Thursday, December 5, 2013

Peter Boghossian's "A Manual For Creating Atheists"

Instead of a full review of Peter Boghossian's new book "A Manual For Creating Atheists", I figured I would just focus on one tiny section that relates to my specialty: arguments for the existence of God.

Boghossian aims to create a full method of talking people out of "faith", by which he seems to mean "theism". His technique involves learning the Socratic method and being nice and gentle to believers, unlike, say, Dawkins. I leave my opinion of this idea to the side for now, but it strikes me as being very….I don't know. Evangelical. Like…"Jehovah's Atheists" or something. Proselytizers. The flip side of the apologist coin. It makes me think of the various times in history where rebels fought against a communist dictator only to end up becoming…communist dictators.

But I digress. My focus will only be on his treatment of cosmological, ontological, and teleological arguments. Since the evidence for the existence of God will generally be in the form of these arguments, I want to see what kind of objections he offers.

Cosmological Arguments

He starts off in Chapter X: Apologetics 101. First up is what appears to be the cosmological argument. First, he quotes Ray Comfort, a Christian apologist:
“Why is there something rather than nothing? You have faith that there was no Creator.” “Bear in mind that an atheist believes that all these miraculous coincidences took place by chance. But he doesn’t just believe that man and woman came into being without a Creator, but that all of creation did—amazing flowers, massive trees, succulent fruits, beautiful birds, the animal kingdom, the sea, fish, natural laws, etc. His faith is much greater than mine.” —Ray Comfort, You Can Lead an Atheist to Evidence, but You Can’t Make Him Think (2009, p. 2) 
And then he says:
This is the best argument I’ve heard for the existence of God. 
OK, let me stop right here. An argument from Ray Comfort is the best argument he's ever heard??!! Ray Comfort?! Ray Comfort is one of the worst defenders of Christianity the world has ever seen. He is infamous for using a banana to prove God's existence. He is an evolution-denier as well. This is like playing chess against a newborn and then claiming that this was the best chess opponent you've ever seen. Has Boghossian never heard of Plato, Aristotle, Maimonides, Aquinas, Leibniz, or Richard Swinburne?!

But I'll remain charitable. Let's just say that he addressing the cosmological argument in general:
It’s the trump card played by believers. However, it doesn’t work. There are several related ways to respond to why there’s something rather than nothing: “Why assume nothing is the default?” This is a question that has no answer. As prolific German philosopher Adolf Grünbaum states, “Why be astonished at being at all? To marvel at existence is to assume that nothingness is somehow more natural, more restful. But why? The ancients started with matter, not the void; perhaps nothingness is stranger than being” (Holt, 2012). 
I could retort here that existence needs explaining. That I don't need to explain why there isn't an elephant in my bedroom right now, but if there were one, I would need to explain why there is.

But even that isn't necessary. One of the major cosmological arguments simply says that contingent things need an explanation. "Contingent" means that it could exist, or not, logically speaking. Most things we are familiar with are contingent. Your parents might never have met. The Earth might not have formed. Mt. Everest might not have formed. These things exist, but might not have. They are contingent. And so they stand in need of an explanation for their existence. The argument could be put like this:

1. All contingents have an explanation
2. The set of all contingents is itself contingent
3. Therefore, the set of all contingents has an explanation

And that explanation cannot be something contingent, because then it would be part of the set we are trying to explain. So it must be something outside the set, i.e. something non-contingent. Something non-contingent would be logically necessary, and hence capable of existing in any possible alternate world, including ones in which no matter exists, or no space, or energy. So something non-contingent must be spaceless, timeless, immaterial, and capable of explaining the existence of contingent things. I would challenge Peter Boghossian to show which premise is false in this argument. Premise 1 is well-supported by science, and we never see a counter example. And premise 2 follows logically from what it means to be contingent: if one member of the set could not exist, and two members of the set could not exist, and all members of the set could not exist, then the set itself could not exist as well, and is therefore contingent. 

Similarly, “How do you know the universe didn’t always exist?” Even if appeals are made to the Big Bang, one can never know either that reality is one endless time loop with Big Bangs strung together for eternity, or that à la American theoretical physicist Brian Greene, we’re part of a larger multiverse with an infinite number of Big Bangs constantly occurring. 
Note that the argument above says nothing about the beginning of the universe. Perhaps the universe is eternally old. Nonetheless, all contingents have an explanation for their existence…etc. Answering "it always existed" tells me how old something is, but does not tell me the explanation for its existence. "Why is the hammer in the fridge?" "It's always been in there." "OK, but it could have always been on the counter. What is the explanation for it having always existed in the fridge rather than always on the counter?"

