«Russell’s China Teapot Peter van Inwagen St Thomas Aquinas has presented five well-known arguments for the existence of God, but he has also ...»
Department of Philosophy
The University of Notre Dame
Notre Dame, Indiana 46556-4619
Russell’s China Teapot
Peter van Inwagen
St Thomas Aquinas has presented five well-known arguments for the
existence of God, but he has also presented—although not, of course,
endorsed—two arguments that might be described as “arguments to the
contrary” or as “objections to belief in God.” Summa Theologiae, I, q.2,
a.3 (the “Five Ways” article, the article whose topic is indicated by the heading “Whether God exists”) opens with those two arguments. The first, Objection 1, is a version of the argument from evil—the argument that since the existence of evil is incompatible with the existence of God,
God does not exist. The second Objection is as follows:
Objection 2. It is, moreover, superfluous to suppose that what can be accounted for by a few principles has been produced by many.
But it seems that everything we see in the world can be accounted for by other principles, without supposing God to exist. For all natural things can be accounted for by one principle, which is nature; and all voluntary things can be accounted for by one principle, which is human reason or will. Hence, there is no need to suppose that God exists.
Here is a formulation of the essential point of this argument in language the modern mind may find more congenial than Thomas’s talk of “principles”:
2 The only reason we could have for believing in God would be that it was necessary to postulate his existence to account for some observed fact or facts. But we can explain everything we observe without appealing to any supernatural agency. Hence, there is no reason to believe that God exists.
Now, if you think about it, the conclusion of this argument is very unlike the conclusion of Objection 1, the argument from evil. The conclusion of the argument from evil is that God does not exist. In the article “Whether God exists,” Thomas—unsurprisingly—defends the position that God exists. It is therefore easy to see why the argument from evil counts as an “objection” to the position he defends in that article: its conclusion is the logical contradictory of that position. But the conclusion of the argument presented in Objection 2 is not that it is false that God exists. It is, rather, that there is no reason to believe that God exists, which is not even logically inconsistent with the proposition that God exists. I take it that Thomas was not confused on this point. I take it that he was well aware that the conclusion of Objection 2, unlike the conclusion of Objection 1, is not the proposition that God does not exist. I take it that by calling the second argument an “Objection,” he meant only that its conclusion, if true, constitutes a serious objection to belief in the existence of God.
And it is easy to see why Thomas would suppose that if there were indeed no reason to believe that God existed, that would constitute a serious objection to belief in God. For here is a very plausible general principle about belief, a principle that applies not only to religious or
theological beliefs, but to beliefs about any subject-matter:
3 For any proposition whatever, if you have no reason to accept or assent to or believe that proposition, then you should not accept or assent to or believe that proposition.
That this principle is “very plausible” can be easily seen by looking at a couple of illustrative examples. You, you my audience, have no reason to believe that my wife’s first name is Margaret. And, obviously, you should not believe that my wife’s first name is Margaret. (Which is not to say that you should believe that her name isn’t Margaret.) Or consider the proposition that there is intelligent life elsewhere in the Milky Way galaxy.
Suppose you believe, rightly or wrongly, that you have no reason to think that there is intelligent life elsewhere in our galaxy. If indeed you have no such reason, then I’m sure that you will agree that you should not answer Yes to the question, “Is there intelligent life elsewhere in the galaxy?” Your answer should rather be, “I don’t know” or “I have no idea” or “Maybe so, maybe not.” (Or, at any rate you should give an answer along those lines unless you believe that you have some reason to think that there isn’t intelligent life elsewhere in the galaxy.) And, of course, the proposition that God exists is no exception to this general rule. If your friend Alice has no reason to believe that there is a God, then she should not give an affirmative answer to the question, “Is there a God?” All this is, as I have said, very plausible. We could sum it up in these words: People who concede that they have no reason to think there is a God should not be theists. And people who concede that they have no reason to think that there is a God and no reason to think there isn’t a God should be neutral agnostics—a neutral agnostic being someone whose answer to the question “Is there a God?” would be “I don’t know what to think about that” or “Does God exist?—I have no idea” or “Maybe 4 there is a God and maybe there isn’t—it’s beyond me.” And I believe Aquinas agreed with me on these points. He, of course, would have denied that those people who said that they had no reason to believe that there was a God were right; he would have said that they did have reasons, and very good ones, for believing in the existence of God. (This would not be in virtue of philosophical proofs like the Five Ways, which are not accessible to everyone. See, rather, St Paul’s letter to the Romans 1:20 and the famous words of Psalm 19: “The heavens declare the glory of God and the firmament showeth his handwork.”) But he would have granted that if, per impossibile, there were someone who had no reason to believe that there was a God, that person should not be a theist, should not believe in God. Or, to put the point impersonally, if there is no reason to think that God exists, then belief in the existence of God is an untenable position.
My topic in this lecture is a certain argument that proceeds from the premise that there is no reason to think that God exists to a conclusion that is much stronger than the conclusion that Aquinas and I would say was the only conclusion that can be derived from this premise.
I will call this stronger conclusion strongly negative agnosticism. I distinguish strongly negative agnosticism from atheism. Atheism is of course the thesis that God does not exist or that there is no God. An atheist, therefore, is someone whose answer to the question whether God exists is a simple and unqualified No. Strongly negative agnosticism is the thesis that, while there is perhaps some chance that God exists, it is a very remote chance—very remote indeed. A strongly negative agnostic’s answer to the question whether God exists would be something along the lines of “Almost certainly not” or “I suppose I can’t absolutely rule out the 5 possibility of there being a God, but I don’t take it at all seriously” or “Well, speaking theoretically, I wouldn’t say that the probability of his existence was 0, but then, speaking theoretically, I wouldn’t say that the probability that I shall be trampled to death by a water buffalo in Times Square on March 11th, 2015 was 0. I regard the probability of the existence of God as like the probability of the “water buffalo hypothesis” as essentially 0—as 0 for all practical, if not for all theoretical, purposes.”
Let us sum the position of the strongly negative agnostic in this phrase:
the probability of the existence of God is “essentially 0.” And there are, I assure you, people who accept both the following
(1) There is no reason to believe that God exists (2) Any one who accepts (1) should conclude that the probability of the existence of God is essentially 0.
My topic, I say, is proposition (2). I want to look at the reasoning that has been presented in support of this proposition. Before I do that, however, I must say something about what that reasoning is not. It is not, it cannot be, an application of the following general principle to the case of belief in
the existence of God:
Where p is any proposition or thesis or hypothesis whatever: If someone believes that there is no reason to think that p is true, that person should conclude that the probability of p is essentially 0.
I am sure that the proponents of (2) do not mean to support their thesis
are no fools), and if they did appeal to this principle, they would be fools.
They would be fools because the principle is obviously and glaringly invalid. Its invalidity can be seen from the following simple example.
Suppose you are to be dealt a single card from a well-shuffled standard deck of playing cards, and that you have no information about the card you will be dealt beyond what is contained in that statement.
Then you have no reason to believe that the card will be black: of all the reasons you have for believing anything, none of them is a reason to believe that the card will be black. Will you conclude that the probability of your being dealt a black card is essentially 0? The question answers itself, and its answer is, “No, of course not—I should conclude that it is 0.5.” Or, if you are suspicious of simple, contrived examples of this kind (the kind philosophers like), here is a more realistic example: You have no reason to think that the President is, at this very moment, engaged in a telephone conversation with the Secretary of Health and Human Services.
Should you conclude that the probability that such a conversation is now occurring is essentially 0? No, of course not. (You may indeed want to say that the probability of this proposition is rather low—for, after all, there are hundreds of things that, for all any of us knows, the President could be doing right now, and we should therefore assign a low probability to the hypothesis that he’s doing any particular one of them.
Nevertheless, it would certainly be wrong to assign to this proposition a probability as low as the one we assign to the proposition that he is at this moment, oh, let’s say, being mauled by a tiger.
But if the reasoning that is supposed to support proposition (2) is
not an appeal to this principle, what is it? The reasoning—at any rate it is 7
the only reasoning I have ever seen that has been used to support (2)—is an appeal to analogy. The analogy is of the kind that philosophers call an intuition pump. In
outline, it works like this. The proponents of proposition (2) ask their audience to consider a certain thesis or hypothesis. This thesis is usually an existential thesis—that is a thesis to the effect that a thing or object or person of a certain description exists.
They point out, first, that there is no reason to believe the thesis in question and, secondly, that the probability of that thesis is essentially 0.
They point out that the thesis that God exists is like their thesis in the first of these two respects: there is no reason to think that it is true. (In saying that they “point this out,” I don’t mean to imply that I myself suppose that there is no reason to believe that God exits. I mean only that they suppose that there is no reason to believe that God exists and are calling the attention of their audience to this supposed fact.) They conclude, or invite their audience to conclude, that the thesis that God exists is like their thesis in the second respect as well: to believe it would be as absurd as it would be for any of them to believe that he or she will be trampled to death by a water buffalo in Times Square on March 11th, 2015.
Here are three theses that have been used for this purpose: that Santa Claus exists; that the Great Pumpkin rises from the pumpkin patch every Halloween; that the earth and every living thing that inhabits it has been created by an invisible flying monster made of spaghetti and meatballs.
(If you are unfamiliar with this last hypothesis, I invite you to Google “Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster.”) For example, the “Santa Claus” version of the argument goes like this:
There is no reason to think that Santa Claus exists 8 Similarly, there is no reason to think that God exists Everyone should believe that the probability of the existence of Santa Claus is essentially 0.
Similarly, everyone should believe that the probability of the existence of God is essentially 0.
Sometimes this argument, or an argument that is essentially the same as
this, is stated in words reminiscent of Aquinas’s Objection 2:
It is reasonable for six-year-olds to take seriously the possibility of the existence of Santa Claus. But, as children get older, they see that what they had taken to be the consequences of his actions (the nocturnal appearance of Christmas presents and disappearance of milk and cookies) can be more economically accounted for by an appeal to the actions of their parents—beings in whom they already believe—, and they will gradually realize that there is therefore no reason to suppose that Santa exists. They may or may not at some point discover positive reasons to think that Santa does not exist (probably in the form of sheepish confessions by parents). Even if they don’t, the realization that there is no reason to believe that he does exist will be sufficient eventually—somewhere around the age of eight in most cases—to convince any rational person that the probability of his existence is essentially 0.
There is a serious defect in this argument, however, and it is a quite avoidable defect. It is this: there are all sorts of reasons to believe that there is no Santa Claus—and no Great Pumpkin and no invisible flying Spaghetti Monster, either. The most powerful of these reasons can be summed up in these words: those things are physically impossible. One would have supposed that there could be no better evidence for the non
existence of something than that its existence would violate the laws of 9