Clayton's Afterthoughts

Saturday, October 28, 2006 -- 5:00 PM
Guest Contributor

posted by Phil Clayton

Dear Ken,

Thanks for your post this morning about reasons for (and against) belief in God. And thanks to you and John for having me on the show this morning.

A few very brief responses to today’s program on "Believing in God" and to your blog:

* Did we resolve the issue, either by agreeing that there are rationally compelling reasons for the existence of God, or rationally compelling reasons against God’s existence? No, clearly not. But then again, none of us thought that we would do so.

* Did we talk about religious issues – issues of ultimate concern – in a rational and civilized manner, despite the deep differences between our three positions? Yes, I think we did actually. Now perhaps some would say that’s not much of an achievement. But I disagree. In a world in which people are willing to commit violent acts because of the presence or absence of belief, and a world where religion seems to be the one topic that no one (even professional philosophers) can discuss rationally, I think that’s no mean achievement.

* Indeed, isn’t that what philosophy is all about? We take on issues that can’t be resolved by scientific study or direct observation -- issues that others seem willing to resolve by dogmatic assertions -- and we try to be influenced in our believing and disbelieving by the force of the better reason. I am a theist, which I suppose makes me religious. Yet if the reasons that I have for this belief turn out to be inadequate, I will follow where the arguments lead. And I presume the same is true of you.

* (Of course, none of us do this perfectly. Believing and disbelieving religious claims seems to be one of the areas most resistant to reason. [The other one is falling in love with those you "should" fall in love with and not with those you shouldn’t.] Perhaps you need to do a show on "the failure of philosophy" -- on what the Greeks called akrasia, the failure of the will to follow what reason tells us is the best course of action.)

* What we didn’t get to talk about – perhaps this is an even more urgent topic for a future show – is exactly how one goes about reasoning about one’s "worldview-level beliefs." Surely we have to admit that the hold of reason is rather less firm at this level than at the level of our more specific beliefs. And yet philosophers – and indeed all rational persons – are compelled to at least attempt to reason about their worldview-level beliefs.

* Reflection at this sort of level is what the tradition has called metaphysics. It comes in many flavors: theistic, of course, but also naturalistic, physicalist, humanist, etc. Unfortunately, metaphysics – at least in the "grand tradition" that once played a central role in Western philosophy – has sort of fallen out of fashion. It’s too bad, in a sense, because human reflection does tend to move outward to these broadest of all questions. Those are the questions that we began to discuss today. I wish we’d be able to delve into them more deeply. Maybe next time...

Philip Clayton

Comments (8)


Guest's picture

Guest

Wednesday, November 1, 2006 -- 4:00 PM

Loved your show, as usual. I like what Woody

Loved your show, as usual.
I like what Woody Allen said about the belief in the existence of god.
Something long the lines that he would believe in god when he received a sign. Like a lot of money in a Swiss bank account in his name.

Guest's picture

Guest

Thursday, November 2, 2006 -- 4:00 PM

I just found your show on the radio and i enjoy it

I just found your show on the radio and i enjoy it very much. Right now in school we are reading Sophies World. This book is filled with many famous Philosophers and changes in society. The topic last night is very interesting and it helped me look at the existence of God in some new perspectives. I come from a very religious family but i myself am agnostic. Keep up the good work!
::letizia

Guest's picture

Guest

Sunday, November 5, 2006 -- 4:00 PM

I do agree that civilized discourse about religiou

I do agree that civilized discourse about religious concepts is a significant achievement (which is one of the reasons I do not take kindly to religion, but I'll save that issue for another time).
One point from the show on which I would like to hear more is the "regularities of succession" and "temporal orders" which you (Phil) spoke of as indicating the presence of some kind of intelligent design, but this never got identified in more detail before you turned to the argument based on "fine tuning" of key parameters in physics.
With regard to that "fine tuning" argument, it seems to me to be possibly defeated by a "many worlds" theory of physics. (Not that I subscribe to one at this point, but I can imagine that a useful one might at some point be developed.) So the mystery of fine tuning, while not exactly explained, does not seem inexplicable. And if it's not inexplicable then it does not force the introduction of a "god" concept.
Your suggestion that the "contingent existence" of a finely tuned physical universe implies the existence of some non-contingent entity was new to me, but I am not sure that it really goes beyond the combined force of the argument from first cause and those of perfection and imagination.
When you assert above that you did not "resolve the issue, either by agreeing that there are rationally compelling reasons for the existence of God, or rationally compelling reasons against God?s existence", I wonder why you denied caller Paul's suggestion that the proposition you defended is empty of content. It is only when the putative god is given some consequential characteristics that the question of existence or not becomes meaningful. My God may be a figment of my imagination for which I can find no referent in external reality. Is there any consequence of the non-existence of your god which contradicts any aspect of my experience (or of any experience which I can be shown how to have)?
My last question arises from your response to Paul in which you referred to "ontological" arguments involving goodness, perfection and the like but did not have time to explain in more detail. Could you add a bit about why whatever represents or embodies these concepts should be the same as that which answers the question about why the universe exists as it does?
Thanks again for a great show.
Alan Cooper

