Two Dozen (Or So) Theistic Arguments

Lecture Notes by Alvin Plantinga


II. Half a dozen Epistemological Arguments

(J) The argument from positive epistemic status

Clearly many of our beliefs do have positive epistemic status for us (at any rate most of us think so, most of us accept this premise). As we have seen, positive epistemic status is best thought of as a matter of a belief's being produced by cognitive faculties that are functioning properly in the sort of environment that is appropriate for them. The easiest and most natural way to think of proper functioning, however, is in terms of design: a machine or an organism is working properly when it is working in the way it was designed to work by the being that designed it. But clearly the best candidate for being the being who has designed our cognitive faculties would be God.

This premise of this argument is only a special case of a much broader premise: there are many natural (nonartifactual) things in the world besides our cognitive faculties such that they function properly or improperly: organs of our bodies and of other organisms, for example. (Tony Kenny's design argument)

Objection: perhaps there is indeed this initial tendency to see these things as the product of intelligent design; but there is a powerful defeater in evolutionary theory, which shows us a perfectly natural way in which all of these things might have come about without design.

Reply: (1) is it in fact plausible to think that human beings, for example, have arisen through the sorts of mechanisms (random genetic mutation and natural selection) in the time that according to contemporary science that has been available? The conference of biologists and mathematicians ("Mathematical Challenges to the NeoDarwinian Interpretation of Evolution", ed. Paul Morehead and Martin Kaplan, Philadelphia, Wistar Institute Press); the piece by Houston Smith. The chief problem: most of the paths one might think of from the condition of not having eyes, for example, to the condition of having them will not work; each mutation along the way has to be adaptive, or appropriately connected with something adaptive. (2) There does not appear to be any decent naturalistic account of the origin of life, or of language.

(K) The Argument from the confluence of proper function and reliability

We ordinarily think that when our faculties are functioning properly in the right sort of environment, they are reliable. Theism, with the idea that God has created us in his image and in such a way that we can acquire truth over a wide range of topics and subjects, provides an easy, natural explanation of that fact. The only real competitor here is nontheistic evolutionism; but nontheistic evolution would at best explain our faculties' being reliable with respect to propositions which are such that having a true belief with respect to them has survival value. That does not obviously include moral beliefs, beliefs of the kind involved in completeness proofs for axiomatizations of various first order systems, and the like. (More poignantly, beliefs of the sort involved in science, or in thinking evolution is a plausible explanation of the flora a fauna we see.) Still further, true beliefs as such don't have much by way of survival value; they have to be linked with the right kind of dispositions to behavior. What evolution requires is that our behavior have survival value, not necessarily that our beliefs be true. (Sufficient that we be programmed to act in adaptive ways.) But there are many ways in which our behavior could be adaptive, even if our beliefs were for the most part false. Our whole belief structure might (a) be a sort of byproduct or epiphenomenon, having no real connection with truth, and no real connection with our action. Or (b) our beliefs might be connected in a regular way with our actions, and with our environment, but not in such as way that the beliefs would be for the most part true.

Can we define a notion of natural plausibility, so that we can say with Salmon that belief in God is just implausible, and hence needs a powerful argument from what is plausible? This would make a good section in the book. Here could argue that what you take to be naturally plausible depends upon whether you are a theist or not. (It doesn't have to do only with what seems plausible to you, or course) And here could put into this volume some of the stuff from the other one about these questions not being metaphysically or theologically neutral.

Patricia Churchland (JP LXXXIV Oct 87) argues that the most important thing about the human brain is that it has evolved; hence (548) its principle function is to enable the organism to move appropriately. "Boiled down to essentials, a nervous system enables the organism to succeed in the four F's: feeding fleeing, fighting and reproducing. The principle chore of nervous systems is to get the body parts where they should be in order that the organism may survive. . . . . . Truth, whatever that is, definitely takes the hindmost." (Self-referential problems loom here.) She also makes the point that we can't expect perfect engineering from evolution; it can't go back to redesign the basics.

