate between a theist and an atheist? Antony Flew (1984) thinks it is the theist. By his lights, the theist and atheist can agree on a whole base line of truths (such as the findings of the physical sciences). The question then becomes, Why go any further? Flew wields a version of Ockham's razor, arguing that if one has no reason to go further, one has reason not to go further. (As it happens, Flew has subsequently claimed that there are good reasons for going beyond the natural world, and he is currently a theist; see Flew 2008.) His challenge has been met on various fronts, with some critics claiming that Flew's burden of proof argument is wedded to an outmoded foundationalism, that any burden of proof is shared equally by atheists and theists, or that the theist has an array of arguments to help shoulder a greater burden of proof. The position of fideism is a further option. Fideism is the view that religious belief does not require evidence and that religious faith is self-vindicating. Karl Barth (1886–1968) advocated a fideistic philosophy. (For a critical assessment of fideism, see Moser 2010, chapter 2.) Hick and Plantinga need not be considered fideists because of the high role each gives to experience, coherence, and reflection.
Table 1 lists some key theistic arguments, along with some of the leading advocates.
Ontological S.T. Davis, D. Dombrowski, C. Dore, E.J. Lowe, N. Malcolm, A. Plantinga, J. Ross, W. Rowe, R. Swinburne, R. Taylor Cosmological W. Craig, S.T. Davis, R. Gale, R. Koons, H. Meynell, B. Miller, R. Purtill, T. O'Connor, A. Pruss, W. Rowe (partial advocate) Design D. and R. Basinger, R. Collins, W. Craig, S.T. Davis, J. Foster, R.A. Larmer, R. Swinburne Miracles W. Craig, P. Dietl, J. Earman, D. Geivett, R. Swinburne Values—Moral Experience P. Copan, C.S. Evans, A.C. Ewing, M. Linville, G. Mavrodes, H.P. Owen, M. Wynn Argument from Consciousness R.M. Adams, J.P. Moreland, M. Rea, R. Swinburne Religious Experience W. Alston, C. Frank, J. Gellman, G. Gutting, K.M. Kwan, R. Swinburne, W. Wainwright, K. Yandell Cognition R. Creel, A. Plantinga, R. Taylor Wager Arguments J. Jodan, N. Rescher, G. Schlesinger, T.V. Morris
Table 1. Theistic Arguments
To sketch some of the main lines of argument in this literature, consider the ontological, cosmological, and teleological arguments, arguments from the problem of evil, and the argument over the cognitive status of religious experience.
4.2.1 Ontological arguments
There is a host of arguments under this title; all of them are based principally on conceptual, a priori grounds which do not involve a posteriori empirical investigation. If a version of the argument works, then it can be deployed using only the concept of God and some modal principles of inference, that is, principles concerning possibility and necessity. The argument need not resist all empirical support, however, as I shall indicate.
The focus of the argument is the thesis that, if there is a God, then God's existence is necessary. God's existence is not contingent—God is not the sort of being that just happens to exist. That this is a plausible picture of what is meant by God may be shown by appealing to the way God is conceived in Jewish, Christian, and Islamic traditions. This would involve some a posteriori, empirical research into the way God is thought of in these traditions. Alternatively, a defender of the ontological argument might hope to convince others that the concept of God is the concept of a being that exists necessarily by beginning with the idea of a maximally excellent being. If there were a maximally excellent being what would it be like? It has been argued that among its array of great-making qualities (omniscience and omnipotence) would be necessary existence. Once fully articulated, it can be argued that a maximally excellent being which existed necessarily could be called “God.”
