Unfair Dismissal

290117-redundanciesIn The Miracle of Theism, J.L. Mackie simply dismisses Aquinas’ first two arguments for God’s existence as based on antiquated science. This is the whole of his discussion of these arguments (and I’ve already pointed out the falsehood of that claim).

However, he does interact briefly with the argument of the Second Way later in the chapter. Here, he argues (wrongly, in my view) that an essentially ordered causal series can stretch to infinity.

Or, at least, that seems like what he is arguing. As in many places in the book, Mackie attempts to cast doubt on a premise without actually claiming that the opposite is true. He seems to write as if, so long as a premise is uncertain (at all), one can completely dismiss an argument’s conclusion without concluding that the premise is false.

For those who aren’t familiar with the Second Way, I find this a good summary. But a rough explanation would be that it is an argument from efficient cause (the type of causation studied by science). It begins with the idea that, in some causal chains, the removal of any one link will prevent the effect from occurring.

This is not true in all cases. Even if one’s great-grandfather has died, this doesn’t mean that one couldn’t have been born–and that the family he helped to cause must die with him. But, in other situations, this does seem to be the case.

As such, it is very much like the first way, but taking a similar line of reasoning to efficient causation, rather than actualized potentials.

A classic example is the idea of a watch could run without a motor or a spring if only it had an infinite number of gears, each one turned by the one before it. This strikes me as clearly absurd, illustrating the point that some causal chains (called “essential”) require something that doesn’t get its ability to cause things from an external source. And this self-existent thing, as Aquinas says, all men call God.

But Mackie doesn’t seem to think so. He thinks it is “dubious” to claim that the infinite-gear watch would not turn.

And again, it isn’t clear whether he’s arguing that such a thing is not only possible, but happens in the world all the time (as he would have to argue to properly counter Aquinas), or if he’s merely casting doubt on the idea to say that we aren’t perfectly certain of it.

So long as I’m reading the book as an attack on theism, he seems to mean the latter. But, so long as I’m reading it as a defense of a secular view, he seems to mean the former.

And strikes me as hopelessly confused. In an uncertain world, it is not enough simply to say that one’s opponent hasn’t proved a position beyond all possible doubt. Rather, one must show an alternative to be superior.

But Mackie does not do this. Rather, he seems to think having any reason at all to doubt an argument for theism is a reason to embrace a secular position.

And nearly all of the intellectual support for atheist views seems to suffer from this mistake. When it has come to offering an alternative (materialism, physicalism, platonism, etc.), secular views have done much more poorly than theism. As such, many of their proponents seem to rely on presenting vague doubts of theistic arguments in lieu of a positive case for atheism.

8 responses to “Unfair Dismissal

  • myatheistlife

    I suppose you don’t understand the simplicity of the positive claim issue: theism makes a positive claim to the existence of a deity. The probability such a claim is true is near nil and without evidence (read that as removal of doubt) there is zero probability of a deity regardless of the possibility of one. Any reason to doubt such a positive claim is indeed reason to dismiss in the vaccuum of credible evidence or proof.

    Theists make a claim, they must provide the credible evidence and proof. Anything else is simple lunacy.

    • Debilis

      It isn’t that I don’t understand it; it is that I disagree. In fact, the response is also fairly simple:

      “There is zero probability of a deity” is a positive claim.

      Or, to make it more general, all people have an approach to life. Atheists take an approach that presumes that God does not exist. That’s fine, but those approaches need to be defended as much as any theistic approach.

      Also, no one has remotely shown that there is a “vacuum of credible evidence or proof”. People who claim this have never been able to give me any standard of evidence by which this is remotely a good argument.

      And, last, not “any reason to doubt” is credible. If your reason is based on the idea that infinite chains of contingencies cause themselves, then you need to defend that this is actually true. (That was my point against Mackie.)

      In short, both theists and atheists make claims–and the theistic evidence and proofs are better than the non-theistic ones.

      • myatheistlife

        The trouble I see with what you are arguing is this: If I conclude that the sky is blue you say I’m making a positive claim that I must provide evidence for. If, perhaps, you are blind or trapped in a hole deep underground it might be excusable that you demand evidence for a conclusion based on evidence. You are not blind in this respect and so seem to be equivocating on the matter.

        My atheism is not cookie cutter style in that I do not subscribe to what any other atheists do, rather I subscribe to the lack of belief as I have seen the evidence to show as sane and logical. I do not presume that god does not exist. Far from this. My life started with the presumption that god does exist and based on evidence I have concluded this to be a bad presumption, that there is no credible evidence to support the presumption and that lacking any credible evidence, among other evidence, there is no reason to believe there is any probability that a god exists. Such is a conclusion, not a presumption as you imply.

