Saturday, March 02, 2019

What should apologists do?

The participants in this debate are less intent to win the debate than to promote their own favored version of atheism or theism, for Haldane that being Thomistic Roman Catholicism and for Smart a scientistic species of atheism. The debate would have had more meaning for the students to whom it is supposed to be directed according to the book's cover if the debators had defended a more generic version of their respective theses, thereby freeing them from having to make use of controversial metaphysical doctrines that are not familiar to students and which the debators do not have sufficient space to explain and defend properly. This would have made it more of a real debate. By tying his atheism to a reductive materialistic metaphysics, Smart gives away a significant advantage that the atheist has over the theist in the debate; for whereas theism is committed to a metaphysics that requires the existence of nonembodied spiritual substances, namely God and finite souls, atheism is not committed to any specific metaphysics and thus is less vulnerable than theism. Smart would have done better to base his atheism on the inductive argument from the apparently gratuitous evils of the world rather than the more vulnerable reductive physicalism. 

This manner of refutation seems to violate the principle of minimal ordinance enjoining us to use the weakest premises that are needed to establish a desired conclusion, for there should be a refutation that does not need to commit itself to a highly controversial nonobjectivist theory of ethics. 

And, finally, Haldane gives an account of his particular brand of theism, namely Catholicism. While the account is not unattractive, it is perhaps somewhat out of place in a book where the question is the general one whether there is or is not a God. 

This raises an issue in apologetic methodology. On the one hand it's popular and prudent for apologists to defend less than they believe. To defend the least ambitious position sufficient to prove their immediate point. The tactical advantage of so doing is that defending the least ambitious formulation has the lowest burden of proof. 

On the other hand, a weakness or limitation of that tactic is that when they artificially confine themselves to defending less than they believe, they may never get around to defending their full-orbed position. But if they're not prepared to defend the whole package, because that's more demanding, because that raises the burden of proof, then they've failed to defend their actual position.

It's refreshing that Smart and Haldane go for broke by defending what they actually believe, rather than a safer surrogate position. They don't hold back.

If apologists lack the confidence to defend the whole package, why do they believe the whole package? Presumably they have reasons for believing the entire package, so at least on occasion shouldn't they make a case for their full-orbed position even if it means exposing more of their flank to hostile fire? If they can't argue for the totality of their position, what's their basis for believing more than they are prepared to defend? 

I think there are many situations in which the minimalistic approach is strategically legitimate. But it's a serious deficiency if the apologist never gets beyond that. Ultimately, this isn't a question of strategy but defending what you really believe. At least that should be the ultimate goal. 

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