Tuesday, May 01, 2007

A philosophical umbrella

In a comment to the Deacon's post on Biblical Literalism jeff.maynes comments:
The point is that if you are going to refute the large number of doctrines under the title "Christianity" then you ought to consider the best and strongest ones. ...

If you are going to refute Christian truth claims, then you ought to refute the strongest possible claims. The strongest possible claims are not constrained by Biblical literalism (because assuming that all Christians are Biblical literalists is an unfair assumption). So, the atheist ought to be primarily concerned with more sophisticated versions of Christianity.
But why should should I be primarily concerned with more sophisticated versions of Christian truth claims?

I would accept this stance if I were concerned (hypothetically speaking) with refuting "evolution". Refuting straw man versions of evolution, while a popular pastime among creationists, is not a fair way to evaluate the evolutionary sciencies (the various scientific disciplines and their conclusions that fall under the umbrella of "evolution"). To criticize "evolution", one must, in a similar manner to what jeff.maynes suggests, criticize only its strongest arguments (and especially not consider a refutation of an obsolete argument to undermine the modern version of the science.)

But the rub is that "evolution" has a distinct canon: the scientific papers accepted as true by the vast majority of professional self-described evolutionary scientists. This canon, moreover, is highly internally consistent as well as highly consistent with a well-defined metaphysical epistemology (the scientific method). In short, there's something specific, well-defined and there to criticize.

In fact, it's a misnomer to assert that one should only rebut the "strongest" arguments for evolution. Rather, one should only rebut the canonical arguments for evolution. They do happen to be the arguments considered strongest by the canonical authorities (the professional scientists), but it is their inclusion in the canon that gives them privilege, not their strength.

Another rub is that the "umbrella" of evolution does not in any way protect weak arguments actually made or exempt them from any criticism. If, for instance, a critic of evolution in general were to correctly rebut a false argument in evolution (e.g. adaptationism) actually made by someone naive, then it would not be fair to then criticize the critic for rebutting a non-canonical argument. Whether or not it's canonical, the position is false and deserves criticism, and criticism of a part is no less deserved or valid coming from a critic of the whole.

The problem with jeff.maynes' remarks about "Christianity" become clear. There is no single canon that deserves the privilege of being called the Christian canon. There are, rather, a thousand different canons, all held to a differing degree by self-described Christians; every Christian has his own individual interpretation for what it means to be "Christian". There is no privileged canon of Christianity as a whole to which one can legitimately claim that criticism should be restricted.

Even if there were a canon, it would not be legitimate to use that canon to shield weak arguments actually made. Again, if someone advocates adaptationism, they should be corrected; likewise if someone advocates Biblical literalism, Aquinas' five proofs, Anselm's or Godel's ontological arguments or Pascal's wager, they should be criticized—even if these arguments have been rejected by some theists, even if there were actually a Christian-as-a-whole canon that rejected these arguments. And it is a fact that millions of people, if not hundreds of millions, do actually believe and put forth these arguments.

One can attack and defend evolution because evolution is something specific. One can neither attack nor defend Christianity, however, because there is no one, well-defined thing, however abstract, that is the Christianity. All one can do is discuss the specific arguments and truth claims that actually arise in real conversations. And one cannot use even a canon to shield non-canonical claims from criticism; to use a non-canon to shield such claims is doubly fallacious.

32 comments:

  1. jeff.maynes5/1/07, 11:50 AM

    I responded over on the Deacon's post, so I'll be brief here:

    1. You were uncharitable to my remarks. I did not say you should be "only" concerned with the strongest arguments. I explicitly used the word "primarily." That is an absolutely critical distinction.

    2. I think it is a mistake to limit yourself to "the canon." You are committed to the falsity of any belief that implies that there is a god, correct? Disproving the Christian Canon might have political value in undermining the role that canon plays, but it does not lend much intellectual support to your argument. The sophisticated version of the theist belief remains unchallenged, which thus diminishes the force of the atheist position considerably.

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  2. jeff.maynes5/1/07, 11:56 AM

    I ought to clarify my remark "absolutely critical distinction."

    I agree that if you are committed to atheism, you ought to respond to all arguments for positions you reject. That means responding to everything from Biblical literalism to Pascal's wager. I was rather explicit in my comment that there is value in using biblical literalism as a reductio.

    That said, to lend intellectual credence to your own position, proving the falsity of contrary claims can be used as evidence. Proving that the justification for the claim "there is a God" from Biblical literalism is poor does not prove that the belief is false. Only by tackling the more sophisticated versions can you do the intellectual work of showing that the theist belief is false.

    You are tackling justifications for a belief. Considering the weaker ones is all well and good. But you ought to, in the interest of intellectual honesty, be primarily interested in the strongest possible justifications.

