Are there good arguments for the existence of deities/the supernatural that don’t require supporting evidence?

2 02 2008

At OzAtheist, Christopher asks:

If it could be shown, through logic, that God, as you both have defined him [or her, or it], exists then would that be considered sufficient reason to justify belief?

My response follows . . .

I should reiterate that I don’t think you can use logic as a source of truth about the world and the universe, and therefore I don’t think arguments that rely upon logic alone–that is, to the exclusion of evidence–could ever be considered sufficient reason to justify belief.

I’ve used the following example in a discussion with SS2 in another thread, but it bears repeating here. Let’s take President Bush’s famous 2001 statement “Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists,” and restate it in logical terms:

P1. Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists.
P2. You are not with us.
C. Therefore, you are with the terrorists.

The argument above is deductively valid: as long as the premises are true, the conclusion will be true. But it is also factually wrong, It is possible to be neither with us nor with the terrorists, and as a matter of fact many nations and individuals, both with the Western world and without, both within the US and without, were neither supporters of the terrorists nor uncritical supporters of the policies of the Bush administration.

But it is very easy to see how some people could become bamboozled by the deductively valid form of the President’s argument (once you add in the implied P2 and conclusion), and confuse validity with truth. What they miss is that logic is only truth-preserving; it is not inherently true. Since we are not talking about mathematics here, and since by “true” I mean “true about the world and the universe,” there must be provided sufficient supporting evidence to justify the belief that P1 and/or P2 are true. (”True,” that is, in the tentative sense of being true only until there is sufficient evidence to justify the belief that P1 and/or P2 are in fact false, and so on.)

You’ve heard of the adage, popularised by Carl Sagan, that “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.” Whether it is capital “T” true is one thing; it certainly has and does work as a useful guiding principle for establishing (albeit tentatively, but tentatively is probably the best we can do) truths about the universe. Well, the claim that a deity/deities/the supernatural exists is surely an extraordinary claim, and my position all along in this thread has been that it would take extraordinary evidence–so extraordinary that I am having difficulty even imagining what it could look like–to convince me to accept this claim. I certainly don’t think ordinary evidence–e.g. anecdote, scriptures, personal testimonies, etc.–is up to the task. So why, then, would I be justified in accepting the extraordinary claim that a deity/deities/the supernatural exists with no supporting evidence whatsoever?

So, to sum up, this is how I see the suggestion that I would be justified in accepting this extraordinary claim on purely logical grounds:

P1. If I have a bridge to sell you, you ought to buy my bridge.
P2. I have a bridge to sell you.
C. Therefore, you ought to buy my bridge.

Sorry, but I need to see this bridge–or be provided with sufficient evidence of its existence–before I consider buying it.

Thoughts?

BTW, as long as we’re on the subject . . .

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18 responses

2 02 2008
doubtingthomas426

Hello, I’ve recently received a rather disturbing comment on my site from a Christian (whiteman0o0) on the issue of whether or not we are all born sinners. He stated that, yes, we are all born sinners. I argued that I believed babies and children are innocent and can’t and shouldn’t be judged based on the ‘sins’ of a couple of naïve children in the Garden of Eden. I brought up the tragic, unexpected death of a baby in its crib from SIDS (Sudden Infant Death Syndrome) and asked if this baby should burn in eternal hellfire because it never had the opportunity to accept Jesus as his personal savior or ask for forgiveness for his ‘sins’? Whiteman0o0 responded, saying, yes, babies and children can go to hell because (and here is where it gets crazy) God doesn’t judge them for their ACTUAL lives but for the lives they WOULD HAVE lived had they not died. In other words, God creates an alternate timeline where the baby/child didn’t die and sees if they would have become a Christian or not, what sins they would have committed, etc. and sends them to heaven or hell accordingly. I don’t know if anyone else is as put off by this scenario as I was but I am pleading and urging anyone who does find it disturbing, or even those who agree with it, to please visit the page where the comment appears. You can find it here:

http://doubtingthomas426.wordpress.com/2007/12/16/if-the-statement-is-true-your-religion-is-vile/

Please read the comments (you can ignore the original post), particularly mine (DoubtingThomas426) and whiteman0o0’s and leave a comment addressing this issue. I truly appreciate it.

