bookmark_borderPlantinga Calls This A Good Argument for God’s Existence?

The title of my post might come across as snarky, so I want to begin my making it clear that is not my intent. In fact, I want to go on record as saying I have great respect for Plantinga’s skill as a philosopher. Among other things, I think he succeeded in his attempt to refute Mackie’s version of the argument from evil.
Perhaps because I have to come hold Plantinga’s work to such a high standard, I continue to be surprised whenever I read Plantinga’s version of the so-called argument from beauty. In his famous lecture, “Two Dozen or So Theistic Arguments,” Alvin Plantinga sketches what he calls the “Mozart Argument.”

On a naturalistic anthropology, our alleged grasp and appreciation of (alleged) beauty is to be explained in terms of evolution: somehow arose in the course of evolution, and something about its early manifestations had survival value. But miserable and disgusting cacophony (heavy metal rock?) could as well have been what we took to be beautiful. On the theistic view, God recognizes beauty; indeed, it is deeply involved in his very nature. To grasp the beauty of a Mozart’s D Minor piano concerto is to grasp something that is objectively there; it is to appreciate what is objectively worthy of appreciation.

Plantinga doesn’t say how he rates the strength of the individual arguments; it’s possible that he views this argument as providing just a teeny-tiny bit of evidence that is just barely more probable on theism than on naturalism. Of course, it’s also possible that he views this argument as a “killer refutation” of a naturalism. Or, perhaps more likely, maybe he views it somewhere in between.
Let’s evaluate this argument the same way Plantinga evaluates arguments from evil against theism. How do we do that? By trying to clarify the claim the argument makes about the relationship between the evidence to be explained (in this case, objective beauty) and the rival explanatory hypotheses (e.g., theism and naturalism). Nothing in the passage above suggests that Plantinga claims that objective beauty is logically inconsistent with naturalism. Rather, Plantinga seems to be suggesting that objective beauty is less probable on naturalism than on theism.
I’m going to attempt to “steel man” Plantinga’s argument. The most charitable interpretation of Plantinga is that he’s offering the following argument:
(1) Objective beauty exists.
(2) Naturalism is not intrinsically much more probable than theism. [See Plantinga’s argument L]
(3) The existence of objective beauty is more probable on theism than on naturalism, i.e., Pr(beauty|theism) > Pr(beauty|naturalism).
(4) Therefore, everything else held equal, naturalism is probably false, i.e., Pr(naturalism) < 1/2.
I find this argument unconvincing; indeed, I find it so unconvincing I confess I find it hard to understand why Plantinga would endorse it.
First, I think the truth of (1) is far from certain. It’s far from obvious to me that such a thing as objective beauty exists; I don’t even have the intuition that it exists. And Plantinga offers no reason to think that it does. If it doesn’t exist, then there is nothing to explain and this argument cannot even get off the ground.
Second, I think (2) is false. Purdue University philosopher Paul Draper has convinced me that intrinsic probability is determined by modesty, coherence, and nothing else. Again, the only thing I could find in Plantinga’s lecture is a reference to Swinburne’s work on intrinsic probability. Swinburne argues that simplicity determines intrinsic probability. To be sure, there is a correlation between modesty, coherence, and simplicity. But correlation is as far as it goes. And if Draper is correct that intrinsic probability is determined by modesty and coherence, then naturalism is intrinsically much more probable than theism for the simple fact that naturalism (a/k/a “source physicalism”) is much more modest than theism, just as supernaturalism (a/k/a “source idealism”) is much more modest than theism.
Third, let’s assume, but only for the sake of argument, that (1) is true. There really is such a thing as “objective beauty.” What might be the metaphysical or ontological grounding for it? One option is Platonism, i.e., abstract objects. In other words, facts about objective beauty would be nothing more or less than necessary truths about beauty. And since Draperian naturalism (or “source physicalism”) says nothing about whether abstract objects exist, this metaphysical grounding is available not just to theists, but also to naturalists. And Plantinga offers no reason to reject this naturalistic explanation.
Instead, Plantinga considers an evolutionary explanation. Perhaps, he suggests,

our alleged grasp and appreciation of (alleged) beauty is to be explained in terms of evolution: [it] somehow arose in the course of evolution.