The ontological argument goes back to St. Anselm (1033/34–1109), but I shall explore a current version relying heavily on the principle that if something is possibly necessarily the case, then it is necessarily the case (or, to put it redundantly, it is necessarily necessary). The principle can be illustrated in the case of propositions. That six is the smallest perfect number (that number which is equal to the sum of its divisors including one but not including itself) does not seem to be the sort of thing that might just happen to be true. Rather, either it is necessarily true or necessarily false. If the latter, it is not possible, if the former, it is possible. If one knows that it is possible that six is the smallest perfect number then one has good reason to believe that. Do we have reason to think it is possible that God exists necessarily? In support of this, one can also appeal to a posteriori matters, noting the extant religious traditions that uphold such a notion. The fact that the concept of God as a necessarily existing reality seems to be coherently conceived widely across time and cultures is some evidence that the concept is coherent (it is possible there is a God), for God's existence has plausibility, thus can also contribute to believing it is possible God exists. There is an old philosophical precept that from the fact that something exists, it follows that it is possible (ab esse ad posse valet consequentia). A related principle is that evidence that something exists is evidence that it is possible that such a thing exists. There does not appear to be anything amiss in their thinking of God as necessarily existing; if the belief that God exists is incoherent this is not obvious. Indeed, a number of atheists think God might exist, but conclude God does not. If we are successful in establishing the possibility that God necessarily exists, the conclusion follows that it is necessarily the case that God exists.
There have been hundreds of objections and replies to this argument. Perhaps the most ambitious objection is that the argument can be used with one minor alteration to argue that God cannot exist. Assume all the argument above is correct, but also that it is possible that God does not exist. Atheists can point out that many theists who believe there is a God at least allow for the bare possibility that they could be wrong and there is no God. If it is possible that there is no God, then it would necessarily follow that there is no God. Replies to this objection emphasize the difficulty of conceiving of the non-existence of God. The battle over whether God is necessary or impossible is often fought over the coherence of the various divine attributes discussed in section 3. If you think these attributes are compossible, involve no contradictions, and violate no known metaphysical truths, then you may well have good grounds for concluding that God is possible and therefore necessary. However, if you see a contradiction, say, in describing a being who is at once omniscient and omnipotent, you may well have good grounds for concluding that God's existence is impossible.
Another objection is that it makes no sense to think of a being existing necessarily; propositions may be necessarily true or false, but objects cannot be necessary or contingent. Some philosophers reply that it makes no less sense to think of an individual (God) existing necessarily than it does to think of propositions being necessarily true.
A further objection is that the ontological argument cannot get off the ground because of the question-begging nature of its premise that if there is a God, then God exists necessarily. Does admitting this premise concede that there is some individual thing such that if it exists, it exists necessarily? Replies have claimed that the argument only requires one to consider an ostensible state of affairs, without having to concede initially whether the state of affairs is possible or impossible. To consider what is involved in positing the existence of God is no more hazardous than considering what is involved in positing the existence of unicorns. One can entertain the existence of unicorns and their necessary features (that necessarily if there were unicorns, there would exist single-horned beasts) without believing that there are unicorns.
Finally, consider the objection that, if successful in providing reasons to believe that God exists, the ontological argument could be used to establish the existence of a whole array of other items, like perfect islands. Replies to this sort of objection have typically questioned whether it makes sense to think of an island (a physical thing) as existing necessarily or as having maximal excellence on a par with God. Does the imagined island have excellences like omniscience, omnipotence (a power which would include the power to make indefinitely many islands), and so on?
Classical, alternative versions of the ontological argument are propounded by Anselm, Spinoza, and Descartes, with current versions by Alvin Plantinga, Charles Hartshorne, Norman Malcolm, and C. Dore; classical critics include Gaunilo and Kant, and current critics are many, including William Rowe, J. Barnes, G. Oppy, and J. L. Mackie. The latest book-length treatment of the ontological argument is a vigorous defense: Rethinking the Ontological Argument by Daniel Dombrowski (2006).
4.2.2 Cosmological arguments
Arguments in this vein are more firmly planted in empirical, a posteriori reflection, but some versions employ a priori reasons as well. There are various versions. Some argue that the cosmos had an initial cause outside it, a First Cause in time. Others argue that the cosmos has a necessary, sustaining cause from instant to instant. The two versions are not mutually exclusive, for it is possible both that the cosmos had a First Cause and that it currently has a sustaining cause.
The cosmological argument relies on the intelligibility of the notion of something which is not itself caused to exist by anything else. This could be either the all-out necessity of supreme pre-eminence across all possible worlds used in versions of the ontological argument, or a more local, limited notion of a being that is uncaused in the actual world. If successful, the argument would provide reason for thinking there is at least one such being of extraordinary power responsible for the existence of the cosmos. At best, it may not justify a full picture of the God of religion (a First Cause would be powerful, but not necessarily omnipotent), but it would nonetheless challenge naturalistic alternatives and bring one closer to theism.
Both versions of the argument ask us to consider the cosmos in its present state. Is the world as we know it something that necessarily exists? At least with respect to ourselves, the planet, the solar system and the galaxy, it appears not. With respect to these items in the cosmos, it makes sense to ask why they exist rather than not. In relation to scientific accounts of the natural world, such enquiries into causes make abundant sense and are perhaps even essential presuppositions of the natural sciences. Some proponents of the argument contend that we know a priori that if something exists there is a reason for its existence. So, why does the cosmos exist? If we explain the contingent existence of the cosmos (or states of the cosmos) only in terms of other contingent things (earlier states of the cosmos, say), then a full cosmic explanation will never be attained. At this point the two versions of the argument divide.
Arguments to a First Cause in time contend that a continuous temporal regress from one contingent existence to another would never account for the existence of the cosmos, and they conclude that it is more reasonable to accept there was a First Cause than to accept either a regress or the claim that the cosmos just came into being from nothing. Arguments to a sustaining cause of the cosmos claim that explanations of why something exists now cannot be adequate without assuming a present, contemporaneous sustaining cause. The arguments have been based on the denial of all actual infinities or on the acceptance of some infinities (for instance, the coherence of supposing there to be infinitely many stars) combined with the rejection of an infinite regress of explanations solely involving contingent states of affairs. The latter has been described as a vicious regress as opposed to one that is benign. There are plausible examples of vicious infinite regresses that do not generate explanations: for instance, imagine that I explain my possession of a book by reporting that I got it from A who got it from B, and so on to infinity. This would not explain how I got the book. Alternatively, imagine a mirror with light reflected in it. Would the presence of light be successfully explained if one claimed that the light was a reflection of light from another mirror, and the light in that mirror came from yet another mirror, and so on to infinity? Consider a final case. You come across a word you do not understand; let it be “ongggt”. You ask its meaning and are given another word which is unintelligible to you, and so on, forming an infinite regress. Would you ever know the meaning of the first term? The force of these cases is to show how similar they are to the regress of contingent explanations.
Versions of the argument that reject all actual infinities face the embarrassment of explaining what is to be made of the First Cause, especially since it might have some features that are actually infinite. In reply, Craig and others have contended that they have no objection to potential infinities (although the First Cause will never cease to be, it will never become an actual infinity). They further accept that prior to the creation, the First Cause was not in time, a position relying on the theory that time is relational rather than absolute. The current scientific popularity of the relational view may offer support to defenders of the argument.
It has been objected that both versions of the cosmological argument set out an inflated picture of what explanations are reasonable. Why should the cosmos as a whole need an explanation? If everything in the cosmos can be explained, albeit through infinite, regressive accounts, what is left to explain? One may reply either by denying that infinite regresses actually do satisfactorily explain, or by charging that the failure to seek an explanation for the whole is arbitrary. The question, “Why is there a cosmos?” seems a perfectly intelligible one. If there are accounts for things in the cosmos, why not for the whole? The argument is not built on the fallacy of treating every whole as having all the properties of its parts. But if everything in the cosmos is contingent, it seems just as reasonable to believe that the whole cosmos is contingent as it is to believe that if everything in the cosmos were invisible, the cosmos as a whole would be invisible.
Another objection is that rather than explaining the contingent cosmos, the cosmological argument introduces a mysterious entity of which we can make very little philosophical or scientific sense. How can positing at least one First Cause provide a better account of the cosmos than simply concluding that the cosmos lacks an ultimate account? In the end, the theist seems bound to admit that why the First Cause created at all was a contingent matter. If, on the contrary, the theist has to claim that the First Cause had to do what it did, would not the cosmos be necessary rather than contingent?