Thank you and I apologize for taking up space on this page with my plea.

DoubtingThomas

http://doubtingthomas426.wordpress.com/

2 02 2008
Christopher

Hi

I think this is a really fascinating discussion. Full marks to Ozathiest for starting it off.

Now to your comment. You said “I should reiterate that I don’t think you can use logic as a source of truth about the world and the universe, and therefore I don’t think arguments that rely upon logic alone–that is, to the exclusion of evidence–could ever be considered sufficient reason to justify belief.”

So logic can never be a source of truth Hmmm? Ok I’ll take you on with that claim. I assert that I have a square circle at home. I further assert that if you wish to prove me wrong you MUST come to my place and establish, through empirical testing, that such an object is NOT a square circle but something else. BUT though the use of logic we can say it is logically contradictory to claim to have an object which is both round & square at the same time. Logically contradictory objects cannot exist so we do not need to go over to examine the object. We have discovered a truth from logic alone.

2nd The argument that you gave as an example of logical argument is invalid. It is a logical falacy known as a false dicotomy.

I agree with Sagan about the necessity of evidence to prove an assertion. However there are a few other things to consider.

1) Empiricism has limitations. One of its limitations is it is limited to objects in this space-time continuum. For instance let us accept, for argument’s sake, that there exists an object in a 5th dimensional world. How would we study such an object? How would we begin to understand something so outside of the universe as we understand it? Such, it is asserted, is God [if God exists] – something so outside our universe that He [or She or It] is totally beyond our understanding.
There was an astronomer once [sorry I’ve forgetten exactly who it was] who said “the universe is not only stranger than we imagine it is stranger than we can imagine. Now apply that same thinking to God & you get the idea.

2) What does science use to formulate its conclusions? It uses induction. Now prove the value & accuracy of induction to me. If I asked you that you might reply something like “that’s easy. Let’s look at all the knowledge we have gained through a careful examination of the evidence. ” But such an answer is inductive in nature. You would be using induction to prove induction. I.e. you would be using circular reasoning. But the whole of science is based on induction so there’s a logical problem right there. How do we examine evidence when the method we would use to examine it [i.e. induction] can be viewed as flawed.

3) How far do we take empiricism? For example prove that there are other beings in this world other than yourself. Easy you say – you can see & hear them. Don’t you see & hear people in dreams? In fact we could all be just brains floating in jars hooked up to various wires which stimulate our senses to give us the impression that the world exists. That’s a modern version of cartesian doubt by the way [not just me going crackers 🙂 . What’s my point? Simply this. The motto of empiricism is “Nothing in the mind that was not previously in the sense.” Or to put it more simply if we haven’t got evidence for it we have no right to believe it. But if we take empiricism to its logical conclusion then we inevitably end up believing nothing because ultimately we can prove nothing.

2 02 2008
Bruce

I assert that I have a square circle at home.

Can you prove this with pure logic?

I further assert that if you wish to prove me wrong you MUST come to my place and establish, through empirical testing, that such an object is NOT a square circle but something else.

To demonstrate that it is incredulous all he has to do is point out that you have provided no evidence. You posit the claim, ergo the burden of proof falls upon you.

BUT though the use of logic we can say it is logically contradictory to claim to have an object which is both round & square at the same time.

Thus negating the positive claim, leaving us with no claims. You’ve only used deductive logic to discount an untruth, not to support a truth.

Further, empericism has limitiations. So what?

What does science use to formulate its conclusions? It uses induction. Now prove the value & accuracy of induction to me.

If you want certainty from induction, don’t ask me for it. And don’t expect science to be inductivist, it isn’t (ala Popper’s solving of the problem of induction.)

In fact we could all be just brains floating in jars hooked up to various wires which stimulate our senses to give us the impression that the world exists.

Yes, but it’s not a viable assumption. If you want to see empericism go full circle on this, I suggest Radical Constructivism: A Way of Knowing and Learning by von Glasersfeld. Touches on Popper, Lakatos and some old empiricism. EvG calls it “inter-subjectivity” but I think he could use a better term (and tie it in with the repeatability criterion of scientific hypothesis).