Richard Taylor, in his book Metaphysics, provides an interesting breakdown of this contingency argument. He argues that if you were to come across a translucent sphere in the forest, you would want to explain its existence. And saying that it always existed in the forest does not offer an explanation. Why an eternally existing translucent ball rather than an eternally existing blue one? 
And even if we do accept by fiat, given our limited knowledge, that something rather than nothing is extraordinary, does that give license to make up answers as to why this is the case? It begs the question: is it better to pretend we know an answer to something we don’t actually know, or is it better to simply be honest and say, “I don’t know?”
Of course we should not just make up answers. But if the contingency argument is sound, and a necessary something-or-other exists, then you can extract at least some properties from it that line up with what has traditionally been thought of as "God", such as eternality, spacelessness, timelessness, immateriality, power, etc. Those attributes automatically drop out of the necessary, non-contingent something-or-other that is the conclusion of the contingency argument. They aren't "made up".

But we can go even farther than that. Take Aquinas's cosmological argument. Like the contingency argument, it does not require that the universe began to exist. Rather, what it argues is that any particular object is dependent on further states of affairs for its ongoing existence from moment to moment. For example, a liquid lake is dependent upon warm air for its moment-to-moment existence. But the warm air is also dependent upon further, current, factors, such as atmospheric pressure and heat from the Sun. But those states of affairs are dependent upon yet further states, and so on. This chain has to terminate, not in the Big Bang, but in a present state of affairs that is not dependent upon any further states of affairs. If it were dependent on something further, then it just wouldn't be the termination point in the first place. And once Aquinas gets to something not dependent upon anything further, something that is just subsistent existence itself. Something maxed out. And from that, he quite easily argues for the typical divine attributes: since it is maxed out, it must be all-powerful, all-knowing, etc. In fact, he goes into great detail on each of these attributes and answers objections.
The possibility that the universe always existed cannot be ruled out. This by definition casts doubt on a creator. No faith is needed to posit that the universe may have always existed
Again, see above for two cosmological arguments that do not require a beginning to the universe. In fact, of about a dozen or so cosmological arguments defended by the major figures of philosophy, only two of them argues that the universe must have had a beginning. Specifically, the arguments from al Kindi and al Ghazali argue for a beginning to the universe. None of the others, from Plato, Aristotle, Plotinus, Aquinas, or Leibniz require the universe to have a beginning.

And there's more. Aristotle's famous unmoved mover, for example. Aristotle first begins by proving that the universe must be eternally old by proving that change could never have started, because if it did, then something would have had to start it and thus would have been a change itself, and so something else must have started that, and so on ad infinitum. So his first step is to argue that change eternally existed, and will always exist. And from that, he argues that not everything can be a changeable changer, because then change could stop. There must be something that is an unchangeable changer (an unmoved mover) that continually causes change without ever stopping, to keep in line with the first premise that change is eternal.

And yet more. Consider Plotinus's argument for The One. He argues that most objects are composed of parts, which are themselves composed of further parts, and so forth. A human being is composed of organs, which are composed of cells, which are composed of molecules, and so on. The simplest constituent of the universe must therefore not be composed of parts, and must be unchangeable. It is the simplest thing in the universe, ineffable, and beyond being or non-being. Plotinus calls it The One.

So you can clearly see that even if the universe is eternally old, this does not touch the cosmological argument in 10 out of its 12 versions. So merely stating that the universe could be infinitely old does not come close to refuting the idea of a creator.

Ontological Arguments

Now, Boghossian starts out with what at face value is an awful argument for God's existence and could easily be seen to be appeal to ignorance (you can't prove not-X, therefore X):
The basic idea is that because you can’t prove that there’s not a God, then God must exist. Of all of the defenses of faith, it is most difficult to comprehend how someone could actually offer this as a legitimate defense for faith or for belief in God.
As worded, he is correct that this is a terrible argument. Boghossian challenges his interlocutors with "little blue men on Venus", saying that there is no evidence for their existence and that they must therefore exist. He continues:
Most people will get the point and then say there’s something different about God. That is, this line of argument works against everything except God. (Here I’m reminded of defenders of Anselm’s argument for the existence of God. Every time someone would bring up an objection, they’d state that the argument only works with God.) When the respondent says there is something special about God that makes this argument not work, then I always press them to know what’s different about God. I’ve yet to hear a coherent answer to this question.
The difference is that God is, as postulated, is a non-contingent, or necessary, being. This argument would work with anything that is necessary, such as mathematical propositions. And from modal logic, there cannot be a merely possible necessary being.