Some theists come close to concluding that it was indeed essential that God created the cosmos. If God is supremely good, there had to be some overflowing of goodness in the form of a cosmos (see Kretzmann and Stump in Morris 1987, on the ideas of Dionysius the Areopagite; see Rowe 2004 for arguments that God is not free). But theists typically reserve some role for the freedom of God and thus seek to retain the idea that the cosmos is contingent. Defenders of the cosmological argument still contend that its account of the cosmos has a comprehensive simplicity lacking in alternative views. God's choices may be contingent, but not God's existence and the Divine choice of creating the cosmos can be understood to be profoundly simple in its supreme, overriding endeavor, namely to create something good. Swinburne has argued that accounting for natural laws in terms of God's will provides for a simple, overarching framework within which to comprehend the order and purposive character of the cosmos (see also Foster 2004). At this point we move from the cosmological to the teleological arguments.
Defenders of the cosmological argument include Swinburne, Richard Taylor, Hugo Meynell, Timothy O'Connor, Bruce Reichenbach, Robert Koons, and William Rowe; prominent opponents include Antony Flew, Michael Martin, Howard Sobel, Nicholas Everitt, and J. L Mackie.
4.2.3 Teleological arguments
These arguments focus on characteristics of the cosmos that seem to reflect the design or intentionality of God or, more modestly, of one or more powerful, intelligent God-like agents. Part of the argument may be formulated as providing evidence that the cosmos is the sort of reality that would be produced by an intelligent being, and then arguing that positing this source is more reasonable than agnosticism or denying it. As in the case of the cosmological argument, the defender of the teleological argument may want to claim only to be giving us some reason for thinking there is a God. Note the way the various arguments might then be brought to bear on each other. If successful, the teleological argument may provide some reason for thinking that the First Cause of the cosmological argument is purposive, while the ontological argument provides some reason for thinking that it makes sense to posit a being that has Divine attributes and necessarily exists. Behind all of them an argument from religious experience may provide some initial reasons to seek further support for a religious conception of the cosmos and to question the adequacy of naturalism.
One version of the teleological argument will depend on the intelligibility of purposive explanation. In our own human case it appears that intentional, purposive explanations are legitimate and can truly account for the nature and occurrence of events. In thinking about an explanation for the ultimate character of the cosmos, is it more likely for the cosmos to be accounted for in terms of a powerful, intelligent agent or in terms of a naturalistic scheme of final laws with no intelligence behind them? Theists employing the teleological argument will draw attention to the order and stability of the cosmos, the emergence of vegetative and animal life, the existence of consciousness, morality, rational agents and the like, in an effort to identify what might plausibly be seen as purposively explicable features of the cosmos. Naturalistic explanations, whether in biology or physics, are then cast as being comparatively local in application when held up against the broader schema of a theistic metaphysics. Darwinian accounts of biological evolution will not necessarily assist us in thinking through why there are either any such laws or any organisms to begin with. Arguments supporting and opposing the teleological argument will then resemble arguments about the cosmological argument, with the negative side contending that there is no need to move beyond a naturalistic account, and the positive side aiming to establish that failing to go beyond naturalism is unreasonable.
In assessing the teleological argument, we can begin with the objection from uniqueness. We cannot compare our cosmos with others to determine which have been designed and which have not. If we could, then we might be able to find support for the argument. If we could compare our cosmos with those we knew to be designed and if the comparison were closer than with those we knew not to be designed, then the argument might be plausible. Without such comparisons, however, the argument fails. Replies to this line of attack have contended that were we to insist that inferences in unique cases were out of order, then we would have to rule out otherwise perfectly respectable scientific accounts of the origin of the cosmos. Besides, while it is not possible to compare the layout of different cosmic histories, it is in principle possible to envisage worlds that seem chaotic, random, or based on laws that cripple the emergence of life. Now we can envisage an intelligent being creating such worlds, but, through considering their features, we can articulate some marks of purposive design to help us judge whether the cosmos was designed rather than created at random. Some critics appeal to the possibility that the cosmos has an infinite history to bolster and re-introduce the uniqueness objection. Given infinite time and chance, it seems likely that something like our world will come into existence, with all its appearance of design. If so, why should we take it to be so shocking that our world has its apparent design, and why should explaining the world require positing one or more intelligent designers? Replies repeat the earlier move of insisting that if the objection were to be decisive, then many seemingly respectable accounts would also have to fall by the wayside. It is often conceded that the teleological argument does not demonstrate that one or more designers are required; it seeks rather to establish that positing such purposive intelligence is reasonable and preferable to naturalism. Recent defenders of the argument this century include George Schlesinger, Robin Collins, and Richard Swinburne. It is rejected by J. L. Mackie, Michael Martin, Nicholas Everitt, and others.