But this isn’t an apples-to-apples comparison. Plantinga isn’t comparing a naturalistic explanation of objective beauty to a theistic explanation of objective beauty. On the naturalistic side of the equation, he’s not considering the explanatory power of naturalism to account for objective beauty; rather, he’s considering the explanatory power of naturalism conjoined with an auxiliary hypothesis (about evolution) to account for our grasp and appreciation of alleged beauty. Similarly, on the theistic side of the equation, he’s not considering the explanatory power of theism to account for objective beauty; rather, he’s considering the explanatory power of theism conjoined with an auxiliary hypothesis (about God’s nature) to account for … what, precisely? Our grasp and appreciation of real, not just merely alleged, beauty? God’s causation of objectively beautiful features of the natural world? Something else? Plantinga never says.
The problem isn’t that he invokes auxiliary hypotheses; the problem is that doing so raises a whole bunch of questions which Plantinga doesn’t even ask, much less answer. For example, what’s the antecedent probability of his proffered evolutionary explanation, conditional upon the truth of naturalism? Likewise, what’s the antecedent probability of his auxiliary hypothesis to theism, that facts about objective beauty are somehow related to God’s nature, conditional upon the truth of theism? (And how does that compare to an alternative auxiliary hypothesis about theism, namely, that facts about objectively beauty are grounded in an autonomous realm of abstract objects?) Since Plantinga doesn’t answer these questions, his defense of his Mozart argument is far from complete.
Fourth, let’s assume, but only for the sake of argument, that premise (3) is true. The fact, if it is (were?) a fact, that objective beauty exists hardly exhausts what we (would?) know about “beauty.” As Draper points out, while the universe is saturated with visual beauty, it is not saturated with auditory, tactile, or other sensory beauty. Given that beauty “exists” at all, facts about the kinds and distribution of beauty favor naturalism over theism. So, once the evidence about beauty is fully stated, it’s far from obvious that it favors theism over naturalism.
In fairness to Plantinga, I want to remind readers that Plantinga was merely sketching his Mozart argument in the context of a speech about two dozen or so arguments; he wasn’t trying to give a sustained or even a precise defense of the argument. Nevertheless, I think the above objections pose significant obstacles to such an argument. Even when the argument is steel manned, as I have tried to do here, I cannot see how the argument can overcome these objections.

bookmark_borderThe VICTIMs of Christian Apologetics

My latest video, “The VICTIMs of Christian Apologetics: The Things Apologists Falsely Say Depend on God, But, if God Exists, God Depends on Them,” is now available on YouTube. It is a narration of some of the many hundreds of PowerPoint slides I created in preparation for my recent debate with Frank Turek on naturalism vs. theism.
This video presentation is a (roughly) 2 hour 30 minute critique of Frank Turek’s latest book, Stealing from God: Why Atheists Need God to Make Their Case. Turek accuses atheists of stealing from God in order to argue against God. How do atheists steal from God when arguing against God’s existence? According to Turek, this is summed up by the acrostic CRIMES (Causality, Reason, Information and Intentionality, Morality, Evil, and Science). So his argument is that atheists must assume each of those things, but each of those things in turn presuppose God’s existence.
For each letter in CRIMES, atheism can steal these concepts from God if and only if: (a) atheism is logically incompatible with the concept represented by that letter; and (b) positing an all-powerful God explains that concept, not just assumes it. But as I will explain, each letter in CRIMES fails one or both conditions.
Now, since repeatedly accusing an innocent person of a crime harms the accused, I’m going to frame my response as an acrostic of my own: VICTIM (Value, Induction, Causality, Time, Information and Intentionality, and Morality). Instead of talking about crimes, what we instead need to talk about are the VICTIMs of Christian apologetics. The VICTIMs of Christian apologetics are things which Christian apologists falsely claim depend on God, but the truth is that God depends on them.
Since the video is quite long and detailed, the following serves as a handy index:
Counter Apologist went through the effort to list the topics covered and give time-stamps/links for each topic which you can find below:

HT: Counter-Apologist for creating the index

bookmark_borderWeighing Theistic Evidence Against Naturalistic Evidence

In the next-to-last paragraph of his book, C.S. Lewis’ Dangerous Idea: In Defense of the Argument from Reason, Victor Reppert makes a very interesting statement:

However, I contend that the arguments from reason do provide some substantial reasons for preferring theism to naturalism. The “problem of reason” is a huge problem for reason, as serious or, I would say, more serious, than the problem of evil is for theists. (emphasis mine)

I think this is a very interesting statement for two reasons. First, Reppert acknowledges that the so-called “problem of evil” — which is probably misnamed (see here) — is an evidential problem for theism. All by itself, that is a significant concession that is all too rare among theistic philosophers. But second (and more important), Reppert claims that naturalism’s ‘problem of reason’ is as big of a problem, if not a bigger problem, for naturalism as the ‘problem of evil’ is for theism. I want to focus on this second feature of interest about Reppert’s statement.
I recently asked, “Why Do So Many People Have a “Winner Takes All” Approach to Evidence about Gods?” Suppose you agree with my conclusion that there can be evidence for false propositions, so there can be evidence for atheism if God exists, and so there can be evidence for theism if God does not exist.
As soon as you admit that possibility, you have to be prepared to confront another possibility. How do you weigh competing items of evidence, especially when we don’t have numerical probability values (or likelihoods or Bayes’ factors) to work with? Here are two versions of this problem.
(1) Weighing Two Individual Items of Evidence
Suppose you have two items of evidence, E1 and E2, and two rival hypotheses, H1 and H2. E1 is evidence favoring H1 over H2, i.e., Pr(E1 | H1)  > Pr(E1 | H2). Let B1 the “Bayes’ factor” for E1 , i.e., the ratio of Pr(E1 | H1)  to Pr(E1 | H2). E2 is evidence favoring H2 over H1, i.e. Pr(E2 | H2) > Pr(E2 | H1). Let B2 be the Bayes’ factor for E2, i.e., the ratio of Pr(E2 | H1) to Pr(E2 | H2). If E1 is stronger evidence for H1 than E2 is evidence for H2, then B1 > 1/B2. Likewise, if E2 is stronger evidence for H2 than E1 is evidence for H1, then 1/B2 > B1. But how do you show that?
In some cases, it may be possible to show this is true by definition. For example, in my F-inductive argument from consciousness, I argue that Pr(consciousness | theism) =1 because theism entails the existence of consciousness. Now compare that result to a very weak argument against theism, the argument from scale. I have argued before that, as an argument against mere theism, the evidence of scale provides very weak evidence favoring naturalism over theism. So it seems obvious that if Pr(consciousness | theism) = 1, then consciousness is much stronger evidence for theism than scale is against it.
Or consider Paul Draper’s evidential argument from biological evolution. The key insight to understanding that argument is this. It is really an argument against special creationism, combined with a rigorous argument that special creationism is a viable auxiliary hypothesis to theism. In other words, theism provides a significant antecedent reason to expect that special creationism is true conditional upon the assumption that theism is true, where “antecedent” emphasizes the idea that we are abstracting away all of our evidence from biology. Draper’s evidential argument from biological evolution argues that Pr(special creationism | naturalism) = 0, whereas Pr(special creationism | theism) >= 1/2. Now suppose you have some extremely weak argument for theism, such as the argument from beauty. I don’t think beauty provides any evidence for theism, but for the sake of argument let’s pretend that it does. In that case, it would be obvious that the falsity of creationism is much stronger evidence against theism than beauty is evidence for it.
Not all comparisons of evidence will involve cases where at least one hypothesis entails neither the evidence to be explained nor the denial of the evidence to be explained. In those cases, it seems to me it will be more difficult, possibly impossible, to justify an objective comparison of evidential strength. (Whether it is impossible or merely difficult will have to be determined on a case-by-case basis.)
(2) Weighing Cumulative Cases Against One Another
Suppose now you have two “real” cumulative cases done the right way. In favor of H1, you have items of evidence E1 through E5. In favor of H2, you have items of evidence E6-E10. For example, let H1 be theism and H2 be naturalism. Then let our items of evidence be:
E1: the contingency of the universe
E2: the beginning of the universe
E3: the life-permitting conditions of the universe
E4: consciousness
E5: intentionality
E6: the hostility of the universe to life
E7: biological role of pain and pleasure
E8: falsity of special creationism
E9: mind-brain dependence
E10: psychopathy
You believe that E1-E5 are individually and collectively evidence favoring theism over naturalism. Likewise, you believe that E6-E10 are individually and collectively evidence favoring naturalism over theism.
As before, we’ll use “B” to represent the Bayes’ factor. Let B1-5 represent the ratio of Pr(E1 & E2 & E3 & E4 & E5 |T) to Pr(E1 & E2 & E3 & E4 & E5 |N). Let B6-10 represent the ratio of Pr(E6 & E7 & E8 & E9 & E10 | T) to Pr(E6 & E7 & E8 & E9 & E10 | N).
How in the world are you supposed to show that B1-5 > 1/B6-10?
(3) Is Naturalism’s ‘Problem of Reason’ as Big or Bigger than Theism’s ‘Problem of Evil’?
Let us now return to Reppert’s statement I quoted at the beginning of this post:

However, I contend that the arguments from reason do provide some substantial reasons for preferring theism to naturalism. The “problem of reason” is a huge problem for reason, as serious or, I would say, more serious, than the problem of evil is for theists. (emphasis mine)

Reppert does not attempt to defend this claim in his book, but in fairness we should note the argument from reason is a neglected topic in the philosophy of religion. It seems reasonable to devote an entire book just to (re-?)introducing the argument and defending it. But it would be a major accomplishment in the philosophy of religion, I think, if Reppert were able to successfully defend this claim. Perhaps he can devote his considerable philosophical talents to this task in a future book.

bookmark_borderSpeaking in Seattle on Saturday

imageI will be reprising my recent talk to the Central London Humanists, “Evidence About God: What Apologists Don’t Want You to Know,” but this time my audience will be the Creation Association of Puget Sound (CAPS).

When: Saturday, May 11, 2013, 7:00PM

Where: Avondale Bible Church, 17010 Avondale Road Northeast, Woodinville, WA

Here is information from the organizer:

Refreshments and meetup discussions at 7:00, talk at 7:30, hosted by Avondale Bible Church. This meeting is organized for Christians to politely hear from the Skeptic community and respond at the end during the Q & A – but this is not a debate. The Creation Association of Puget Sound is returning the favor of Seattle Skeptics, who have provided forums for Creationists and Intelligent Design proponents to speak at their gatherings with Q & A by skeptics. Similarly Skeptics are encouraged to come observe, but not to participate in the Q & A. This meeting will open with scripture and Creation & I.D. announcements.

To RSVP, you may sign up on, where it has been cross-promoted by Seattle Atheists.

bookmark_borderMaterialism and Beauty

In response to a post by Victor Reppert, I left the following comments on his blog.

Victor — I’m very late to this thread, but I hope you’ll respond to this comment.
I read the linked article. Maybe I misunderstood it, but it seems to me that even if everything that article said were correct, it wouldn’t follow that materialism cannot explain beauty. What that article talked about is one recent attempt by neuroscientists to offer a (neuro-)scientific explanation for beauty, an attempt which apparently didn’t work out very well. Have I missed something?
I don’t identify as a materialist because I understand materialism to be logically incompatible with abstract objects. Since I deny the existence of supernatural beings but allow for the existence of abstract objects, I identify as a metaphysical naturalist.
I’m aware that some philosophers (including Swinburne) have argued that beauty is evidence favoring theism over atheism (or naturalism). While I can usually understand why theists find various theistic arguments convincing, that’s not the case with the argument from beauty. I am baffled why anyone finds *that* theistic argument convincing.
In my experience, defenders of arguments from beauty usually (1) conflate the existence of beauty with the existence of observers who can appreciate beauty; and (2) assume without argument that the concept of “objective beauty” is coherent. I, for one, find the concept of “objective beauty” to be unintelligible. And if beauty is not objective, then beauty does not favor theism, since evolutionary naturalism can explain beauty, including non-utilitarian beauty, as well as theism. (As TaiChi has pointed out, not every inherited trait need be adaptive.) If, on the other hand, beauty is objective, then it’s far from clear why theism is a better explanation for non-utilitarian beauty than, say, neo-Platonism about beauty.