Guest's picture

Guest

Monday, November 20, 2006 -- 4:00 PM

It was I who called and proposed an argument from

It was I who called and proposed an argument from irrelevance: that the question of whether God exists is irrelevant because no further consequence follows from God's existence. Therefore one need be neither a theist, an atheist, or an agnostic, because the issue itself is simply irrelevant. On this view, we can take a cue from Richard Rorty and simply change the topic of conversation, or from Wittgenstein and pass over in silence, so that we need not bother with the trouble of so much as being an agnostic. The tremendous effort of practicing agnosticism which T. H. Huxley describes in his famous essay "Agnosticism" could simply be sidestepped, as avoiding a potentially burdensome but unnecessary obstacle.
My motivation (in part) for offering this argument was having recently re-read Plato's Euthyphro. Socrates poses the question, is what is pious pious because it is loved by the gods, or is it loved by the gods because it is pious? Allow me to re-phrase this: is an object inherently valuable because God values it, or does God value it because it is inherently valuable? If God values it because it is inherently valuable, then God would appear to be superfluous so far as inherent value is concerned. It seems that what matters in this case would be inherent value itself, not God.
As I recall, Phil Clayton seemed to make the argument that the mere fact of discussing God's existence is itself proof that the existence of God has consequences. So even if we don't agree about God's existence, we have already demonstrated that God matters. Thus the theist wins a kind of victory over the atheist and agnostic by the mere fact of talking about God in the first place. At this point I found myself thinking of Richard Dawkins' and the late Stephen Jay Gould's policy of simply not debating opponents of evolutionary biology because the mere fact of so doing eo ipso confers legitimacy upon the opponents' thesis.
When my argument from irrelevance is placed beside Phil's apparent argument from relevance, the disagreement seems teleological. Discussion of God entails that God's existence has consequences, because if nothing else his existence matters to us and is a final cause for our activity. But changing the topic or remaining silent would seem to entail that God does not really matter to us, because God is then not a final cause for our activity.
Why then did I bother to call the radio show and raise the irrelevance argument in the first place? Am I not conceding to Phil's thesis that God is relevant? I don't think so. Only if it had been up to me to choose the topic of discussion do I think I could be charged with unqualified voluntarily participation. And herein lies a problem, I believe, with the type of teleological argument that Phil seemed to make. Only when the interlocutors are entirely free from compulsion to participate can they be said to find the existence of God a genuine concern. But as soon as compulsion enters into the picture, it seems to me, one cannot in truth say that the discussion proves that God is relevant -- at least not to those who have been forced to discuss the matter. (This is not to say I did not enjoy the discussion -- I did! But the topic was not my choice.)
However, teleological arguments suffer from another notorious difficulty. Even if we grant that a final cause is real as a final cause, i.e. it really is that for the sake of which we act, and even if we grant that the existence of the final cause has consequences, it still does not follow that the final cause actually does exist.
I too would love to hear Phil Clayton's thoughts about this.
Cheers,
-paul

Guest's picture

Guest

Monday, December 4, 2006 -- 4:00 PM

Hi Paul, While we are waiting to hear from Phil

Hi Paul,
While we are waiting to hear from Phil perhaps I could respond to a couple of your comments.
First, I would like to add to your response to the idea that discussion of the existence of God implies that such existence has consequences, which you refute by claiming that compulsion exempts your participation from proving anything. I agree, but would go further.
I was under no compulsion to join the discussion myself, but would not want my participation to be cited as evidence that the existence or not of God actually matters.
In fact, I discuss the existence of God not because I believe that the existence of God itself has consequences, but rather because I believe that belief in the existence of God has consequences (of which some may be good, but many are definitely evil).
And to your penultimate paragraph I would add that for the existence of a final cause to have consequences would actually make it less likely to exist - since failure of the consequence to occur would imply non-existence of the cause, whereas what follows from its existence might actually still occur in the absence of that existence as a consequence something else. (This is why I asked Phil for a non-occurring consequence of non-existence rather than a consequence of existence.)
cheers,
Alan

