Results of the survey on natural theological arguments
February 17, 2012 — 15:26

Author: Helen De Cruz  Category: Existence of God  Tags: , , , ,   Comments: 27

I would like to thank everyone who has completed my survey on natural theological arguments. This survey’s aim was to get a rough idea on how philosophers today evaluate various natural theological arguments in terms of their strength/plausibility. My study was motivated by the observation that philosophers frequently voice intuitions about the general plausibility of natural theological arguments, e.g., “since Darwin, the argument from design has lost its appeal”, or “the hiddenness argument is a strong contender to the problem of evil as an argument against the existence of God.” However, actual data on philosophers’ assessments of these arguments was, to my knowledge, unavailable. I’m very pleased with the large sample (802 respondents!). The data will be used in a monograph I am currently writing on the cognitive basis of natural theology.
Descriptive statistics about the sample

  • Respondents (N = 802) were recruited through a philosophy mailing list and several philosophy blogs
  • Average age: 36.5 years (SD = 11.8 years)
  • Gender: 75.8 % were men and 24.2 % were women. This is a gender imbalance, but it is not out of line with other philosophy surveys, and may reflect the general gender imbalance of philosophy.
  • Religious self-identification: 40.5 % theists, 40.4 % atheists, 19.1 % agnostic or undecided (I’ll refer to this group as agnostic for short, realizing that not all agnostics see themselves as undecided).
  • Target group: 85.8 % of respondents self-identified as philosophers; the remaining 14.2% did not (the real percentage may be higher, as some respondents said they had some training in philosophy at the undergraduate or graduate level, but moved on to major in other fields).
  • AOS: The most mentioned philosophical specialization was philosophy of religion (33.8 %). The other most mentioned areas of specialization were, in descending order, metaphysics (27.8 %), ethics (26.8 %), epistemology (25.8 %), history of philosophy (22.2 %) philosophy of mind (19.2 %) – The total is more than 100 % because respondents could indicate multiple AOS
  • Academic position: graduate students (33.3 %), faculty including tenure track (32.9), non-tenure track with PhD (15.8%), undergraduates (8 %), non-academics (10 %).


Survey on Alternative Concepts of God
January 18, 2012 — 9:55

Author: Yujin Nagasawa  Category: Concept of God  Tags: ,   Comments: 6

*Please note this is a 2-page survey. Many people seem to have completed only the first page. We will post the results here.
Andrei Buckareff (Marist College) and I have recently been awarded funding by the John Templeton Foundation for our project “Exploring Alternative Concepts of God”. The aim of the project is to shed light on, explore, and critically evaluate alternatives to the classical concept of God or the divine (including, but not limited to, the pantheistic and panentheistic concepts) which are often overlooked in contemporary philosophical debates on the nature and the existence of God. The project involves both proponents and critics of the alternative concepts.
As part of the project we are conducting a survey on people’s views on the concept of God.
We would be very grateful if readers of this blog could complete it. It consists of only 10 simple questions so it shouldn’t take more than three minutes to complete it. Thank you!

A weak spot in skeptical theism
December 27, 2011 — 19:45

Author: Trent Dougherty  Category: Existence of God Problem of Evil  Tags: , , ,   Comments: 14

Too often, discussion about skeptical theism focuses on whether there are likely to be unknown goods which could outweigh the evils we know of (Officially, I have problems with the notion of “knowing of” an evil, but I’ll set that aside). That can create the impression that an affirmative answer is reached, skeptical theism wins. But that would be a misunderstanding.


Another failed alternative to the Principle of Sufficient Reason
November 30, 2011 — 12:43

Author: Alexander Pruss  Category: Existence of God  Tags: , , , ,   Comments: 3

We presuppose something like the Principle of Sufficient Reason (PSR) in daily life and science. So there is very good reason to accept something like PSR. But suppose you don’t want to accept PSR, maybe because you think it implies the existence of God or maybe because you just think it has counterexamples. What can you do? Here is an option:

  1. The probability that a particular ordinary event, like the coming into existence of a brick or the death of a person, occurs without an explanation is non-zero but very low.

Here are some problems for this. Consider an infinite series of possible events: a brick of weight 2.5kg coming into existence in front of me now, a brick of weight 2.25kg coming into existence in front of me now, a brick of weight 2.125kg coming into existence in front of me now, …. By (1), each of these is very unlikely to happen without an explanation, but there is a non-zero probability for each. Moreover, plausibly, these non-zero probabilities are approximately the same.[note 1] So, we have an infinite number of possible events, each of which has approximately the same non-zero probability. Barring some further dependence story, we should conclude that very likely at least one of these events will happen. But none of these events in fact happened. Repeat the argument with mugs, rocks, etc. None of the analogues there happened. The theory, thus, stands refuted.

If we grant that two bricks can’t come into existence in the same place at the same time, the argument can be made stronger. Specify in each event the same location L for the brick. Then we have an infinite number of mutually exclusive events, each of which has approximately the same non-zero probability. And that not only is contrary to observation, but violates the conjunction of the total probability axiom and the finite additivity of probabilities (at least on the right understanding of “approximately the same” that ensures that if an infinite sequence of positive numbers is “approximately the same”, their mutual ratios are all moderately close to 1, say between 0.5 and 2).

Counterpossible Reasoning in Philosophy of Religion (and Elsewhere)
November 19, 2011 — 16:01

Author: Kenny Pearce  Category: Problem of Evil Theological Fatalism  Tags: , , , , ,   Comments: 20

The latest (July 2011) Faith and Philosophy contains an excellent article by Jeff Speaks on some difficulties related to establishing the consistency of certain claims (he uses as examples the existence of human freedom and the existence of evil) with the existence of an Anselmian God. The basic idea is this: since an Anselmian God is, by definition, a necessary being, establishing the possibility of an Anselmian God is tantamount to establishing the necessary, and therefore actual, existence of an Anselmian God. But these compatibility arguments typically, in one way or another, assume the possibility, and so the actuality, of an Anselmian God. If we were allowed to assume this premise, our task would be extremely easy! We could argue as follows:

  1. God (actually) exists
  2. Evil (actually) exists
  3. Therefore,

  4. The existence of God is consistent with the existence of evil.

Piece of cake! Now I, of course, take this argument to be sound. In fact, I even think that some people (depending on their background beliefs) might be rational in allowing this argument to increase their confidence in the truth of (3). But clearly this argument cannot be used to respond to atheist arguments from evil against the existence of God. It is dialectically inadmissible in that context.
In his paper, Speaks argues that Warfield’s argument for the compatibility of necessary omniscience with human freedom and Plantinga’s free will defense are both a lot like this. That is, they both assume that, possibly, an Anselmian God exists. But if that assumption is admissible, then we could just use this simpler argument. But obviously we can’t use this simpler argument, so the premise must be inadmissible. (This isn’t exactly the way Speaks puts his points together; it’s my interpretation of what his arguments actually show.)
Speaks states the “principal conclusion” of his paper as follows:

any argument for the compatibility of two propositions must also be an argument for the possibility of each of those propositions. Hence it is impossible to argue for the compatibility of two propositions, one of which is necessary if possible, without arguing for the truth of that proposition. (p. 291)

In this post, I’m going to push back.


Rutten’s argument for the existence of God
October 23, 2011 — 11:12

Author: Alexander Pruss  Category: Existence of God  Tags: , , , ,   Comments: 106

Emanuel Rutten sent me the following interesting argument which I am posting with his permission. Please make sure to be clear that if you cite this post, everything except the title, the preceding sentence and this sentence, is taken verbatim from Rutten. He has some other interesting arguments on his blog, some of which alas are in Dutch.
Take the following metaphysical principle, connecting possible worlds, knowledge and truth: ‘If it is impossible to know that p, then p is necessarily false’. This principle seems cogent. For, if a given proposition p could be true, then, plausibly, there is some possible world in which some subject knows that p is true. In other words, if in *all* possible worlds *all* subjects do not know that some proposition is true, then, plausibly, that is because that very proposition cannot in fact be true.
Well, on a Cartesian view of knowledge, that is, to know p is to be certain that p is true, the above principle has an interesting consequence. For, take for p the proposition ‘God does not exist’. It seems reasonable to hold that it is impossible to know that God does not exist. For, whatever the arguments against God, there will always be some (perhaps an extremely remote) possibility that God does exist after all, so that we can never truly say, on the Cartesian view, that we know that God does not exist. But then it follows that it is necessarily false that God does not exist. Hence, it is necessarily true that God exists. The principle thus entails theism. Is this new argument for theism convincing?


Lawless Events and the Existence of God
September 1, 2011 — 20:29

Author: Kenny Pearce  Category: Divine Providence Existence of God Problem of Evil  Tags: , , , ,   Comments: 6

Christine Overall famously argued that miracles, conceived as violations of the laws of nature, would be evidence against the existence of the traditional God. A lengthy debate with Robert Larmer ensued, in which Larmer argued that only slight modifications to the law-breaking account of miracles are necessary in order for miracles to serve as evidence for, rather than against, the existence of God. Larmer tries to argue that miracles do not violate the laws of nature, but nevertheless holds that they are different from ordinary events in that they don’t follow from the laws of nature. (I don’t have Larmer’s book handy to remember the exact details of his account.)
The Overall-Larmer debate in some respects replays one dialectical thread from the Leibniz-Clarke correspondence: Clarke defends the view that any sufficiently widespread natural regularity should be regarded as a law, and any event that violates such a regularity should be regarded as a miracle. Furthermore, Clarke argues, miracles of this sort occur from time to time. Leibniz argues that God, as traditionally conceived, would not create a world of the sort Clarke envisions and, furthermore, that Clarke’s weak conception of laws does not allow a theologically adequate distinction between miracles and ordinary events.
I think Overall pretty decisively won the debate with Larmer, and Leibniz pretty decisively won the debate with Clarke on this and most other points. (One point where Leibniz clearly loses: his insistence that if there were not a unique best possible world God would be unable to create a world is clearly false.) However, there are a lot of people who seem to disagree, who continue to hold that miracles are best understood as somehow in tension with laws, and that such events can serve as evidence for the existence of the traditional God. I in fact think that miracles should not be conceived as in any sort of tension with laws, so, instead of speaking of miracles, I’ll speak of ‘lawless events’. Lawless events are those which don’t follow, either probabilistically or deterministically, from the laws of nature. (interpret ‘follow from’ in whatever sense your favorite theory of laws requires.) In this post I am concerned with arguments from the traditional divine attributes against the occurrence of lawless events. These arguments will of course work backward to show that lawless events would be evidence against the existence of a being with those attributes.


An argument for a necessary being
August 23, 2011 — 9:47

Author: Alexander Pruss  Category: Existence of God  Tags: ,   Comments: 13

I want to give this argument in part to provoke a bit of discussion of the role of FOL in philosophy. I don’t think the argument carries great weight, in large part because of Objection 2 (see the end).
1. (Premise) The inferences allowed by classical First Order Logic (FOL) combined with a modal logic that includes Necessitation are valid.
2. (Premise) If every being is contingent, then possibly nothing exists. (A material conditional)
3. Necessarily something exists. (By 1)
4. So, there is a necessary being. (By 2 and 3)
The proof of (3) is as follows. Classical logic allows (Ex)(x=x) to be inferred from (x)(x=x). Since (x)(x=x) is a theorem, so is (Ex)(x=x), and hence by the rule of Necessitation, we have: Necessarily (Ex)(x=x). And thus (3) follows. And of course Necessitation is a part of standard modal systems like M, S4 and S5.
I think (2) is intuitively plausible. Here is one way to try to argue for it:
5. (Premise for reductio) Premise (2) is false.
6. (Premise) The non-existence of non-unicorns does not necessitate the existence of unicorns.
7. Every being is contingent and it is necessary that at least one thing exists. (By 5)
8. Necessarily, if no non-unicorns exist, then at least one thing exists. (By 7)
9. Necessarily, if no non-unicorns exist, then at least one unicorn exists. (By 8)
Since (9) contradicts (6), our reductio argument for premise (2) is complete.
(I am grateful to Josh Rasmussen for simplifying my original argument.)


