Tuesday, November 5, 2019

Genetically Modified Skeptic vs Arguments for God

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Drew McCoy has a YouTube channel called Genetically Modified Skeptic and he posted a video titled The Arguments for God's Existence Tier List responding to various arguments for theism. I’ll go through them in chronological order of the video.

Pascal’s Wager

(1:38 to 3:03)

As Genetically Modified Skeptic (GMS) presents it, Pascal’s Wager is this: if you act as if God exists and God does exist, you have infinite gain in heaven and finite loss, whereas if you act as if God doesn’t exist and God doesn’t exist you have finite gain but infinite loss in hell. Summarized in a handy table:

BeliefGain if correctLoss if wrong
No GodFiniteInfinite

Given the gain and loss data above, the rational individual would act as if God does exist. If God exists, acting as if he does exist gives you infinite gain and at worst finite loss. Whereas if you lived as if God didn’t exist, your gain was at best finite and your loss was at worst infinite. Therefore, the rational person would act as if God does exist.

GMS claims this commits the black and white fallacy, acting as if there are only two possibilites when there are actually a lot more. After all, there are many different religions with one or more gods. Which religion to pick?

I think GMS is sort of right in his objection, but the version of Pascal’s Wager he attacks isn’t really the strongest. The strongest version of Pascal’s Wager I’ve seen is that if you’re in a situation in which atheism and Christianity are the two viable options (e.g. perhaps you believe the case for the Resurrection of Jesus is strong enough to be likely if God exists) and the probabilities between the two options are roughly equal, then you should act as if God exists. Of course, this is a particularly narrow application of Pascal’s Wager, but it is arguably true that if the conditions were met then you should act as if God exist. A nontheist might not think the aforementioned conditions are met, but if so that would be a different matter than whether it would be rational to act as if God exists if the conditions were met.

The Ontological Argument

(3:06 to 4:55)

As GMS states, there are multiple forms of the Ontological Argument and GMS (tries to) address Anselm’s version of it. In Chapter 2 of Proslogion Anselm introduces the argument like this:
For it is one thing for something to exist in a person's thought and quite another for the person to think that thing exists. For when a painter thinks ahead to what he will paint, he has that picture in his thought, but he does not yet think it exists, because he has not done it yet. Once he has painted it he has it in his thought and thinks it exists because he has done it. Thus even the fool is compelled to grant that something greater than which cannot be thought exists in thought, because he understands what he hears, and whatever is understood exists in thought. And certainly that greater than which cannot be understood cannot exist only in thought, for if it exists only in thought it could also be thought of as existing in reality as well, which is greater. If, therefore, that than which greater cannot be thought exists in thought alone, then that than which greater cannot be thought turns out to be that than which something greater actually can be thought, but that is obviously impossible. Therefore something than which greater cannot be thought undoubtedly exists both in thought and in reality.
That’s a bit of a mouthful, so let’s do a bit of analysis and simplify it a bit. One popular analysis is such that Anselm considers God as that which nothing greater can be conceived, or what is often called the “greatest conceivable being” (GCB).
  1. God is the greatest conceivable being (by definition); God exists in the mind and is thus conceivable.
  2. Something that exists in reality is greater than that which exists only in the mind.
    1. Suppose God, the greatest conceivable being (from 1), exists only in the mind and not in reality (i.e. God does not actually exist; which is the negation of what this argument attempts to prove).
    2. Then there is a conceivable being that is greater (than the being in 4), namely God existing in reality (since as 2 says, something existing in reality is greater).
    3. So it is conceivable for something to have been greater than God (from 4).
    4. Since God is that which nothing greater is conceivable (from 1), then it is conceivable for something to be greater than that which nothing greater is conceivable (from 5).
  1. Statement (6) is absurd and cannot be rationally accepted, thus the claim of (3) must be rejected and the greatest conceivable being must exist.
As it stands I think this version of the ontological argument is unsuccessful, but not for the reason GMS claims. GMS bizarrely claims that Anslem’s argument has God’s existence as a premise, but this is not a premise in Anselm’s argument. It is a premise of Anselm’s argument that God exists in the mind but that’s not the same thing as God existing simpliciter.

A more popular objection against Anselm’s argument is attacking premise (2), the notion that existence is a great-making property. One could even argue that “existence” isn’t really a property at all (the fancy philosophy way of putting it is “existence is not a predicate”). A statement like “God is omniscient” basically claims that if God exists this entity has the property of “omniscience” (I add “if God exists” because if there is no God, then there isn’t any God to have any properties). However, even trying to phrase it like “God has the property of existence” is basically saying that if God exists, he has the property of existence, in which case “has the property of existence” isn’t adding very much to saying what God is like if he exists, and so it isn’t a real property in the sense that omniscience, redness, and having a mass of eighteen kilograms are properties. Here’s a key portion of the Anselm text I quoted earlier:
And certainly that greater than which cannot be understood cannot exist only in thought, for if it exists only in thought it could also be thought of as existing in reality as well, which is greater.
Yes we can think of God existing in reality, but that wouldn’t make him exist in reality. Similarly, we can grant that God would exist if God existed, but that doesn’t mean he exists. (I think God does exist, but I don’t think this particular argument is successful; just because a view is correct doesn’t mean that every argument for that view is a good one.)

Lots more can be said about the “existence is not a predicate” objection to premise (2), and the objection isn’t universally agreed upon, but it at least attacks a real rather than an imaginary premise.

The Kalam Cosmological Argument

(4:56 to 6:55)

The kalam cosmological argument (KCA) basically goes like this:
  1. Anything that begins to exist has cause.
  2. The universe began to exist.
  3. Therefore, the universe has a cause.
After that, philosophers have given further arguments to try to show that the cause has some characteristics conducive for theism, e.g. the cause of the universe being nonphysical and unimaginably powerful. You can read more about that and the argument in general at this William Lane Craig article (Craig is the philosopher famous for reigniting the KCA’s popularity in the late twentieth century).

GMS’s objection is quite bizarre; he points out that the conclusion of the KCA (the universe has a cause) doesn’t by itself get you to God. That’s true, but irrelevant. The KCA syllogism doesn’t aspire to do that. The nature of the universe’s cause is left to other arguments.

The Moral Argument

(6:59 to 9:01)

The moral argument for God’s existence that GMS critiques is this:
  1. If God does not exist, then objective moral values do not exist.
  2. Objective moral values do exist.
  3. Therefore, God exists.
Christian philosopher William Lane Craig has popularized this variety (Craig gets around, philosophically speaking, in apologetics circles). At 7:18 to 7:27 GMS essentially attacks a straw man as follows:
This argument’s first premise is unsubstantiated. It doesn’t demonstrate that the only way objective moral values can exist is if God exists.
But that is not what the first premise claims. The first premise doesn’t claim that objective moral values cannot exist if God does not exist, it claims that objective moral values do not exist if God does not exist. This is important because all one has to do to justify the first premise as probably true is to argue that it is unlikely that objective moral values exist if God does not exist. I did just that in my debate on the moral argument with Jeffery Jay Lowder of internet infidels fame, and I didn’t need to argue at all that God is necessary for objective morality to exist (though the first premise is slightly different in the debate, the general reasoning would apply). At 7:47 to 7:58 GMS attacks another straw man:
Some other moral arguments such as C.S. Lewis’s argument in Mere Christianity state that moral law has not been shown to have a natural origin so it must have come from a supernatural moral lawgiver. First of all, this is an argument from ignorance; not knowing does not excuse asserting an unsubstantiated answer. Second, evolution by natural selection is actually a pretty good explanation for why social species would behave according to practices which promote fairness, peace, and well-being among groups.
As Lewis makes clear in chapter 3 of Mere Christianity by “moral law” Lewis is not talking about descriptive patterns of behavior as GMS seems to think here, so even if evolution by natural selection did explain why our species came up with the practices it did, this is irrelevant. Lewis is talking about the “oughtness” type of morality; e.g. men ought to be unselfish. As I’ve written before, moral oughts are non-natural.