        If the evidence you have seen leads you to conclude otherwise and thus claim that gods do exist or have a higher than zero probability of existence, it is upon you to provide the evidence for your claim/conclusion. To date I have not seen or heard any supporting evidence for the existence of a god or gods which cannot be dismissed as not credible, both by myself and many other educated and qualified individuals.

        If you claim that there is credible evidence, it is incumbent upon you to show it, not for me or others to prove it does not exist. When your claimed evidence can be examined we can determine whether it is indeed credible or not.

        Your line of reasoning regarding infinite chains of contingencies being improbable or impossible requires a knowledge of each contingency and all its aspects. The evidence strongly suggests a probability of one that all the contingencies necessary for you to exist actually happened. That is, unless you do not in fact exist. It is not necessary for all these contingencies to occur more than once, nor more than once in any given universe etc… just once in infinite numbers of universes over infinite amounts of time. That they happened once leaves you here to question that infinite chain of contingencies… This life might in fact be 18.375 times google raised to the power of a google times a google of iterations of life in this universe or any… from our perspective this is the first iteration. To say that all the contingencies could not happen for you to be here without external guiding from a god is to say that you know more than you can know. It is, in fact, a positive claim. One for which you have no credible evidence.

    • Debilis

      Okay, let me jump right in here:

      With regard to your example of the sky, this is rather how I feel, much of the time, in debates with atheists. But, if you are saying that the evidence for a secular view is as obvious as the blueness of the sky, please point to it.

      Really, it shouldn’t be terribly hard.

      But I’m not claiming that all atheists believe the same things. This seems as obvious as the fact that theists don’t believe the same things. What I am claiming, however, is that you do more than have a “lack of belief”. You have a particular approach to life which claims that my approach is false.

      That is fine, but you need to actually support your approach if you’re going to demand that I support mine.

      So, you are allowed to argue that the low probability of God’s existence is a conclusion, not a presumption, but support it.

      Likewise, support this repeated claim that there is a “lack of evidence”. Arguments and evidence have been presented, and been promptly dismissed by many atheists as “not evidence”. That being the case, what standard of evidence are you using–because I can’t think of one that would allow you to say this unless it presumes materialism.

      And, of course, I do expect you to offer a secular approach to life that is supported by evidence–by your own standards. If atheists can offer nothing, it seems simply a matter of people in glass houses throwing bricks to constantly hammer the “no evidence” meme.

      So, there is plenty of credible evidence by my understanding of evidence. But, are you claiming that you are the authority on what constitutes evidence? If so, you should be able to give me a definition that is clear, logically consistent, and can help you show your view to be better evidenced.

      And, if not, why is your definition automatically superior to mine? Some support is required, I would think.

      My arguments and reasons are posted all over this blog. If you are going to demand that “there is no evidence”, you need to present a logical reason that none of them are evidence. Let’s start with your definition for evidence (because you definitely aren’t using any of these).

      In short, simply demanding that all the work of proving is for me to do isn’t going to cut it–particularly when I’ve offered arguments, reason, and evidence, and received only “that’s not evidence” in response.

      That’s a meme, not support–and I’m bothered by how many don’t seem to understand the difference.

      But, you do (sort of) respond to the current argument (and that’s a start). However, it is simply false that the argument depends on knowing every contingency. The argument has nothing to do with that–it is about the fact that cause doesn’t arise from nothing. Whatever the contingencies are, that remains true.

      Nor does the multiverse answer this (even assuming it exists–which is simply assumed here). It also has nothing whatsoever to do with the anthropic principle. You seem to think that I was giving the fine-tuning argument (which, to be fair, I do think is a decent argument), but I was talking about something else altogether.

      If you’d like to address the issue of the Boltzman Brain (and can do so effectively), and offer real evidence (by your definition, of course) that the multiverse exists, then I’ll be happy to rethink the fine-tuning argument.

      Until then, I’ll keep pointing out that this wasn’t what I was discussing. I gave a completely separate reason to reject modern secular views (borrowed from Aquinas–who’d never even heard of the fine-tuning argument). Why on Earth you’re arguing against it here strikes me as completely strange. Even if you were right about everything you’ve said here (and I’ve seen no evidence for that), that wouldn’t do a thing to discredit Aquinas’ reasons for believing in God.

      Really, you should be answering Aquinas’ Second way.

