Saturday, November 05, 2016

Peter Singer on Christianity and atheism

I was watching Peter Singer's debate with John Lennox:

1. In one respect his presentation was what you'd expect from a philosopher. It was well-organized. He gave one positive reason and two negative reasons for not believing in God. He reviewed three traditional theistic proofs. He then gave two arguments against belief in biblical theism. To that extent his presentation was logical and methodical. However, for a philosopher of his prominence and influence, I found his presentation to be frankly incompetent. It is, however, a useful foil. 

2. Singer said that Christian tradition, especially in medieval times, attempted to develop rational arguments for belief in God, and to some extent that still exists in Roman Catholic circles. That reflects willful and woeful ignorance of Protestant apologetics during the Enlightenment, 19C, 20C, and into the 21C. Conversely, it reflects ignorance of how modernism has eroded official organs of Catholic apologetics. 

3. Singer confined himself to the ontological, cosmological, and teleological arguments. That, however, neglects many other theistic arguments, viz. 

• Argument from truth (Aquinas, De Veritate)
• Argument from abstract objects (e.g. Pruss, Welty & Anderson)
• Argument from consciousness (e.g. Moreland)
• Argument from reason (e.g. C.S. Lewis, Reppert)
• Argument from miracles (e.g. Keener, Larner, Tim & Lydia McGrew)
• Argument from prophecy 
• Argument from religious experience
• Transcendental argument 

4. Singer gave the reasons why he does not believe in God. At least one positive reason and two negative reasons. The positive reason is that he has have no need of that hypothesis. The universe is sufficiently explicable without positing a God, no more explicable if we do posit one. So why do so? 

5. He reviewed the cosmological argument, which he equates with the first-cause argument. What caused the universe to exist? It began with the Big Bang. Not exactly. Physicists and cosmologists will tell you that the observable universe or the known universe began about 13 billion years ago. But did it began from nothing? We don't know that. We can't observe anything before the Big Bang. Maybe oscillating cosmology is correct. The universe is expanding and collapsing forever. That's compatible with everything science can tell us. 

i) To my knowledge, Penrose is the only prominent physicist who currently espouses an oscillating universe, and his model hasn't caught on. 

ii) If an actual cumulative temporal infinite is impossible, then a universe with an infinite past is only possible given the B-theory of time. 

iii) But what is time? If physicalism is true, then time is a physical property of a physical universe. But to posit an infinite series of expanding and collapsing universes requires an overarching timeframe that transcends any individual universe. Is that coherent if time is, in itself, a product of the universe? 

iv) Although there are first-cause versions of the cosmological argument, that's not essential to a cosmological argument. Even if the universe had no beginning, that doesn't ipso facto eliminate the need for a Creator. For an eternal universe may still be contingent. Singer neglected to consider the Leibnizian cosmological argument, which isn't a first-cause argument. (Pruss has a sophisticated formulation.)

v) Based on his commitment to the B-theory of time, Paul Helm is noncommittal on whether the universe had a first moment. 

6. Singer said if everything has to have a first cause, that applies to God. If we're allowed to say God needs to first cause, then the universe needs to first cause. 

i) That's a schoolboy misstatement of the cosmological argument. The principle of the cosmological argument is that everything that's contingent or everything that comes into being requires a cause. 

ii) You can't just stipulate that if X doesn't need a cause, then Y doesn't need a cause. You need to show that those are relevantly analogous. It would be unreasonable to say that if Pi doesn't need a cause, then the universe doesn't need a cause, for Pi and the universe are very different kinds of entities. It's not necessarily ad hoc to halt the explanatory regress at one point rather than another. 

7. Singer reviewed the ontological argument. He said that defines God as a being with all perfections. If God didn't exist, that would be a failing or lapse. God would lack something: namely, existence. Therefore, God must exist. But that's a conjuring trick in which you get the existence of God out of a mere definition. 

He mentioned Alvin Plantinga, but dismissed that because existence is not an attribute in the same way that power is. It's a simple confusion to think you can define a being into existence in that way.

There are so many things wrong with Singer's review:

i) There are many different versions of the ontological argument. Some scholars think Anselm presented two different versions of his own argument: the original version, then a new version in response to Gaunilo. 