Lewis never says that the moral law must have come from a supernatural moral lawgiver simply because it has not shown to have a natural origin. After observing that we do have this inner sense of the moral law (among other things), in chapter 4 Lewis says:
All I have got to is a Something which is directing the universe, and which appears in me as a law urging me to do right and making me feel responsible and uncomfortable when I do wrong. I think we have to assume it is more like a mind than it is like anything else we know—because after all the only other thing we know is matter and you can hardly imagine a bit of matter giving instructions.
Among known stuff, Lewis believes a mind is the best explanation. Maybe you disagree with Lewis’s inference to the best explanation, but it is not the same thing as an argument from ignorance; Lewis doesn’t say “It hasn’t been shown to be a natural cause, therefore a supernatural moral lawgiver is behind it.” For one, it isn’t just that it hasn’t been shown to be a natural cause; Lewis believes we have good reason to think it’s just not the nature of inanimate matter to give instructions, whereas the same doesn’t apply so well to a mind. Whether you like or dislike this reasoning, it’s not of the form “It has not been shown that p is true, therefore p is false.”

In 8:28 to 8:55 GMS asserts that this argument has the special ability he calls “denigrate” in which the user asserts or implies that their opponent lacks morals. The problem with this alleged “special ability” is that it’s not an ability of the argument at all. Nowhere does the argument say or imply that nontheist can’t be moral. William Lane Craig, incidentally, has made it clear on repeated occasions that the moral argument doesn’t claim that atheists can’t live a good and decent life.

Argument from Personal Experience

(9:08 to 12:59)

GMS puts the argument like this:
  1. My personal experiences are reliable sources of information.
  2. I personally experienced [insert God claim here].
  3. Therefore [the God claim] is true.
William Lane Craig has been known to often assert that God can be immediately known and experienced, but even he claims this really isn’t an argument, e.g. in the Craig-Curley debate he says this:
God can be immediately known and experienced. This isn't really an argument for God's existence; rather it's the claim that you can know God exists wholly apart from arguments simply by immediately experiencing Him…. If you're sincerely seeking God, then God will make His existence evident to you. The Bible promises, "Draw near to God and He will draw near to you" (James 4. 8). We mustn't so concentrate on the proofs that we fail to hear the inner voice of God speaking to our own heart. For those who listen, God becomes an immediate reality in their lives.
This is more of an invitation than an argument. As an argument, I agree that it sucks—at least if you’re trying to use it to convince other people. There are instances in which subjective personal experiences can trump even objective evidence for the person who has had the experiences.

Think that can’t happen? Imagine you’re on trial for a crime you know you didn’t commit because of your own personal experience of you not committing the crime, but all the objective evidence available to the court stands against you. You have no objective evidence you can give to the court to prove you are being framed, but you are still rational to believe in your own innocence. Subjective personal experience can be a powerful source of rational justification. If people really do have personal experiences of God, this can potentially be a source of rational justification for belief in God.

But as an argument to convince other people, I don’t see it being much more useful than reporting your own personal experience of being innocent before a jury who sees the objective evidence heavily stacked against you.

GMS notes that personal experiences can sometimes be delusory, which is true, but insufficient to reject our personal experiences (e.g. I’ll still trust my experience that I was alive in the twentieth century). He notes people can have conflicting personal experiences, which is again true, but still insufficient. People can look at the same set of data and disagree where the evidence points, thus having different intuitive experiences of where the evidence points, but I doubt that would make GMS reject anthropogenic climate change. That said, arguments from personal experiences like this are still not that useful to convince other people.

Teleological (Fine-Tuning) Argument

(13:03 to 16:13)

For those who don’t know, fine-tuning refers to the observation that certain parameters of our universe (certain physical constants and quantities) are “fine-tuned” in the sense that if any of these parameters were altered even slightly, the universe would be life-prohibiting rather than life-permitting, and physical life would not have evolved. So why is the universe life-permitting rather than life-prohibiting? The cosmic fine-tuning being the result of design seems to be a good and straightforward explanation. Cosmic fine-tuning is taken as evidence for the universe having been designed.

