Today’s Virtual Colloquium is “Global and Local Atheisms” by Jeanine Diller. Dr. Diller received her PhD from the University of Michigan and is currently an assistant professor in the Department of Philosophy and Program on Religious Studies of the University of Toledo in Ohio. Her research focuses on the concept of God and alternative pictures of ultimate reality. She is co-editor (with Asa Kasher) of Models of God and Alternative Ultimate Realities.
Global and Local Atheisms
This paper identifies an ambiguity in the terms ‘theism’ and ‘atheism’: are they about one or all notions of God? I stipulate that a ‘local’ theism or atheism is about one notion; they claim that a specific kind of God exists or not (respectively). A ‘global’ atheism is about all notions; it says that no God worth the name exists. The punch line of the paper is that all atheists should be local atheists right now, given the current state of the debate.
In Part I, I draw the distinction between local and global theisms and atheisms carefully. In Part II, I notice that theisms are going to have to go local if they are to stand a chance of being internally consistent: since some notions of God contradict each other, it’s no good trying to believe them all. In contrast, assuming the ontological argument isn’t sound, atheisms in principle can go local or global, since it’s consistent to say that a specific kind of God doesn’t exist (local atheism) and also consistent to say that over and over again, for every kind of God worth the name (global atheism).
Most uses of ‘atheism’ in the philosophical literature are ambiguous between the local and global senses. Atheists who do explicitly disambiguate almost always go local (to offer an example, Mackie explicitly limits his sights to an omnipotent and all-good God). In fact, explicit global atheism is so rare that my research assistant wondered while I was writing if anyone held it. Interestingly, I recently found clear evidence that there indeed are global atheists in a survey run on this very blog by Yujin Nagasawa and Andrei Buckareff, as discussed in their recent volume Alternative Concepts of God (Oxford 2016). The survey’s framing was fine-tuned enough to positively identify 12.2% of its 286 respondents as global atheists: in the background of several concepts of God which the survey provides, these respondents “hold that no account of the divine is tenable” – a precise statement of global atheism (p. 8).
Parts III and IV of the paper effectively address this 12.2% of respondents and others interested in global atheism (and I’d be grateful to hear responses from any of you reading this). I argue three main claims in Part III: (1) that global atheism is difficult to understand, since denying all notions of God involves knowing at least the main ones, and (2) that global atheism is even more difficult to defend, not only because of the number of notions at play but also because every atheistic argument is against a particular kind of God. Since it’s invalid to move from one kind of God’s not existing to no kind of God existing, global atheists will have to redeploy their arguments or develop new ones against at least the main alternative theisms. Our search in the literature shows that this work has not yet been done; most atheists don’t even mention alternative theisms (regarding (1)), much less argue against them (regarding (2)). I conclude (3) that global atheism is currently unjustified, so atheists should stay local.
Part IV entertains and replies to an objection to Part III: can’t global atheists attack a really general notion of God, and in so doing attack the many species of God it covers, and thereby provide evidence for their claim? This is smart strategy but I give a couple reasons to think it is too early to tell if it can work. Lately I’ve been wondering further whether the idea of God is so flexible that there is no property or notion G that is necessary de dicto to every legitimate notion of God. If so, then an argument denying Gx will always leave some Gods standing and thus fall short of defending global atheism.
How important is the finding that atheists should stay local? On the one hand, local atheisms can be significant: for example, arguments against a OOO God if successful license denying the God of the orthodox monotheistic tradition—no small thing. Still, if global atheism is not justified—if for all that has been said against various Gods there still could be a genuine God of another kind—then the existence of God is not philosophically settled. And that is a big claim: nobody is licensed to move on from theism, not yet—and that not because of a difference of opinion over the state of the arguments (old news), but because the right kind of argumentation is not even in place yet (new news). The required work is to look at the major alternative notions of God and argue either that no such things exist or that such things should not count as God. That adds to the field’s task list for the future.
The complete paper is available here. Comments welcome below!