In addition, Scotus and Leibniz both tweaked Anselm's argument. Then you have the Cartesian version, which was recently reformulated by E. J. Lowe. You have Plantinga's modal version, which Singer mentions in passing. And you have Kurt Gödel's–which has been developed by several philosophers. 

ii) Plantinga's version isn't based on treating existence as an attribute. Rather, he has a modal version based on possible worlds. Evidently, Singer never actually bothered to study Plantinga's version. I happen to find Plantinga's version lucid and persuasive. 

iii) Singer didn't pause to explain what he means by denying that existence is an attribute in the way that power is an attribute. Perhaps he means existence is a generic attribute rather than a specific or distinctive attribute. In the nature of the case, existence is an attribute shared in common by every kind of existent. It doesn't single out any particular existent. 

If that's what he means, it fails to distinguish between contingent existence and necessary existence. Moreover, existence, or the lack thereof, can figure in the definition of an object or concept. Take imaginary or fictional entities like unicorns or Superman. It's essential that they don't exist!

iv) I find Anselm's argument difficult to evaluate. That's because, before you can assess an argument. you must interpret the argument–but I'm not sure what Anselm is getting at. Indeed, I'm not sure that Anselm is sure what he's getting at. I suspect he had a powerful, but somewhat inchoate insight which he was groping to articulate. The argument itself is fairly compressed, which forces the interpreter to interpolate or explicate the implicit assumptions to fill in the gaps.

One question is whether we should try to comment on his actual formulation, or should develop what we think he might have been aiming at, then comment on that? Is the objective to reconstruct what he had in mind, or to assist him? 

Here's my guess: I think his intuition is based on the principle of necessary truths. He views the concept of God as a concept of necessary truth. Necessary truths which find their embedment in a personal being. There's a link between necessary truths and the greatest conceivable being. And I think that's consistent with Anselm's Augustinian realism. 

Now, if you have a concept of a necessary truth, then that can't just be your concept. If it's a necessary truth, then your concept must have some extramental reality outside your mind. If it only existed in your mind, it wouldn't be a necessary truth. A necessary truth must exist in reality. It must have a counterpart over and above your idea. Indeed, that reality is the source of your idea. 

Assuming that's what Anselm is angling at, this that part of the argument is fairly easy to establish. The greater challenge is to show that the concept of God implicates one or more necessary truths. One strategy might be to show that certain necessary truths require an infinite, timeless mind to constitute them. 

8. Singer reviewed the teleological argument. He called it the watchmaker argument. It was impressive to people in the past. Things fit together so well. Our own organs seem to have functions and purposes. 

But that's fallen into disrepute with the advent of Darwin's theory. Only organisms adapted to their environment will survive and reproduce to leave descendants. Evidence for biological evolution includes the fossil record, and more recently genetics, which maps a biological relationship with simple organisms including bacteria, with whom we share some genes; progressively we share more genes with organisms more like us until we get up to great apes, with whom we share 98%. So we don't need the argument from design to explain how the universe comes to be like it is.

But Singer's objection goes awry on so many levels:

i) Even if evolution could eliminate the teleological argument in reference to biology, it hardly eliminates the fine-tuning argument–which is more general.

ii) Evolution is a theory about the diversification of life, not the origin of life.

iii) There are highly-trained scientists who argue that evolution is impossible.

iv) There are scientists who argue that naturalistic evolution is impossible, but theistic evolution is possible.

v) There are secular scientists who affirm the fact of evolution but consider standard theories of evolution to have inadequate mechanisms. 

vi) What's the relationship between greater similarity and sharing more of the same genes? How does genetic affinity and resultant similarity imply evolutionary genealogy? Isn't Singer's inference circular? In such comparisons, you select organisms that have the most in common. Similarity is your selection-criterion. So, by definition, you group organisms according to degrees of similarity or dissimilarity. But the way you arrange them doesn't imply that that's how they developed. Rather, the hierarchy of ascending commonalities is the result of what you selected for. So that relationship is imposed rather than discovered. 

Take a bag of colored marbles that range along the spectrum. I can rearrange the random assortment according to any two marbles that are shades of the same color. The color of one marble is more like or less like the color of another marble. Some marbles are nearest in color, some are farthest, some are in-between. Some range along one side of spectrum, some along the other side. It's not the marbles that single out that particular arrangement, but what I'm looking for. 