Guest's picture

Guest

Thursday, December 14, 2006 -- 4:00 PM

Hi Alan, We have the following argument: &nb

Hi Alan,
We have the following argument:
    P1:  If God exists, then there are consequences.
    P2:  There are no consequences.
   -----------------------------------------------
    C:  Therefore, God does not exist.
The conclusion follows from the premises by modus tollens, i.e. denying the consequent.
Alan, if I understand you correctly, we both agree that P1 is dubious, and that regardless of P2 the argument cannot properly be judged sound because we do not know that P1 is true.
I think Phil would probably find this argument unsound because he would find P2 false while agreeing with P1.
So I think all three of us would agree that this argument is unsound, although Alan and I for one reason, Phil for another.
Now, Alan suggests shifting the burden of proof onto the theist by demanding an example of some non-occuring consequence of God's non-existence, so as to rephrase the argument like this:
    P'1:  If God does not exist, then there are consequences.
    P'2:  There are no consequences.
   ------------------------------------------------
    C':  Therefore, God exists.
This also is a valid argument.  And, it turns the tables by placing the theist in the unfavorable position of having to prove the negative universal that there are no consequences, whereas the atheist need only come up with one example of a consequence in order to win.
Notice that C and C' are contradictories, i.e. necessarily either C is true or C' is true, but not both. This means that anyone either agreeing or disagreeing with the proposition that God exists
must reject exactly one of these conclusions, either C or C'. And, because these are valid arguments, they must also reject at least one premise P1, P2, P'1, or P'2.
The theist will reject P2 while the atheist will reject P'2. But both theist and atheist will probably accept P1 and P'1. Indeed, they must accept at least one of these in order for their own argument to win.
What I'm advocating, on the contrary, is that we call both P1 and P'1 into question. I think it is entirely possible that God could exist with no consequences, and that God could be non-existent with no consequences. I am not convinced that either P1 or P'1 is true. So my position differs from what I take to be a standard agnostic position, which is to suspend judgment on P2 and P'2, while accepting or remaining neutral about P1 and P'1.
I call this the argument from irrelevance because if neither P1 nor P'1 is true, then it is irrelevant whether P2 or P'2 is true, regardless of whether C or C' is true. While the theist, atheist and agnostic will likely argue about P2 and P'2, I will simply change the topic of discussion to something relevant.
Cheers,
-paul

Guest's picture

Guest

Monday, December 18, 2006 -- 4:00 PM

Hi Paul, I think it is possible (and necessary) t

Hi Paul,
I think it is possible (and necessary) to be more lenient with the theists than you suggest, since replacing your P2' with:-
P2": at least one of the predicted consequences of non-existence fails to occur
still gives a valid argument for existence.
But despite the bar now being so low, I have never seen even one example of something testable that would have to be true if no gods existed. (Of course the IDists keep trying "If there was no Designer we wouldn't have eyes" and so on, but in every case the purported proof amounts to "I can't think of how it might have happened without a Designer" and unfortunately all *that* really demonstrates is their own lack of imagination (combined ironically with total confidence in the very ability they lack - namely to have imagined and considered all nontheistic possibilities).
Nonetheless, there are people much smarter than I who do believe in the existence of gods that they consider not to be irrelevant. Such people never claim to prove the existence of their gods on rational grounds, nor do they identify observable consequences of such existence. The relevance of these gods derives, so far as I can tell, not from observable consequences but rather from what I call "exhortatory consequences" because belief in such a god appears to demand (and enable?) certain patterns of behaviour from the believer.
I think I have some inkling of why such people believe, but I do not really understand it and I wish I did.
-Alan

Guest's picture

Guest

Saturday, December 30, 2006 -- 4:00 PM

Alan, What I find interesting are the justifica

Alan,
What I find interesting are the justifications and logical maneuverings employed by theists and atheists.
In order to affirm or deny that God exists, one does not need to know that God does/does not exist. More generally, in order to believe that P (where P is any proposition) it is not necessary to know that P.
But if we are to be consistent then it is necessary to deny the knowledge claims of those with whom we disagree. In order to consistently believe that P, we must reject as invalid or unsound any argument purporting to demonstrate that not-P.
So we have this disparity with belief. In order to believe that P, we don't need to know that P. But we do need to reject any claims by others to know that not-P. In order to believe that God exists/does not exist, we don't need to know that God does/does not exist, but we do need to reject any argument alleging to prove the contrary of what we believe. At least if we are to be consistent.
This is significant, I believe, because it means that if we wish to study the rationale behind a theist or atheist's belief, we should perhaps not look to see what arguments are adduced in support of their belief, but rather to see what arguments are adduced to reject the opposing view. That is, in order to understand why one believes that P, it is typically more useful and informative to understand why one does not believe that not-P, rather than to understand why one believes that P.
So I agree that many who believe do not claim to have knowledge. Knowledge is optional for belief. But at the same time everyone who believes must reject the knowledge claims of those who disagree, on pain of inconsistency. So the rejection of knowledge is not optional for belief. This is where things get interesting, I think, because nobody can consistently believe without at the same time rejecting the contradiction of what one believes.
But we can take all this a step further. Anyone who rejects a knowledge claim can be expected to provide reasons why they reject it. These reasons are presumably applicable to any argument, not just arguments with which one disagrees. So by criticizing opposing arguments, the theist/atheist gives criteria for evaluating any belief about God's existence, including their own. In this way the believer provides the criticism of his own belief about God.
For example, a theist might reject arguments that God does not exist on the grounds that we don't know the premises are true. But if belief in a proposition must be abandoned if we don't know that it is true, then the theist must also abandon belief in the proposition that God exists, unless it is known to be true. Thus the theist can be made to refute his own belief.
So, Alan, I agree that many intelligent people are theists without claiming to know their belief is true. But that's irrelevant. No theist can accept the atheist's knowledge claims, and if we are to apply this rejection of knowledge claims to all beliefs equally, then it would seem the theist must abandon his own belief in God as well.
In fact, it is on this very point that I find fault with many theists and atheists. If one belief is rejected because we don't know it is true, then the contradictory belief should also be rejected if we don't know it's true. We can't consistently have it both ways, rejecting one belief because we don't know it's true while accepting another belief even though we don't know it's true, either.
-paul

 

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