In the coming weeks, I will begin running a new feature on this blog which I am calling ‘the Prosblogion Virtual Colloquium’. Like a real philosophy department colloquium, the virtual colloquium aims to be a weekly discussion of a philosophy paper. This being the Prosblogion, these will of course be papers in philosophy of religion. However, this term will be construed in a very broad sense to include philosophy papers in any field and any tradition that are relevant to religion in general or to any particular religion. I will be trying, as much as possible, to span the full diversity of philosophers, philosophical projects, arguments and positions that fall within that very general characterization of philosophy of religion. The colloquium will primarily feature the work of junior scholars.
I have several aims for this project. First, I hope simply that this will foster interesting discussion of philosophical issues related to religion(s). Second, I think it is an unfortunate feature of the academic discipline of philosophy that many excellent papers are barely read and commented on at all. I therefore hope that the virtual colloquium will help a variety of philosophy papers to be part of a genuine conversation (and maybe not wait years to be cited for the first time!). Third, I hope that the series will help to bring attention to the diverse kinds of work being undertaken in contemporary philosophy of religion and the variety of positions and arguments being defended. Finally, I hope that this will provide an opportunity for philosophers who don’t get to attend conferences and colloquia on a regular basis to engage in helpful back-and-forth philosophical discussion at a high level.
I am open to suggestions about format, but my current plan is as follows. Just like an in-person colloquium, I will briefly introduce the colloquium ‘speaker’. Following this, the ‘speaker’ will give an introductory summary of the paper under discussion (recommended length about 800 words, but flexible). Then there will be a link to the full text of the paper. The paper may be a draft or a recent publication, but must be online somewhere. Open access is of course preferable, but where this is infeasible for copyright reasons a link to the journal (or PhilPapers) to allow those who have access through their university would be acceptable.
If there is sufficient interest, I hope to run the first virtual colloquium on Friday, October 14 and hold subsequent colloquia each Friday through at least the end of the present academic year. I am beginning to contact potential presenters right away. I would appreciate receiving nominations particularly of junior philosophers who have a draft or recent publication in philosophy of religion to discuss. These can be left in the comments below, or sent by email to email@example.com. Receiving plenty of nominations from lots of different people will help to ensure the schedule does not end up unduly biased toward my own philosophical propensities. Self-nominations are also encouraged!
Here’s a modal quandary. Both modal arguments seem correct. Both arguments seem valid.
1. Necessarily, God actualizes the best world.
2. There is no best possible world.
3. :. God does not exist.
1. There is no best possible world.
2. It is impossible that God actualizes the best possible world.
3. :. It is not necessary that God actualizes the best world.
The problem arises because we are (implicitly) reasoning counterfactually (strictly, counterpossibly), and there’s room for different ways to resolve the vagueness involved.
I’ve recently been wondering whether atheism – the belief that God does not exist – could be properly basic. By that, I mean whether it could be a belief that is not based on arguments, but nonetheless formed by a reliable mechanism that is truth-oriented.
I doubt whether atheism could be properly basic. If I am right, then, in order for atheism to be warranted (or maybe even merely rational; see below), atheism has to be based on arguments—whereas, perhaps, such a thing is not required for theism.
Now, here’s my line of thought. It seems we need to consider two mutually exclusive and jointly exhaustive scenarios: one in which God exists and one in which he does not.
We can be rather short about the first scenario. If God exists, then it seems impossible that humans have a truth-oriented reliable mechanism that produces the basic belief that God does not exist. Such a mechanism could never be both truth-oriented and reliable, for all of its deliverances – each instance of the basic belief that God does not exist – would be false.
Here’s a dilemma that might be worrisome for theists. It’s, in any case, a worry for me. Consider, first, the thesis in (1).
1. Possibly, God actualizes a morally perfect possible world or a morally very good possible world.
Most of us believe that (1) is true, indeed, many of us believe that (1) is necessarily true. But if we affirm (1), we have to deny (2).
The 2015 Conference of the Society of Christian Philosophers (Pacific Region)
March 20-21, 2015
Hosted by Azusa Pacific University
- Linda Zagzebski (University of Oklahoma),
- Robert Audi (University of Notre Dame)
Theme: Religious Epistemology in the 21st Century
Advances in technology and interfaith dialogues lead to questions about who or what to trust. Such questions include, for example:
- How does one decide who (or what) is an expert?