    This distinction is critical because your criticisms of my position all hinge on your reading of my claim to be an "only" claim, which is not the argument I offered.

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  3. I'll object as strongly to "primarily" as "only". I'm as concerned with popular arguments as I am with esoteric arguments.

    Furthermore I don't know that there are good objective criteria to distinguish "stronger" or "weaker" arguments: Arguments are either sound or unsound.

    If one is going to criticize something that goes under a label, that label has to mention a canon. There is no Christian canon.

    Atheism is not a religious belief, atheism doesn't have a canon, there is no such thing the atheist position, any more than does Christianity-as-a-whole.

    I'm not "committed" to atheism in the religious sense: I'm not "committed" to any particular conclusion, for or against the existence of God. I want to know the truth, whatever it is. It happens to be that I self-describe as an atheist, and I believe at present that no God exists, but if I hear a new argument for the existence of a God, I'll consider it on its own merits; if it's sound, I'll believe it.

    I don't think that "sophisticated" versions of theistic belief remain unchallenged. As I said in the Deacon's post, the more "sophisticated" the philosophy, the less it's concerned with the truth per se and the more its concerned with discussing an intensional or metaphysical framework. And that's at best. At worst, "sophistication" is just a euphemism for more carefully constructed bullshit.

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  4. jeff.maynes5/1/07, 12:21 PM

    I don't know why you think "committed" means "in the religious sense." It means you think it's true. To self-identify as an atheist is to be committed to the truth of certain claims. Among them are "any claim that implies that there is a god is false."

    And sure, that's open for revision. I never said nor implied (again) that "committed" meant that the belief was unrevisable.

    And your last point only has merit if you've begged the question. If you've already established the falsity of a set of beliefs, then post hoc debates about which ones are more or less sophisticated are not particularly interesting. But, since this is an open debate with very smart people putting forward arguments in favor of Christianity, these sophisticated and strong arguments ought to be our primary focus.

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  5. jeff.maynes5/1/07, 12:36 PM

    I do apologize for the snark of my last comment. I was frustrated with the way my point was presented in your post.

    I do stand by the content of the remarks, though I ought to be writing, and not spending so much time on the blogs; so I will have to make this my last comment for the time being.

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  6. j.m:

    I have yet to encounter "sophisticated" or "strong" arguments for specifically Christian religious belief. In fact, it astonishes me that anyone who would begin to think of themselves as a sophisticated religious thinker could entertain the absurd notion that one cultural tradition has a uniquely accurate bead on the nature of divinity.

    It's like suggesting that English is the "best" or most "truthful" language... or that Italian cuisine is the "best" or most "optimal" food.

    To be a Christian, as opposed to an abstract theist or spiritualist, requires believing in alot of silly things: Virgin births, resurrections/reanimations of corpses,a nonsensical notion of Trinity. There can be no sophisticated arguments for the actuality of these events - much less for the underlying ideas of Diety to which these events lend notoriety - because these things are incredible (in the literal sense).

    If you dismiss these events as myth, then you destroy the distinction between general theism and Christianity. If you accept these events as true, you eliminate the possiblity of strong arguments about them because they are miraculous.

    There may be sophsticated arguments for theism in general, but arguments for Christianity in particular cannot get past the idiosyncracies of the cultural myths that created the religion in the first place.

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  7. jeff.maynes: You don't have to apologize for using snark here. Just make sure you're right. :-D

    I honestly don't know what you mean by "committed", then. I use "committed" in the breakfast sense: The chicken is contributing, the pig is committed.

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  8. kipp: Frankly, I think general theism and the notion of "God" is just as incredible (in the literal sense) as miraculous Christianity.

    I've never really even seen a strong definition of God, much less a strong argument. As I've said time and again, the "sophisticated" philosophical notions of God abandon truth claims entirely for metaphysics and fideism.

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  9. Larry,

    I can't say that I have heard strong arguments for a generic theism either. But to even to get to that point, most religious thinkers have to dispense with their attachment to an inherited cultural religious tradition - and very few people are willing to do that. Without that, I don't think a sophisticated or strong argument for religious reality can even begin to get off the ground.

    As I've said time and again, the "sophisticated" philosophical notions of God abandon truth claims entirely for metaphysics and fideism.

    I certainly agree - and its the other side of the coin of my point: Sophisticated philosphical notions of divinty that manage to avoid straightforward objections are inevitably too abstract to be called Christian (or Muslim or Hindu, etc). And without salient cultural and anthrophilic aspects, these kinds of abstract theistic/fideistic beliefs seem to inspire few adherents.