      So, and apologies if I’m beating a dead horse here, what is your standard/definition of evidence, and how does your approach to life have more of it than mine?

      • myatheistlife

        ==…You have a particular approach to life which claims that my approach is false.==
        You’re missing the point. Your approach makes the positive claim that a god exists, but does so without credible evidence, hence the conclusion that your god does not exist. I have nothing to support. My approach is simple: evaluate the evidence and determine what can be concluded as true and what cannot.

        Your irritating desire to equivocate on the meaning of evidence does not strengthen your argument because by any standard used in any other endeavor you have no credible evidence. You can’t convict someone of murder on the kind of evidence that theists use to support their claims. All I’ve seen is delusion, anecdotes, and wishful thinking from theists.

        For the theists that claim their god to be omnipotent and omniscient, their god knows what I consider evidence and can surely spare the time for an afternoon round the pub to talk this out once a month if he has time to help your hapless co-believers find their car keys.

        This pithy bit of arguing over evidence in the hope that what you’ve got will somehow become credible is tiring, especially in light of the claims of omnipotence and omniscience of the deity. Quit beating around the bush. You know what kind of evidence would be undeniable for any human… so get on with it, produce the evidence and stop philosophizing about what evidence really is. It really lowers the tone. You have a god? Well, get that old boy down here, let’s get the glad handing, band standing going, let’s get this party started. Oh, what? No show? Too bad. Really was sounding like you were on to a good thing there. Better luck with the next god then.

        all of the proving work is for the claimant to do (that’s you in this case). Atheism makes no claim other than the offered evidence is not credible and lacking any other evidence one can only conclude there is no supporting evidence for the claim and the claim is unsupported. As such it is a false claim ergo there is no god. Let’s say that I started out in the ‘I don’t know’ category. Without supporting evidence the conclusion remains the same. No matter what position you start with, if there is no supporting and credible evidence the ONLY conclusion is that the claim is unsupported, ergo there is no god.

        Argue all you want to but it will do you not one bit of good. Without evidence the claim is false, where false means a zero probability despite any level of possibility.

        As for your evidence and reasons posted all over your blog. They could be posted all over the NY Times… if they were considered and credible evidence we would not be having this discussion because you’d be at the vatican trying to explain stuff to papa and answer questions 24/7. You have claims, I’ll give you that, but you don’t have credible evidence. I’d ask you to let me know when you do have it but I won’t have to because the world will be beating a path to your door and it will be in all the news. So far, you’re not that popular.

    • Debilis

      Greetings once again. I’ll try my best to keep this short; apologies in advance if that fails.

      So far as I can tell, this is simply a repetition of claims that have already been answered. Let me make a list:

      1. I’ve still not been given a definition of the word “evidence”.

      And, as I’ve pointed out, whatever one you’re using doesn’t seem to be in the dictionary. It is completely strange, then, that you’re accusing me of equivocating when I’m using the dictionary definitions, and you’re using some personal definition that you won’t give to me.

      2. You’re making claims

      Whether or not atheism is “a lack of belief”, you approach life based on a set of beliefs about questions of morality, purpose in life, values, existence, etc. Everyone does.

      And I’ve not yet seen anything like evidence for that view.

      If, as you suggest, someone unsure on this topic were to read this, I think it is pertinent that we’ve seen no support at all for your beliefs on these issues.

      This is the problem with the “I lack belief” meme. It’s simply false. Anyone who would like me to accept materialism needs to give something like evidence for materialism.

      3. There is evidence for God

      At least, there is according to what the dictionary says about evidence. If you have a better definition, I’d love to hear it, but we can’t simply shout “no evidence”. You have to explain to me why the things posted all over this blog aren’t evidence, when they are, according to the actual meaning of the word.

      4. This is public knowledge

      The reason people aren’t beating a path to my door is the simple fact that many are saying the same things. I’m quoting Aquinas, after all. The fact that some people have a secret, personal definition of evidence that causes them to dismiss this has no bearing on the matter.

      5. “Zero Probability” is a Claim

      And it needs to be supported before it can be rationally accepted.

      * In short, simply avoiding talking about secular approaches to life does not make this a debate between theism and a “lack of belief”. That’s a great sound-byte meme, but it simply isn’t true.

      Rather, this is a debate between theism and materialism; and there is no evidence at all for materialism.

  • tonyroberts64

    Thank you for your thoughtful analysis and faithful reflection.

    This Thanksgiving, I am grateful for bloggers like you who keep me reading and writing and finding God’s abundant grace along the way.

    Have a blessed holiday season!

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