- How does technology help or hinder inter-faith dialogues?
- Is there a “virtue epistemology” for surfing the web for information?
- How can one remain justified in one’s own religious beliefs if one has good reason to believe that a Google search would return millions of arguments against those beliefs?
We invite submissions exploring any topic of interest to Christian philosophers, but those dealing explicitly with the conference theme may be given preference. The conference organizers intend to bring together a wide range of topics and ideas with the hope of fostering a rich and broad discussion among those interested in Christianity and philosophy. We welcome participation from both Christians and non-Christian philosophers as presenters and participants.
Papers (no more than 3000 words) are due by January 15th (extended from January 1st), 2014. Please include professional contact information and an abstract with your paper. Submit them to: firstname.lastname@example.org. We intend to notify those accepted by Jan 22nd, 2015.
Graduate and undergraduate students who wish to be considered for the SCP’s prize for the Best Graduate Student Paper or Best Undergraduate Student Paper must submit a final draft of their papers by January 1st, 2014. Each winner will receive a $400 award, which will be presented publicly at the conference. In your submission email, please indicate that you are a graduate student or undergraduate student.
[this is cross-posted in NewApps] In Louise Antony’s thought-provoking interview, Gary Gutting asked her about the rationality of her atheism if she were confronted with a theist who is an epistemic peer, someone who is equally intelligent, who knows the arguments for and against theism, etc., this was her response:
“In the real world, there are no epistemic peers — no matter how similar our experiences and our psychological capacities, no two of us are exactly alike, and any difference in either of these respects can be rationally relevant to what we believe.” — She further clarifies “How could two epistemic peers — two equally rational, equally well-informed thinkers — fail to converge on the same opinions? But it is not a problem in the real world. In the real world, there are no epistemic peers — no matter how similar our experiences and our psychological capacities, no two of us are exactly alike, and any difference in either of these respects can be rationally relevant to what we believe…The whole notion of epistemic peers belongs only to the abstract study of knowledge, and has no role to play in real life”.
I disagree with Antony’s analysis, and think that the criteria for epistemic peerage can be very much loosened. I do agree with her that the notion, as it is outlined in epistemology, in terms of equal access to evidence, cognitive equality etc is quite stringent, and indeed is very rare in real life. For instance, perhaps two graduate students, trained at the same department with the same advisor and the same specialization, and who are equally smart, would count as epistemic peers with respect to that specialization. However, our philosophical concept of what an epistemic peer is should not be drawn up a priori, but should be informed by how the concept is used in everyday practices, like forensic research, two doctors or midwives discussing a patient’s circumstances, or two scholars who disagree about a key issue in their discipline. Indeed, the idea of epistemic peer is thoroughly entrenched in scientific research, for instance in peer review and open peer commentary. If the notion of “epistemic peer” does not reflect this practice, it is not a sound philosophical notion, and would need to be replaced.
In a co-authored paper on the status of Homo floresiensis I argued that the condition for epistemic peerage is easily met for researchers who study these fossils, even though they have different backgrounds (e.g., archaeology, medical anthropology). These scientists who work on Homo floresiensis have the relevant expertise to evaluate the body of evidence, narrowly construed as published reports, the fossil material etc, not broadly construed as to include, e.g., the wisdom imparted by their thesis advisors. A realistic notion of evidential equality need only include evidence in this narrow sense.
Similarly, for the question of religion there are, I believe, many epistemic peers who meet this condition (philosophers of religion) – they are familiar with the arguments, such as the evidential argument from evil, the cosmological arguments etc.
Focusing on a narrow reading of the evidence, we need not worry about, say, religious (or areligious) experience that is not shareable as an obstacle for epistemic peerage. This modest notion of epistemic peerage is, I believe, in line with how we understand this term when evaluating experts, and if it is correct, there are many epistemic peers for any domain of knowledge. The problem remains that epistemic peerage not only involves evidence, but also cognitive powers (indeed, Gutting’s original formulation of the concept of epistemic peer was couched in terms of cognitive virtues like attentiveness).
