Wednesday, July 2, 2014

A plan for your life

Consider this argument:

  1. There is a comprehensive plan for your life not of your making.
  2. The best hypothesis to explain (1) is that the plan is God's.
  3. So, probably, God exists.
More could be said about (2) and the inference to (3). But I want to focus on (1). It seems pretty clear that (1) begs the question against the atheist or agnostic: the only reason to think (1) is true is that one thinks there is a Planner, and this the atheist and agnostic do not believe.

But I think this is too quick. I think a lot of people may have an intuition of (1) that is not simply based on a belief in a Planner. That intuition may be basic or it may be inferred inductively from various events in the person's life having an apparent plot, and more than a plot, a plan made with the person in sight. I remember a student who professed to be an atheist telling me that she feels that her life has a plan, and that she doesn't know if she can fit this with her atheism. (I told her she needed to figure this out.) She may have been exceptional: many atheists probably do not have the intuition of (1). But at least in regard to her, the argument wouldn't have begged the question.

And even if the intuition of (1) were always based on theism, that would not make the argument question begging in every case. For one could use Dan Johnson's brilliant observation on the ontological argument here. Suppose someone is reasonably a theist (e.g., due to a sensus divinitatis), then reasonably infers (1), then for some unreasonable reason (say, the wrong kind of social pressures) becomes an atheist but still maintains the belief in (1). Her belief in (1) remains reasonable—it is her atheism that is unreasonable on this story. (I don't need any claim like that every atheist is unreasonable. But this one I am supposing to be.) Then she would be reasonable in inferring back to theism from (1).


Michael Gonzalez said...

Wouldn't many theists disagree with (1)? The idea of a comprehensive plan for my life, not of my making, entails not only theism, but Calvinist theism. So, if one has the sense that there is a comprehensive plan for their life, and they think God is the best explanation for that, then they should believe not just in God, but in a Calvinist style predestination. On such a view, I see some looming issues with the Problem of Evil (particularly with "Free Will" defenses against it), as well as inconsistencies with many passages in Scripture.

So, if the only cogent forms of Christian theism involve free will and are inhospitable to predestination, then (2) should become "the best explanation for (1) is some sort of psychological predisposition having nothing to do with reality". And the conclusion would be: "therefore, you have a psychological predisposition having nothing to do with reality".

Alexander R Pruss said...

A comprehensive plan may be like the plan of a chess grandmaster: it may take into account many contingencies.

Michael Gonzalez said...

Would such a plan include the foreordained ending (salvation or death)?

Alexander R Pruss said...

It could.

Michael Gonzalez said...

It seems like that would be the biggest problem with a Christian accepting such a view. We may not be free about everything, but the Bible makes it pretty clear that we're free with regard to that.

Alexander R Pruss said...

Note that "a comprehensive plan for your life" can be understood either as a plan that you *will* fulfill or a plan that you *should* fulfill. The argument has great flexibility in how you spell this out. All that's needed is that it be a plan that goes over and beyond the plans that other people have for you.

Michael Gonzalez said...

Can God's plan be thwarted? I mean, it's well and good if He has a way that He would like us to live, but when we call it "God's plan" it really doesn't sound avoidable (at least, without making Him fail at something).

Dan Johnson said...


Sorry for the delay in commenting. This argument is wonderful when you think of it as a circular argument relying on the sense of deity. It is much like the gratitude argument in that way. This strikes a chord for me, since I have recently (with the help of some of my students) identified what seems to me to be a trigger of the sense of deity that is directly relevant: the experience of significant coincidence. When we experience a significant coincidence (perhaps with some other conditions -- maybe the coincidence needs to be "meaningful" in some way) we seem naturally to form the belief that someone was orchestrating circumstances to make it happen. Now, this seems to me to be a great candidate for a triggering condition of the sense of deity.

If you tried to turn this into a non-circular argument for the existence of God, you'd run into problems with alternative explanations of this natural response. But if that natural response is properly basic, then the argument you gave might be a good circular argument for someone who kept the belief that there is a plan but suppressed the belief that there is a planner.

I love it! I remember you mentioning to me a number of years back the possibility of writing up some of these theistic arguments that work better as circular arguments than they do as non-circular ones. This would be a great one to include, and I'd be interested in doing that.

Alexander R Pruss said...

A different path to (1) would replace my individualistic story about a theist who becomes an atheist with a social story about a theistic culture that accepts (1), unreasonably ceases to be overtly theistic, but nonetheless reasonably retains certain aspects of the theistic culture. An individual might then reasonably inherit a belief in (1) from the culture, and the belief might even count as knowledge, in the same way that various other beliefs we reasonably inherit from our culture and that our culture properly arrived at might count as knowledge.