One feature of the teleological argument currently receiving increased attention focuses on epistemology. It has been contended that if we do rely on our cognitive faculties, it is reasonable to believe that these are not brought about by naturalistic forces—forces that are entirely driven by chance or are the outcome of processes not formed by an overriding intelligence. An illustration may help to understand the argument. Imagine coming across what appears to be a sign reporting some information about your current altitude (some rocks in a configuration giving you your current location and precise height above sea-level in meters). If you had reason to believe that this “sign” was totally the result of chance configurations, would it still be reasonable to trust it? Some theists argue that it would not be reasonable, and that trusting our cognitive faculties requires us to accept that they were formed by an overarching, good, creative agent. This rekindles Descartes' point about relying on the goodness of God to ensure that our cognitive faculties are in good working order. Objections to this argument center on naturalistic explanations, especially those friendly to evolution. In evolutionary epistemology, one tries to account for the reliability of cognitive faculties in terms of trial and error leading to survival. A rejoinder by theists is that survival alone is not necessarily linked to true beliefs. It could, in principle, be false beliefs that enhance survival. In fact, some atheists think that believing in God has been crucial to people's survival, though the belief is radically false. Martin and Mackie, among others, object to the epistemic teleological argument; Plantinga, Richard Creel and Richard Taylor defend it.
Two recent developments in teleological argumentation have involved the intelligent design hypothesis and fine tuning arguments.
The first is an argument that there are orders of biological complexity emerging in evolution that are highly unlikely if accounted for by random mutation and natural selection or any other means in the absence of a purposive, intentional force (Behe 2007). Debate on the intelligent design (ID) proposal includes questions of whether it is properly scientific, about the biochemistry involved, and whether (if the ID hypothesis is superior to non-ID accounts) the ID hypothesis can inform us about the nature of the intelligent, designing forces. While the ID hypothesis has been defended as an allegedly scientific account—it is not based on an appeal to Genesis (as Creationism is)—many scientists argue that ID is not a scientific theory because it is neither testable nor falsifiable. Some also argue that ID goes beyond the available evidence and that it systematically underestimates the ability of non-intelligent, natural causes (plus chance) to account for the relevant biological complexity. Critics like Kenneth Miller contend that Behe does not take into sufficient account the adaptive value of very minor changes in evolution (such as the sensitivity to light found in algae and bacteria) that gradually lead to complex organs such as the eye (Miller 1999).
Fine tuning arguments contend that the existence of our cosmos with its suns, planets, life, et al. would not have come about or continued in existence without the constancy of multiple factors. Even minor changes to the nuclear weak force would not have allowed for stars, nor would stars have endured if the ratio of electromagnetism to gravity had been different. John Leslie observes: “Alterations by less than one part in a billion to the expansion speed early in the Big Bang would have led to runaway expansion, everything quickly becoming so dilute that no stars could have formed, or else to gravitational collapse inside under a second” (Leslie 2007, 76). Robin Collins and others have argued that theism better accounts for the fine tuning than naturalism (see Collins 2003; for criticism of the argument, see Craig & Smith 1993).
A more sustained objection against virtually all versions of the teleological argument takes issue with the assumption that the cosmos is good or that it is the sort of thing that would be brought about by an intelligent, completely benevolent being. This leads us directly to the next central concern of the philosophy of God.
4.2.4 Problems of evil
If there is a God who is omnipotent, omniscient, and completely good, why is there evil? The problem of evil is the most widely considered objection to theism in both western and eastern philosophy. There are two general versions of the problem: the deductive or logical version, which asserts that the existence of any evil at all (regardless of its role in producing good) is incompatible with God's existence; and the probabilistic version, which asserts that given the quantity and severity of evil that actually exists, it is unlikely that God exists. The deductive problem is currently less commonly debated because it is widely acknowledged that a thoroughly good being might allow or inflict some harm under certain morally compelling conditions (such as causing a child pain when removing a splinter). More intense debate concerns the likelihood (or even possibility) that there is a completely good God given the vast amount of evil in the cosmos. Consider human and animal suffering caused by death, predation, birth defects, ravaging diseases, virtually unchecked human wickedness, torture, rape, oppression, and “natural disasters.” Consider how often those who suffer are innocent. Why should there be so much gratuitous, apparently pointless evil?
