Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Another sound argument for the existence of God

  1. (Premise) Many people know that God exists.
  2. (Premise) If p is known, then p is true.
  3. Therefore, God exists.
The argument is valid, and according to many strands of traditional theism, it is sound. But the argument sounds question-begging. The atheist will surely deny that (1) is true, unless "know" is used in the humorous sense of "She knows many thigs that aren't true".

On the other hand, if someone claimed that platypuses are reptiles, it would not be out of place to persuade her by telling her that biologists know that they are mammals. Yet if the move from (1) to (3) is question-begging, surely the move from:

  1. Biologists know that platypuses are mammals
  1. Platypuses are mammals
would seem to be equally question-begging.

One option is to take the "know" in (4) as "claim to know". In that case, the argument from (4) to (5) is a non-deductive argument using the suppressed premises

  1. Biologists are the relevant scientists to ask about platypuses' mammalian status
  1. What the relevant scientists all claim to know is likely true.
The analogue in the case of (1)-(3) would then be to replace (2) with the premise:
  1. What many people claim to know is likely true.
I actually think (8) is true. Of course, the "likely" here needs to be taken to mean "likely absent other evidence", just as in (7) (if one knows that all the biologists are in the pay of an organization that for tax purposes seeks to have platypus fur classified as mammalian fur, then that weakens the weight of the claim to knowledge). However, (8) is a pretty controversial principle of credulity. And I don't actually know that the argument from (4) to (5) uses a non-standard reading of "know".

Could there be a person who is rational in accepting (3) on the grounds of (1)? I think so. A person might rationally believe that there are persons of such an intellectual carefulness and honesty that when they claim to know, it is very likely that they do in fact know. One might then come to believe that there are many theists who claim to know theism to be true and who fall in this category. Thus, likely, (1) is true. And hence so is (3).

It's hard to come up with a sound argument that couldn't be rationally helpful, unless the conclusion is literally one of the premises.


Alexander R Pruss said...

p.s. For the formal validity of (1)-(3), one needs the T-schema as a rule of inference.

Doug Benscoter said...

Alex, this reminds me of how most who specialize in philosophy of religion believe in a God/Supreme Being. In fact, most of the world's great philosophers throughout history have been believers: from Socrates through Kant.

The analogy, I suppose, is that if we are rationally justified in accepting the physicist's conclusion, even if we don't know much about physics, then it appears we are also rationally justified in accepting the philosopher's conclusion.

Alexander R Pruss said...

Though it's kind of awkward to say that Kant knew there is a God because he denies knowing it.

I wouldn't put too much weight on philosophers of religion tending to be theists. A partial explanation could be that philosophy of religion is much more interesting if something like religion isn't a complete illusion, just as philosophy of science is much more interesting if something like science isn't a complete illusion.

Doug Benscoter said...

Points taken, Alex.

For Kant, it is impossible to know God or any object of the noumena by pure reason, as you indicate. Yet, he would also claim to know God on a practical level, since God cannot be divorced from the locus of the supreme good, which is found in the moral order.

enigMan said...

Perhaps similarly many philosophers (even of religion) would deny that many people know that God exists; perhaps indeed many people who believe in God would deny that they know that He exists, or would when talking philosophically rather than socially (and presumably the argument could only work if taken philosophically). And another problem is that what they would claim to know exists is unlikely to be the God of the philosophers, but something far less logical. Premise (1) could still be true, but "many" would have to mean so few that the second premise would become implausible.

Alexander R Pruss said...

In the standard sense of "know", if p is known by any, then p is true, even if p is unknown by many.

WAR_ON_ERROR said...

The atheist version of 8: "What many people claim to know, when it happens to be beyond their level of expertise, is not likely true."

Alexander R Pruss said...

Whether the existence of God is beyond the expertise of people is, however, a point of contention.

WAR_ON_ERROR said...

And yet, you'll have colleagues of yours say stuff like this:

Now let me close simply by saying this. Some of you are thinking, “Well, goodness, if believing in God is a matter of weighing all of these sorts of arguments, then how can anybody know whether God exists? You'd have to be a philosopher or a scientist to figure out whether God exists!” In fact, I agree with you. A loving God would not leave it up to us to figure out by our own ingenuity and cleverness whether or not he exists. Rather a loving God would seek to reveal himself to us and draw us to himself. And this is exactly what Christian theism teaches. Jesus of Nazareth said, "If any man's will is to do God's will, then he will know whether my teaching is from God, or whether I am speaking on my own accord" (John 7.17). And Jesus promised that the Holy Spirit of God would be given by him to convict and draw persons into loving relationships with himself."[emphasis mine]

Craig admits that presenting all this historical and scientific evidence that is heavily contentious and requiring expert understanding is basically a ridiculous situation for most people. Therefore we have to rely on our magic feelings. But whose magic feelings are correct? Well, it's the magic feelings that correspond to the correct interpretation of all this evidence no one is expert enough to understand. Duh.

So, no. Doesn't seem that contentious at all. Humans aren't typically experts in all the things they'd have to be in order to make a reasonable assessment on the God question. And so their collective opinion on the matter doesn't count like it might on some other more mundane earthly issue. And that's why I think any reasonable person should be able to see how your argument here fails.


WAR_ON_ERROR said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Alexander R Pruss said...

I don't think the existence of God question is all that hard. The cosmological and design arguments are pretty good as they are. Sure, there are clever objections to the arguments (which I've spent a significant part of my life working through). But one doesn't need to know how to refute all the subtle objections to know that we (typically) have two arms, that there are other minds, etc.

WAR_ON_ERROR said...

It's not that hard to come to lots of false conclusions. I don't see how that categorically demonstrates that humans are within their domain of expertise on the God question since that deals with the origins of everything we know and we have no past experience to pull from in that regard. And philosophers go every which way on every which question and form no consensus. This is hardly compelling case for humans being even reasonably good at it (even the trained ones!). Especially when the other examples you use clearly *are* in the domain of human expertise.


Alexander R Pruss said...

The question of God deals with the origins of everything, but it also details with the sustenance of everything. If God exists, he is involved in everything, and it is not surprising if it is easy to know that he exists.

As for the lack of consensus among philosophers:

1. Most of the experts in the relevant subfield--namely, the philosophy of religion--think there is a God. But I lay little emphasis on this fact.

2. Philosophers lack consensus on all sorts of things that the average person knows.

WAR_ON_ERROR said...

It *could* be easy to know God exists, but *is* it? I could get a tap on the shoulder this instant (or better yet, years ago) and have a full on conversation with Jesus or an angel who could clear all this misunderstanding up. I could ask lots of questions, get lots of corroboratable info that would prove I wasn't having a wild hallucionation, etc. if I wanted other people to not think I'm crazy. Why God doesn't just give public addresses every decade or so to put everyone on the same page is beyond me. "Green energy good. Genocide bad. And btw, all religions but this one are fake. Till next time."

Presumably by "sustenance" you mean God's ongoing activity in the world? Like that conversation I *didn't* just have with a messenger from God? I will hear of dedicated Christian apologists who will spend days or weeks in unbelief because their minds lose touch with their confidence (like Mike Licona, Michael Patton, JB_Fidei_Defensor on xanga, and apostates whose theistic confidence simply never returned after hiatus). It's amazing how God allows people to fall through the cracks even temporarily. It seems clear to me that they are at some level being epistemically spread too thin for such an important relationship in their lives. I think I'm pretty solid on the existence of my parents, for example, and have no such analogous lack of confidence in *the very existence* of other meaningful relationships.

So yeah, it's ridiculously possible for it to be easy to know God exists in an average joe kind of way. But as long as there's a problem of divine hiddeness and as long as every little issue is debatable, humans will necessarily be pressed into realms of expertise that are either unreasonable and contentious for most people or beyond the expertise of all people.

1. It is good you lay little emphasis on this because you might as well have said most experts who believe in god believe in god (though religion doesn't quite equal theism, obviously). What about most philosophers in general? I've seen those stats, and all the *majorities* seem to fall in line with naturalism, but there's still nothing near a 95% concensus. Stupid philosophers.

2. If that is the case, then how can you say the average person "knows" it? Surely you are just opening up a can of worms that does not prove your point. Charitably, you seem to be trying to say that most philosophers are too unreasonable (and there might be some truth there) but that doesn't mean average thinkers are any better off or that their reasons are particularly good. This is not good consensus material. It is too easy to portray an extremely vague "consensus" (assuming it even is a consenus) as acquiesence to an appealing idea that can't be sorted out to any meaningful level beyond that with anything achieving even the same level of "consensus."

So if you say, "It would make sense if God exists that most people would believe that" it also makes sense to ask, "But do they know what they are talking about?"


Alexander R Pruss said...


I don't think the invocation of philosophers of religion is trivial. A philosopher of religion is a philosopher who applies philosophical methods to questions of and about religion. In principle, a philosopher of religion no more has to be religious than a philosopher of science has to be a scientist or a criminologist has to be a criminal. In particular, a philosopher of religion is the relevant philosophical specialist to ask whether God exist, just as a philosopher of science is the relevant philosophical specialist to ask whether science gets at truth.

I am inclined to roll the problem of hiddenness into the problem of evil, taking the alleged hiddenness to be a function of certain cultural evils.

Yes, it is possible to come to doubt that God exists. It's also possible to come to doubt that there is a material world or that there are other minds or that there are nontrivial moral (or modal, for that matter) truths. But it is, nonetheless, easy to know that there is a material world, other minds and nontrivial moral (or modal) truth.

Keith said...

I is more difficult to doubt and takes a philosophical explanation to demonstrate the non-existence of other minds and a material world. It is easier to doubt the non-existence of God without a lengthy explanation.

Therefore, just because it is easy to know of minds and a material world, does not mean it is easy to see that God exists.

WAR_ON_ERROR said...

Basically, I just don't think a consensus by human beings on metaphysical or convoluted subjective issues is meaningful. We are optimized to be social information specialists, not metaphysicians, philosophers, and mystics. So confidences beyond our general path of expertise shouldn't weigh enough to make your argument work.

"I am inclined to roll the problem of hiddenness into the problem of evil, taking the alleged hiddenness to be a function of certain cultural evils."

Surely a lack of overt communication can only make things worse. I'm assuming you are referring to the apologetic notion that when God is around, the penalties for sin go up really high or something. So God's presence makes things worse and so he hides himself in order to be merciful. I just don't buy that there's no functional in between (which is why perhaps an every decade or so public address might work better than perpetual in person encounters with everyone all the time). The cost of either extreme (seeming to not exist or being all up in your unholy face) seem ridiculously high. Why does God seem to have such lousy people skills? Didn't he get along with his 12 disciples and that turned out 11/12ths good, right?