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  10. jeff.maynes5/1/07, 6:30 PM

    Barefoot,

    "Just make sure you're right. :-D"

    Then I have nothing to worry about ^_^

    I think your last post on the main blog goes a long way towards explaining our disagreement. My plea for charity is with academic discourse about Christian views in mind. In my original post on the Deacon's blog, I distinguished between the argument for charity and the usefulness of rebutting poor arguments that are popularly held. I think the space you are trying to carve out is to expand the sphere of the latter, whereas I am taking the former as the paradigmatic case.

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  11. jeff.maynes5/1/07, 6:34 PM

    Kipp,

    Note that sophisticated and strong does not imply right. I too haven't met a theist argument that I found convincing or sound, but I have met many that were quite sophisticated.

    As a paradigmatic case, take a look at Alvin Plantinga. He's considered a Christian apologist, but he's also a tremendously deep and interesting thinker. The Deacon's blog, Subversive Christianity, is also an example of a subtle presentation of Christian views. They share enough of the tradition, that even though they do not affirm all of the beliefs the Church calls true, that they should be considered part of the Christian tradition. Especially since many of these thinkers self-identify with the tradition, while eschewing accounts of miracles and things of that nature.

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  12. It's tough to talk about Plantinga, because so little of his work is available on the web. What I've found has what are to me obvious fundamental philosophical errors, although I suppose he's wrong in kind of novel ways.

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  13. j.m:

    There is a real distinction between "Christian thinkers" and "thinkers in the Christian tradition" - I don't know if even athiests born and raised in western culture could manage to escape inclusion in the latter category.

    The fact that a person can eschew talk of miracles and yet still claim Christianity as their particular faith just goes to show how much people want to cling to a given religious tradition even if they've managed to discard some of its sillier parts. If you discount the miraculous events recounted in the Bible, what makes you a Christian?

    Alvin Platinga is indeed a smart thinker - but I agree with Larry that he succeeds only in being wrong in novel ways. Like I claimed before, even Plantinga seems to aknowledge that abstract theism may be justifiable but that specifically Christian theism does not have the same support. He considers himself a Christian thinker and has attempted to justify theism first and Christianity second. I still find his general theism arguments lacking - but even after 40+ years of work, Platinga has yet to claim he has a good argument for specifically Christian belief.

    Which brings my original point home nicely: There may be decent arguments for a general theism, but a religious tradition as specified and idiosyncratic as Christianity is more or less impossible to justify. It is simply proof of the binding power of organized religion, rather than it's ultimate truth, that thinkers as erudite as Plantinga still maintain a Christian affiliation even when their own life's work has yet to set that affiliation on a firm foundation.

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  14. I think it's important to note that after 40 years Plantinga (and theistic philosophers in general after millennia), has failed to put even general theism on a firm foundation. At best, if you bend over backwards to be charitable, close one eye and squint, Plantinga's shown that theism might not be completely irrational.

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  15. Larry,

    At best, if you bend over backwards to be charitable, close one eye and squint, Plantinga's shown that theism might not be completely irrational.

    Hehe, I certainly agree. The best these arguments usually do is to establish that not all theism is prima facia irrational. Once you get past that first glance, though, all of it pretty much falls apart.

    -|<

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  16. jeff.maynes5/1/07, 9:33 PM

    Kipp,

    "If you discount the miraculous events recounted in the Bible, what makes you a Christian?"

    There are all sorts of grades of belief. The God they defend might be identified with the Judeo-Christian tradition, they might still defend the divine nature of Jesus. The Deacon over at Subversive Christianity thinks the bible has divine weight, even though he does not think everything in it is literally true. Certainly those include beliefs restricted to the Christian tradition, but which do not involve all of the detail to which you objected.

    Christianity is molded by self-identified Christians. It's an amorphous body of beliefs that can change and grow depending on the views of the members of the tradition hold. Many of these more interesting thinkers, including the Deacon at SC, or Plantinga (a) self-identify as Christians and (b) hold a Christian outlook on religion (c) hold true a number of specifically Christian beliefs. Perhaps they do not hold true the vast majority of Church doctrines, but ruling them in a "theist" rather than Christian tradition (as exclusive labels, surely Christians are also theists) seems odd.

    And so what is your criterion for "justfying" the Christian tradition? Seems to me that if Christians could successfully defend a theism which fits their view of God, and the divinity of Jesus they would "justify" the tradition. I do not think they are under any constraint that they need to prove most of the Bible true, or anything like that.

    Either way, I don't understand why this debate, or your objection, ought to matter to my argument. We disagree about how loosely to apply the label "Christianity." When I argue that we ought to consider sophisticated Christian claims then those include sophisticated defenses of a maximally great being (Plantinga's defense in the modal reconstruction of Anselm's argument). That lends credence to the Christian tradition by proving its most basic claim true, if successful.

