Rational Inquiry vs “Just Because”

jock_nerdMoving on with Mackie’s “Miracle of Theism”, we get to some real clash. In Mackie’s view, the Leibnitzian Cosmological argument is an utter failure. In mine, it is a powerful argument for God’s existence.

For those that aren’t familiar with the argument, I’ve outlined it in the past.

For those that know it, I think Mackie’s first response is both very interesting and very wrong-headed. He claims that, if Leibnitz has proved that a necessary being exists, then there needs to be some kind of explanation as to why that being is necessary.

First, I’m not sure that this is true. Leibnitz’s argument establishes that there must be a necessary object. The question of why a particular object is necessary is another matter. Demanding that a conclusion can’t be accepted until we can further explain that conclusion would be to insist that we need an explanation of the explanation before we accept it.

And it should be clear that this would result in an infinite regress that, if accepted, would halt all inquiry. After all, this would leave us demanding that we can’t accept General Relativity until we can explain why matter causes space to bend, and that we can’t accept that explanation until we further explain it, and so on.

And, even if it were true that we need to explain the “why” of necessity before we can recognize the fact of necessity, Mackie isn’t on terribly strong ground here.

After all, the explanation of “why” would be one or more of the ontological arguments he’s discussed earlier in the book (or some other one not mentioned). Essentially, he’s saying that, if Leibnitz is right, then some ontological argument would have to be true.

I’m inclined to agree with him; that does seem to follow. Where I disagree with him is in following that with an “since the ontological arguments all fail, Leibnitz must be wrong”.

Most obviously, this is an argument from ignorance. It assumes that there is no valid ontological argument outside of what has already been suggested by theists. Even more damning is the fact that Mackie, in criticizing Plantinga’s ontological argument, suggested that we “remain neutral” with respect to the argument. But, if he’d really meant that, he shouldn’t now base an objection on confidently asserting that no one has presented a sound ontological argument.

And this is a problem I see fairly often: shifting one’s position to that which is strongest with respect to the current point. This may be a good means to win arguments, or persuade the casual reader, but it is not an avenue to truth.

So far, this doesn’t seem to have affected Leibnitz’s argument at all. But this is not Mackie’s only objection. He also rejects the principle of sufficient reason (“whatever exists has an explanation of its existence”).

As this principle is the heart of all inquiry, I am very suspicious of anyone arguing that it should be abandoned.

I’m doubly suspicious of anyone who doesn’t actually offer a reason that it is false, but simply demands that believers in sufficient reason should defend the idea that “there must be an explanation for this” is always more reasonable than “this exists for literally no reason whatsoever”.

And this is what Mackie does. He never presents a reason to believe that some things just exist inexplicably–or addresses the thought that this seems like a halt to all inquiry. Rather, all he does is insist that one needn’t believe in sufficient reason to do science.

How so? He claims that science only requires that like effects have like causes, but this is suspicious at best. Personally, I’m more inclined to call it completely false. Surely, science requires the belief that things have explanations in the first place.

To Mackie’s credit, he also attempts something like a demonstration that sufficient reason is false by pointing out that humans don’t always have rational reasons for the way we behave. But, if this is the best example he can produce, I think it is clear that the objection is a very weak one. That humans don’t always act rationally does nothing whatsoever to disprove the idea that things have explanations. The explanation needn’t be that the cause was itself rational, after all. That should be obvious enough, and one is left wondering why Mackie thinks otherwise. He does not tell us.

But Mackie isn’t done questioning the validity of sufficient reason. I’ll discuss his other reasons next time. For now, the important point is that this is his only real objection to Leibnitz. He, like the overwhelming majority of atheist philosophers, agrees that the only valid explanations of the universe are theistic–and defends his atheism by insisting that the universe simply has no explanation.

That seems to set a very low bar for theism to rise above.


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