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« Cognitive Agency, Judgment and Phenomenology | Main | On Action »

10/15/2014

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Clayton

"Personally, I wonder whether arguments about the existence of God have anything more than an intellectual significance. It might be fun to find a seemingly flawless argument for or against God's existence, but I doubt they will ever convince anyone."

A very nice post, Elisa. One small thing about one of your concluding remarks. You'll just have to take my word for it, but I endorsed theism for a very short time in college having leaned atheist/agnostic for as long as I could remember. The argument from evil convinced me that there's no God. I've talked to other atheists who have also said that they were convinced by the argument from evil, a claim that I think is stronger than the claim that they find that argument convincing. There might be similar examples on the other side, as it were, but I heard someone else say that arguments _about_ God's existence never convince or persuade anyone to change their mind and I think that that's an empirical claim that's going to be very difficult to defend.

elisa freschi

Thanks for that Clayton. I am not sure I understand your story: You used to be an atheist/agnostic, then turned to theism and later were convinced back to atheism because of the argument from evil?

While writing the post, I was in fact a little uncertain about whether to add an exception concerning the argument from evil. In fact, I think that if we look at people's biographies, many have become atheists (or turned to theism) after having contemplated a tragedy (let us take Lisboa's earthquake as a classical example). Evil, especially evil inflicted on young children or other innocent people, cannot but shake us ---and we were not human beings if it were not so. In this sense, I agree with François Brun (who is a Catholic priest) when he says that one cannot escape that argument, nor can one underestimate its impact with cheap devices such as the fact that "darkness makes us appreciate light more" and the like. In this sense, I think that there is something special about the argument from evil, and that it is not just a philosophical argument, in the sense that what convinces us is not the cleverness of the formulation, but rather the impact of the subjective* pain evil involves. This cannot be wiped away through the fact that a bigger good is achieved through that.


*I.e., the pain each single subject has to endure.

grad

Elisa,

Spinoza in the TTP makes the argument that the Jews were considered chosen only because they survived and were socially well organized and not the other way around. Maybe some won't find such an old argument convincing, but it's at least a fun read. And Spinoza has some historical/Biblical chops.

Also, is the IBE argument claiming that miracles explain the survival of the Jews or more naturalistic mechanisms, preordained by God? The former just seems false--there are plenty of natural explanations for various stages of Jewish survival. If the latter, then I don't see the force of the argument, i.e. if there are natural explanations, why resort to God? Because of some general teleological argument about laws?

Elisa Freschi

grad, you are probably right and you certain agree with the gist of Moti's argument, in the sense that he has similar doubts regarding the fact that the Jewish survival needs an extraordinary explanation. His article discusses the view of some that the survival of the Jews *is* in fact extraordinary (given that the Sumerians, Assyrians, etc., have long vanished).

As for Spinoza, thanks for the pointer. Apart from its political and religious significance at Spinoza's own time, the argument counters the idea that the Hebrews were the chosen people independent of all. They *deserved* being the chosen people (although, Spinoza argues, this happened only by chance).

Moti Mizrahi

Hi Elisa,

Thanks so much for discussing my paper. I have to say that I’ve had no success at all in trying to get major philosophy of religion journals to consider this paper for publication. It was desk rejected without review several times. So I am very glad to see it getting some attention. I hope that the major philosophy of religion journals will pay more attention to work in philosophy of religion that engages with religious traditions other than Christianity.

Now, to address your concerns, which I take to be the following:

(1) The assumptions I make in testing the divine protection explanation are incorrect.

(2) The Argument from the Survival of the Jews is not an IBE. (Perhaps not even an argument at all.)

As for (1), as I understand your concern here, you don’t think that the divine protection explanation cannot be tested, even *in principle*, but rather that the assumptions I make to test it are incorrect. For example, you question the assumption that God always knew who the chosen people are (after all, God is supposed to be omniscient). In that case, I don’t think I have a problem with (1). For, given other assumptions, the divine protection explanation could still be tested *in principle*. The point in that section of the paper is that the divine protection explanation is testable, so that is not the reason why it is unsatisfactory as an explanation for the survival of the Jewish people.

As for (2), there is a quote from Malcolm in footnote 1 of this paper on teaching arguments for the existence of God that you might like: http://c.ymcdn.com/sites/www.apaonline.org/resource/collection/808CBF9D-D8E6-44A7-AE13-41A70645A525/v11n1_Teaching.pdf

You may be right that the argument from the survival of the Jews is not an argument at all. There is a tradition in Judaism according to which God is not an object of knowledge, or even belief, and thus one accepts the burden of mitzvot for its own sake (lishma). Yeshayahu Leibowitz was a recent proponent of this view, if you’re interested.

Like Clayton, I think that given the fact that there are compelling arguments against the existence of God (e.g., the problem of evil), those who are concerned with religious belief (as opposed to just religious practice) should worry about argument for/against the existence of God.

Matt DeStefano

"Personally, I wonder whether arguments about the existence of God have anything more than an intellectual significance. It might be fun to find a seemingly flawless argument for or against God's existence, but I doubt they will ever convince anyone."

I caught this too and it wasn't clear why you thought this.

To add on to what Clayton said, I was also convinced by a combination of Divine Hiddenness arguments and the problem of evil. It's not merely that I felt the pull of the argument or that I thought it was good, but that it changed my mind.

Elisa Freschi

@Matt,
thanks for your comment. It is always hard to distinguish the power of one or the other element within one's biography, but I would be interested to know, just like in the case of Clayton, whether you were a believer before that or not. If you were just a believer by default (e.g., one raised in a family of believers), then it is all by normal that the argument from evil was the chance for you to think more deeply about the issue and to understand what your stand about it was.

Moreover, as mentioned before, the argument from evil has ---as you also hint at somehow--- a power which goes beyond its argumentative structure. Similarly, I do not think anyone has ever changed his mind because of the syllogistic form of the Divine Hiddenness argument (which is, I think, very weak, don't you agree?), although I can imagine people being shaken by the event that they, their friends and relatives cannot experience God's presence.

Elisa Freschi

@Moti,
I have nothing against arguments for or against the existence of God, as long as one is aware of their actual purpose. As I can see them, they are:

1) useful for intellectual pleasure (which is an end in itself, since intellectual pleasure increases GNH without downsides, such as decrease of health conditions, violence, etc.).

2) useful to strengthen insiders. If one is a believer, one probably wants to be able to find an apt answer to the atheist attacks and vice versa.

As for God knowing in advance who would have been the chosen people, we are getting close to the problem of omniscience and human free will. I am willing to give up part of the former in order to safeguard the latter, since (as I have argued for here: http://philosopherscocoon.typepad.com/blog/2013/11/is-predetermination-compatible-with-the-idea-of-a-loving-god-probably-not.html), I cannot make sense of a loving God unless human beings are free to love or not to love Him/Her. This is, by the way, also the reason why I think that the Divine Hiddenness argument does not work.

Matt DeStefano

HI Elisa,

I can definitely appreciate the difficulty of knowing exactly what changed my mind (and undoubtedly there were other factors), but as far as I am consciously aware, I was really convinced by PoE and DH arguments. I was raised as a believer, though I want to reject the believer 'by default', as I had thought about my faith critically for several years before changing my mind.

I don't know about the power of the PoE outside of its argumentative structure, (as you said before, tragedy sometimes brings people to theism as often as it pushes them away), but I think it's a really, really good argument that has no good response to it in the literature. I disagree that the DH argument is 'very weak' in syllogistic form, although I don't think it's as strong as the PoE. Like the PoE, though, I don't think there have been any very convincing responses to it.

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