    So my argument has no implications for the various beliefs most Christians hold, nor does the validity or soundness of my argument hinge on it. So if you take your objection to have any bearing on my argument, rather than a terminological dispute over the limits of the term "Christianity" then you'll have to clarify it for me.

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  17. j.m:

    The God they defend might be identified with the Judeo-Christian tradition...

    So what is the distinction between the Christian God and a god merely "identified with the Judeo-Christian tradition"?


    Perhaps they do not hold true the vast majority of Church doctrines, but ruling them in a "theist" rather than Christian tradition (as exclusive labels, surely Christians are also theists) seems odd.

    Either one believes in the divinity of Jesus or he doesn't. If one does, then one is a Christian. If one doesn't believe that Jesus was divine, then one is not a Christian. He might be a thinker in the Christian tradition or a Christian-influenced thinker - but he would not be "a Christian." Is that a contraversial claim?

    My point in this thread has been that inevitably the arguments for divine reality that are not easily dismissed are also too abstract to be the exclusive province of Christian theology. Thus arguments for divine reality that I would even begin to call "good" "intriguing" or perhaps "strong" only serve to establish that the abstract plausibility of a non-specific divinity. They don't even come close to a masculine, emotional, Judeo-Chrisitian God nor his son/trinitarian consort Jesus.

    It's like me claiming I have good arguments for the existence of Atlantis when, in fact, my arguments only establish the plausiblity of ancient cities on islands.

    And so what is your criterion for "justfying" the Christian tradition? Seems to me that if Christians could successfully defend a theism which fits their view of God, and the divinity of Jesus they would "justify" the tradition. I do not think they are under any constraint that they need to prove most of the Bible true, or anything like that.

    How exactly does one justify holding out a belief in Jesus's divinity without also accepting, at minimum, his resurrection and/or his virgin birth? I'm not talking about things like Noah's Ark which don't have particular relevance to the nature of the Christian God - I'm talking about the things that define Christian belief as such. We talk of the divinity of Jesus because of the miraculous events of his life which justify that claim. If you doubt or discount these events, then you have moved away from Christianity toward a generic theism - especially because nearly all of the metaphyscial apsects of the Christian notion of god and souls were initially taken from other religious/philosphical traditions (Manichaeism, Greek philosophy, etc).

    Alvin Platinga's various arguments for God's existence only establish, at best, the plausibility of an abstract deity - they do not establish a "Christian God." Just because Plantinga grew up in a Christian tradition or teaches at a Catholic University doesn't make the abstract deity his arguments justify the God of the Bible.

    My point has been that arguments for divine reality display a direct relation between their "strength" and "sophistication" and the non-sectarian abstractness of their concept of divinity: You get generic theism but you do not get Jesus of Nazareth or the Jehova.

    Plantinga's sophisticated modal argument for God works for Aton (the proto-monothesitic sun-god of Egypt that may have inspired the jews in the first place), Brahma, the Earth Mother and the god of any other religious tradition that assumes a unitary divine agent responsible for all existence.

    But of course, nobody seems to care about abstract deities. What Plantinga and the Deacon want is a Christian diety: A loving, creator-god that looks after his creations in some sense and offers the possiblity of divine communion of some sort. In short, they consider themselves Christians because they want Jesus's Father - not some generic divine force that is only coicidentally similar to that prophet's professed paternity. And the specificity of that identification is what undermines their arguments.

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  18. jeff.maynes5/2/07, 4:30 PM

    Kipp,

    "My point has been that arguments for divine reality display a direct relation between their "strength" and "sophistication" and the non-sectarian abstractness of their concept of divinity: You get generic theism but you do not get Jesus of Nazareth or the Jehova."

    I'm sorry, I still just don't get why our disagreement is interesting. We disagree about the scope of the term "Christianity." You appeal to the essential elements of the Christian beliefs by appeal to definition; I'm uncomfortable with that for a whole host of philosophical reasons I don't see any need to hash out.

    The basic line in the sand seems to be that I think one can offer a defense of Christianity by arguing for some of the basic presuppositions, including for example: theist claims that satisfy the Christian God (which do not apply to all possible deities) and the divinity of Jesus. One might argue that Jesus was divine without thinking he was resurrected or borne by a virgin - those facts are not what made him divine, they are acts he supposedly did due to his divine nature. I don't see why a Christian cannot argue they are incidental. Which brings me back to the point - I have no problem with Christians applying the label "Christian" more liberally, while you, I take it, would rather that people defending the view I outlined say that they are "theists within the Christian tradition" or something.

