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I was not a savvy book buyer then (why didn’t I read the first chapter before buying it, I don’t know), but when I got it home, I was sorely disappointed (you can read the Amazon reviews to get a sense of why). The book was written as an imaginary dialogue between two friends, one a believer, the other a “skeptic”–if you could call him that–which was supposed to model how certain knock-down, drag-out arguments for the Christian faith were supposed to go. It was awful. First, the sorts of answers I was looking for weren’t there; second, I felt as though I had to learn how to manipulate a conversation to go the way the author did and then remember how to deploy a form of reasoning I did not fully understand; third, I realized that if I was ever going to learn how to talk confidently with smart friends, I would have to learn some philosophy, something I thought would be impossible.
Many thanks to Baker Books for supplying a copy to review!
As the subtitle explains, God or Godless? is the product of one atheist, John W. Loftus, and one Christian, Randal Rauser, taking on “twenty controversial questions.” Both Loftus and Rauser are popular bloggers who inspire vigorous disagreement among their respective readers, and it appears their book is the result of a friendship that was formed through occasionally sparring with one another. While both have published book-length arguments in the past, this volume exhibits a pattern only bloggers can appreciate. Each author submits ten theses, which they either affirm or deny with 800 words of prose. They are then allowed 150 words of rebuttal, which is then followed by another 50 words of closing statements. Every exchange reads like a blog post with two follow-up comments. The skill of each author is on display as they both jam a lot of content into a short space, and for that I can appreciate how much I have to learn about the art of dialoguing with few words to spare (sadly, this introduction is already over 200 words).
Instead of giving a blow by blow account of each argument, I want to make a few observations about the general strategy of the contenders along with some commendations and criticisms of what I took be the heart of their main arguments.
As an extension of their 2010 Harvard Law Review article, Girgis, George, and Anderson (G&G&A, hereafter) articulate the most careful, secularly grounded argument against the view that the members of the same-sex can be married. This is because their argument rests on a a metaphysical claim: marriage is constituted by the permanent and exclusive union of only two complementary members of the natural kinds male and female for the purpose of sharing a domestic life that is conducive to the rearing of children. In this view, which they call the “conjugal view” of marriage, procreation is not necessary for the marriage to exist; but since the marital act is oriented towards reproduction, and any resulting children find their natural habitat and flourish best in families of which their biological parents are stable parts, the state has vested interest in protecting it. The fact that the unions of two men or two women inherently lack this biological fecundity is sufficient to disqualify them as marriages. If we were to legalize same-sex marriage, we would embrace what the authors call the “revisionist view” or marriage: the union of (two?) adults who commit to loving and caring for each other as well as sharing the burdens and benefits of domestic life; the requirements of permanence and exclusivity depend on the mutual consent of the partners.
G&G&A begin their book with a story about a pair of wealthy socialites from New York who met, fell in love, and got married. They were a man and a woman who each felt they had met their soul mate. But in order to tie the knot, they had to divorce their spouses! This, says G&G&A is the outcome of the revisionist view of marriage, and it is a blight on an institution that historically has been understood as a conjugal relation. Even in ancient Greek culture when same-sex relationships were acceptable, the union of one man and one woman for life was thought to be the norm. But why? According to G&G&A, it is because the act of coitus was the only sex act that was truly marital; in it male and female become one reproductive unit oriented towards the creation of children. Again, since same-sex couples cannot engage in coitus, they cannot exemplify the type of bodily union necessary for marriage.
In the manner of explaining why she lost faith in the pro-life movement, Libby Anne says this sort of argument made an impression on her:
Due to hormone imbalances, genetic anomalies, and a number of unknown factors, between 50 percent and 75 percent of embryos fail to implant in the uterus and are passed with the monthly menstrual flow. If we agree with pro-life advocates that every embryo is as morally valuable as an adult human, this means that more than half of humans immediately die. This fact provides pro-life advocates with an opportunity to follow through on their convictions. Surely, a moral response to a pandemic of this magnitude would be to rally the scientific community to devote the vast majority of its efforts to better understanding why this happens and trying to stop it. Yet the same pro-life leaders who declare that every embryo is morally equivalent to a fully developed child have done nothing to advocate such research. … Even if medicine could save only 10 percent of these embryos — and we don’t know because no one has cared enough to ask — it would be saving more lives than curing HIV, diabetes, and malaria combined. One could say that this massive loss of human life is natural, and therefore, humans are under no obligation to end it. But it is not clear why the same argument could not be used to justify complacency in the face of AIDS, cancer, heart disease, and other natural causes of human death.
