WHERE WE ARE AT
I am in the process of evaluating Argument #19 (The Argument from Common Consent) from Peter Kreeft’s case for the existence of God (in Chapter 3 of Handbook of Christian Apologetics, hereafter: HCA).
One key premise of Argument #19, is this:
1. Belief in God…is common to almost all people of every era.
In Part 5, I argued that Argument #19 is UNSOUND, because premise (1) of that argument is FALSE.
In this post, I was planning to evaluate another key premise of Argument #19, namely premise (3c).
However, I have been struggling for the past few days to understand Kreeft’s presentation and defense of Argument #19, and I just now realized that my difficulty making sense out of what Kreeft wrote was caused primarily by an ambiguity in premise (1). So, I need to revisit my interpretation of premise (1) and my evaluation of (1) as well.
SOME HISTORICAL BACKGROUND
I have been aware that the phrase “I believe in X” is ambiguous at least since back when I began studying critical thinking and philosophy in the early 1980’s. I think I probably was aware of the ambiguity of this phrase even in my Evangelical Christian days, back in the 1970’s. So, when I read premise (1) of Argument #19, I immediately recognized that this premise makes use of a potentially ambiguous phrase: “Belief in God…”
However, I thought nothing of this potential ambiguity, because the Argument from Common Consent has always been based on a factual generalization about the belief that God exists.
In a recent paper on the Argument from Common Consent, the philosopher Thomas Kelly characterized the argument this way:
In its crudest and least sophisticated form, the Common Consent Argument for the Existence of God runs as follows:
(Premise) Everyone believes that God exists.
(Conclusion) God exists.
So stated, the argument is not exactly an overwhelming one, suffering as it does from the twin defects of transparent invalidity and the having of an obviously false claim as its sole premise. In a slightly less crude form, the premise of the argument is that almost everyone, or the great majority of humankind, believes that God exists. More generally, proponents of the argument contend that the prevalence of the belief that God exists is itself evidence for the truth of that belief.
“Consensus Gentium: Reflections on the ‘Common Consent’ Argument for the Existence of God” (p.1, emphasis added)
by Thomas Kelly, Princeton University
This is an ancient argument that goes back at least to the time of Plato. Plato’s book Laws ( written 360 BCE) has a reference to this argument:
See Book X, 886, where Clinias appeals to the fact that “all mankind, both Greeks and barbarians, believe in them” as one way of proving the existence of the gods. (from footnote #1 in the above paper by Thomas Kelly).
When John Locke criticized the “Argument, drawn from Universal Consent”, he clearly understood the argument to claim that everyone believed that certain claims were true: “…that there were certain Truths, wherein all Mankind agreed…” (An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, Book I, Chapter II, Section 3). If the particular “truth” in question was that “God exists”, then the argument would have been based on the general premise that “all Mankind agreed” with the claim that “God exists”; in other words, an Argument from Universal Consent for the existence of God would have been based on the claim that “Everyone believes that God exists.”
The Christian theologian Charles Hodge was a defender of the Argument from Common Consent, and he understood the main factual premise of the argument to be about the belief that God exists:
…”men no more need to be taught that there is a God, than that there is such a thing as sin” (Systematic Theology, Vol. I, p.199) [quoted in the article “Common Consent Arguments For the Existence of God” by Paul Edwards, in The Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 2nd ed., Vol. 2, p.345, emphasis added]
Given the history of this argument, I made the reasonable assumption that Kreeft’s version of this argument would also be based on a factual generalization about the belief that God exists, and thus that the alternative meaning of “Belief in God…” was irrelevant and could be ignored. I was wrong.
THE AMBIGUITY OF PREMISE (1)
Argument #19 is either based on a FALSE generalization about the belief that God exists being nearly universal or else Kreeft has significantly altered the traditional Argument from Common Consent, so that it is no longer based on a general claim about the belief that God exists. In either case, it is critical to notice the ambiguity of the phrase “Belief in God…” and to determine how to interpret Argument #19 in view of that ambiguity.