In the face of the problem of evil, some philosophers and theologians deny that God is all-powerful and all-knowing. John Stuart Mill took this line, and panentheist theologians today also question the traditional treatments of Divine power. According to panentheism, God is immanent in the world, suffering with the oppressed and working to bring good out of evil, although in spite of God's efforts, evil will invariably mar the created order. Another response is to think of God as being very different from a moral agent. Brian Davies and others have contended that what it means for God to be good is different from what it means for an agent to be morally good (Davies 2006). A more desperate strategy is to deny the existence of evil, but it is difficult to reconcile traditional monotheism with moral skepticism. Also, insofar as we believe there to be a God worthy of worship and a fitting object of human love, the appeal to moral skepticism will carry little weight. The idea that evil is a privation or twisting of the good may have some currency in thinking through the problem of evil, but it is difficult to see how it alone could go very far to vindicate belief in God's goodness. Searing pain and endless suffering seem altogether real even if they are analyzed as being philosophically parasitic on something valuable. The three great monotheistic traditions, with their ample insistence on the reality of evil, offer little reason to try to defuse the problem of evil by this route. Indeed, classical Judaism, Christianity and Islam are so committed to the existence of evil that a reason to reject evil would be a reason to reject these religious traditions. What would be the point of the Judaic teaching about the Exodus (God liberating the people of Israel from slavery), or the Christian teaching about the incarnation (Christ revealing God as love and releasing a Divine power that will, in the end, conquer death), or the Islamic teaching of Mohammed (the holy prophet of Allah who is all-just and all-merciful) if slavery, hate, death, and injustice did not exist?
In part, the magnitude of the difficulty one takes the problem of evil to pose for theism will depend upon one's commitments in other areas of philosophy, especially ethics, epistemology, and metaphysics. If in ethics you hold that there should be no preventable suffering for any reason, regardless of the cause or consequence, then the problem of evil will conflict with your acceptance of traditional theism. Moreover, if you hold that any solution to the problem of evil should be evident to all persons, then again traditional theism is in jeopardy, for clearly the “solution” is not evident to all. Debate has largely centered on the legitimacy of adopting some middle position: a theory of values that would preserve a clear assessment of the profound evil in the cosmos as well as some understanding of how this might be compatible with the existence of an all powerful, completely good Creator. Could there be reasons why God would permit cosmic ills? If we do not know what those reasons might be, are we in a position to conclude that there are none or that there could not be any? Exploring different possibilities will be shaped by one's metaphysics. For example, if you do not believe there is free will, then you will not be moved by any appeal to the positive value of free will and its role in bringing about good as offsetting its role in bringing about evil.
Theistic responses to the problem of evil distinguish between a defense and a theodicy. A defense seeks to establish that rational belief that God exists is still possible (when the defense is employed against the logical version of the problem of evil) and that the existence of evil does not make it improbable that God exists (when used against the probabilistic version). Some have adopted the defense strategy while arguing that we are in a position to have rational belief in the existence of evil and in a completely good God who hates this evil, even though we may be unable to see how these two beliefs are compatible. A theodicy is more ambitious and is typically part of a broader project, arguing that it is reasonable to believe that God exists on the basis of the good as well as the evident evil of the cosmos. In a theodicy, the project is not to account for each and every evil, but to provide an overarching framework within which to understand at least roughly how the evil that occurs is part of some overall good—for instance, the overcoming of evil is itself a great good. In practice, a defense and a theodicy often appeal to similar factors, the first and foremost being what many call the Greater Good Defense.