In any case, if we bring back Ockham’s Razor, which when all other things are equal (like with this Cartesian Buridan’s Metaphysical Ass you’ve given us) is a reasonable approach (unnecessary plurality giving you more ways a theorem can be wrong) the brains in jars scenario collapses.

But if we take empiricism to its logical conclusion then we inevitably end up believing nothing because ultimately we can prove nothing.

Only if we take your rendition of empiricism as an exemplar. I don’t. Brains-in-jars, solipsism etc can all be rendered un-viable by one reasonable heuristic or another.

2 02 2008
arthurvandelay

We have discovered a truth from logic alone.

No, there are no square circles. Neither are there married bachelors. You make a good point, but these aren’t discoveries about the universe (circles and squares, for instance, are geometrical concepts–do perfect squares and circles exist in the universe?): they are true by definition. In other words, they are tautologies.

The question is, why should I accept the proposition that the statement “God exists” belongs to the same category as the statements “There are no square circles” and “There are no married bachelors”?

The argument that you gave as an example of logical argument is invalid. It is a logical falacy known as a false dicotomy.

Actually, only P1 is a false dichotomy, and we only know that because we can point to real-world evidence that falsifies P1. The overall argument is valid because it is structured in such a way that if its premises were true, its conclusion would be true.

Empiricism has limitations. One of its limitations is it is limited to objects in this space-time continuum.

Of course, but what reason is there to believe in the existence of entities outside the empirical universe? Isn’t that exactly what is at issue?

There was an astronomer once [sorry I’ve forgetten exactly who it was] who said “the universe is not only stranger than we imagine it is stranger than we can imagine. Now apply that same thinking to God & you get the idea.

Why should I apply the same thinking to God? We know the universe exists. We don’t know that God exists.

What does science use to formulate its conclusions? It uses induction.

I’m not well versed in philosophy of science (Bruce is the go-to man here), but I am aware that the role of induction in science is not as straightforward as you suggest. Is it really the case that science only uses induction? Popper offered an alternative view: that observation and evidence function only to corroborate (or falsify) theories rather than confirm or establish them. (A corroborated theory being one that has hitherto survived rigorous attempts to falsify it.) The modern scientific method (via CS Pierce) involves the use of inductive, deductive and abductive reasoning.

For example prove that there are other beings in this world other than yourself.

Nope–can’t prove it. But then I don’t claim that it’s something that can be “proved.” The question is: is it more parsimonious to infer the existence of other beings, given the empirical evidence for their existence, than to suppose that I am a brain in a vat?

Or to put it more simply if we haven’t got evidence for it we have no right to believe it. But if we take empiricism to its logical conclusion then we inevitably end up believing nothing because ultimately we can prove nothing.

To take your claim about empiricism to its logical conclusion, the absence of evidence for the existence of unicorns (both the invisible pink and the regular varieties), leprechauns, fairies at the bottom of the garden, bunyips, gryphons, dragons, werewolves and vampires is no reason not to believe that such entities exist. Nor in the myriad upon myriad of other entities for which no evidence exists. Nor does the absence of evidence that if I send $1000 to a bank account in Nigeria, I will be the beneficiary of the estate of a dying man who would rather give his wealth away to a stranger on the other side of the globe than to his family, constitute sufficient reason not to seize this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

The notion that if we can’t prove anything than we can’t believe anything is, with all respect, patently ridiculous. You can’t prove the efficacy of modern medicine, and yet I am willing to bet that when you’re sick you’re as likely to head for the pharmacist or the doctor’s office as anyone else. Why is that?

Or do you accept an empirical approach, but only to a certain point? If so, where do you think the line should be drawn, and how do you know it should be drawn there?