9. He said in modern Protestant theology, there's an appeal to blind faith. Faith is just believing in something for which you don't have rational arguments nor good evidence. 

i) For starters, different Christian thinkers have different religious epistemologies. There is no uniform position on the relationship between of faith and reason. You can't generalize about a common denominator shared by such diverse Christian thinkers as Augustine, Anselm, Aquinas, Calvin, John Owen, Descartes, Berkeley, Leibniz, Isaac Newton, Locke, Reid, Butler, Pascal, Paley, Newman, Kierkegaard, Warfield, Bavinck, C. S. Lewis, Barth, Austin Farrer, Van Til, Basil Mitchell, Alston, Plantinga, Swinburne, Pannenberg, J. W. Montgomery, Robert Adams, Frame, Habermas, Corduin, W. L. Craig, C. Stephen Evans, John Feinberg, Westphal, Dembski, Stump, Bauckham, &c. 

ii) We need to distinguish between tacit knowledge, evidence, argument, proof, and warrant. 

iii) The Biblical view of faith is complex. It has some intentional points of tension:

a) Biblical faith is based in part on testimonial evidence.

b) In addition, Biblical faith is based in part on divine precedent. Given what God has done in the past (argument from prophecy, argument from miracles), God can be trusted to keep his future promises.

c) Appeal to divine precedent can be bolstered by modern miracles, answered prayer, and other signs of special providence. 

d) Having, however, established an evidential basis for faith, Jews and Christians are required to take certain things on faith without direct evidence. Having established a reliable source of faith, they are often required to persevere in faith despite God's elusiveness in their lives. Sometimes they find themselves in situations that are baffling. Unanswered prayer. Inexplicable tragedy. Crushing disappointment. 

10. Singer said he has two arguments against belief in the God of the Bible. There's a kind of relativism about religious belief. It's a sociological fact that if Christians had been raised in other cultures with different religious beliefs, they'd much more likely be Hindu, Buddhist, or Muslim. Oftentimes, what they believe about religion seems to be a coincidence. Their parents and/or cultural conditioning makes it easier for them to accept a particular religious tradition.

There's undoubtedly some truth to that. However:

i) That's hardly inconsistent with Biblical theism. Indeed, it's a given in both OT and NT that left to their own devices, many people will be pagan. To be Christian or Jewish requires God to reveal himself, by word or dee, to individuals or people-groups. Indeed, even in the face of prophets and miracles, Jews were still inclined to revert to paganism. 

ii) Religious geography and demography are more problematic for freewill theism, with its belief in God's universal love. By contrast, it doesn't pose even a prima facie tension for particularistic theological traditions like Augustinianism, Thomism, and Calvinism, where God targets the elect for saving knowledge. And in that respect, there's no reason why God wouldn't use social conditioning to foster Christian faith. 

iii) Singer's principle cuts both ways. Children of atheist parents, children educated at secular institutions, are much more likely to be atheists. 

11. Singer's second negative argument, which he considers to be much the stronger, is the argument from evil, with special reference to the suffering of innocent humans (children) and innocent animals. Since I've discussed that on multiple occasions, I don't feel the need to repeat myself here. 

12. In response to Lennox, Singer said appeal to the Resurrection is weakened by several considerations:

i) The Gospels are too late to be reliable

ii) The notion of dying-and rising gods is not unique to Christianity. 

iii) As Hume explained, a resurrection violates all the known laws of nature. 

iv) Why go for Christianity when there are so many other religions that make the same kinds of incredible claims? 

I've discussed all that so often that I don't feel like rehashing the counterarguments here and now.

13. He said that in the case of artifacts like cars, we invoke an agent because we know such artifacts were designed for a purpose. But that's superficial. Do we only know something is designed from experience with specific examples of that kind? What about seeing something for the first time? Don't we recognize design because we ourselves are creative personal agents?

14. He said he doesn't have a problem with consciousness arising by process of evolution. But the problem is whether consciousness is reducible to physical states. There are familiar arguments to the contrary. 

15. He appeals to evolutionary psychology to account for universal moral instincts. But that commits the naturalistic fallacy.

16. He said we're normally skeptical about reported visions and apparitions.

Speaking for myself, I'm neutral. By that I mean, I don't assume a general posture of either credulity or incredulity regarding reported visions and apparitions. Rather, it depends on the witness and the circumstances. 

17. Singer said that to make someone suffer for amusement fails to take into account you're just one being in the universe as is the other person whom you're causing to suffer. 

But that cuts both ways. Yes, the sadist is just one being while the victim is just another being. So what makes the well-being of the victim more important than the amusement of the sadist? Both sadist and victim are just two beings among many billions of others. So what makes any particular individual special? 

From what I can tell, Singer made a cursory judgment that Christianity is false. Based on that prejudgment, he doesn't think it's worth his while to acquire an in-depth knowledge of arguments for Christianity or counterarguments to atheism. What comes across is his complacent ignorance of the literature. He's only read one side of the argument. 

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