The Krueger-McHugh Debate: Theism or Atheism (2003)

Christopher McHugh

 

First Rebuttal by Christopher McHugh

In my opening statement, I defended a mystical concept of God that is very different from the one that Krueger has chosen to attack in his opening arguments. Consequently, I can concede Krueger's opening statement in its entirety, and still maintain my belief in God. In order to make the debate interesting, however, I will offer direct refutations of each of Krueger's arguments, and show that they fail on their own terms. I will also explore better versions of some of the arguments that Krueger has presented, so as to forestall any appeal to such arguments in an effort to support Krueger's case.

The Presumption of Atheism Argument

I agree with Krueger that extraordinary claims require very strong evidence in order to be justifiably believed, but I disagree that belief in the existence of God counts as an extraordinary claim. Contrary to what Krueger says, belief in the existence of the supernatural is so intimately connected to our common sense experience that it has permeated all cultures at all times. It is also the case that a lot of our common sense beliefs entail some form of theism without many of us even realizing it. For example, consider that the actions of free-willed beings cannot be reduced to the interactions of deterministic processes (like chemical reactions), or even to alleged quantum indeterminism (for such purported indeterminism is still limited by the laws of probability, but free will is not limited in this way). If we take the common sense stance that we do have free will, then we must conclude that the ultimate substance of reality is something like a free will too, for the existence of our free will cannot be explained in terms of the blind interactions of non-free substances. Therefore, there is a God (at least in the sense of there being a free will as the ultimate causal substance). This basic form of theism is entailed by the common sense belief that we have free will, and is therefore very far from being an extraordinary claim. Of course, atheists may attempt to deny that we have free will, but this seems to me to be an extraordinary claim of the most extreme kind, for we can directly experience our freedom through introspection. To conclude that our experience of freedom is an illusion is quite like asserting that all physical objects are an illusion.

In my opening statement, I presented a case for the logical necessity of the God of the mystics. Krueger will at least have to find a flaw in that proof before his "presumption of atheism" argument has any merit.

Other philosophers have put forth countless common sense reasons for thinking that there is a God. Krueger would at least have to show that these arguments fail. In this debate, he has not yet attempted to do so.

I conclude that Krueger has given us no reason to think that atheism is true with the "presumption of atheism" argument.

The Contradictory Properties Argument

Krueger attempts to show that the concept of God is contradictory. He writes:

 

1. Any being with contradictory properties cannot exist.
2. God is a being with contradictory properties.
3. Therefore, god cannot exist.

Even if this argument is granted, at best Krueger has only shown that certain God-concepts are logically impossible. The theist can simply revise his God-concept to avoid the conjunction of contradictory properties.

For example, Krueger claims that it is logically impossible for an omniscient being who is also omnipotent and omnibenevolent to have knowledge of what it is like to:
 
 1) Know pleasure in killing
 2) Make a mistake
 3) Know pleasure in sex
 4) Know the intense desire for sexual pleasure
 5) Learn how to do something
 6) Be an atheist

The careful reader will note that Krueger's incompatible properties arguments only work when he packages the contradiction into his definitions of omnipotence and omniscience from the start. Consider the following revised definitions of omnipotence and omniscience that do not have the contradictory implications that Krueger alleges:

Definition--Someone is "omnipotent" if and only if they can cause any logically possible situation whatsoever to obtain. For example, God could cause the world to come into being, but could not cause an omnibenevolent being (such as Himself) to commit a sin, for that would not be a logically possible situation.

Definition--Someone is "omniscient" if and only if they have all knowledge about any situation that possibly or actually obtains. For example, God could know what it is like (in every qualitative detail) for a human being to commit a given sin, but could not know what it is like for an omnibenevolent being (such as Himself) to commit a sin, for that would not be a situation that actually or possibly obtains.

These definitions preserve the intuitive meanings of what it is to be omnipotent and omniscient, and are not subject to any problems like the ones that Krueger adduces in his opening statement.

Krueger also refers the reader to Drange's incompatible properties arguments. While these are better than what Krueger offers, they are still very easily refuted. Due to space limitations, I will only discuss the Creation vs. Immutability Argument, which I believe to be the most powerful of Drange's incompatible properties arguments. