Famously, Christian apologist Alvin Plantinga once posted a lecture guide online outlining dozens of arguments for the existence of God (which was built-out a little bit in a book, and will evolve soon into an edited volume of its own). I’m often pointed to it and asked “What about these!?” Okay. Let’s do that.
This will be a three-part series, which you will find handy to bookmark and consult whenever you are met with one of these silly things. First up, Plantinga’s ontological and metaphysical arguments (A through I). Next up, his epistemological arguments (J through Q). And finally, his moral and other arguments (R through Z). I’ll link those in when they go up. For now, part one:
I. Half a Dozen (or so) Ontological (or Metaphysical) Arguments
- A. Argument from Intentionality
Thoughts and sentences can’t be about things unless God exists. Huh? Yeah. It’s a struggle to make sense of this one. But it’s ultimately science illiteracy. Cognitive science knows quite well what intentionality is and how it exists, even in computer programs. It is not a mystery (see Barresi, and Harman, and Dreyfus). AI couldn’t be programmed today without knowing how to link its propositional content to the outside world.
The usual argument from intentionality is better described by Victor Reppert, and I’ve already thoroughly exposed why it’s ignorant. Here is my summary (and pay very close attention to the exact wording):
The fact that one thought is about another thought (or thing) reduces to this … : (a) there is a physical pattern in our brain of synaptic connections physically binding together every datum that we say is “about” an object of thought (let’s say, Madell’s “Uncle George”), (b) including a whole array of sensory memories, desires, emotions, other thoughts, and so on, and (c) our brain has calculated (by various computational strategies) that this physically connected set of data describes elements of that object (Uncle George), (d) which of course means a hypothesized object (we will never really know directly that there even is an Uncle George, so we only “predict” his existence based on an analysis, conscious and subconscious, of a large array of data, which means our brain-circuits include a physical measure of confidence in our brain’s calculation that there is an Uncle George), and (e) when our cerebral cortex detects this physical pattern as obtaining between two pieces of data (like the synaptic region that identifies Uncle George’s face and that which generates our confidence that someone with that face lives down the street), we “feel” the connection as an “aboutness” (just as when certain photons hit our eyes and electrical signals are sent to our brain we “feel” the impact as a “greenness”).
So, when we hold the image of George’s face in our minds, we “feel” the physical connection this face-datum has to other data, such as the datum regarding our high level of confidence in George’s having a body outside our brain and residing down the street. And notably, we know this connection can be physically broken or destroyed: there are people who, after physical damage to the brain, can no longer recognize faces, even though they see every detail perfectly well, and can otherwise remember everything else about the person in question. Indeed, some people who have had their brain’s hemispheres cut in two can recognize faces with one eye but not the other! Thus, for them, the face data is there, it has not been destroyed, but since the other hemisphere’s connection to it has been physically severed, its half of the cerebral cortex can no longer “feel” that such visual data is “about” anything, much less their uncle. That seems to be pretty strong evidence that “aboutness” is the perception of a physical connection between synaptic patterns in the brain, and not some mysterious Platonic power implanted by God.
Although Plantinga’s notes seem to confuse this question—of how propositions can have the property of intentionality—with the question of how propositions can even exist (in a formal philosophical sense). Which is quite another question altogether. “Many have thought it incredible,” Plantinga says, “that propositions should exist apart from the activity of minds.” So, he asks, “How could they just be there, if never thought of?” Well. They aren’t. As even Aristotle would have corrected him on thousands of years ago: propositions that haven’t yet been thought, only potentially exist. They don’t actually exist. Plantinga apparently doesn’t understand the difference between potential and actual. He’d be a lousy physicist. In any event, I’ve already refuted that argument, too.
- B. Argument from Collections (Sets)
Right out of the gate Plantinga gets Dumb and Dumber. Sets can’t exist unless God does! What say?
[T]here are far [too] many sets for them to be a product of human thinking together; there are many sets such that no human being has ever thought their members together… That requires an infinite mind—one like God’s.
