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Undermining the Argument from Common Consent

James R. Henderson

There are many alleged proofs of god's existence, but one of the most mystifying (in the sense that people claim that it is convincing) is the Argument from Common Consent (hereafter, ACC). The ACC has a long history, going back as far as Plato, and goes something like this. In all cultures at all times, there has been widespread belief in god or gods. Since it is unlikely that all of these people from all of these civilizations have been similarly deluded, it is more likely than not that a god or gods exist. Peter Kreeft, a professor of philosophy at Boston College, states the ACC formally in the following manner:

  1. Belief in God—that Being to whom reverence and worship are properly due—is common to almost all people of every era.
  2. Either the vast majority of people have been wrong about this most profound element of their lives or they have not.
  3. It is most plausible to believe that they have not.
  4. Therefore it is most plausible to believe that God exists.[1]

There are a couple of points that should be made before proceeding. First, the ACC does not attempt to show that one version of theism or another is correct. If one is generous with Kreeft and allows "God or gods" and "Being or beings," polytheistic Vikings are represented in premise 1 along with monotheistic Muslims (Kreeft cannot do without this generosity since premise 1, as he states it, is false). There is no mention of omnipotence, omniscience, omnibenevolence, or any other characteristic of any particular formulation of theism. This is a strength of the ACC in that a vast number of believers with mutually exclusive beliefs may be squeezed under one umbrella (it is also a weakness, as we shall see). Second, the ACC does not demonstrate the existence of god or gods deductively (nor do the supporters of the ACC claim that it does). Rather, it is an inductive "plausibility argument," one whose conclusion, given the premises, is more likely than its denial. Kreeft is clear on this point: "[I]f God does not exist, then these [feelings of awe and reverence] have never once—never once—had a real object. Is it really plausible to believe that?"[2] Even so, the ACC is problematic.

There is an obvious objection to this line of reasoning: The majority is often wrong. Almost every child has heard a parent say, "If all your friends jumped off a bridge, would you do it too?" Anatole France may have summed up the bandwagon fallacy best: "If fifty million people say a foolish thing, it is still a foolish thing."[3] Given this, it may seem like the ACC needs no response at all, but there are those, Kreeft included, who continue to defend it (one Jared Moore actually finds this "the most convincing argument" for god's existence![4]). Since the ACC is still seriously advanced, it deserves to be dealt with on the terms of those advancing it. Kreeft addresses the bandwagon objection in terms of the widespread belief (before the scientific revolution) that the sun orbits the earth.

If people were wrong about the theory of heliocentrism, they still experienced the sun and earth and motion. They were simply mistaken in thinking that the motion they perceived was the sun's. But if God does not exist, what is it that believers have been experiencing? The level of illusion goes far beyond any other example of collective error. It really amounts to collective psychosis.[5]

That is, when people (almost all people from almost every place and in almost every time) believed the sun circled the earth, they experienced the earth, sun, and relative motion between the two. They simply were mistaken in believing the earth was stationary and the sun was not. Still, there is an earth, there is a sun, and they are in motion with respect to one another, so the referents of these beliefs actually do exist. Geocentrists were merely wrong about the details. Similarly, it cannot be the case that Christianity and Islam are both correct, but it could be the case that there is a god or gods. It is just that (at least) one of these groups is incorrect as far as the particulars go. Both Christians and Muslims (and billions of theists of various stripes throughout history) experience the love of god and return this love, so it is unlikely that the object of their love is nonexistent altogether. Succinctly, then, Kreeft claims that theistic theories are most likely approximately correct in that 'god' genuinely refers to an existing object.

