Bait and switch


While searching online for a book as part of my research for my own book, I stumbled across another one with the provocative title How to Be an Atheist: Why Many Skeptics Aren’t Skeptical Enough by someone named Mitch Stokes whom I had not heard of before. But what struck me was that a book that, at least from its title, purported to be advocating atheism advertised a foreword by J. P. Moreland, someone whom I had heard about.

I knew that Moreland was a theologian and a strong proponent of intelligent design. In fact, I had met him at a conference organized by the intelligent design people when I was invited to be on a panel that was to debate ID advocates like Michael Behe and Jonathan Wells, and Moreland was part of their ID team. This was in the days when the ID people thought that their view could win in debates. So I was surprised as to why Moreland was providing a foreword to a book promoting atheism.

But I soon learned why by reading Moreland’s foreword and Stokes’ introduction. It turns out that Stokes, far from being an atheist, is actually pretty religious. Moreland excitedly informs us that Stokes “has a BS and MS in mechanical engineering (with five patents!), so he understands science well”, which right away tells you something about Moreland’s ability to judge expertise in science. Stokes then went on to get an MA in religion and another MA and PhD in philosophy where one of his dissertation supervisors was theologian Alvin Plantinga, a strong proponent of the ontological argument for his god’s existence. This argument tries to prove god’s existence using pure reason alone. Here it is:

The first, and best-known, ontological argument was proposed by St. Anselm of Canterbury in the 11th. century C.E. In his Proslogion, St. Anselm claims to derive the existence of God from the concept of a being than which no greater can be conceived. St. Anselm reasoned that, if such a being fails to exist, then a greater being—namely, a being than which no greater can be conceived, and which exists—can be conceived. But this would be absurd: nothing can be greater than a being than which no greater can be conceived. So a being than which no greater can be conceived—i.e., God—exists. [emphasis in original-MS]

I kid you not. That is the basic argument though through the ages various people such as Plantinga have added bells and whistles to it. As I have said many times before and argue (shameless plug coming up!) in my forthcoming book The Great Paradox of Science, the existence of any entity is an empirical question and such questions cannot be answered using pure reasoning without any supporting data. Just because you can conceive of something or because something is possible to exist cannot lead to any firm empirical conclusions as to its existence.

What this book is apparently arguing is that if atheists turn the skeptical attitude on atheism and stop taking science so seriously but instead take it seriously “for the right reasons”, we will become convinced of the truth of god’s existence. Stokes’ main argument seems to be that old chestnut that if there is no god, then there can be no objective moral standards. But since there are objective moral standards, there must be a god. QED. As Stokes says in his preface:

I’ll argue that if naturalism is true, then there are no [objective moral] standards. Most atheists, however, will be loath to agree. Their reluctance is understandable; but if they’re serious about their skepticism – about following reason where’er it leadeth – they’ll reluctantly agree.

Or at least I would if I were an atheist.

In other words, a religious believer has written a book giving advice to atheists that if one is a true atheist, one cannot help but become a religious believer. Got that? If so, you are far ahead of me. The only people who might persuaded by this line of reasoning are those who find the ontological argument convincing.

Comments

  1. Reginald Selkirk says

    … though through the ages various people such as Plantinga have added bells and whistles to it.

    see: “polishing a turd”

    But since there are objective moral standards…

    1) Are there? Do elaborate.
    2) So of course since under naturalism there are no objective standards, that means there are no moral standards at all. I think he skipped a step somewhere…

  2. Reginald Selkirk says

    Tabby Lavalamp is onto another bait and switch prominent in Christian apologetics: the conflation of the Christian God of the Bible with the omni-God of Western philosophy.

  3. says

    Just because you can conceive of something or because something is possible to exist cannot lead to any firm empirical conclusions as to its existence.

    We can say that the idea exists.
    That’s the way I usually like to deal with the people who fall for St Anselm: you’re confusing the idea of something, with the thing. The idea of unicorns exists – in your head – but that doesn’t mean unicorns exist.

  4. OverlappingMagisteria says

    The Ontological Argument is a fun one and I’ve seen it better presented where the error is not so obvious. But by “fun” I mean that its one of these puzzles where the proof is obviously wrong, but its a bit of a challenge to put your finger on exactly where the mistake is. It’s a nice little logical puzzle, kind of like this Math one:

    x = y.
    Then x2 = xy.
    Subtract the same thing from both sides:
    x2 – y2 = xy – y2.
    Dividing by (x-y), obtain
    x + y = y.
    Since x = y, we see that
    2 y = y.
    Thus 2 = 1, since we started with y nonzero.
    Subtracting 1 from both sides,
    1 = 0.

  5. Jackson says

    I can’t decide if I find the ontological argument more or less convincing than presuppositional apologetics.

    Premise: God exists.
    Conclusion: Therefore, God exists.

  6. Jean says

    If God is the greatest being then he/she/it can destroy anything and nothing can destroy him/her/it. But that means he/she/it can’t exist because he/she/it cannot destroy him/her/itself at the same time as not being destroyed.

  7. Reginald Selkirk says

    OverlappingMagisteria #5: … but its a bit of a challenge to put your finger on exactly where the mistake is.

    Your first mistake is assuming there is only one mistake. A number of convincing rebuttals have been offered to the ontological argument, attacking various aspects of it. The very first rebuttal was Guanilo’s perfect island

  8. says

    “But since there are objective moral standards, there must be a god. QED.”

    And, let me guess, they confuse/conflate concepts of “objective” with “absolute” because that seems to be what apologists always do when it comes to this. Which, I will note, I find quite sad coming from engineers who should know better. They should know, for example, about cost-benefit analysis where one can objectively evaluate costs and benefits, but there may not be any absolutely correct answer.

  9. OverlappingMagisteria says

    Jackson # 6:

    Premise: God exists.
    Conclusion: Therefore, God exists.

    I think the Presuppositional is a bit more than that…. I usually hear it as:

    Either God does or doesn’t exist
    If God doesn’t exist then some “Big Question about the World” (usually either morality or grounding of logic) is hard to answer.
    If we presuppose God’s existence then we can answer “Big Question”
    Therefore God exists.

    A bit, but not much, better.

    Reginald #8 Yes! there are many ways that the ontological can be interpreted and refuted.

  10. mnb0 says

    @1: “Because it’s reeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeally easy to conceive of a greater being than that monster.”
    Really, Tabby? A monster greater, ie more evil than the god of the OT? I tend to agree with Dawkins on this one.

    “a being than which no greater can be conceived, and which exists”
    At one hand: a being than which no more benevolent can be conceived, and which exists”.
    At the other hand: a being than which no more malevolent can be conceived, and which exists.
    According to the ontological argument god must be both beings and that’s self-contradicting.

  11. Matt G says

    I love it: defining God into existence! Poof!

    The reason you can’t see the elephant behind that sapling is because elephants are very good at hiding behind saplings….

  12. Matt G says

    In my opinion, the raping of children is a major violation of morality. The funny thing is, those who claim that there ARE objective moral standards don’t seem to agree. Or don’t seem to think anything should be done to those who perpetrate these acts.

  13. says

    I thought the church’s main argument went along the lines of “God exists and I’ll beat you to a bloody pulp until you agree with me, then I will let you die.”

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