Note that there is an interesting piece by Paul Horwich "Three Forms of Realism", Synthese, 51, (1982) 181-201 where he argues that the very notion of mind independent truth implies that our claims to knowledge cannot be rationally justified. The difficulty "concerns the adequacy of the canons of justification implicit in scientific and ordinary linguistic practice--what reason is there to suppose that they guide us towards the truth? This question, given metaphysical realism, is substantial, and, I think, impossible to answer; and it is this gulf between truth and our ways of attempting to recognize it which constitutes the respect in which the facts are autonomous. Thus metaphysical realism involves to an unacceptable, indeed fatal, degree the autonomy of fact: there is from that perspective no reason to suppose that scientific practice provides even the slightest clue to what is true. 185 ff.

(L) The Argument from Simplicity

According to Swinburne, simplicity is a prime determinant of intrinsic probability. That seems to me doubtful, mainly because there is probably no such thing in general as intrinsic (logical) probability. Still we certainly do favor simplicity; and we are inclined to think that simple explanations and hypotheses are more likely to be true than complicated epicyclic ones. So suppose you think that simplicity is a mark of truth (for hypotheses). If theism is true, then some reason to think the more simple has a better chance of being true than the less simple; for God has created both us and our theoretical preferences and the world; and it is reasonable to think that he would adapt the one to the other. (If he himself favored anti-simplicity, then no doubt he would have created us in such a way that we would too.) If theism is not true, however, there would seem to be no reason to think that the simple is more likely to be true than the complex.

(M) The Argument from induction

Hume pointed out that human beings are inclined to accept inductive forms of reasoning and thus to take it for granted, in a way, that the future will relevantly resemble the past. (This may have been known even before Hume.) As Hume also pointed out, however, it is hard to think of a good (noncircular) reason for believing that indeed the future will be relevantly like the past. Theism, however, provides a reason: God has created us and our noetic capacities and has created the world; he has also created the former in such a way as to be adapted to the latter. It is likely, then, that he has created the world in such a way that in fact the future will indeed resemble the past in the relevant way). (And thus perhaps we do indeed have a priori knowledge of contingent truth: perhaps we know a priori that the future will resemble the past.) (Note here the piece by Aron Edidin: "Language Learning and A Priori Knowledge), APQ October l986 (Vol. 23/ 4); Aron argues that in any case of language learning a priori knowledge is involved.)

This argument and the last argument could be thought of as exploiting the fact that according to theism God has created us in such a way as to be at home in the world (Wolterstorff.)

(N) The Putnamian Argument (the Argument from the Rejection of Global Skepticism)

Hilary Putnam (Reason Truth and History) and others argue that if metaphysical realism is true (if "the world consists of a fixed totality of mind independent objects", or if "there is one true and complete description of the 'the way the world is'") then various intractable skeptical problems arise. For example, on that account we do not know that we are not brains in a vat. But clearly we do know that we are not brains in a vat; hence metaphysical realism is not true. But of course the argument overlooks the theistic claim that we could perfectly well know that we are not brains in a vat even if metaphysical realism is true: we can know that God would not deceive us in such a disgustingly wholesale manner. So you might be inclined to accept (1) the Putnamian proposition that we do know that we are not brains in a vat (2) the anti-Putnamian claim that metaphysical realism is true and antirealism a mere Kantian galimatias, and (3) the quasi-Putnamian proposition that if metaphysical realism is true and there is no such person God who has created us and our world, adapting the former to the latter, then we would not know that we are not brains in a vat; if so, then you have a theistic argument.

Variant: Putnam and others argue that if we think that there is no conceptual link between justification (conceived internalistically) and truth, then we should have to take global skepticism really seriously. If there is no connection between these two, then we have no reason to think that even our best theories are any more likely to be true than the worst theories we can think of. We do, however, know that our best theories are more likely to be true than our worst ones; hence. . . . You may be inclined to accept (1) the Putnamian thesis that it is false that we should take global skepticism with real seriousness, (2) the anti-Putnamian thesis that there is no conceptual link between justification and truth (at any rate if theism is false), and (3) the quasi-Putnamian thesis that if we think is no link between the two, then we should take global skepticism really seriously. Then you may conclude that there must be a link between the two, and you may see the link in the theistic idea that God has created us and the world in such a way that we can reflect something of his epistemic powers by virtue of being able to achieve knowledge, which we typically achieve when we hold justified beliefs.