Antony says “we have no idea how to seriously compare the cognitive powers of two people.” Is this needed to determine whether two people are epistemic peers? Rather than an objective assessment of qualities, epistemic peerage in science and other fields has an important social dimension: in how far do people recognize expertise (which involves not only access to evidence but also cognitive virtues) in others? It seems that people are naturally adept at recognizing expertise (note that they are better at doing so for others than for themselves, as people tend to overestimate their own cognitive capacities, something that needs to be born in mind when one is disagreeing with whom one believes to be an epistemic peer). For instance, even children as young as four or five have some emerging knowledge of the cognitive division of labor, knowing they should turn to a medical doctor for health problems, but to a car mechanic for problems with the car engine.
This social dimension provides a way out of the impasse of having to compare people’s cognitive capacities, but it does come with a cost: some groups of people are systematically marginalized, and their expertise might not be fairly evaluated. Social practices often do not reflect expertise accurately, hence not reflect epistemic peers accurately. Whether this is problematic for identifying epistemic peers, I suspect, depends on the issue. For instance, in philosophy of religion there is a tendency to focus on theism as broadly outlined in the Abrahamic traditions, and in fact, there is a strong focus on Christianity. This bias might make valuable and interesting work in, say, Mormon or Wiccan philosophy of religion go unrecognized. Also, researchers who work at non-elite universities may have a lesser say in the debates than, say, prominent senior professors who are recognized as world experts, for reasons that have little to do with their expertise or cognitive virtues.
Nevertheless, with the proviso that some voices may be less heard, there are many epistemic peers on the question of religion, if one focuses on philosophers of religion. Which still makes Gutting’s question relevant: “But suppose you and your theist friend are equally adept at reasoning, equally informed about relevant evidence, equally honest and fair-minded — suppose, that is, you are what philosophers call epistemic peers: equally reliable as knowers. Then shouldn’t each of you recognize that you’re no more likely to be right than your peer is, and so both retreat to an agnostic position?”
One of our graduate students, Matt Wilson, suggested an analogy between Pascal’s Wager and the question about whether to promote or fight theistic beliefs in a social context (and he let me cite this here).
This made me think. (I don’t know what of the following would be endorsed by Wilson.) The main objections to Pascal’s Wager are:
- Difficulties in dealing with infinite utilities. That’s merely technical (I say).
- Many gods.
- Practical difficulties in convincing oneself to sincerely believe what one has no evidence for.
- The lack of epistemic integrity in believing without evidence.
- Would God reward someone who believes on such mercenary grounds?
- The argument just seems too mercenary!
Do these hold in the social context, where I am trying to decide whether to promote theism among others? If theistic belief non-infinitesimally increases the chance of other people getting infinite benefits, without any corresponding increase in the probability of infinite harms, then that should yield very good moral reason to promote theistic belief. Indeed, given utilitarianism, it seems to yield a duty to promote theism.
But suppose that instead of asking what I should do to get myself to believe the question is what I should try to get others to believe. Then there are straightforward answers to the analogue of (3): I can offer arguments for and refute arguments against theism, and help promote a culture in which theistic belief is normative. How far I can do this is, of course, dependent on my particular skills and social position, but most of us can do at least a little, either to help others to come to believe or at least to maintain their belief.
Moreover, objection (4) works differently. For the Wager now isn’t an argument for believing theism, but an argument for increasing the number of people who believe. Still, there is force to an analogue to (4). It seems that there is a lack of integrity in promoting a belief that one does not hold. One is withholding evidence from others and presenting what one takes to be a slanted position (for if one thought that the balance of the evidence favored theism, then one wouldn’t need any such Wager). So (4) has significant force, maybe even more force than in the individual case. Though of course if utilitarianism is true, that force disappears.
Objections (5) and (6) disappear completely, though. For there need be nothing mercenary about the believers any more, and the promoter of theistic beliefs is being unselfish rather than mercenary. The social Pascal’s Wager is very much a morally-based argument.