Facepalm. “Reality to Plantinga: you need to learn the difference between actual and potential. For Christ’s sake (literally, in your case).” How can there be unthought-of sets? Because they only exist potentially. Not actually. Meanwhile the things those sets, when thought, collect, are either actual things…or not. The set of all real fire-breathing dragons is empty. Unless there’s a real fire-breathing dragon somewhere. In which case the only thing that must exist for that set not to be empty, is a fire-breathing dragon. No God is needed. And if there happen to be exactly two and a half fire-breathing dragons (one of them having recently half-eaten the other), there still exist two and a half fire-breathing dragons, even when no mind exists to contemplate that fact and categorize it as a set.
What makes me sad for the human race, is that Plantinga isn’t the only philosopher who is this naive. Christopher Menzel actually tries to defend this silly argument (in The Argument from Collections). Please read Penelope Maddy before even thinking he’s making any sense.
- C. Argument from Numbers & Properties
Why, gosh, “if there were no minds, there would be no numbers” and yet “there are too many of them for them to arise as a result of human intellectual activity,” so it must be God who thinks them all! This is just as super dumb. Nevertheless, Tyron Goldschmidt attempts to defend this medieval nonsense in The Argument from Natural Numbers. I already covered this a couple days ago.
First, of course, he’s confusing numbers with quantities. Numbers are human-invented words, created to refer to quantities. Quantities exist without minds. Numbers are what minds invent in order to refer to those quantities. Second, he’s confusing potential with actual, again. It is certainly the case that no one has ever thought of some number [n], where [n] can be, let’s say, any possible number in the set of all natural numbers. But it remains the case that once you define “natural numbers,” every possible number in that set exists potentially. It exists as a conditional: “if you keep adding 1 to [x] eventually you will reach [n]” is true for any [x] and [n], when [x] and [n] are natural numbers. At no point does any mind ever have to think of or write down [n], for that conditional statement to be true. Nor does an [n] quantity of anything ever have to actually exist. It only has to potentially exist. Hence, “if you keep adding 1 apple to [x] apples, eventually you will have [n] apples” is always true even if there is only one apple left in the universe and it just rotted. And it’s true simply by virtue of how reality works, and how you’ve defined your terms. No mind is needed. All you’re doing is describing what can exist in the world, if that world meets certain conditions that you chose to assume it will have.
The same goes for properties. They, also, are either actual or potential. And thus will exist exactly as such, if they exist at all, even in a universe with no minds in it, and even if never experienced or thought of by any mind. I never have to mash a lump of clay into a cube for that clay to potentially be a cube. Nor does any mind have to exist for that clay to have the properties of a lump, or a cube—neither actually, nor potentially. Because accidental collisions can mash the clay into a cube even when no minds exist. The potential for the clay to be a cube never requires a mind. Nor do the properties of that cube require a mind (like, having six flat surfaces and eight pointy bits). See my full discussion of how all quantities and properties exist, either actually or potentially, without any mind needed to ever notice them, in Sense and Goodness without God III.5.4, pp. 124-34. But if you’re smart enough, you’ll realize, it’s all the same as why Morals Can Be Both Invented and True and All Godless Universes Are Mathematical.
- D. Argument from Counterfactuals
Because counterfactuals require minds to think them, and infinitely many counterfactuals are true, God must exist. Sigh. No, you doof. “Infinitely many counterfactuals are true” is simply a statement about potential, not actual, computation. Nevertheless, missing yet again the difference between potential and actual, this ridiculous argument is foolishly defended by Alexander Pruss (Counterfactuals, Vagueness, and God). It gets wrong what propositions even are: statements about models. Once we know what propositions are, how some can be counterfactually true is no mystery. No Megaghost needed. Let me walk you through some examples so maybe you’ll get how it works.
Given certain events that did not occur in the Star Wars saga but logically could have, Princess Leia would have been Luke Skywalker’s father. Yep. I can lay out a sequence of events whereby that would be true (and all the beliefs to the contrary stated in the series by various characters are false). Indeed, I could even lay out a sequence of events that would be consistent with every piece of canon yet presented to the public. Yeah. That one would be wild. Yet nevertheless fact—in that counterfactual set of circumstances. Does that mean God had to have existed to have thought of that before I could think of it? No. It’s just a computation performed on a model: we have a model (the Star Wars canon); and we have a goal-set (to get the proposition “Princess Leia is Luke Skywalker’s father” to be true without negating any other propositions in the canon describing fact rather than belief in that fictional universe as so-far modeled). All we have to do is run a computation to find a set of propositions that meets the goal-set. Does that mean that that set of propositions had to actually exist before that? No. It only had to potentially exist.