A Dialectical Role for the Ontological Argument
August 18, 2011 — 17:13

Author: Kenny Pearce  Category: Existence of God  Tags: , , , ,   Comments: 19

Suppose we make an ontological argument with the following general form:

  1. D (for divinity) is a consistent concept
  2. Every consistent concept is possibly instantiated
  3. D entails necessary existence
  4. Therefore,

  5. D is actually instantiated
  6. A being who instantiated D would be God
  7. Therefore,

  8. God exists

Or something like this. (Note that this formulation of the argument uses the modal principle that possibly necessarily p entails necessarily p.)
This sort of argument has a problem: If (3) is trivial, given how D is defined (for instance, if D is defined as the concept of necessary existence), then the argument is question-begging, for no one who didn’t already believe that D is instantiated would ever accept premise (1). However, if (3) is a surprising result, for which a sophisticated argument is required, then we might worry that D has other surprising consequences, some of them contradictions, and so reject (1).
Furthermore, it seems to me that for most theists the existence of God is more certain than any of the premises in the argument, so it doesn’t seem that the argument can be used to increase the confidence of someone who is already a tentative theist.
So can the ontological argument do anything? I say it can. Suppose we grant that the argument is question-begging, and that, for the theist, the conclusion is already more certain than the premises. Now, all question-begging arguments are valid, and some are sound, the problem is just that they can’t be used to convince people of the conclusion. A parallel case to this can be found in work on the foundations of arithmetic. When axiomatic set theory was being developed, people were coming up with axioms, which they weren’t sure were right, and using them to prove that 2+2=4. Now, since the premises of these arguments were quite questionable, and the conclusion was already known certainly to be true, this procedure can’t possibly have been intended to increase anyone’s confidence in 2+2=4. So what was the point? Well, they were trying to construct an axiomatic foundation for arithmetic, and 2+2=4 is a truth of arithmetic, so if the axioms don’t entail it they are obviously not the axioms we are looking for, and if they entail its contrary they are obviously false. However, if we can come up with axioms that have all the right entailments, we’ll have a reason for thinking our axioms are true, and we’ll be able to use them to answer the questions we weren’t sure about to begin with, and we also will have a much more systematic understanding of arithmetic. (Note that the method of ‘reflective equilibrium’ employed by many philosophers, especially in value theory, has a similar structure: you start by making up some proposed rules and seeing if they get the right answers in the cases where we know what the right answer is, then, if they do, apply them to the cases we aren’t sure about.)
I propose that the ontological argument might play a similar role in a theory of metaphysical theology. (Indeed, I think it does play a role somewhat similar to this in James Ross’s Philosophical Theology.) On this view, the ontological argument is not used directly to convince people of the existence of God. Rather, its premise (1) is proposed as a sort of axiom, on which a metaphysical system is to be built. This system is to be judged by its overall coherence and the plausibility of its consequences. The ontological argument might still have an indirect role to play in convincing people of the existence of God: if it turns out that assuming that the concept of, e.g., a being than which none greater can be conceived, or an infinitely perfect being, or whatever, is consistent leads to a highly attractive and systematic theory of metaphysics, wouldn’t that be a reason for accepting it? Next question: what are the consequences (apart from the existence of God) of supposing the candidate concepts to be consistent?
[cross-posted at]

A Cost of Contingentism
July 22, 2011 — 11:43

Author: Josh Rausmussen  Category: Uncategorized  Tags: , , ,   Comments: 26

Let Contingentism be the thesis that no concrete thing must exist. Define ‘concrete thing’ as anything that can cause something, or leave it as primitive. (Side note: Contingentism is hotly debated among philosophers of religion. But surely it is a thesis of metaphysics; so why aren’t metaphysicians debating this?)
Arguments against Contingentism typically take the following form:
1. Every fact of type T has an explanation (else: is explicable)
2. If Contingentism is true, then there is a fact of type T that has no explanation (else: is not explicable)
3. Contingentism is not true.
Committed Contingentists usually either end up denying the principle of explanation employed by (1) or withholding judgment. After all, such explanatory principles tend to be very far-reaching.
But here’s another strategy. We count costs. Rather than searching for sound philosophical arguments for/against Contignentism, we identify costs and benefits of Contingentism. That may be a lot easier. And it can help us make progress without having to make converts: for a committed contingentist can, in principle, come to agree that there are certain costs of Contingentism.
I’m going to propose one cost–to get this strategy started. (I do not claim this is the most serious cost, or that there aren’t counter-costs that ultimately outweigh it.)