GMS makes the claim that this argument makes a false dichotomy fallacy at around 13:43 to 13:58:
First it makes use of a false dichotomy presenting pure chance and an intelligent creator as the only two possibilities when it hasn’t successfully ruled out other options. There could perhaps be some purely physical rule to the universe which demands that these constants be the way they are.
William Lane Craig however has often introduced the fine-tuning argument this way:
  1. The fine-tuning is due either to physical necessity, chance, or design.
  2. It is not due to physical necessity or chance.
  3. Therefore, it is due to design.
Now perhaps GMS doesn’t believe that physical necessity has been successfully ruled out, but if the third possibility of physical necessity had been considered as a possibility and the argumentation against physical necessity for fine-tuning is just unsuccessful, this isn’t a case of a false dichotomy, since three possibilities were indeed considered.

Perhaps the physical constants are physically necessary in the sense that their values (represented numerically in physics) are the way they are in the universe and there’s nothing within the physical universe that can change it (it would require something supernatural to affect them). Note that physical necessity is distinct from metaphysical necessity which is the necessity of the way things could have been in a more absolute sense. If we define a possible world as a complete description of the way reality is or could have been like, some believe there are possible worlds with different physical laws, and that is at least partly why we need empirical study to see what the physical laws of our universe are actually like. In contrast, there are no possible worlds with a married bachelor.

But even if physical constants are physically necessary, we would end up with fine-tuned physical necessities and would not solve the problem or even really provide an alternative to chance.

To illustrate why, consider the following Meter Shower Scenario. Suppose a meteor shower clearly spelled out on the moon, “There is a cosmic designer; I supernaturally fine-tuned certain parameters of this universe so that this message would appear.” Now suppose we do find such fine-tuned parameters that can be expressed as numerical values, like a series of multiple dials that are set extremely precisely for the meteor shower text to appear. Suppose also that the parameters are physically necessary (the values are part of the rules of the universe, and no force purely within the universe can alter them) but the physical necessities are nonetheless fine-tuned so that if the values were altered even slightly, no meteor shower text would appear. Clearly there’s still sense in which it is incredibly unlikely that the fine-tuned physical necessities happen to be the way they are in the absence of a cosmic designer, because this fine-tuning just doesn’t seem to be metaphysically necessary. True, one could in this scenario claim that it is metaphysically necessary that we’d see such a meteor shower text, but that would seem highly implausible under the circumstances. A cosmic designer would seem to be the best explanation of the meteor shower text.

Similarly, even if the physical constants for a life-permitting universe are physically necessary, they don’t seem to be the sort of thing that is metaphysically necessary. The notion that there couldn’t have been a life-prohibiting universe to the point of a life-prohibiting universe being metaphysically impossible does not seem plausible.

GMS continues at around 13:59 to 14:12:
Second, this is an argument from ignorance because the arguer doesn’t know how such an unlikely thing could have possibly happened, they posit unsubstantiated explanation: a God, instead of saying, “I don’t know.”
First, the conclusion is “design” not “God” (though to be fair, the fact—if it is so—that the universe was designed would make atheism considerably less plausible). Second, we can see how such an unlikely thing could have happened, it’s just…unlikely (in the absence of a cosmic designer). Third, is this really an argument from ignorance? Arguments from ignorance take the form of something like “It has not been shown that p is false, therefore p is true.” Maybe somewhere somebody has argued this way in presenting the fine-tuning argument, but it’s just not an inherent part of the reasoning.

One could more charitably see the fine-tuning argument as an inference to the best explanation. To illustrate why, consider the Meteor Shower Scenario in which someone claims the fine-tuning for the meteor shower is clear evidence of design. Suppose a skeptic responded with this:
You’re saying you don’t know how such an unlikely thing could have happened, we must posit an unsubstantiated explanation: a designer, instead of saying “I don’t know.”
This rebuttal is less than convincing, in part because (1) simply saying that A is evidence for B here doesn’t by itself imply an argument from ignorance like the skeptic described above; (2) the fine-tuning being explained is the evidence for the posited “unsubstantiated” explanation of design; and (3) this response seems like a really desperate maneuver to avoid an intelligent designer of the cosmos.

Lots more could be said about the fine-tuning argument, but the objection GMS gave here is highly unsuccessful, as were many of the objections presented in the video with respect to other arguments for theism.