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Why 62% of Philosophers are Atheists (Part II)

"Can you stack up arguments for God?" A reply to Alvin Plantinga
This post is a response to Why 62% of Philosophers are Atheists (Part I) by David Kyle Johnson, Ph.D.

(This is the second installment of a review of Gary Gutting’s interview with Alvin Plantinga for the Stone, entitled “Is Atheism Tational?”)

Gutting and Plantinga’s second topic of conversation centers around the fact that some atheists will not only claim that the arguments for God's existence fail, but that the arguments against God's existence work, and that this is why they don't believe. Plantinga reduces these arguments down to one—the problem of evil (“why is there evil if God exists?”)—and says that although it does have some "strength," the evidence it provides against theism is balanced out by the arguments for theism. There are, Plantinga claims, "a couple of dozen" good theistic arguments—none of which taken by itself is "good enough to convince any rational person," but when taken together, constitute a single philosophical argument that is "as strong as philosophical arguments ordinarily get.”

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There are a number of things to point out here.

First of all, Plantinga is ignoring a large number of deductive philosophical arguments against God's existence that point out that the very definition of the perfect being that Plantinga worships is inconsistent. How is it, for example, that God can have the ability to do anything, because he is all-powerful, but be unable to do any evil action, because he is all good? Michael Marin and Ricki Monnier have devoted an entire book to the notion that a perfect being is impossible, and an entire section to such arguments. Theodore Dragne mentions ten in one article.  Although a few such problems have a decent response, most do not, yet Plantinga ignores such arguments completely. 

Secondly…24 good theistic arguments? Traditionally there are four: the ontological, teleological, cosmological, and moral argument. It seems the only way that Plantinga can get to 24 is if he counted every variety or version of such arguments as a separate one. (If he is counting other kinds of arguments, they are not “good.”) But I lecture publically about such theistic arguments, trying to cover every major variety that any philosopher takes the least bit seriously, and I don’t mention anywhere close to 24 arguments.

Incidentally, I could do the same with the problem of evil—there is the logical problem of moral evil, the logical problem of natural evil, the evidential problem of moral evil and the evidential problem of natural evil, each of which has been articulated and defended many ways. In addition, I could formulate a separate argument against God’s existence using every instance of evil that has ever occurred in the world. Yet Plantinga just lumps all of this into one single "problem of evil" that he can counteract with "a couple of dozen" theistic arguments. He seems to simply be “selectively counting” so that the numbers look more convincing for his case.

But the main error here is a logical one. Even if there are 24, you can’t stack up a bunch of arguments that don’t work and get one that does. Argument simply doesn’t work that way.

Certainly, you can’t stack up a bunch of unsound deductive arguments and get one good one, and most of the arguments for God’s existence are deductive—like the ontological argument, which suggests that God exists by definition, and the cosmological argument, which suggests that God must be “the first uncaused causer.” Since these arguments are deductive, if they work, they prove God’s existence and no other argument is needed. But if they fail, it’s because they are invalid, have a mistake in form (many, for example, are thought to beg the question) or have false premises. If they fail for these reasons, then they provide no reason for believing that God exists, and cannot be “stacked together” to provide a better argument. No Proof + No Proof = No Proof.

It is true that inductive evidence can be stacked up. Four double blinded controlled experiments that show that a medical treatment works is more convincing than one. But none of the inductive arguments for God provides anything like scientific proof. Besides, if an inductive argument is going to add to a cumulative case for something, the inductive argument has to provide pretty good evidence in the first place; yet no theistic argument does this. Most fall prey to an informal logical fallacy—such as an appeal to ignorance, mistaking the odds, or the fallacy of division. The rest have highly questionable premises. In other words, the criticisms of these arguments wouldn’t just make them a little less convincing; they would derail them completely. And you can’t stack up a bunch of logically fallacious, highly questionable, arguments to make one good one, even if they are inductive. Weak Argument + Weak Argument = Weak Argument.

This is like claiming that the abundance of reported UFO sightings is good evidence that aliens are visiting in UFOs. Of course, taken individually, the evidence each such sighting provides is underwhelming. About two seconds of research reveals a better, simpler, non-alien explanation —everything from hot air balloons to military testing, from airplanes to the planet Venus, from the powers of our senses to fool us to vague stimuli and human stupidity. "But there are thousands of such sightings,” one might suggest. “Taken together don't they constitute good evidence for aliens?" No. Again, you can't stack up a bunch of bad arguments and get one good one.

This is not to say that there are not other ways of responding to the problem of evil. But trying to combine a bunch of unconvincing arguments into one convincing one isn’t going to work.

Plantinga does mention one argument he thinks is good: the fine tuning argument. I will tackle that in Part III.

David Kyle Johnson, Ph.D., is an associate professor of philosophy at King's College in Pennsylvania.

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