    If so, it's a linguistic dispute. Does it undermine my plea for charity? I agree with you that I haven't encountered a sophisticated defense of the beliefs you have in mind. That doesn't mean that we ought not be charitable to religious thought, including people who fall under the rubric I've used for the term "Christianity." So if you're point is to dispute my use of the word "Christianity," then I'm just not sure the stakes are very interesting. If your point is to offer a substantive critique of my argument (for which, you ought to read it on the Deacon's blog, as it would be massively uncharitable to argue against me based on a paragraph that BB quoted), then you'll still have to explain to me why it affects my plea for charity in any substantive or interesting way.

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  19. To be honest, I think Kipp is, to some extent, making an irrelevant distinction. Whether one constructs the most general theistic arguments as "Christian" or merely "theist", none of the arguments rise to the level that can be in any sense considered "strong".

    On the one hand, I tend to agree with Kipp: Unless one attempts to specifically prove the reality and divinity the character named "Jesus" in the New Testament, it's difficult to see the attempt at specifically "Christian".

    On the other hand, I think the even the arguments for the vaguest sort of theism so be so obviously fallacious that it's unsporting to restrict one's attention to specifically "Christian" claims as defined above. It's a stronger atheist argument to rebut the weakest theistic arguments.

    Which brings us smack dab to another point I touched on in the Deacon's thread: What precisely is meant by "strong" in this context?

    In one sense, talking about the "strength" of arguments in a scalar, continuous sense does not seem to apply or not: Whether we know it or not, an argument is either sound or unsound; there is not any range of strength that applies to argument itself, just our state of knowledge about their soundness.

    In this sense, an obviously unsound argument might be called "weaker" than less obviously unsound argument. But an obviously sound argument is "stronger" than a less obviously sound argument. If obviousness is our metric, we still can't determine the strength of an argument until we know it's sound, in which case its strength is irrelevant; a subtly sound or unsound argument is just that: sound or unsound.

    As noted earlier, there's another sense in which an argument that concludes more is stronger (cf the strong and weak versions of the anthropic principle). However, a counter-argument is more effective against a weak argument in this sense; it makes sense to prefer to rebut the weaker arguments in this sense.

    There's yet another sense in which an argument that assumes less is stronger than an argument that assumes more, if they both draw the same conclusions. In this sense, it is preferable to prefer the stronger arguments. However, we're again in a binary situation: Any argument that makes even a single assumption which can be denied without logical contradiction is not a sound argument, even if it makes fewer contravenable assumptions than another argument; both are simply unsound.

    Essentially, Jeff, your exhortation is without force, at least without a specific and rigorous account of "strength".

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  20. Also, I have to say contra Kipp that I do think it's legitimate for a person to call herself a Christian on only the basis that she believes that the teachings of Jesus (and perhaps Paul) in the Bible have substantial moral suasion, even if she denies the literal truth of the miracle claims.

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  21. j.m:

    You appeal to the essential elements of the Christian beliefs by appeal to definition; I'm uncomfortable with that for a whole host of philosophical reasons I don't see any need to hash out.

    How, then, does one distinguish Christian from non-Christian belief? From your arguments so far, it would appear *any* claim could be called Christian as long as a Christian makes it or believes it. But then, there doesn't seem to be a way to distinguish Christians from non-Christians under your system either.

    The basic line in the sand seems to be that I think one can offer a defense of Christianity by arguing for some of the basic presuppositions, including for example: theist claims that satisfy the Christian God (which do not apply to all possible deities) and the divinity of Jesus.

    Then please tell me how one goes about doing any sort of argumentation for Jesus's divinity without reference to the miracles mentioned in the Bible.

    One might argue that Jesus was divine without thinking he was resurrected or borne by a virgin - those facts are not what made him divine, they are acts he supposedly did due to his divine nature.

    You seem to be suggesting that there are Christians who claim they believe in none of the miracles attributed to Jesus in the Bible and yet still maintain that Jesus was divine. Why would one ever consider that to be the case absent biblical accounts of his miracles? And if one believes the accounts of biblical miracles are false, what else in the Bible indicates Jesus was divine and why isn't that dubious as well?

    Which brings me back to the point - I have no problem with Christians applying the label "Christian" more liberally, while you, I take it, would rather that people defending the view I outlined say that they are "theists within the Christian tradition" or something.

    Actually, I would simply like them to aknowledge that arguments that establish the plausiblity of an abstract deity are not arguments for a Christian God.

    You have put forth a notion of the "Strong arguments for Christianity." My claim is that the only strong arguments for divine reality that exist turn on an abstract deity that is not specifically Christian in any way.
    In other words, being "charitable" about biblical interpretation or Christian theistic arguments leads to the deprecation of Christianity in favor of generic theism.