When my daughters are struggling with math problems or with a writing assignment, I will often encourage them by saying “I believe in you! You can do this.” When I say this to them, I do NOT mean “I believe that you exist.” I mean something more like “I have faith in you. I believe that you are a smart and capable person.”
The expression “I believe in God” is ambiguous. It can mean: “I believe that God exists.” or it can mean: “I have faith in God. I trust in God. I am devoted to God.” Similarly, the opening words of the first premise of Argument #19 are ambiguous:
1. Belief in God…is common to almost all people of every era.
Here are two different possible interpretations of this premise:
1a. The belief that God exists is common to almost all people of every era.
1b. Trust in God and devotion to God is common to almost all people of every era.
There are a couple of lines of evidence that point to (1b) as the intended meaning of this premise.
First, in the paragraphs where Kreeft discusses Argument #19, he ALWAYS uses the preposition “in” when talking about belief related to God (except in stating the conclusion of this argument):
1. Belief in God…is common to almost all people in every era. (HCA, p.83, emphasis added)
…the vast majority of humans have believed in an ultimate Being… (HCA, p.83, emphasis added)
For believing in God is like… (HCA, p.84, emphasis added)
…given such widespread belief in him [God]…(HCA, p.84, emphasis added)
Many nonbelievers hold that belief in God is the result of childhood fears. (HCA, p.84, emphasis added)
Kreeft ONLY uses the word “that” in relation to belief concerning God in the conclusion of Argument #19, or when pointing to that conclusion:
4. Therefore it is most plausible to believe that God exists. (HCA, p.83, emphasis added)
It is most reasonable to believe that God really is there, given such widespread belief in him…
(HCA, p.84, emphasis added)
A second piece of evidence in support of interpretation (1b) is the following paragraph, which occurs about halfway through Kreeft’s discussion of Argument #19:
For believing in God is like having a relationship with a person. If God never existed, neither did this relationship. You were responding with reverence and love to no one; and no one was there to receive and answer your response. It’s as if you believe yourself happily married when in fact you live alone in a dingy apartment.
(HCA, p.84, emphasis added)
Believing THAT God exists is NOT like having a good relationship with a person.
As the book of James states, “You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe–and shudder.” (James 2:19, Revised Standard Version). Demons do NOT trust in God. Demons are NOT devoted to God. Demons are the enemies of God who live in rebellion against God. Demons, according to James, believe that God exists, but they don’t have a good “relationship” with God.
Clearly, in the above paragraph, Kreeft has in mind the sense of the phrase “believe in” that I have tried to capture in premise (1b). He has in mind the idea of trusting in and relying on God and being devoted and obedient towards God. He has in mind the idea of having a good or proper relationship with God.
PREMISE (1b) IS FALSE
In Part 5 of this series I argued that premise (1) was FALSE. In making my objection, I assumed that (1a) was the correct interpretation of (1), so I have already argued that (1a) is FALSE.
But we now have some significant evidence that indicates that (1b) is the assertion that Kreeft had in mind. Suppose that (1b) is the correct interpretation of premise (1) (or the best interpretation based on the available evidence from a careful reading of Kreeft’s exposition of this argument). Would this help Argument #19? It wouldn’t help in relation to my previous objection that this first premise is FALSE.
In order to worship or reverence God, one must first believe that God exists. In order to trust in God or become devoted to God, one must first believe that God exists. So, the number of people who have worshiped God or trusted in God or become devoted to God CANNOT be more than the number of people who have believed that God exists.
Furthermore, it is almost certain that some people who have believed that God exists did NOT worship God or trust in God or devote themselves to God, so it is almost certain that the number of people who have worshiped God or trusted in God or been devoted to God are FEWER than the number of people who have believed that God exists. Therefore, since (1a) is FALSE, it is clear that (1b) must also be FALSE.
No matter which interpretation we give to the ambiguous premise (1), the premise turns out to be FALSE, and thus Argument #19 is UNSOUND.