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Why 62% of Philosophers are Atheists (Part IV)

"Unsurpassable Worlds and Non-explanations" A Reply to Alvin Plantinga
This post is a response to Why 62 Percent of Philosophers Are Atheists Part III by David Kyle Johnson, Ph.D.

(This is the fourth installment of a review of Gary Gutting’s interview with Alvin Plantinga for The Stone, entitled “Is atheism rational?”)

                Is our world unsurpassable?

In response to the idea that a successful fine-tuning argument wouldn’t point to a perfect being, just a powerful being, Plantinga argues that, if our world has a creator, the goodness of our world does suggest that the creator is supremely good. First of all, the existence of evil does not mean we don’t live in a best possible world. (Plantinga suggests that there may be more than one world that is as good as a world can be. Each such world, however, would be "unsurpassable.") It could be that all such worlds contain free creatures, and that free creatures will always commit evil acts. Further, Plantinga claims, “no world could be appreciably better” than one where, instead of “having [evil doers] boiled in oil,” God sends his son to die and be “mocked, ridiculed, beaten and crucified” so that “human beings might once more be in a right relationship to God.” 

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Plantinga’s “free will defense” is admitted, by even some atheists, to solve the logical problem of moral evil. (I, and a number of other atheists, do not agree.) But even if it does, it does not address the evidential problem of moral evil, or the problem of natural evil in any of its forms. (I argue here that Plantinga’s solution to the problem of natural evil also doesn’t work; here I argue that, if our universe does have a creator, it’s more likely a computer programmer.) So even if Plantinga’s argument about free will holds up, there are definitely still reasons to think that any creator of our universe would not be perfect.

But what I think Plantinga’s answer does is provide us with a prime example of motivated reasoning. He clearly lets his Christianity color his philosophical intuitions. The reason Plantinga likes this story so much is because it is the Christian story that he has loved all his life. But others will obviously disagree; many people find the story horrific and clearly inferior to one where God merely forgives repentant people (instead of requiring an innocent person to be tortured before he can do so), and doesn’t allow the unrepentant to burn eternally in hell (a bit worse of a fate than merely being burned in oil). And one need not be raised in an “atheist household” to find this story appalling; many leave the church, after being raised in it, because they come to find such a story morally objectionable.

But in order for something like the fine-turning argument to work, this world must clearly be the “unsurpassable.” Most would deny that it is, and thus most must admit that, even if we do have reason to think our universe has a creator, our universe gives us no reason to think that creator is perfect.

                What if Theism Doesn't Explain Anything? 

Plantinga then replies to the atheistic objection that belief in God is no longer justified because God is no longer needed to explain anything. Plantinga says this is “pretty lame.” The moon is no longer used to explain “lunacy,” but that doesn’t make us doubt the moon’s existence.

The logical mistake here is one of a faulty analogy, and the fact that Plantinga doesn't see it is quite telling. The moon was not first hypothesized to exist because it explained lunacy. It was hypothesized to exist because we see it in the sky. People, at one point, thought they saw a correlation between lunacy and the moon being full. But of course realizing that this was nonsense did not make them give up their belief in the moon because that's not why they believed the moon exists in the first place (and they could still see the moon in the sky).

But the atheists’ argument on this point suggests that the entire reason that God is believed to exist in the first place –where the belief in God originated, why humanity first supposed that God existed—is because we couldn’t explain things like the seasons, weather, lightning, the sun, etc., and we thus invented a supernatural explanation for them. This is even how the belief was kept alive; every time we found a new explanation for something that we once thought God explained, we interjected God as the explanation for that. Once we thought God was responsible for the diversity of life. When we found out that evolution is actually the explanation for that, theists interjected God to explain evolution. Once it was realized that evolution was an inevitable product of the laws of physics, God was interjected to explain the laws.

But if the original reason for theistic belief is no longer valid, it seems theistic belief is no longer justified. Even if we came up with other reasons for believing in God in the meantime, if the original reason for the belief is subtracted—the entire reason anyone ever thought God existed in the first place—that counts as pretty significant evidence that the belief was mistaken to begin with. It seems to be good evidence that the other reasons we came up with later were just ad hoc justifications. Further, this seems to suggest that belief in God is a placeholder for "the explanation for that which we have yet to explain.” In either case, belief in God should be abandoned.

Consider: The reason we first believed in bacteria was because they were the best explanation for certain diseases. At the time, that was the only reason we had to suppose they existed—we had never seen them. But suppose that soon after, we came up with a better explanation for these diseases that had nothing to do with bacteria.  Then we would no longer be justified in believing in them because our original reason for believing in them would have disappeared. Even if we had come up with other reasons to believe they existed, unless we had actually seen them in the microscope, our belief in bacteria would no longer be justified. It would be clear that these "other reasons" were just ad hoc justifications and that the belief should be abandoned.

Clearly, belief in the moon is nothing like this. We knew the moon existed first, because we could see it; we used it to explain lunacy later. But belief in God, according to the argument Plantinga is addressing, originated as an explanation and has never been observationally confirmed. “Moonism” is nothing like “theism” and thus the analogy is completely inappropriate.

There is a way to object to the atheistic argument in question: suggest that the origin of God's belief does not find itself in explaining the unknown. The origin of religious belief is complicated and a case could be made. But saying that the fact that God doesn't explain anything isn't evidence against his existence because “we still believe the moon exists even though it doesn't explain lunacy” is, to use Plantinga's own words, "pretty lame."

Copyright, David Kyle Johnson 2014

Click Here, for Part V

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

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