    The deity we get from charitably-considered, sophisticated arguments for theism has only the vaguest similarity to the Christian God described in the bible. Moreover, this abstract deity it utterly unconnected to anything we know about Jesus.

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  22. Larry,

    Also, I have to say contra Kipp that I do think it's legitimate for a person to call herself a Christian on only the basis that she believes that the teachings of Jesus (and perhaps Paul) in the Bible have substantial moral suasion, even if she denies the literal truth of the miracle claims.

    I can agree with this - until this nonliteralist Christian begins proposing arguments for the existence of her non-literally derived diety and calls them arguments for a Christian God.

    I am not really concerned here with who is and isn't a Christian - but rather, if "strong" arguments for theism can be considered arguments about a Christian theism specifically. I don't think they can.

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  23. jeff.maynes5/2/07, 7:10 PM

    A more lengthy reply is forthcoming, but I have but a moment right now (in which I will attempt to satisfy BB's fair request for more clarity on the notion of strength) ...

    Kipp,

    "You have put forth a notion of the "Strong arguments for Christianity." My claim is that the only strong arguments for divine reality that exist turn on an abstract deity that is not specifically Christian in any way.
    In other words, being "charitable" about biblical interpretation or Christian theistic arguments leads to the deprecation of Christianity in favor of generic theism."

    Right right right. I get all that. My point is that our difference of opinion hinges on the way we employ "Christianity" as a lexical entity. That is, what range we are willing to apply to the term "Christianity."

    As such, I just don't see where this is all going. If you substitute "theism in the Christian tradition" for "Christianity" in my original posts, then our apparent disagreement is illusory at worst, petty at best. We have some minor disagreements about the sufficiency conditions for being a "Christian." That's not very interesting.

    The more interesting issue is the one I'll respond to in a moment, in response to Barefoot Bum's post specifically. I'm after charity. Whether we apply that to what I meant and have clarified in my discussion with you by "Christianity" or to "theism" or your notion of "theism in the Christian tradition" is wholly irrelevant. Your remarks suggest that you are trying to undermine my argument by saddling me with what you mean by "Christianity" and then showing that no argument can sate that request. Since it is abundantly clear I use the term in a different way than you, that's hardly a relevant consideration. Further, since the point of my argument carries over just as well to theism as Christianity, even where I forced to restrict my claim, the general point stands.

    Which is why I simply still do not understand where the genuine disagreement between us lies, other than some relatively minor disagreement about the sufficiency conditions for the term "Christianity."

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  24. I have to lean towards Jeff in this whole "Christianity" business. After all, it's not like the Christians are unfairly appropriating the tremendous philosophical success of nonspecific theism. '-)

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  25. I.e. we might have to be concerned if there really were any arguments for theism that might be in any meaningful sense called "strong". Since there aren't, we're not.

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  26. j.m:

    Okay, okay - I am now as confident that you understand my point about the inevitable weakness of specifically Christian theistic claims as I am confident that I understand your point that the meat of theistic argumentation lies in the "strongest" arguments.

    So at this point, my argument collapses into that made by the Bum is his last comment: Once we dispense with the easily refutable specifically Christian arguments, how do we determine which are the "strong" arguments of those that remain?

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  27. Larry,

    So you just had to go and post two comments while I was composing my previous comment and thus render my reference to your "last comment" confusing, didn't you? ;-)

    After all, it's not like the Christians are unfairly appropriating the tremendous philosophical success of nonspecific theism. '-)

    I don't know that I can agree here. The Ontological Argument and the the Argument from Design (for instance) are regularly used by specifically Christian theists to justify their belief in the God of the Bible. And I have heard Spinoza sited as a Christian believer even though he argues for a God whose characteristics are unknowable in the strong sense (he argues that God cannot love us, for one). To some extent, I think all religions manage to derive a little persuasiveness from attractive metaphysical ideas whose ultimate entailments are incompatible with those religions.

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  28. Kipp,

    I didn't say that Christians weren't appropriating general theistic arguments, I said they weren't appropriating the philosophical success of these arguments—to do so, the arguments would have to actually be successful, which they manifestly are not.

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  29. jeff.maynes5/2/07, 10:10 PM

    Barefoot Bum,

    I'm not sure how rigorous an account I can give, especially in a blog post. It sounds like a daunting question, even for deep analysis! But I can give an account of what I mean by "strength."

    Your first reading is accurate, it does depend on our epistemic situation. I do not mean it in the other senses of "strength" that you outlined.

    So I think that you are probably right that in a maximal evidence state, it wouldn't make sense to talk about the strength of an argument in the sense I am using the term. In that case, we'd be able to sort the sound and unsound arguments without difficulty. Which is all to say that "strength" is relative to our epistemic state, and is not a feature of the argument itself otherwise.