Let's look a little closer. The word "possible" means something could be true, or not. It isn't logically impossible. It is possible that JFK was not assassinated, even though he was. It is possible that he was assassinated, and he was. Both situations are possible. The word "necessary" means something must be true and cannot logically be false. It is necessary that  2 + 2 = 4. It could not have been otherwise. The word "impossible" means that something is logically impossible. It could not have happened. It is impossible that a bachelor is married. Since "bachelor" means "unmarried man", it is logically contradictory for someone to be both married and not married. I.e., be a married bachelor.

These are called "modal claims". One useful tool for examining modal claims is called "possible worlds". These are not actually existent worlds, but just concepts to examine what we mean by "possible" and "necessary." Think of them as alternate realities. The way the world could have been.

So we would say that there are possible worlds where JFK was not assassinated. And there are no possible worlds where there is a married bachelor. And 2 + 2 = 4 in all possible worlds. So the word "necessary" translates to "true in all possible worlds." And the word "possible" translates to "true in some possible worlds, and false in others."

Now, when dealing with a necessary being, it is contradictory to say that that necessary being is merely possible, because you would in effect be saying that it exists in A) all possible worlds, and B) some possible worlds. This is contradictory. Something cannot simultaneously exist in all possible worlds, and not all possible worlds. In other words, there cannot be a merely possible necessary being.

In short, if something is possibly necessary, then it is necessary. If it is possible that a necessary being exists, then by definition it exists in at least one possible world. But, being necessary, then it exists in all possible worlds, which of course includes the actual one. The argument could be written like this:

1. If it is possible there is a necessary being, then there is a necessary being
2. It is possible there is a necessary being
3. Therefore, there is a necessary being

Premise 2 is the point at which the argument hinges, and is the focus of the argument Boghossian gives above. A theist could say that since no argument has been given to show that God, a non-contingent (necessary) being, is logically impossible (i.e. does not exist), then it follows that God is at least possible, in which case premise 2 is confirmed and the argument goes through.

Now, one might object that just because it has not been shown that God is impossible, it does not follow that God is possible. And that is correct. However, a theist could use it as at least some inductive support for the premise. If one cannot find a prima facie contradiction in the concept of God, and atheists have spent 2500 years trying to do so without unqualified success, then a theist could use that to argue that there is no contradiction, otherwise it would have been found by now. Or at least, the burden is definitely on the atheist at that point.

In short, the theist could say: "You have not proven that God does not exist due to any logical contradiction, and therefore God exists in some possible world, and therefore, because he is a necessary being, in all possible worlds. Or to put it another way, you have not proven God is impossible, therefore God exists."

So the apparently terrible argument from ignorance that was made by the theist could be interpreted as a perfectly logical modal ontological argument. Now, even if the theist didn't mean it this way, it still behooves us to try to interpret our interlocutors in the best possible way, even going so far as to attributing to them a better argument they could have made but did not. This is basic principle of charity 101.


This is all I could discern of the main arguments for the existence of God in Boghossian's book. Were I a theist, I would be one because of evidence such as Aristotle's cosmological argument, or Plotinus's. I would not be a theist due to "faith", interpreted as "belief in something without evidence." I would be a theist because I would agree that contingent objects are dependent on further factors, and that there must therefore be some non-contingent reality explaining their existence. I would believe because there is evidence. If I were a theist, Boghossian's book would not put a dent in my belief. The book seems to be aimed at evangelicals and fundamentalists as found in the Southern U.S., not at any academic or thoughtful theist.


  1. This is your best post yet. I don't think a single word was wasted.

    Even the (psychological?) observation about atheists as proselytizers... interesting.

    Keep it up!

  2. I learned of Bogho via a redditor who was taking an "atheism" class from him. I was amazed such a class existed, so I wrote Bogho for the sylabus and he was kind enough to give it to me. It was awful. Nothing but New Atheist stuff for readings. I then thought, who is this guy? So I watched a youtube video of him. He's a middle-brow blowhard who's lucky to have found an adjuct spot at a university. Good for him.

  3. Heh heh. New atheists. What a joke.

    Hey can you get me that syllabus?

  4. What would happen if a bunch of Classic Theists with classical arguments, & heaps of Feser busted that class?