3 02 2008
Christopher

@ Bruce
I thought I should add a bit more about science not using induction [which was a contention of Popper].
To quote Simon Blackburn “Stressing the difficulty the problem of induction raises Popper substituted an epistemology that starts with the bold, imaginative formation of hypotheses, These face the tribunal of experience, which has the power to falsify them, but not to confirm them. A hypothesis that survives the ordeal of attempted refutation can be provisionally accepted as ‘corroborated’ but never assigned a probability.”
There are problem’s with the Popperian approach however. For example to quote Blackburn “something like induction seems to be involved when we rely upon well-coroberated theories. Nobody flies in an jet because it is a bold imaginative conjecture that it will stay aloft.”
In the main however I agree with Popper. It is well to add that Popper also asserted that unless something could be falsified in remained in the realms of non-science. However he asserted that with the development of new technology it was quite possible for a subject of non-science to enter the realm of science. For example if, for argument’s sake, soul’s exist and the technology develops to detect them then their existence becomes the subject of falsification & such a study moves into science.
How would this relate to God however? If God exists & if He [or She or Ir] is immeasurably greater than we can understand then God would remain permanently outside the realm of science. Now this argument does NOT attempt to assert a principle [I.e. that if you can’t disprove God then He can’t exist] but merely to assert that there may well be somethings that remain forever outside our ability to comprehend. God, IF He exists, may well be one of these. That’s the only thing I am asserting here.

3 02 2008
Christopher

Sorry that should read [that if you can’t disprove God then He must exist]

3 02 2008
Dave Bath

The null hypothesis is always useful when making assertions. If only theists put forward “god does not exist” and tried to disprove that – to an appropriately low p value.

Mind you, Aristotle put forward the argument that even if a deity did not exist, it is useful to believe in one. (Empirical evidence suggests that might be well and good for “nice” people, but theist belief only makes bigots, powerseekers, etc, more rabid and dangerous). If Aristotle had learnt of quantum fluctuations, or investigated things using the concept of “emergent phenomena”, then he wouldn’t have needed his unmoved mover.

It’s also worth remembering that Abrahamism itself used so-called experimental and the phenomenal to support itself. There was something about a prophet trying to prove the superiority of YahooWahoo over Baal by getting sacrified oxen to burn… then we have phenomenal assertions about cures, burning bushes, etc, etc. The Vatican uses “devil’s advocates” and collates oncology reports when investigating so-called miracles. Thus, the majority of Abrahamist organizations have ruled IN phenomenal study as a valid way of determining theological “truth”.

The only valid way of getting truth without evidence relies on semantics and ontology: a priori falsities and truths, such as “A bachelor is not married”. Mathematics is a more sophisticated form of this, but even maths was blown away by Kurt Godel and Georg Cantor.

3 02 2008
Christopher

@ Dave

I agee completely. I suppose, apart from the modern ontological argument I put forward, I am arguing for epistemic humility.

A radical skeptic would argue that we do not know very much. That being so it is pointless to declare that such and such a thing does not exist. We know too little to pontificate in such matters. All we can say is “that assertion remains unproven.” That doesn’t mean it can never be proven, merely that the little that we know does not support such an idea.
Now if theists are correct & their conception of God exists, then we can NEVER know it. Why? Because such a conception is beyond our understanding & therefore can NEVER be proven. But that is a weakness in ourselves NOT in the evidence [If God truely exists that is].

@ Bruce, Arthur, Dave
This has truely been an interesting discussion. Thank you. But for me I have to hit the books. I teach a philosophy class tomorrow & I have to get organised. Bye

3 02 2008
Christopher

Whoops, Special thanks to Ozathiest for starting this thread. Bye again.

3 02 2008
Dave Bath

From the excellent xkcd comic strip:
http://xkcd.com/263/ “certainty”
http://xkcd.com/373/ “the data so far”

3 02 2008
AV

Special thanks to Ozathiest for starting this thread.

I’ll second that.

3 02 2008
Protium

Hi AV

Sorry I’m totally off topic here but I’ve just started a Perth Atheist Meetup and would love to have you at the frist meeting.