4.2.5 Evil and the Greater Good
In the Greater Good Defense, it is contended that evil can be understood as either a necessary accompaniment to bringing about greater goods or an integral part of these goods. Thus, in a version often called the Free Will Defense, it is proposed that free creatures who are able to care for each other and whose welfare depends on each other's freely chosen action constitute a good. For this good to be realized, it is argued, there must be the bona fide possibility of persons harming each other. The free will defense is sometimes used narrowly only to cover evil that occurs as a result, direct or indirect, of human action. But it has been speculatively extended by those proposing a defense rather than a theodicy to cover other evils which might be brought about by supernatural agents other than God. According to the Greater Good case, evil provides an opportunity to realize great values, such as the virtues of courage and the pursuit of justice. Reichenbach (1982), Tennant (1930), Swinburne (1979), and van Inwagen (2006) have also underscored the good of a stable world of natural laws in which animals and humans learn about the cosmos and develop autonomously, independent of the certainty that God exists. Some atheists accord value to the good of living in a world without God, and these views have been used by theists to back up the claim that God might have had reason to create a cosmos in which Divine existence is not overwhelmingly obvious to us. If God's existence were overwhelmingly obvious, then motivations to virtue might be clouded by self-interest and by the bare fear of offending an omnipotent being. Further, there may even be some good to acting virtuously even if circumstances guarantee a tragic outcome. John Hick (1978) so argued and has developed what he construes to be an Irenaean approach to the problem of evil (named after St. Irenaeus of the second century). On this approach, it is deemed good that humanity develops the life of virtue gradually, evolving to a life of grace, maturity, and love. This contrasts with a theodicy associated with St. Augustine, according to which God made us perfect and then allowed us to fall into perdition, only to be redeemed later by Christ. Hick thinks the Augustinian model fails whereas the Irenaean one is credible.
Some have based an argument from the problem of evil on the charge that this is not the best possible world. If there were a supreme, maximally excellent God, surely God would bring about the best possible creation. Because this is not the best possible creation, there is no supreme, maximally excellent God. Following Adams (1987), many now reply that the whole notion of a best possible world, like the highest possible number, is incoherent. For any world that can be imagined with such and such happiness, goodness, virtue and so on, a higher one can be imagined. If the notion of a best possible world is incoherent, would this count against belief that there could be a supreme, maximally excellent being? It has been argued on the contrary that Divine excellences admit of upper limits or maxima that are not quantifiable in a serial fashion (for example, Divine omnipotence involves being able to do anything logically or metaphysically possible, but does not require actually doing the greatest number of acts or a series of acts of which there can be no more).
Those concerned with the problem of evil clash over the question of how one assesses the likelihood of Divine existence. Someone who reports seeing no point to the existence of evil or no justification for God to allow it seems to imply that if there were a point they would see it. Note the difference between seeing no point and not seeing a point. In the cosmic case, is it clear that if there were a reason justifying the existence of evil, we would see it? William Rowe thinks some plausible understanding of God's justificatory reason for allowing the evil should be detectable, but that there are cases of evil that are altogether gratuitous. Defenders like William Hasker and Stephen Wykstra reply that these cases are not decisive counter-examples to the claim that there is a good God. These philosophers hold that we can recognize evil and grasp our duty to do all in our power to prevent or alleviate it. But we should not take our failure to see what reason God might have for allowing evil to count as grounds for thinking that there is no reason. This later move has led to a position commonly called skeptical theism. Michael Bergmann, Michael Rea, and others have argued that we have good reason to be skeptical about whether we can assess whether ostensibly gratuitous evils may or may not be permitted by an all good God (Bergmann 2001; Bergmann and Rea 2005; for criticism see Almeida and Oppy 2003).
Some portraits of an afterlife seem to have little bearing on our response to the magnitude of evil here and now. Does it help to understand why God allows evil if all victims will receive happiness later? But it is difficult to treat the possibility of an afterlife as entirely irrelevant. Is death the annihilation of persons or an event involving a transfiguration to a higher state? If you do not think that it matters whether persons continue to exist after death, then such speculation is of little consequence. But suppose that the afterlife is understood as being morally intertwined with this life, with opportunity for moral and spiritual reformation, transfiguration of the wicked, rejuvenation and occasions for new life, perhaps even reconciliation and communion between oppressors seeking forgiveness and their victims. Then these considerations might help to defend against arguments based on the existence of evil. Insofar as one cannot rule out the possibility of an afterlife morally tied to our life, one cannot rule out the possibility that God brings some good out of cosmic ills.