    So, of course the fundamental intuition behind my point is the principle of charity. This principle holds that when treating the argument of another, one ought to maximize (a) it's validity, (b) it's soundness within the data supplied by the person offering the argument. This is a basic condition of general argumentation I take it that we can agree on, as it is tenent of critical reasoning. You have to start by trying to reconstruct the argument provided, and you ought to argue against the strongest possible version of that argument. The strongest possible version is the one that is maximally valid and maximally sound, within the constraints of the original argument. More or less, the principle of charity holds that we ought to interpret others in such a way that they make the most sense (of course, given our epistemic state).

    So let's turn to the case in question, and refine that a bit. So in the case of theism (we can avoid further controversy ^_^), how ought we apply the principle of charity? Well, a number of arguments are offered for theism and by a number of agents. All of these arguments are for the same conclusion (simplifying premise), let's call it T, for the "theism thesis." If correct, all of these arguments conclude that T is true. Since we think that T is false, it behooves us to show that the arguments for T are insufficient.

    So, as a quick aside, I certainly think this means that we ought to be concerned with all arguments for T. I'll return to the notion of "primarily" a bit later in this post. But before doing that, the notion of "strength" needs further explication.

    So we've got a set of arguments for T, say A1-An. How are we to decide which argument is the strongest? Well, from our epistemic situation, we simply have to evaluate a number of factors of the various arguments, including but not limited to:
    1. It's apparent soundness.
    2. It's apparent validity.
    3. The difficulty in refuting the argument.
    4. The subtlety of the argument (by which I mean the degree to which it avoids previously presented objections).
    5. It's consistency.
    6. The degree to which it shares initial assumptions with its opponent.

    So let's take a look at two examples. Example A1 is biblical literalism. The person offering A1 argues that T is true because the Bible says so. This argument is unlikely to be valid, nor sound. From our epistemic situation, we have grounds to suppose that it is neither. Further, we can easily refute it, it does not avoid the vast literature on Biblical literalism, it relies on the assumption that the Bible is divine, etc. It's just not a good argument. Based on our current epistemic situation, it is easy to show that it is unsound and not convincing.

    Let's consider Plantinga's modal reconstruction of the ontological proof, as that argument has gotten some mention in this thread. The validity question is complicated, it partially depends on whether one accepts axiom S5. Some have argued that the argument is invalid, others have held that while it is invalid it is unsound. Either way, showing the unsoundness of the argument is not an easy exercise. Most approaches have denied the possibility premise, or the methodological use of possible worlds to prove an ontological claim. It is definetly a subtle argument, if it is false, it is for different reasons than Anselm's argument (which is simply invalid). Further, it does share a number of similar assumptions to contemporary philosophy.

    Simply put, Plantinga's argument requires a lot more work to defeat. I too think that it isn't a successful argument, but from an epistemic situation that has not decided this yet; it is surely stronger than argument A1. Now let us consider a new argument, An. An is even more difficult to refute, and better satisifies criteria (1)-(6) (and whatever else we add) than A1 or Plantinga's argument. Given our current epistemic situation, An will be even more difficult to refute, will require closer analysis, and will be more capable of escaping the force of previous objections to arguments for T. So, we are right in consider An to be a stronger argument.

    Simply put - the strongest argument is the argument that, given our current epistemic situation, best satisifies criteria (1)-(6). Intuitively, the strongest argument is the one that we have to do the most work to refute. I cannot over-emphasize the importance of the relativization to our current epistemic situation. I worry that a number of your posts have assumed that we have already refuted all available arguments. In that case, deciding which argument is the 'strongest' is rather post hoc. It's more like a report about the effort that was put in, rather than a useful maxim for considering new arguments.

    Which, incidentally, is why I drew an initial distinction (way back in my response in the thread over at SC) between the two positions. The first was the need for charity in intellectual discussions of theism, and the second was the role refutations of biblical literalism have in discussion with biblical literalists. There is certainly a pragmatic value in arguments against T, and I think they are particularly important against biblical literalism, since the ethical stakes are high. Those cases are different, because we are not considering arguments for intellectual purposes, but for political ones. It's a different case.

    So now that we have some sense of what the "strongest" arguments are, why ought we be primarily interested in those arguments? Well, the atheist wants to show that T is false, or, perhaps the weaker thesis that we have no reason to believe T is true. In either case, it is an argumentative strategy to show that the arguments for T are ineffective. Most of the weaker arguments have been refuted time and time again. They might be widely held, but they do not pose a serious intellectual defense of T. From our perpsective, we ought to be primarily concerned with the arguments that are most likely to establish the truth of T.