That’s why I know, if I run pell-mell into the wall next to me, I’ll injure myself; because if I had run pell-mell into the wall next to me, I would have injured myself. God does not have to exist for that counterfactual to be true. I simply model the scenario in my head and run the model: I know what happens when I run pell-mell into things; I know what my wall is made of and would do to me. The output of the “sim” I ran is thus “I’d be injured right now.” I didn’t tap God’s mind for that. I just tapped my experience (of walls and running and my susceptibility to injury), and set the parameters of the model I wanted to test (my colliding pell-mell with a wall), and ran an analysis. That’s how a robot could learn how its own legs worked without anyone even telling it it had legs, much less anything about those legs. It randomly made up counterfactuals, and tested them until it discovered the ones that instead proved factual. It certainly wasn’t Talking to God.
It’s not as if God had blinked out of existence that day, the robot somehow would have been unable to figure out its legs, “because all the counterfactuals were gone.” Or if, had God forgotten to think of what would happen if I ran into a wall, that that would prevent me having figured out what would happen if I ran into a wall. The whole notion is preposterous. And anyone who thinks it isn’t, is really verging on sporting a tinfoil hat.
- E. Argument from Physical Constants
By which Plantinga means a standard fine tuning argument. We already know that doesn’t work. Fine tuning is actually evidence against the existence of a God. Because only a godless universe requires fine tuning. Gods don’t have any use for it. So, while all godless universes ever observed will be finely tuned; most universes a God would be likely to make wouldn’t even have physical constants. Much less a need to tune them.
- F. Argument from Teleology
Or what Plantinga calls the Naive Teleological Argument: “the beauty, order and structure of the universe and the structure of its parts strongly suggest that it was designed.” In fact, all the other shit that’s true about it, strongly suggests it wasn’t. Christian apologetics is always about leaving evidence out; evidence that, when put back in, completely reverses the conclusion they attempted to reach.
Beauty is something we adapted to appreciate; it doesn’t exist outside our brains (more on that in my last entry in this series, when we get to his Argument from I Think You’re Sister’s Pretty). But order and structure is inevitable in every likely universe selected at random. Because in any random array of vast size, elements of order are statistically unavoidable. For instance, if you roll a pair of dice a million times, you’ll generate the orderly sequence 123456 well more than once. No intelligent design involved.
So what we should expect to see in a godless universe, is a few orderly things amidst a vast sea of chaos. And lo and behold, that’s what we see. The universe started in near complete chaos with very little order or structure. The chaos that, being chaos, wasn’t stable enough to stick around, boiled away billions of years ago. What’s left is what by chance accident could last. It’s called natural selection. And it’s natural, because it always happens. Even in universes undesigned and ungoverned by any intelligence. So in fact, the kind of order and structure we see in this universe, being exactly the sort we should expect to see in any godless universe but not what we expect in a well-designed one, is evidence against there being a god. Just as for fine tuning.
“But wait,” you might say, “doesn’t the Second Law of Thermodynamics say the universe must have started with more order than there is now?” Ah. Now you might start to notice the semantic trick apologists pull on you. That’s a completely different sense of order. It refers to the availability of energy (such that it can effect changes on the system). Not such things as physical constants, visible structures like galaxies, complex entities like uranium atoms, etc. In reality, a galaxy and an atom are both a product of a reduction of order in the universe in this special sense, because entropy had to increase, just to make galaxies and uranium exist. In fact, so much energy had to be wasted just to make galaxies and atoms, that now all that spent energy is just a bunch of irretrievable junk and barely visible background noise (e.g. black holes and the cosmic microwave background).