Here in this neighborhood and in connection with anti-realist considerations of the Putnamian type, there is a splendid piece by Shelley Stillwell in the '89 Synthese entitled something like "Plantinga's Anti-realism" which nicely analyzes the situation and seems to contain the materials for a theistic argument.

(O) The Argument from Reference

Return to Putnam's brain in a vat. P argues that our thought has a certain external character: what we can think depends partly on what the world is like. Thus if there were no trees, we could not think the thought there are no trees ; the word 'tree' would not mean what it does mean if in fact there were no trees (and the same for other natural kind terms--water, air, horse, bug, fire, lemon, human being, and the like, and perhaps also artifactual kind terms--house, chair, airplane, computer, barometer, vat, and the like.) But then, he says, we can discount brain in vat skepticism: it can't be right, because if we were brains in a vat, we would not have the sort of epistemic contact with vats that would permit our term 'vat' to mean what in fact it does. But then we could not so much as think the thought: we are brains in a vat. So if we were, we could not so much as think the thought that we were. But clearly we can think that thought (and if we couldn't we couldn't formulate brain in vat skepticism; so such skepticism must be mistaken.

But a different and more profound skepticism lurks in the neighborhood: we think we can think certain thoughts, where we can give general descriptions of the thoughts in question. Consider, for example, our thought that there are trees. We think there is a certain kind of large green living object, that grows and is related in a certain way to its environment; and we name this kind of thing 'tree'. But maybe as a matter of fact we are not in the sort of environment we think we are in. Maybe we are in a sort of environment of a totally different sort, of such a sort that in fact we can't form the sort of thoughts we think we can form. We think we can form thoughts of certain kind, but in fact we cannot. That could be the case. Then it isn't so much (or only) that our thoughts might be systematically and massively mistaken; instead it might be that we can't think the thoughts we think we can think. Now as a matter of fact we can't take this skepticism seriously; and, indeed, if we are created by God we need not take it seriously, for God would not permit us to be deceived in this massive way.

(P) The Kripke-Wittgenstein Argument From Plus and Quus (See Supplementary Handout)

(Q) The General Argument from Intuition.

We have many kinds of intuitions: (1) logical (narrow sense and broad sense):. the intuitions codified in propositional modal logic--if it could be the case that the moon is made of green cheese, then it is necessary that that could be so; moral, (2) arithmetical, set theoretical and mathematical generally, (3) moral, (4) philosophical (Leib's Law; there aren't any things that do not exist; sets don't have the property of representing things as being a certain way; neither trees nor numbers are neither true nor false; there are a great number of things that are either true or false; there is such a thing as positive epistemic status; there is such a property as being unpunctual; and so on.) You may be inclined to think that all or some of these ought to be taken with real seriousness, and give us real and important truth. It is much easier to see how this could be so on a theistic than on a nontheistic account of the nature of human beings.

At the Mississippi Philoso Association Meeting in Nov., l986, Robert Holyer read a paper nicely developing this argument, and referring to John Beversluis' book, who attacks the argument, but in a mean spirited way and not with much success. This argument along with Augustine's "Our hearts are restless til they rest in thee, O God."

A couple of more arguments: (1) the argument from the causal theory of knowledge: many philosophers think there is a problem with our alleged knowledge of abstract objects in that they think we can't know truths about an object with which we are not in the appropriate causal relation. They then point out that we are not in much of any causal relation with abstract objects, and conclude, some of them, that there is a real problem with our knowing anything about abstract objects. (e.g., Paul Benacerraf.) But if we think of abstract objects as God's thoughts, then he is in causal relation with them, and also with us, so that there should be no problem as to how it is that we could know something about them. (On the causal theory of knowledge, if you think of abstract objects as just there, and as not standing in causal relations, then the problem should really be that it is hard to see how even God could have any knowledge of them.)

There is another realism anti-realism argument lurking here somewhere, indicated or suggested by Wolterstorff's piece in the Tomberlin metaphysics volume. It has to do with whether there are really any joints in reality, or whether it might not be instead that reality doesn't have any joints, and there are no essential properties of objects. Instead, there is only de dicto reality (this could be the argument from de re modality) with all classifications somehow being done by us. Interesting. Also another topic for Christian philosophy.

Another argument, brought to my attention by Nick Wolterstorff: the Chomsky argument from language learning. look this us. Where does C say any such thing? And where exactly does it go? Does it go with the KW plus quus argument?

