A friend asked me what I thought of Victor Reppert’s argument from reason. Here’s my response:
I just finished reading his version of the argument in the Blackwell Companion to Natural Theology. Here are my off-the-cuff impressions:
i) I think it’s a good argument. I think it can be popularized.
ii) In popularizing theistic proofs, I think we need to clarify the value and limitations of popularized theistic proofs. I think we should classify popularized theistic proofs under defensive apologetics rather than offensive apologetics. I think they can be useful in giving Christians supporting arguments for their faith. They can give Christians some intellectual confidence or assurance.
However, I think it would often be a mistake for a Christian to imagine that this equips him to go on the offensive and pick fights or do battle with unbelievers.
In debate, a specialist usually has an advantage over a nonspecialist. He can argue circles around the nonspecialist. Even though the specialist may be dead wrong, he can do a snow job on the nonspecialist.
An atheist who’s a clever young philosophy major has a lot of strategies at his disposal to deflect a popularized version of the AFR. If Joe Six-pack Christian gets into an argument with an unbeliever like that, he may well lose the argument, not because he’s wrong, but because he lacks the sophistication to field the counterarguments.
And that experience could disillusion him. That might shake his faith. Leave him worse off than before. So we need to make sure the nonspecialist has reasonable expectations about what a popularized theistic proof can accomplish.
iii) There’s also the question of how to interpret the AFR.
a) Is it one argument, or a bundle of distinct arguments?
Reppert divides the argument into six subarguments, but are these six distinct arguments from reason, or are these six supporting arguments for the same basic argument?
b) For instance, is dualism essential to the AFR? Take an idealistic version of atheism like McTaggart’s idealism. Everything would be mental.
Yet that would still be vulnerable to the AFR. Mentality is not interchangeable with rationality. Take the clinically insane.
c) Likewise, some people I’ve read think this is about the determinism/indeterminism debate. That if our beliefs are determined, then our beliefs are arbitrary. But I think that objection misses the point of argument.
Seems to me the AFR isn’t targeting the general principle of determinate beliefs, but beliefs determined by a mindless process.
By the same token, the AFT would also target accidental beliefs. Beliefs which result from a stochastic process.
iv) In popularizing a theistic proof, the key is to find and exploit good illustrations. For instance, Reppert uses the hypothetical example of someone who throws dice to decide what to believe. You could expand on that example.
a) We’d say that’s an irrational way to choose beliefs, because there’s no essential correlation between the selection process and the truth of the corresponding belief. And that’s because it’s just a matter of chance what combination the dice will yield on any particular throw.
Mind you, there’s a sense in which the randomness is determined by physical conditions and mathematical constraints, which is why we can calculate the odds. Only so many combinations are mathematically possible.
But there’s no internal relation between the dice and the beliefs. The same throw could select a different belief, or a different throw could select the same belief. It all depends on how the dice are positioned in the fist, the angle of the throw, the amount of force behind the throw, &c.
b) One might compare this to loaded dice. The dice are loaded with the intention of yielding a particular result, for a purpose. To win by cheating.
v) Scrabble would be another example.
a) In one respect, that’s a physical state which can represent something else. The arrangement of letters can refer.
But lettered sequences aren’t inherently meaningful. Rather, that’s based on language, alphabets, and spelling systems. That’s a code which we use to assign meaning to inanimate objects. An arbitrary convention. The significance is contingent on an agreed-upon set of rules. Mutual understanding.
b) Likewise, we distinguish between words which are fortuitously formed by shaking the box, then emptying the contents onto the table, and words which are intentionally formed by a player selecting Scrabble pieces from a pile and arranging or rearranging them to spell a word or sentence.
If a girlfriend and boyfriend were playing Scrabble, and she saw her boyfriend shake the box, resulting in the pieces randomly spelling “Will you marry me?”, she wouldn’t treat that as a marriage proposal (unless she was deluded). But if she saw him take pieces on the table and arrange them to spell “Will you marry me?”, she’d rightly interpreted that as a marriage proposal.
These are ways of illustrating the difference between beliefs produced by a reliable process and beliefs produced by an unreliable process.
vi) Finally, one stock objection to the AFR is that the evolution of reason is trustworthy, for if it wasn’t trustworthy, we wouldn’t still be around.
I haven’t kept up with all the current literature on that debate, but I think that appeal is flawed on multiple grounds:
a) It’s an a posteriori counterargument to an a priori argument. The AFT is an argument in principle. An empirical argument really can’t disprove an argument in principle. It isn’t that kind of argument.
b) Reasoning back from the outcome doesn’t yield that premise. Even if we grant macroevolution, even if we grant that our survival retroactively validates the fact that evolution selects for reliable beliefs, that’s not an argument for naturalistic evolution. At best, that would be an argument for theistic evolution. For guided evolution.
If, for instance, we keep rolling sixes, we don’t conclude that we’re lucky. For there quickly comes a point where that’s too lucky to be sheer luck. Rather, we conclude that the dice are loaded.
c) If brainpower confers a survival advantage, how did our less cerebrally endowed precursors survive to evolve bigger brains?
d) Insects survive and thrive without brainpower or true beliefs. So where’s the connection?
e) According to evolutionary history, the vast percentage of biological organisms became extinct.
f) The appeal is circular. You can only cite the success of evolution in producing advantageous beliefs on the prior assumption that your brain can be trusted to evaluate the evidence. But that’s the very issue in dispute.