The most recent work on the afterlife in philosophy of religion has focused on the compatibility of an individual afterlife with some forms of physicalism. Arguably, a dualist treatment of human persons is more promising. If you are not metaphysically identical with your body, then perhaps the annihilation of your body is not the annihilation of you. Today, a range of philosophers have argued that even if physicalism is true, an afterlife is still possible (Peter van Inwagen, Lynne Baker, Trenton Merricks, Kevin Cocoran). The import of this work for the problem of evil is that the possible redemptive value of an afterlife should not be ruled out (without argument) if one assumes physicalism to be true. (For an extraordinary, rich resource on the relevant literature, see The Oxford Handbook of Eschatology, ed. by J. Walls.)
4.2.6 Religious Experience
Perhaps the justification most widely offered for religious belief concerns the occurrence of religious experience or the cumulative weight of testimony of those claiming to have had religious experiences. Putting the latter case in theistic terms, the argument appeals to the fact that many people have testified that they have felt God's presence. Does such testimony provide evidence that God exists? That it is evidence has been argued by Jerome Gellman, Keith Yandell, William Alston, Caroline Davis, Gary Gutting, Kai-Man Kwan, Richard Swinburne and others. That it is not (or that its evidential force is trivial) is argued by Michael Martin, J. L. Mackie, Kai Nielson, Matthew Bagger, John Schellenberg, William Rowe, and others. In an effort to stimulate further investigation, I shall briefly sketch some of the moves and countermoves in the debate.
Objection: Religious experience cannot be experience of God for experience is only sensory and if God is non-physical, God cannot be sensed.
Reply: The thesis that experience is only sensory can be challenged. Yandell marks out some experiences (as when one has “a feeling” someone is present but without having any accompanying sensations) that might provide grounds for questioning a narrow sensory notion of experience.
Objection: Testimony to have experienced God is only testimony that one thinks one has experienced God; it is only testimony of a conviction, not evidence.
Reply: The literature on religious experience testifies to the existence of experience of some Divine being on the basis of which the subject comes to think the experience is of God. If read charitably, the testimony is not testimony to a conviction, but to experiences that form the grounds for the conviction. (See Bagger 1999 for a vigorous articulation of this objection, and note the reply by Kai-man Kwam 2003).
Objection: Because religious experience is unique, how could one ever determine whether it is reliable? We simply lack the ability to examine the object of religious experience in order to test whether the reported experiences are indeed reliable.
Reply: As we learned from Descartes, all our experiences of external objects face a problem of uniqueness. It is possible in principle that all our senses are mistaken and we do not have the public, embodied life we think we lead. We cannot step out of our own subjectivity to vindicate our ordinary perceptual beliefs any more than in the religious case. (See the debate between William Alston and Evan Fales 2004).
Objection: Reports of religious experience differ radically and the testimony of one religious party neutralizes the testimony of others. The testimony of Hindus cancels out the testimony of Christians. The testimony of atheists to experience God's absence cancels out the testimony of “believers.”
Reply: Several replies might be offered here. Testimony to experience the absence of God might be better understood as testimony not to experience God. Failing to experience God might be justification for believing that there is no God only to the extent that we have reason to believe that if God exists God would be experienced by all. Theists might even appeal to the claim by many atheists that it can be virtuous to live ethically with atheist beliefs. Perhaps if there is a God, God does not think this is altogether bad, and actually desires religious belief to be fashioned under conditions of trust and faith rather than knowledge. The diversity of religious experiences has caused some defenders of the argument from religious experience to mute their conclusion. Thus, Gutting (1982) contends that the argument is not strong enough to fully vindicate a specific religious tradition, but that it is strong enough to overturn an anti-religious naturalism. Other defenders use their specific tradition to deal with ostensibly competing claims based on different sorts of religious experiences. Theists have proposed that more impersonal experiences of the Divine represent only one aspect of God. God is a person or is person-like, but God can also be experienced, for example, as sheer luminous unity. Hindus have claimed the experience of God as personal is only one stage in the overall journey of the soul to truth, the highest truth being that Brahman transcends personhood. (For a discussion of these objections and replies and references, see Taliaferro 1998.)