Objections (1) and (2) may not be changed very much. Though note that in the social context there is a hedging-of-the-bets strategy available for (2). Instead of promoting a particular brand of theism, one might instead fight atheism, leaving it to others to figure out which kind of theist they want to be. Hopefully at least some theists get right the brand of theism—while surely no atheist does.
I think the integrity objection is the most serious one. But that one largely disappears when instead of considering the argument for promoting theism, one considers the argument against promoting atheism. For while it could well be a lack of moral integrity to promote one-sided arguments, there is no lack of integrity in refraining from promoting one’s beliefs when one thinks the promotion of these beliefs is too risky. For instance, suppose I am 99.99% sure that my new nuclear reactor design is safe. But 99.9999% is just not good enough for a nuclear reactor design! I therefore might choose not promote my belief about the safety of the design, even with the 99.9999% qualifier, because politicians and reporters who aren’t good in reasoning about expected utilities might erroneously conclude not just that it’s probably safe (which it probably is), but that it should be implemented. And the harms of that would be too great. Prudence might well require me to be silent about evidence in cases where the risks are asymmetrical, as in the nuclear reactor case where the harm of people coming to believe that it’s safe when it’s unsafe so greatly outweighs the harm of people coming to believe that it’s unsafe when it’s safe. But the case of theism exhibits a similar asymmetry.
Thus, consistent utilitarian atheists will promote theism. (Yes, I think that’s a reductio of utilitarianism!) But even apart from utilitarianism, no atheist should promote atheism.
Philosophers have perhaps more often assumed the Principle of Sufficient Reason than argued for it. Furthermore, this assumption has, in recent years, fallen out of favor due to the PSR’s allegedly unacceptable consequences. Recently, however, the PSR has been defended by Alexander Pruss and Michael Della Rocca. Pruss and Della Rocca both argue that (a version of) the PSR is a presupposition of reason. Pruss defends a version of the PSR restricted to contingent truths and consistent with libertarian free will and indeterminism is physics as a presupposition of our scientific and ‘commonsense’ explanatory practices. Della Rocca argues that the metaphysicians who deny the PSR implicitly make use of an unrestricted PSR, applying even to necessary truths, in other metaphysical arguments. Both arguments depend crucially on the claim that there is no weaker principle which is non-ad-hoc and justifies the relevant practices. In her contribution to The Puzzle of Existence, Shieva Kleinschmidt argues that both defenses fail.
Kleinschmidt’s general strategy is to outline contrasting cases – those in which admitting in-principle inexplicability seems to be an option, and those in which it does not – and argue that a non-ad-hoc descriptive account of this distinction can indeed be given.
Kleinschmidt’s primary focus is on Della Rocca, but compared to Pruss Della Rocca gives weaker support to a stronger conclusion. Della Rocca argues that if the unrestricted PSR is not true, then we cannot justifiably rule out certain metaphysical positions which we find intuitively implausible. However, not everyone finds the ‘brutal’ or ‘primitivist’ positions unpalatable in the way Della Rocca supposes (see Markosian). Furthermore, it would not be the end of the world if we were forced to conclude that many of the epistemic practices of analytic metaphysicians are in fact unjustified. Pruss, on the other hand, argues from commonsense and scientific explanatory practices. He asks, for instance, why it is that, when investigating a plane crash, no one takes seriously the hypothesis that the plane crashed for no reason at all. A position that undermined this kind of ordinary, everyday explanatory practice would be in much bigger trouble than a position that said analytic metaphysicians were out to lunch.
Now, Kleinschmidt does talk about the kind of everyday cases with which Pruss is concerned: “For instance,” she writes,
suppose we find small blue handprints along the wall, and we notice that the blue frosting is gone from its bowl and some is on the hands, face, and torso of a nearby five-year-old. When wondering what happened, we will not be tempted even for a moment by the alternative the child wishes to bring to our attention, namely, that the handprints are on the wall for no reason, that they are simply there (p. 67).
