Arguing for God: part 2

Following on from my last post, I would like to respond to some more of Ed’s criticism of the practice of offering arguments for the existence of God.

His second point is as follows:

2: Inductive Arguments seem to only be convincing given a certain psychological circularity.

Many arguments for God proceed by way of pointing towards God as the best explanation for some phenomenon. Ed thinks that such arguments don’t work, because only someone who is already a theist would think that the invocation of God is capable of doing the relevant explanatory work. Thus such arguments are circular.

This is a very broad claim about a topic that’s difficult to discuss in broad terms. That’s my response to this second point in a nutshell: Ed moves far too quickly, making a grand claim that he doesn’t do enough to substantiate. More specifically, I think that, in general, it is very hard to make good upon charges of circularity. All valid arguments are circular in the trivial sense that the conclusion is already entailed by the premisses; that’s the very feature which makes them valid. The interesting kind of triviality is the epistemic kind: roughly, an argument is epistemically circular iff there is no justification for the premisses that does not assume the conclusion. And it’s very hard to show that’s the case for any argument, let alone all arguments of a certain (very populous) kind. I don’t think all abductive (abduction is, roughly, inference to the best explanation) for God are circular, and nor do I think that all abductive arguments for the external world are circular. In general, we are able to reason about whether X would make for a good explanation without assuming X. I admit that this is much easier when, as Ed puts, it we have clearly defined epistemic boundaries: when there is a well defined range of alternative explanations, and we have tested similar explanations previously. Neither the God nor the external world case is quite like that. But nor do I think that either case is entirely hopeless. In short, I am suspicious of Ed’s claim here, and Ed hasn’t done nearly enough to motivate it.

3: Equivocation

This point, I think, is more interesting. The radical otherness of God means that no conclusion derived from premisses concerning creatures could accurately describe the Creator. It is, after all, to claim that predicates as applied to God are never univocal with predicates applied to creatures. If that’s so, then no argument whose premisses concern creatures and whose conclusion concerns the Creator is valid in predicate logic.

Though this is a pressing puzzle, I don’t think it’s really a problem for theistic arguments in particular. We need to say something about how various kinds of talk gets God less wrong than various other kinds of talk: we need meaningfully to assert ‘God is a more righteous ruler than al-Baghdadi’. Whatever solution we settle on, we amy fairly hope that we can use it to reconstruct the theistic arguments. This is especially true if there is, after all, distinctively philosophical motivation for denying univocity.

Consider the following toy line of reasoning.

P. The best explanation of the world is that an all-powerful, all-loving, all-knowing being willed its existence.

Therefore, C. There is an all-powerful, all-loving, all-knowing being.

Hang on, if this being really is all-…, and really willed the world into existence, then we can’t simply apply our predicate ‘powerful’ to that being. It could not do justice to such a being. So there’s *something* wrong with my argument. Yet, the premiss seems compelling for all that, and the abductive inference is legitimate. Perhaps there’s a more neutral way to capture the intuition behind my premiss…

P*.The best explanation of the world is such that ‘an all-powerful, all-loving, all-knowing being willed the world’s existence’ is less misleading than its negation.

Therefore, C*. ‘There is an all-powerful, all-loving, all-knowing being’ is less misleading that its negation.

That’s far too cheap and dirty to count as a real solution to the problem of divine predication, but I think the underlying point holds good.

I’ll write again soon on why I think Christians should argue for the existence of God.


3 thoughts on “Arguing for God: part 2

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