Please check it out

Protium

3 02 2008
arthurvandelay

For some reason I was unable to approve this comment from Christopher:

Christopher

A few comments

1) @ Bruce. Sorry but you are wrong. You wrote that “If you want certainty from induction, don’t ask me for it. And don’t expect science to be inductivist, it isn’t (ala Popper’s solving of the problem of induction.)” But we find that Dr. Irving Rothchild [Professor of Reproductive Biology] writes ” Science is a never-ending, always changing process through which we learn to know the material nature of the universe. Science does not deal with nonmaterial entities such as gods, for there is no way their existence can be either proved or disproved. No single, identifiable method applies to all branches of science; the only method, in fact, is whatever the scientist can use to find the solution to a problem. This includes INDUCTION a form of logic that identifies similarities within a group of particulars, and deduction, a form of logic that identifies a particular by its resemblance to a set of accepted facts. Both forms of logic are aids to but not the solution of the scientist’s problem.” [emphasis mine].
Found at http://www.ssr.org/Induction.shtml if you want to check it out for yourself.
By the way thanks for the heads up on Radical Constructivism. I will definately have to have a read.

2) @ both Arthur & Bruce. We can establish a fact [the non-existence of a geometrical shape, in this case square circles, from pure logic]. How have I shown the non-existence of square circles? Through the use of logic proving the impossibility of their existence, not only in my keeping but anywhere. This is the establishment of a truth, namely there are no such things as square circles. You asserted however that we could gain no truth from logic alone. Since a truth has been shown from logic alone the assertion is refuted. As to logic never being able to establish truth I refer you to a peer reviewed site The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Under Deduction we find “A deductive argument is an argument in which it is thought that the premises provide a guarantee of the TRUTH of the conclusion.” While induction “Is an argument in which it is thought that the premises provide reasons supporting the probable TRUTH of the conclusion.” [emphasis mine].
Check it out here http://www.iep.utm.edu/d/ded-ind.htm

3) In all my arguments on induction & empiricism my point was to show that induction & empiricism themselves have weaknesses. We do accept certain things with insufficient evidence. For example the existence of other people. How does Occam’s Razor apply to this? Occam Razor is “Do not multiply entities beyond necessity” which is basicly the principle of parsimony “the simpler theory is more likely to be true.” Now which is simpler & involves less entities – that I am dreaming [only I and my thought processes exist] or that a multitude of people, some of whom I will never interact with, exist on a very complex world. The principle of parsimony would seem to support the dream hypothesis. Don’t worry I’m not arguing for it. Just trying to make the point that although we can’t prove that people exist we believe in them anyway, theists just extend this principle one more step & apply it to God as well. I’m not saying I agree with the argument I’m just asserting it is not all that unreasonable.

4) I think with this one you missed my point. I think that was my fault sorry.

Quote “To take your claim about empiricism to its logical conclusion, the absence of evidence for the existence of unicorns (both the invisible pink and the regular varieties), leprechauns, fairies at the bottom of the garden, bunyips, gryphons, dragons, werewolves and vampires is no reason not to believe that such entities exist.”
Actually my argument would show exactly the opposite. If we should believe only in that which can be proved then, since I cannot prove that God, unicorns or other people exist, I should disbelieve in all three.

5) Now to the idea that the example you gave was invalid. Since a valid argument can only consist of premises and a conclusion based upon said premises then if one of the premises is a logical fallacy and the conclusion is based upon the premise then the conclusion is based upon a logical fallacy & therefore is invalid.

By the way I should make something clear. I am NOT a theist. I have no interest in proving theism right or wrong. To me this is merely an academic exercise, nothing more.

3 02 2008
arthurvandelay

Protium:

Sorry I’m totally off topic here but I’ve just started a Perth Atheist Meetup and would love to have you at the frist meeting.

I would love to be there, but for the fact that I am temporarily based in Japan right now. Thanks for the invite, though.

Christopher:

But we find that Dr. Irving Rothchild [Professor of Reproductive Biology]

Appeal to authority fallacy?

Through the use of logic proving the impossibility of their existence, not only in my keeping but anywhere. This is the establishment of a truth, namely there are no such things as square circles. You asserted however that we could gain no truth from logic alone. Since a truth has been shown from logic alone the assertion is refuted.

What I meant is that I don’t think we can truth about the empirical universe from logic alone. Your point is taken, however, and perhaps that should be qualified to exclude tautologous truths like “All bachelors are unmarried.” But I don’t see how “God exists” falls into the same category as either “All bachelors are unmarried” or “There are no square circles.”