Plantinga can’t say “Well, most of the energy in this universe is a chaotic disordered mess now, therefore God must have made it!” That would be the exact opposite of a teleological argument. In fact, most of the universe is a chaotic disordered mess. Very little of it is well-ordered in any sense Plantinga means. Which is indeed exactly what we should expect to see in a randomly generated “zillion dice-rolls” universe; it’s not what an intelligently designed universe should look like. It’s actually what an un-designed universe would look like. So either you mean by “order” what Plantinga surely means (e.g. “order and structure” in the sense of galaxies and atoms), in which case the universe didn’t start with that order at all, and what of it that exists now is just the inevitable cook-off of random events working on a chaos; or you mean by “order” an initial cache of available energy, which didn’t contain any “order and structure” in the sense of galaxies and atoms.
So, if you mean not what you think is order and structure (like galaxies and atoms), but simply a lot of as-yet-unused energy, then you aren’t asking where “order and structure” came from; you are asking where the available energy came from that eventually randomly boiled away into that order and structure. But if all you mean is “Where did all that available energy come from?” then you are not asking a teleological question anymore, but a cosmological one. And science already has lots of plausible theories for our universe’s initial low entropy state—a state that did not contain anything Plantinga would consider “order and structure” (like galaxies and atoms). All it contained was a shit-ton of highly-concentrated but largely-amorphous heat.
For example, Chaotic Inflation will inevitably produce random pockets of low entropy that will expand into universes. Which increase in entropy ever after. No God needed. In fact, that this universe will return to that state, just by random chance, is a 100% statistical inevitability. Because every nonzero probability approaches 100% on an infinite timeline. Which means our Big Bang might simply have been a Boltzmann Big Bang in a prior cooked-off universe (see The God Impossible). Again, no God needed. And many more theories exist. What do all these godless theories predict we will observe now? A universe almost entirely disordered. Which is exactly the universe we observe. Does Plantinga’s God Hypothesis predict that? No.
- G. Biological Design
Plantinga just mentions here what he calls “Tony Kenny style” design arguments. By which I assume he means this. Which is simply the scientifically illiterate claim that science can’t explain the origin of life or human languages. Kenny also alludes to the illiterate claim that natural selection “cannot be used to explain the origin of species” because “one of the starting points of explanation by natural selection is the existence of true breeding populations, namely species.” He should have taken some science classes. But I think what Plantinga means by referencing Kenny, is Old Earth Creationism and Guided Evolution (as Kenny accepted the evidence for an ancient earth and evolution). That at least escapes all the most ridiculous attempts to deny obvious facts. It then becomes just a tamer “okay, species evolved, but you need God in there somewhere” variety of pseudoscience.
The usual biological design arguments of this kind (distilled most recently into “irreducible complexity” arguments, because they know they’ve lost on every other ground) has been so soundly refuted they really need to give up on it already (e.g. no peer reviewed research has ever uncovered a single instance of irreducible complexity in the required sense). See my treatment of the biological design argument in The End of Christianity (pp. 284-89), which covers both the origin of life and the evolution of life. The bottom line is, the evidence in both cases actually argues against a god, not for one. As for Kenny’s scientifically illiterate musings on the evolution of language, let’s just leave that to actual scientists who study the evolution of language. Not total amateurs who haven’t read a word of it.
- H. Standard Ontological Argument
Here Plantinga just says “The Ontological Argument.” And moves on. Actually, there are tons of ontological arguments. Because they keep being proved ridiculous; so each time, someone has to come along and make the argument even more convoluted to try and hide the mistake. But in the end, all ontological arguments make the same mistake, called an “Existential Fallacy.” You just have to find where in its convoluted array of confusing premises the apologist has hidden that fallacy. Although, it’s also fun to just use the exact same argument to prove ridiculous things. Because we like to laugh at theists who are so stupid they fall for this shit.
The stupidity started with something like this:
- God is (by definition) the greatest being conceivable.
- A being that actually exists is (by definition) greater than one that doesn’t.
- If a being that actually exists is greater than one that doesn’t, then the greatest being conceivable must actually exist.
- But no being can be greater than God.
Therefore, God actually exists.
But that means…
- The Goddess Aphrodite is (by definition) the sexiest woman conceivable.
- All else being equal, a woman who actually exists is (by definition) sexier than one who doesn’t.
- If a woman who actually exists is sexier than one who doesn’t, then the sexiest woman conceivable must actually exist.