Again, someone who was forced to deny that our ordinary process of explaining the handprints was well-justified would be in much bigger trouble than someone who thought our metaphysical reasoning defective. Perhaps the reason for this is that Kleinschmidt herself belongs to the group of metaphysicians targeted by Della Rocca’s argument.
Della Rocca complains that these metaphysicians use the PSR when it suits them and ignore it the rest of the time. Kleinschmidt, however, thinks that this alleged inconsistency shows that Della Rocca has misunderstood the methodology employed by these metaphysicians, for there are indeed cases where (at least some of) these metaphysicians are willing to accept unexplained (and unexplainable) facts (whether necessary or contingent). These hypotheses are not ‘off the table’ in the way the hypothesis that the blue frosting is on the wall for no reason is off the table. In particular, Kleinschmidt describes in detail two contrasting cases: in standard fission cases, the view that it is simply a brute fact that either Lefty or Righty is identical with the pre-fission individual is rarely taken seriously, but in the Problem of the Many, especially as applied to human bodies, brute fact views have been more popular.
This, however, does not get to the bottom of things, for the common core of the arguments of Pruss and Della Rocca is the contention that no weaker principle than the PSR will justify our practice of treating these hypotheses as off the table in the cases where we do so. In other words, if we reject the PSR, then we ought to take the hypothesis that the blue handprints are on the wall for no reason seriously, but surely we ought not to take that hypothesis seriously, so we’d better accept the PSR.
It is only in the last three pages of her chapter that Kleinschmidt addresses this contention directly. She proposes that the claim that explanatory power is a truth-tracking theoretical virtue is sufficiently strong to account for our explanatory practices. “So, for instance, in the handprint case, we reject the theory that the handprints simply appeared for no reason, because we can see how some explanations might go, and some of the explanations are such that endorsing them won’t have disastrous consequences” (77). This, she argues, explains our explanatory practices: we take explanatory power to be a very important virtue in theory choice, so that we do not accept theories that render certain phenomena inexplicable unless we are backed into a corner.
As Kleinschmidt recognizes, this is really only the beginning of a response to Pruss and Della Rocca, for the core problem is not one of description but one of justification. Della Rocca, for instance, explicitly admits that metaphysicians are not consistent in rejecting unexplainables; this is precisely his complaint. He says that this inconsistent practice cannot be justified. Kleinschmidt recognizes this problem, but all she has to say about it is that there is considerable difficulty, as well, regarding the other features (e.g., parsimony) we take to be truth-tracking theoretical virtues.
Insofar as Kleinschmidt has helped to make clearer what our actual explanatory practices are, and shown that a descriptive account need not be radically disunified and ad hoc, this is progress. But the fact is, it is not really an answer to the Pruss-Della Rocca argument for, unless the treatment of explanatory power as a truth-tracking theoretical virtue can itself be justified, no method of justifying our explanatory practices in the absence of the PSR has been made to appear. On the other hand, perhaps Kleinschmidt should be regarded as having shown that those who continue to be untroubled scientific and/or ontological realists despite recognizing the difficulties involved in explaining why the features we regard as theoretical virtues should be regarded as truth-tracking might as well continue to be untroubled deniers of the PSR despite recognizing the difficulties raised by the Pruss-Della Rocca argument, for those difficulties are, essentially, the same. On the other hand, the reasonableness of this untroubled attitude could certainly be called into question.
Finally, it should be noted that Kleinschmidt’s formulations of the virtue of explanatory power are quite strong. She says we are willing to accept unexplainable propositions only when the consequences of refusing to do so are ‘disastrous.’ Now, unless one thinks either (a) that positing a necessary being is itself disastrous, or (b) that contingent facts cannot be explained in terms of a necessary being (i.e. that the modal collapse problem cannot be solved), this principle will still be strong enough to support the argument from contingency for the existence of a necessary being. (Personally, I think (a) is silly but (b) presents a deep and tangled problem.) In short, it seems likely that, even if we accept Kleinschmidt’s conclusion, we can still overcome the parsimony worries I discussed last time.
(Cross-posted at blog.kennypearce.net.)