“A deductive argument is an argument in which it is thought that the premises provide a guarantee of the TRUTH of the conclusion.” While induction “Is an argument in which it is thought that the premises provide reasons supporting the probable TRUTH of the conclusion.” [emphasis mine].

But notice that neither form of argument is offered as a source of truth. For instance, in the case of deductive arguments the premises only guarantee the truth of the conclusion as long as the premises themselves are true. In other words, garbage in, garbage out. I never argued otherwise.

In all my arguments on induction & empiricism my point was to show that induction & empiricism themselves have weaknesses. We do accept certain things with insufficient evidence.

I agree that induction and empiricism have their weaknesses. But they seem the be the best we have. And yes, we do accept certain things with insufficient evidence, and with the possibility that new evidence that may overturn what we currently accept.

But ought we accept something like the existence of God with no evidence?

Now which is simpler & involves less entities – that I am dreaming [only I and my thought processes exist] or that a multitude of people, some of whom I will never interact with, exist on a very complex world. The principle of parsimony would seem to support the dream hypothesis.

I don’t see why. For one thing, you appear to have engaged in a bit of goalpost-moving re: the dream hypothesis. What happened to the “brains floating in jars hooked up to various wires which stimulate our senses to give us the impression that the world exists?” And why does the fact that I am dreaming entail that nothing outside myself and my thought processes exist? If “dreaming” doesn’t rule out the existence of other people in a complex world, going about their business while I am dreaming–and I can’t see how it does–then Ockam’s Razor supports empiricism.

If we should believe only in that which can be proved then, since I cannot prove that God, unicorns or other people exist, I should disbelieve in all three.

I don’t think we should believe only in that which can be proved–i.e. only in that which can be established as an absolute truth which can never be overturned no matter what new evidence is uncovered. The fact that there is evidence that other people exist means that it is reasonable to believe that they exist. The fact that there is no evidence for the existence of God or unicorns means that one is under no obligation to believe in them–one is not being unreasonable in lacking belief in them.

Since a valid argument can only consist of premises and a conclusion based upon said premises then if one of the premises is a logical fallacy and the conclusion is based upon the premise then the conclusion is based upon a logical fallacy & therefore is invalid.

But in the case I provided, the only way we know that the premise is a logical fallacy is by appealing to empirical evidence–evidence from the world that demonstrates that “you are either with us, or you are with the terrorists” is a false dichotomy. What I am trying to point out is that the premise is not fallacious simply for the reason that it presents a dichotomy–we need empirical evidence to show that the dichotomy is a false dichotomy. (Unless you’re arguing that all dichotomies are false dichotomies.)

3 02 2008
Bruce

But we find that Dr. Irving Rothchild [Professor of Reproductive Biology] writes ” Science is a never-ending, always changing process through which we learn to know the material nature of the universe. Science does not deal with nonmaterial entities such as gods, for there is no way their existence can be either proved or disproved. No single, identifiable method applies to all branches of science; the only method, in fact, is whatever the scientist can use to find the solution to a problem. This includes INDUCTION…

I said science wasn’t inductivist* (albeit anymore unlike the classical days). Of course it has an inductive component, you need something to throw thru your deductive woodchipper. Keeping the wood-chipper analogy, if for whatever reason the hypothesis (aka wood) can’t be made to fit into the wood-chipper, then it is philosophy rather than science (but alter on down the road that may change as the wood is better understood or the woodchipper is improved).

3 02 2008
Bruce

By the way thanks for the heads up on Radical Constructivism. I will definately have to have a read.

I hope you enjoy it. It’s a bit obscure and there have been discussions with EvG online around the place that help fill a few things in (I think at Oikos?) but I’m not 100% in agreement with some of the details (EvG doesn’t dismiss falsification out of hand, but makes a criticism of its underlying inferred and unnecessary metaphysical assumptions but I’m not sure EvG takes Popper as seriously as he should). Reconciling radical constructivism, Kuhn’s scientific revolutions and Popper’s falsifiability is something I want to get my head around as a part of science teaching.

4 02 2008
AV

The more I consider it, the less convincing I find the ontological argument as put forward by Christopher in the “What Would Convince You?” thread at OzAtheist. (Read from here down.)