- But no woman can be sexier than Aphrodite.
Therefore, the Goddess Aphrodite actually exists.
Wow. I’m looking forward to meeting her!
What’s going wrong here is the existential fallacy. The propositions “a woman who exists is sexier than one who doesn’t” and “a being that exists is greater than one that doesn’t” are the same as “a unicorn has more horns than a horse.” The proposition is true. Yet in no way entails unicorns exist. In other words, all these things would be true, if the thing in question actually existed. A real Aphrodite would be sexier than an imaginary one. But if there is no Aphrodite, then obviously she can’t actually be sexier. To get the point, here’s a more obvious existential fallacy:
- All unicorns are animals.
Therefore, some animals are unicorns.
The missing premise is that “unicorns exist.” Without that premise, the set of all real unicorns is empty, and since an empty set has no members, it can’t have any members in an overlapping set either (like the set of “all animals”). Only a superset of “real and imaginary animals” will include unicorns; but that’s not usually what the word “animals” means. And in any event, once you admit it means that, you can’t get unicorns to exist by correctly classifying them as animals.
Here is how Alvin Plantinga hides the fallacy:
- A being has maximal excellence in a possible world W if it is omnipotent, omniscient and wholly good in W.
- A being has maximal greatness if it has maximal excellence in every possible world
(and by definition that which is true in every possible world is necessarily true).
- It’s possible there is a being that has maximal greatness.
- If it’s possible for something to be necessarily true, then that something is necessarily true.
Therefore it’s necessarily true that an omniscient, omnipotent and perfectly good being exists.
The existential fallacy is hidden in Premise 2: “A being has maximal greatness if it is omnipotent, omniscient and wholly good in every possible world.”
Notice the word “if.” Yeah. Missed it at first, didn’t you? Either Plantinga means (a) such a being must exist in every possible world in order to have maximal greatness, or (b) anything that had those properties would be maximally great in that world if it existed there. But if he means (a), then he is begging the question (by assuming in Premise 2 that a maximally excellent being does exist in every possible world, i.e. assuming God necessarily exists, then using that premise to prove God necessarily exists…tada!). And if he means (b), then he is assuming that a being that only exists conceptually in all possible worlds actually exists in all possible worlds—when in fact only the concept of God necessarily exists in all possible worlds; not an actual God. Of course, even the claim that “the concept of God” exists in all possible worlds is not credible. But even that aside, either way, you have to circularly assume God actually exists in all possible worlds, in order to get the conclusion that he does. In reality, no matter how amazing he would be, there are possible worlds he doesn’t exist in. In fact, maybe all of them.
Some might want to point out that Premise 4 is bullshit, too. Yes, that’s been noted. And Plantinga has convoluted ways of trying to talk his way around that. But really, it can only be true that something is “possibly” a logically necessary truth in an epistemic sense. And that can’t ever get you to it being necessarily true. In fact, literally everything is “possibly” necessarily true. It’s possible that my existence is logically necessary. I can’t really prove it’s not. It’s likewise possible that all the canonical facts of Star Wars can’t be realized in any possible universe (as I suggest is the case in The God Impossible). But just because that might be logically necessarily the case, doesn’t mean it is logically necessarily the case. Saying it’s “possible” is merely a way of saying “I don’t know if it’s logically necessary or not.” But in this case, Plantinga has hidden a second existential fallacy in his ontological argument, by confusing “possible” as an assertion of ignorance with “possible” as an assertion of existence. Either way, it’s existential fallacies all the way down.
- I. The Something Rather than Nothing Argument
Only a God can explain why there is something rather than nothing? Nope. There are lots of other ways to explain it that are more parsimonious. After all, “God” is a whole lot more than nothing; so why is there a god rather than nothing? “Because God necessarily exists!” “That would only be true if God necessarily exists…so, does he?” “Yes! Look at this fancy ontological argument I have!” “Existential fallacy in Premise 2.” “Shit…wait, let me try rewording it; I’m sure I can make it work.” “It’s been thousands of years now. No one has made it work. You’re as likely to prove God necessarily exists as Jesus is to return from the Heavens.” Q.E.D.