Another argument. Thomas Nagel, the view from nowhere 78ff. Thinks it amazing that there should be any such thing as the sort of objective thinking or objective point of view that we do in fact have. Perhaps it is really amazing only from a naturalist point of view. He says he has no explanation. Maybe you find it amazing, maybe you don't. (I'm not sure I see why it is amazing yet.) He argues cogently that there is no good evolutionary explanation of this: first, what needs to b explained is the very possibility of this, and second, supposed that is explained, he goes on to argue that evolution gives us no good explanation of our higher mental abilities. The question is whether the mental powers necessary for the making of stone axes, and hunter-gatherer success are sufficient for the construction of theories about sub atomic particles, proofs of Gödel's theorem, the invention of the compact disc, and so on. He thinks not. So he is really on to something else: not so much 'objective thinking' as higher mental powers involved in these striking intellectual accomplishments.

The evolutionary explanation would be that intellectual powers got started by going along for the ride, so to speak, and then turned out to be useful, and were such that improvements in them got selected when we came down from the trees. (At that point a bigger brain became useful (Don't whales have an even bigger one?). A sort of two part affair, the first part being accidental. So then the second part would be selected for survival value or advantage. But of course the question is whether this gives the slightest reason to think these theories have any truth to them at all. And he fails to mention the fact that all that really gets selected is behavior; there are various combinations of desire and belief that can lead to adaptive actions even if the belief is completely mistaken.

III. Moral arguments

(R) moral arguments (actually R1 to Rn)

There are many different versions of moral arguments, among the best being Bob Adams' favored version (in "Moral Arguments for Theistic Belief" in C. Delaney, Rationality and Religious Belief (Notre Dame). (1) One might find oneself utterly convinced (as I do) that morality is objective, not dependent upon what human beings know or think, and that it cannot be explained in terms of any "natural" facts about human beings or other things; that it can't ultimately be explained in terms of physical, chemical or biological facts. (2) One may also be convinced that there could not be such objective moral facts unless there were such a person as God who, in one way or another, legislates them.

Here consider George Mavrodes' argument that morality would be 'queer' in a Russellian or nontheistic universe (in "Religion and the Queerness of Morality" in Rationality, Religious Belief and Moral Commitment, ed. Audi and Wainwright.)

Other important arguments here: A.E Taylor's (The Faith of a Moralist) version, and Clem Dore's (and Sidgwick's) Kantian argument from the confluence of morality with true self-interest, some of the other arguments considered by Bob Adams in the above mentioned paper, and arguments by Hastings Rashdall in The Theory of Good and Evil and by W.R. Sorley, Moral Values and the Idea of God which we used to read in college.

(R*) The argument from evil.

Many philosophers offer an anti-theistic argument from evil, and perhaps they have some force. But there is also a theistic argument from evil. There is real and genuine evil in the world: evil such that it isn't just a matter of personal opinion that the thing in question is abhorrent, and furthermore it doesn't matter if those who perpetrate it think it is good, and could not be convinced by anything we said. And it is plausible to think that in a nontheistic or at any rate a naturalistic universe, there could be no such thing. So perhaps you think there is such a thing as genuine and horrifying evil, and that in a nontheistic universe, there could not be; then you have another theistic argument.

How to make this argument more specific? "what Pascal later called the 'triple abyss' into which mankind has fallen: the libidinal enslavement to the egotistical self: the libido dominandi, or lust for power over others and over nature; the libido sentiendi, or lust for intense sensation; and the libido sciendi, or lust for manipulative knowledge, knowledge that is primarily used to increase our own power, profit and pleasure." Michael D. Aeschliman "Discovering the Fall" This World Fall l988 p. 93.

How think about utterly appalling and horrifying evil? The christian understanding: it is indeed utterly appalling and horrifying; it is defying God, the source of all that is good and just. It has a sort of cosmic significance: in this way it is the other side of the coin from the argument from love. There we see that the deep significance of love can't be explained in terms of naturalistic categories; the same goes here. From a naturalistic perspective, there is nothing much more to evil--say the sheer horror of the holocaust, of Pol Pot, or a thousand other villains--than there is to the way in which animals savage each other. A natural outgrowth of natural processes.