Let us define something as unsurpassibly great if it exists and perfect in every possible world. Now let us allow that it is at least possible that such an unsurpassably great being exists. This means that it is at least possible that there is a world somewhere where such a being might exist. But if it exists in one world, it exists in all worlds [for given omnipresence the fact that such a being exists in one world entails that it exists and is perfect in all worlds]. This being so it would necessarily exist. A being which necessarily exist must exist.
The correct [indeed only] counter to such an argument is to deny the apparently reasonable concession that it is at least possible for such a being to exist somewhere in the universe. To be able to logically deny this you would have to be eternal, omniscient & omnipresent. In other words you would be God. This concession is more dangerous than it looks since in modal logic from pissibly necessarily P we can derive necessarily P. I was first taught this argument by my philosophy professor Alvin Plantinga & it stills drives me up the wall that I can’t find find a fault in the argument. I hope the two of you have better luck.

As I replied at OzAtheist, I don’t think we necessarily face a choice between affirming and denying the possibility of this “unsurpassably great” being existing somewhere in some possible world. One can always take the agnostic position and wait for the one asserting that such a possibility exists to provide the evidence justifying his claim, since if he is making a positive knowledge claim–“It is possible that an unsurpassably great being exists somewhere in some possible world”–the burden of evidence lies with him. We are under no obligation to accept his claim purely on his say-so.

Then you have the problem of defining what “perfect” means. Chris’s response is tautologous: “Perfect may be defined as “entirely without any flaws, defects, or shortcomings.” That doesn’t tell us very much, of course, because we still need a standard in relation to which a thing can be flawed or defective. Unless pure logic can provide us with such content, and since this is supposed to be an argument for God’s existence, perhaps it has to come from theology or Scripture. This, of course, would lead us into question-begging territory if we try to use God’s existence (the very thing we are trying to prove) to justify the invocation of the authority of Scripture or religious dogma.

(I want to emphasise here that I am not trying to put words into Christopher’s mouth, or to suggest that he would invoke theology or Scripture. As he pointed out earlier, he is not a theist. I guess that means he is not entirely convinced by the modern ontological argument, even if he is impressed by it.)

The term “necessary being” (another term Christopher uses for the “unsurpassably great being”) itself doesn’t tell us very much about what this necessary being is. I can’t see how it entails deityhood, let alone the kinds of qualities normally attributed to deities by those who revere them: omniscience, the quality of being creator of the universe, omnibenevolence, and so on. How do we know the “unsurpassably great being” is even sentient? Is sentience “greater” or “more perfect” than non-sentience? How do you know? Can pure logic tell us this? Indeed, can pure logic tell us how to get from “unsurpassably great being” or “necessary being” to “sentient necessary being,” and from there to “sentient necessary being who is the creator of the universe, is omniscient, and is omnibenevolent” (and from there to “sentient, necessary, omniscient, omnibenevolent creator of the universe who was so angered by Heath Ledger’s participation in the making of Brokeback Mountain that he cast him down into Hell and would Ledger’s parents please inform the Phelps family of the venue of their son’s funeral so they can heckle from a “respectable distance” so as to please said “sentient, necessary, omniscient, omnibenevolent creator of the universe”–sorry, I couldn’t resist 🙂 )? If not, there seem to be only two options–ad hockery (e.g. “I assert that the necessary being has x qualities”), or an appeal to empirical “evidence” (even if the “evidence” is of dubious quality–e.g. anecdote, miracles, etc.).

20 02 2008
Counter-apologetic pwnage par excellence « Five Public Opinions

[…] I have previously stated that it would take extraordinary evidence indeed to convince me of the supernatural–so extraordinary that I can’t imagine what it would look like. The suggestions Kirby offers here haven’t really convinced me otherwise, and here’s why. What they describe are phenomena that appear to be beyond the capacity of science to explain: and if they can’t be explained in natural terms, then we must defer to supernatural explanations. But isn’t this just arguing from ignorance? And if it is, hasn’t Kirby just made a huge concession to apologists who routinely appeal to ignorance by way of making ambit claims about which phenomena science will never, ever be able to account for? […]

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