Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Are Atheist Philosophers Really Irrational?

The NY Times interview begins with Gutting acknowledging a recent PhilPapers survey finding that almost three quarters of philosophers accept or lean towards atheism. Plantinga suggests that is the case because these philosophers find the arguments for God’s existence unsound. He then suggests that atheism is an irrational position to hold on such a basis, for the failure of theistic arguments should only lead to agnosticism (withholding belief either way, I suppose). On that, I tend to agree with Plantinga, but why does he think that that is all that supports the atheism of the majority of philosophers? While Plantinga claims that atheism is a position that requires arguments and evidence of its own, he seems to completely fail to consider that the majority of philosophers may actually be atheists on the basis of specifically atheistic evidence and arguments. Furthermore, what evidence does Plantinga provide to support his belief that atheist philosophers make the erroneous assent to atheism merely on the basis of rejecting theistic evidence and arguments? The answer, I regret to inform you, is absolutely none. This is pure speculation on Plantinga’s part.

While Plantinga admits that none of the theistic arguments is “conclusive”, does he think that the majority of philosophers who reject them are irrational to do so? I’ll let you be the judge of how Plantinga answers that question in this interview, but he does say the following about them elsewhere: “These arguments are not coercive in the sense that every person is obliged to accept their premises on pain of irrationality

So Plantinga doesn’t think that the majority of philosophers are irrational to reject theistic arguments, but he does think that they are irrational to go beyond agnosticism and accept atheism on that basis … but then he doesn’t provide any evidence to support the idea that they do.

Amazingly, Gutting then shifts the discussion to how some non-philosophers support their atheism. But this can’t possibly address the opening question! Philosophers develop expertise in rational thinking and strive, first and foremost, to be rational. That’s what philosophy is all about. It is startling that the majority of philosophers are atheists so Gutting was right to begin there, for if the widely held atheism of philosophers is irrational, then the rationality of atheism itself would seem to stand little hope. Atheists should shift gears and merely say that they are agnostic. Unfortunately, Gutting utterly fails to actually go there, but he nevertheless manages to leave the reader with the impression that even atheist philosophers are unjustified in getting beyond agnosticism.

What might the evidence and arguments for atheism look like? Plantinga  mentions the unimaginable ubiquity of worldly evil and suffering throughout time as evidence - "maybe the only evidence", he says - against God’s existence. Is it wrong to be astounded by two distinguished philosophy professors with expertise in religious epistemology failing to acknowledge the existence of more atheistic arguments than the evidential problem of evil (POE)?

At least Plantinga recognizes the tremendous weight of the evidential POE when he says, “it makes sense to think that the probability of theism, given the existence of all of the suffering and evil our world contains, is fairly low.” He goes on to say, “But of course there are also arguments for theism. Indeed, there are at least a couple of dozen good theistic arguments. So the atheist would have to try to synthesize and balance the probabilities. This isn’t at all easy to do, but it’s pretty obvious that the result wouldn’t anywhere nearly support straight-out atheism as opposed to agnosticism.”

Really? I suppose that it depends on what one might mean by “fairly low” and “straight out”. If one is rational to think that the probability of theism is “fairly low” on evil/suffering (as Plantinga claims), and one is not irrational in rejecting the theistic arguments (as Plantinga has also claimed elsewhere), then, while I agree that balancing the probabilities after all of these arguments is difficult, it seems to me that one could remain completely rational in continuing to believe that the probability of theism is low, and that would count as atheism if not “straight out” atheism, whatever that is.

Have Gutting and Plantinga so far shown that the majority of philosophers ought to be agnostic on the question of theism, and that they are irrational in their assent to atheism? Of course they haven’t. To do this, they’d have to accurately identify the atheistic evidence and arguments, which are multiple - not just the POE - and they’d have to show that one could not rationally weigh the strength of these arguments against the theistic evidence and arguments and conclude that atheism seems more likely. They have not done this. All we’ve received in this interview is Plantinga’s personal speculation that the majority of philosophers merely reject theistic arguments to erroneously move beyond agnosticism.

Now comes the really amazing part. Despite having just discussed the powerful atheistic force provided by the evidential POE, Gutting asks, “If, then, there isn’t any evidence to support atheism [emphasis mine], why do you think so many philosophers – presumably highly rational people – are atheists?”

Is Gutting so desperate to paint atheism as irrational that he gets a mental block when evidence for atheism is presented? And why doesn’t Plantinga correct Gutting and point out that they just did discuss strong evidence for atheism? Instead, Plantinga speculates that most philosophers accept atheism because, “of the serious limitation of human autonomy posed by theism.” Those philosophers just want to be free! It couldn’t possibly be that they rationally accept atheism because they reject theistic arguments and find atheistic arguments like the evidential POE and others more compelling, could it? Not for these 2 distinguished Christian philosophers from Notre Dame, it would seem.

In case you couldn't tell, I was pretty disappointed with the first two thirds of this interview. Gutting should have gone right for the money, which is Plantinga’s Evidential Argument Against Naturalism (EAAN). The EAAN is a clever argument that I like quite a bit and it could give pause to atheists who accept unguided evolution and think that they’re rational to do so. But before I discuss the EAAN, I’ll comment on where the conversation went next: is God like a celestial teapot?

1 comment:

  1. Seems that Jeffrey Jay Jay Lowder has done a much better job of articulating my concerns about this interview and others: