Don’t Reject Theistic Arguments Too Quickly!

Scep­tics often reject the­is­tic argu­ments by point­ing out that they “don’t prove God.”[1] Per­haps the the­ist has just argued that there’s a per­sonal uncaused cause, or a per­sonal designer of the uni­verse, or a nec­es­sar­ily exis­tent per­fectly ratio­nal mind, or what-have-you; in any case, the sceptic’s response is to explain how the theist’s argu­ment doesn’t estab­lish that God exists. “How do you know there’s just one uncaused cause? How can you be so sure that the designer of the uni­verse is benev­o­lent towards us?” And so on, and so forth.

As it stands, I don’t find this kind of objec­tion to the­is­tic argu­ments par­tic­u­larly com­pelling. A cou­ple of rea­sons come to mind.

First, that a sin­gle argu­ment on its own fails to estab­lish the­ism does not entail that the argu­ment fails to sup­port the­ism in some impor­tant way. I’d sug­gest that the­is­tic argu­ments should be under­stood not as stand­alone argu­ments for the exis­tence of God but rather as argu­ments in sup­port of the exis­tence of God or some other aspect or aspects of a the­is­tic story. Taken this way, a cumu­la­tive case based on the­is­tic argu­ments may estab­lish the­ism even if each one of the argu­ments, taken indi­vid­u­ally, fails to estab­lish theism.

Sec­ond, that a sin­gle argu­ment on its own fails to estab­lish the­ism does not entail that the argu­ment fails to estab­lish some other non-trivial con­clu­sion—per­haps even a con­clu­sion that is incom­pat­i­ble with nat­u­ral­ism or some other non-theistic worldview.

For exam­ple, if there’s a per­sonal cause of the nat­ural world, nat­u­ral­ism is false and should be rejected. If the uni­verse is designed, then—for all we know—the designer or design­ers involved might be inter­ested in human beings, might hold them respon­si­ble for cer­tain actions, and might offer the pos­si­bil­ity of eter­nal life (among other things). So to sim­ply dis­miss a the­is­tic argu­ment dis­in­ter­est­edly with a state­ment to the effect that it “doesn’t prove God” seems to me rather strange.

To wrap up, then: I think that the­is­tic argu­ments are best under­stood as argu­ments in sup­port of some aspect or aspects of the the­is­tic world­view, and that a full-blown case for the­ism prob­a­bly should be based on a cumu­la­tive case that takes into account those the­is­tic argu­ments; and it’s my view that the­is­tic argu­ments, even if they don’t estab­lish the­ism on their own, may still estab­lish very inter­est­ing con­clu­sions that war­rant fur­ther inves­ti­ga­tion and con­sid­er­a­tion. (I sup­pose that sim­i­lar things might rightly be said about athe­is­tic argu­ments, too.)

—Thomas Larsen.

  1. In this post, I’ll use “the­ism” to refer to the hypoth­e­sis that there exists a being who fits the title “God,” “athe­ism” to refer to the hypoth­e­sis that there does not exist a being who fits the title “God,” and “God” as a title for a per­sonal agent who (uniquely) is all-knowing and all-powerful, per­fectly free and per­fectly good, nec­es­sar­ily exis­tent and the ulti­mate cre­ator of every­thing that is con­tin­gently exis­tent (includ­ing the nat­ural world). []

Originally posted on my blog.

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About Thomas Larsen

Thomas is a Bachelor of Computer Science student at Monash University in Melbourne, Australia, with a little philosophy on the side. His interests include Chris­t­ian the­ol­ogy and apolo­get­ics, phi­los­o­phy of reli­gion, science, and technology.