Kreeft is seeking to immunize the ACC against the charge of logical fallacy by showing that it is a legitimate appeal to the masses. Insofar as this goes, his example is a good one. It does not, however, tell the whole story, though debunking the ACC does require more than a cry of "Argumentum ad Populum!" An argument parallel to Kreeft's formulation of the ACC can be formed in the following way. Let us travel in the way-back machine to 1800 and consider

  1. Belief in the moral correctness of slavery—that it is morally correct to buy, sell, and treat people as if they were property—is common to almost all people of every era.
  2. Either the vast majority of people have been wrong about this most profound moral issue or they have not.
  3. It is most plausible to believe that they have not.
  4. Therefore it is most plausible to believe that slavery is morally permissible.

It may be tempting, in an effort to blunt the effectiveness of this example, to counter that people now know better about slavery, but the same could be said of Kreeft's example. If one example is ruled out on these grounds, the other must be also. This is a red herring, however. Any useful instantiation of the form of the ACC will likely involve dated beliefs since by definition one using a current belief would be widely accepted and therefore not serve as a test for the argument itself. Now, what is it that the supporters of slavery were "experiencing" that led them to their conclusion? It cannot be that they were merely experiencing the differences between different groups of people (which there surely are) because this does not justify enslaving one group or another. Indeed, if it did, we would still be practicing slavery since we still recognize, for instance, the difference in skin pigmentation of different racial groups. The only way one can think it is permissible to beat, breed, and bequeath another person is to believe that that person is somehow less human than oneself. Sadly for Kreeft, this cannot be experienced because of the simple fact that no person, no matter what race, creed, or color, is less human than another. How is it, then, that there was near universal acceptance of the moral acceptability of slavery? It is plain that, in fact, the vast majority of humans was deluded as to the question of slavery in exactly the way the ACC is designed to show they could not have been. Collective psychosis seems not out of the question.

This is not the only area where the weakness of Kreeft's defense of the ACC may be exposed. Until 1900, almost everyone in every culture believed women should not be granted a voice in government. How does one make sense of this? Once more, it cannot come from merely recognizing there are differences between people of the different genders. It only makes sense if one takes women to be less entitled to representation than men, that women are less than men. There is simply no ground in reality for this "experience." The same holds true for the denial of economic rights to women, denial of the right to serve in various roles for homosexuals, and widespread superstition involving lucky or unlucky numbers, objects, or actions. It should be clear by now that it is not uncommon at all for mass delusion, Kreeft's "collective psychosis," to affect the vast majority of people, even cutting across cultural and temporal lines.

It will not be missed that none of the counterexamples offered thus far involve scientific errors like the widespread belief in the luminiferous ether or the belief in the principle that heavy bodies necessarily fall faster than light bodies. Let us turn to those now. There was, in fact, evidence (of an indirect sort) that supported the notion that the universe is bathed in a sea of ether. The idea that light was a wave phenomenon was very well supported, and for a wave to propagate, something must be doing the "waving." Light does, after all, travel through space, so there must be a medium, ether, through which (and by which) it travels. New evidence came in, however, and belief in the ether became untenable. It is not the case that the vast majority of scientists were insane until around the opening of the 20th century; they were simply working with incomplete data. The same holds true for falling bodies. Scientists were not hallucinating when they saw feathers fall to the earth more slowly than lead bars. This actually happened. It is just that vacuum tubes were not lying around all over the place when Galileo came onto the scene (of course, Galileo didn't use a vacuum tube to make his point, but one certainly would have been useful in demonstrations; anyone seeing the popular experiment involving a penny, a feather, and a vacuum tube cannot help but be convinced of the rightness of Galileo's position). When one analyzes evidence, the best one can do is examine the evidence available. If the data form an incomplete set, it doesn't mean the investigator is mentally unwell when he or she reaches an incorrect conclusion. Even assuming the best evidence available and perfect reasoning, however, it is still possible to postulate the existence of an entity that has no basis in reality: Ether has no extant referent.

