The Argument from Personal Misunderstanding

AF5WTAI seem to have gotten a bit sidetracked from Mackie’s “Miracle of Theism”. The quick refresher is that Mackie had been discussing the problem of evil, and that he is now turning to Alvin Plantinga’s famous free will defense.

And, for those unfamiliar with it, the best summary of the free will defense I’ve ever encountered is in a short video.

Mackie counters Plantinga by attacking the idea that it is logically necessary that people have something wrong with our “essences”. As Plantinga himself points out in his response, he was never talking about essences. But this isn’t the key issue.

Mackie keeps insisting that it is logically possible that even a finite person could always choose to do the right thing, but this simply misses the point. What he needs to show isn’t that this is logically possible, but that it is logically compatible with the other requirements facing God (such as more that a few people in existence, spiritual growth, etc). He doesn’t even address this response.

But, personally, I’m more concerned about the fact he hasn’t even shown that this really is logically possible. He’s simply claimed this, but not taken a terribly close look at the situation.

That is, he seems to have a very sloppy understanding of morality. “Choosing to do the right thing”, after all, is pretty misleading. As finite creatures, we are all incomplete; none of us understand all spiritual truths perfectly. Hence, nothing we do, say, or think is ever purely good (or purely evil). While we are certainly capable of being more or less good, I don’t see how it is possible to be perfectly good while still being finite.

And any moment in which one isn’t being perfectly, absolutely, completely good is a moment where one isn’t “choosing the good” in the sense that Mackie needs it to be for his argument to work.

Of course, Plantinga and others have added that there are feasibility issues, even for an omnipotent being, that exist above and beyond this. Mackie is free to believe that these issues will someday be solved, but he has not solved them.

Mackie then goes on to discuss the idea that God may not know what actions people will take until they are taken. I’ll let this alone, as I reject that view. Rather, I’ll skip to his conclusion. First, he claims that every defense against the problem of evil has failed. Again, he is free to believe what he likes, but an unsupported assertion of a claim that doesn’t actually counter Plantinga’s argument is hardly a reason to think this.

And, second, I use the phrase “believe what he likes” advisedly. Mackie goes on to say that, while he admits that there are forms of theism that could get around this attack, the argument is practically useful because “each of the changes that would make theism more coherent would also do away with some of its attraction”.

This is where we begin to see something less objective than a detached search for the truth. None of us really are detached, of course. But (as overtures of objectivity are often made in such debates) it needs to be pointed out that Mackie is, like any of us seeking to “win converts”–seeking to dissuade people from a position he agrees is coherent.

And, personally, I find the more coherent versions of theism more attractive (not the least because I find coherence attractive). Those who seek to “refute” theism this way can only do so by arbitrarily demanding that we ignore the best (and most attractive) forms of it.

I don’t, by the way, think one should judge Mackie too harshly for this. He’s only doing what any one of us would do. I think it would would be much more helpful if all sides would simply admit this–that we all have emotional motivations.

Pretending that personal zeal and trendy memes are the same as the results of objective research is, after all, one of my chief complaints with the New Atheists.


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