    So we can refute evangelicals all we want, and that might serve the political purpose, but at this point it does little to establish the truth of T. Serious intellectual defenses of T rarely appeal to such arguments, rather they offer stronger ones. Since we are similarly interested in a serious intellectual defense of not-T, it falls to us to show that the strongest arguments for T fail. These arguments, simply put, are the 'best shot' that theists have of establishing the truth of T. Since our tactic is to show that there is little reason to believe T, showing that the best arguments for T fail to establish the truth of T lends greater support to our argument than showing that weaker arguments fail.

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  30. Can I just say: Damn, y'all are smart. This is a great discussion thread. I'm not worthy.

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  31. j.m:

    You have layed out a thorough explanation of your notion of argumental strength - though I think some of your non-exhaustive "6 ways" are seem permutations of eachother. I can agree than Plantinga's Modal Argument is more complicated than Anselm's certainly. And to the extent that it is harder to refute, that does make it a stronger argument. But I wonder exactly how relevant that is to the general task of disuading people from theistic belief.

    I would wager than vanishingly small number of theists hold a view at all influenced by Plantinga's Modal Argument - or Anselm's for that matter. Very few Christians believe in god because of an explicit metaphysical deduction concerning Supreme Beings. Most people inherit their conception of theistic reality from their parents and culture. These beliefs are only incidentally related to the Arguments for God put forth by a long, fascinating, and nearly inconsequential history of western philosophy of religion.

    I belabored the point that strong arguments are inevitably non-Christian specific precisely because I think the stronger influence on belief in theism is the traditional component - not a compelling metaphysical underpinning. I think our ahteist debunking can be more successful pointing out the silly, culturally idiosyncratic "truths" of religions that clearly illustrate how arbitrary and contingent this universal wisdom happens to be (and by explaining how we can still have a fulfilling and meaningful life in the absense of a Greater Purpose).

    Your point is a philosopher's point and perfectly accurate in the rarified air of this blog. I devoured Plantinga and Swinburne and van Inwagen in college and they do make subtle, ingenious arguments - and all ultimarely fail in my reckoning.

    But religion is a social game - and society tends to ignore philosophers (or kill them). The arguments and received wisdom that root actual people to their theistic beliefs - the colorful Bible stories than can't possibly be true but are assumed so by many, the actual histories of religious ideas and rituals that points out their non-divine origins, the intuitively accessible and popular arguments like the teleological argument that are easily refuted - these are the things that will actually get people to rethink the place of theistic belief in their lives. And if your only connection to God or Jesus is a book and a religious tradition you realize is no more plausible than the Hindu or Animistic beliefs most Americans reject out-of-hand, then why would you care about supposedly "stronger" arguments for a deity?

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  32. Jeff:

    I asked, and you certainly delivered. You make some good points.

    I have a slightly different perspective. I don't come from an academic philosophical background. I've been a professional engineer (computer programmer) for my entire adult life. We engineers deprecate epistemic subtlety and consider it inherently suspicious. We consider an argument to be stronger if it can easily verified or refuted.

    Coming as I do from the engineering and science side of things, I also consider deductivist arguments to be inherently unsound: There is always the problem of justifying one's premises, and such arguments are are susceptible to the universal philosophical refutation. I consider only evidentiary arguments to have value in acquiring new fundamental knowledge. (Deduction is, of course, uncontroversial for extending existing knowledge.)

    Plantinga's modal ontological argument seems a good template: On these criteria, it is a very weak argument. First of all, it's subtle. Philosophers tend to like subtle arguments for their subtlety, but I'm suspicious of a subtle argument: I feel like I'm being bullshitted and flim-flammed.

    Secondly, Plantinga's modal ontological argument (PMOA) is deductivist: It depends entirely on whether we accept its premises justified only by intuition. It is not an evidentiary argument, arguing for the simplest explanation for uncontroversial facts.

    Third, if memory serves, Plantinga's (S5) is definitely either invalid or trivial. There are only three ways to interpret (S5): That it is known to be the case that a necessary being exists in one possible world (drawing an epistemic conclusion on the basis of epistemic doubt); That it is logically possible for a necessary being to exist (but the possible worlds interpretation of modal logic permits only those worlds that are possible according to non-modal logic; a proposition in modal logic is always true or false in all possible worlds); or it restates the trivial axiom that all possible worlds exist quantified over the domain of all existing possible worlds. There is no charitable way to rescue (S5).

    So PMOA is weak to begin with, in form and content, and fails on close examination.

    But, as Kipp notes, there are probably only a few tens of thousands of people who are even interested in such an argument; it is certainly the case that only a vanishingly small number of religious believers have even the remotest interest in taking the time and trouble to learn enough philosophical terminology to even understand PMOA or its refutation. The Catholic Church is not going to disband just because PMOA is both invalid and unsound.

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