It has been shown that the majority of people can be irrational with respect to very important issues in their lives and the lives of others. This delusion can lead them to postulate the existence of things that have no referent in reality. It has also been shown that perfectly sane (and extraordinarily intelligent) people, following the best evidence available, may also postulate non-existent things. Theories involving vital energy, phlogiston, and the luminiferous ether show that this is common in the history of science. Not all cases of postulation of entities in science are unsuccessful, of course. Kreeft's example is a trivial demonstration of this point. Further, there are surely such things as forces in the world, and there is surely such a thing as gravity. These are both referred to by Newton, though he, like the geocentrists and their stationary earth, was wrong on the details (it is virtually certain that Einstein didn't get it exactly right either). The question, then, is whether the postulation of god falls into the former (referentially unsuccessful) camp or the latter (referentially successful) camp. For Kreeft's argument to work, he needs to establish that the god postulate is more like the gravity postulate and less like the phlogiston postulate (that is, that 'god' is more likely than not to refer to an actual entity). He has done nothing of the sort, and simply adding this proposition as a premise to his argument has, as Russell said, all the advantages of theft over honest toil.

It is hard to see how Kreeft might make such a case. When scientific realists claim that the best scientific theories are referentially successful, they base this on something concrete: "The predictive success of a theory is evidence for the referential success of its central terms."[6] Hilary Putnam famously said, "Realism is the only philosophy that does not make the success of science a miracle."[7] Appealing to predictive success is not an option for Kreeft, however. After all, he has included all religions involving a deity or deities in his argument, and the claims of these myriad religions are mutually inconsistent: The predictions run in all different directions. If Kreeft wants access to predictive power, he must choose only one religion upon which to base his argument (Kreeft is a Roman Catholic, so he would presumably be inclined to go with that version of Christianity), but then the first premise of his argument would have to read "Belief in the Christian God as envisioned by Catholics—that Being to whom reverence and worship are properly due—is common to almost all people of every era." This is plainly false. How else could he separate the referential wheat from chaff? Upon what would such a distinction between the former and latter sets of cases be based? Will he insist that the existence and nonexistence of god (and forces, and gravity) are directly testable? If so, why use the ACC to begin with? In such a case, he could simply verify god's existence (or nonexistence) experimentally. On top of this, all properly controlled scientific investigations of claims of supernatural phenomena point against anything other than natural explanations, and the lack of evidence that should be present if a god or gods are acting in the world only makes his task more difficult. He can't simply claim the god hypothesis is obviously different from the phlogiston or vital energy hypothesis because it isn't different in any obvious way (nor, one may argue, is it obviously different from the force or gravity hypothesis). This must be demonstrated, and it is difficult to imagine how that could be done. If it cannot be established that the god hypothesis is more likely than not to be genuinely referential, there is no reason to think that the ACC carries any weight at all in establishing the existence of god. The god hypothesis might be parallel to the hypotheses regarding phlogiston, vital energy, inequality of the races, and inequality of the genders, and there would be no reason to think that it isn't.

Notes

[1] Kreeft, P. Twenty Arguments for the Existence of God (1994). http://www.peterkreeft.com/topics-more/20_arguments-gods-existence.htm#19 (accessed 7 March 2012).

[2] Kreeft, P. Twenty Arguments for the Existence of God (1994). http://www.peterkreeft.com/topics-more/20_arguments-gods-existence.htm#19 (accessed 7 March 2012).

[3] France, A. Quotes.net (2011). http://www.quotes.net/quote/6199 (accessed 7 March 2012).

[4] Moore, J. Does God Exist: Examining the Arguments (2009). http://voices.yahoo.com/does-god-exist-examining-arguments-3027390.html?cat=34 (accessed 7 March 2012).

[5] Kreeft, P. Twenty Arguments for the Existence of God (1994). http://www.peterkreeft.com/topics-more/20_arguments-gods-existence.htm#19 (accessed 7 March 2012).

[6] Leplin, J. Scientific Realism. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1984, 2 (emphasis added).

[7] Putnam, H. Mathematics, Matter and Method: Philosophical Papers, volume 1. London: Cambridge University Press, 1975, 73.


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Published:
  2012-05-10

Categories:
  Atheism, Philosophy, Theism, God

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