The above paragraph is from Jonathan Dudley’s Broken Words: The Abuse of Science and Faith in American Politics. I think this is an interesting argument; it can be stated more formally like this:
 If the pro-life movement were morally consistent, it would advocate for research to mitigate the loss of human life naturally lost in the womb [premise].
 The pro-life movement fails to do this [premise].
 Therefore, pro-life movement is morally inconsistent [MT 1, 2].
Suppose this is right. Then the pro-life movement should make an effort to advocate for research to be morally consistent. But so what? That just says something about what the pro-life movement fails to do; it doesn’t say anything about the truth of what the pro-life movement believes about the human embryo, which is what ultimately matters.
This is a synopsis on Peter van Inwagen’s ‘Ontological Arguments.‘ Van Inwagen’s thesis is that the ontological argument as articulated by Plantinga is defective, because it fails to give a good reason to believe that the properties of existing in all possible worlds (N) and being concrete (C) are compatible properties. This is not a metaphysical claim; it is an epistemological one: we cannot find out whether N and C are compatible. This is because the tools of conceptual analysis are inadequate for the job; it is like trying to determine whether four sevens appears in the variegated decimals of π just by analyzing the concept of the number. Nor does it appear that we have any other method for determining the compatibility of N and C. Without justifying the conjunction of N and C, Plantinga’s maximally great being cannot be justifiably conceived as existing in all possible worlds. (And even if it could be shown that N and C are compatible, says van Inwagen, it does not follow that the properties of Plantinga’s maximally great being are essential; for example, the being could be morally good in some possible worlds and evil in others).
For van Inwagen, the ontological argument is true only if it is ontic. That is, it must be the sort of argument that proceeds from a premise that claims that a set of properties is such that there exists something that exemplifies that set of properties. Thus we can formalize van Inwagen’s argument like this:
- Either N and C are compatible or they are not.
- If they are not, then we can deduce a contradiction from an argument with the premise ‘Something has both N and C’ and show that the conjunction of the other premises in the argument are necessarily true.
- But we can’t do that.
- If they are, then we can form an argument with the premise ‘Something has both N and C’ and show that its conjunction with the other premises in the argument is possibly true.
- But we can’t do that either.
- Therefore, we cannot show N and C are compatible or incompatible (1, 2, 3, 4, 5).
- If we cannot show N and C are compatible or incompatible, then we are not in a position to know whether premise 1 is true.
- Therefore, we are not in a position to know whether premise 1 is true (6, 7).
- If we are not in an epistemic position to know premise 1 is true, then we cannot determine that the ontological argument is ontic and it fails as a piece of natural theology.
- Therefore, we cannot determine that the ontological argument is ontic and it fails as a piece of natural theology (8, 9).
UPDATE: For what it’s worth, I think this is a powerful criticism. It largely depends on whether you think conceivability is a reliable guide to possibility; I am predisposed by other works by van Inwagen to think it is not.
Here is a synopsis of Stephen Davis’ article ‘The Ontological Argument’ in this book. Davis’ thesis is that the ontological arguments as articulated by Anselm and Plantinga can be vindicated in the face of Michael Martin’s criticisms, because, as he sees it, Martin fails to understand what Anselm and Plantinga mean by “greatness.” With respect to Anselm, there is a sense in which “exists” adds to the greatness of the thing that has it, and the sense of greatness he has in mind is one that denotes power, ability, and freedom of action. If something has this sense of greatness, then to exist in reality is greater than to not exist in reality. If such a thing only exists in the mind, then it has less power, ability and freedom of action than it would have if it existed in reality. With respect to Plantinga, “unsurpassable greatness” (UG) means that for any being B that instantiates UG, B is such that if B exists in any possible world W, then it is necessary that B exists in W; and if W is accessible to the actual world, then B also exists in the actual world.
Here are some Lenton haikus:
Why the long face?
At Lenten service
I am supposed to feel grief
Rather talk to friends
How hard could it be?
Gave up late TV for Lent
Been only three days
Awake. Read. Eat. Write.
Study wearies the soul. Sleep.
And dream of lost love
A Mind Full of Ashes
The knowledge of God
Lost in Eden’s wind
Taste and See
Call me religious
I am not spiritual
Give me bread and wine