Hostility, hatred, hostility towards outsiders or even towards one's family is to be understood in terms simply of the genes' efforts (Dawkins) to ensure its survival. Nothing perverted or unnatural about it. (Maybe can't even have these categories.) But from a theistic pint of view, deeply perverted, and deeply horrifying. And maybe this is the way we naturally see it. The point here is that it is objectively horrifying. We find it horrifying: and that is part of its very nature, as opposed to the naturalistic way of thinking about it where there really can't be much of anything like objective horrifyingness.

In Peter Berger, A Rumor of Angels, around page 53, there is an argument that certain kinds of human wickedness are so appalling that they require something like hell.

The thing to do here: take an example of some really horrifying evil-- the Dostoyevsky thing from one of the visual aids.

On a naturalistic way of looking at the matter, it is hard to see how there can really be such a thing as evil: (though of course there could be things we don't like, prefer not to happen): how could there be something that was bad, worthy of disapproval, even if we and all other human beings were wildly enthusiastic about it? On naturalistic view, how make sense of (a) our intuition that what is right or wrong, good or evil does not depend upon what we like or think) and (b) our revulsion at evil--the story the prophet Nathan told David, at the sort of thing that went on in Argentina, Stalin's Russia, Hitler's Germany (Sophie's Choice); the case mention in Surin's book about the young child who was hanged and remained living for half an hour after he was hanged; the fact that the Nazis were purposely trying to be cruel, to induce despair, taunting their victims with the claim that no one would ever know of their fate and how they were treated; the thing from Dostoyevsky, who says that beasts wouldn't do this, they wouldn't be so artistic about it. compare dying from cancer to the sort of horror the Germans did: the second is much worse than the first, somehow, but not because it causes more pain. It is because of the wickedness involved, a wickedness we don't see in the cancer. An appalling wickedness.

There seems to be a lot more to it than there could be on a naturalistic account of the matter. So the naturalist says: evil is a problem for you: why would a good God permit evil, or all that evil? But evil also a problem for him: There really isn't any evil, (or isn't any of a certain sort, a sort such that in fact we think there is some of that sort) on a naturalistic perspective. (This needs working out, but I think there is something to it.)


IV. Other Arguments

(S) The Argument from Colors and Flavors (Adams and Swinburne)

What is the explanation of the correlation between physical and psychical properties? Presumably there is an explanation of it; but also it will have to be, as Adams and Swinburne say, a personal, nonscientific explanation. The most plausible suggestion would involve our being created that way by God.

(T) The argument from Love

Man-woman, parent-child, family, friendship, love of college, church, country--many different manifestations. Evolutionary explanation: these adaptive and have survival value. Evolutionarily useful for male and female human beings, like male and female hippopotami, to get together to have children colts) and stay together to raise them; and the same for the other manifestations of love. The theistic account: vastly more to it than that: reflects the basic structure and nature of reality; God himself is love.

(U) 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.

(V) The Argument from Play and enjoyment

Fun, pleasure, humor, play, enjoyment. (Maybe not all to be thought of in the same way.) Playing: evolution: an adaptive means of preparing for adult life (so that engaging in this sort of thing as an adult suggests a case of arrested development). But surely there is more to it than that. The joy one can take in humor, art, poetry, mountaineering, exploring, adventuring (the problem is not to explain how it would come about that human beings enjoyed mountaineering: no doubt evolution can do so. The problem is with its significance. Is it really true that all there is to this is enjoyment? Or is there a deeper significance? The Westminster Shorter Catechism: the chief end of man is to glorify God and enjoy him (and his creation and gifts) forever.

(W) Arguments from providence and from miracles

(X)C.S. Lewis's Argument from Nostalgia

Lewis speaks of the nostalgia that often engulfs us upon beholding a splendid land or seascape; these somehow speak to us of their maker. Not sure just what the argument is; but suspect there is one there.

(Y) The argument from the meaning of life

How does thought about the meaningfulness or meaninglessness of life fit in? Sartre, Camus, Nagel.

(Z) The Argument from (a) to (Y)

These arguments import a great deal of unity into the philosophic endeavor, and the idea of God helps with an astonishingly wide variety of cases: epistemological, ontological, ethical, having to do with meaning, and the like of that.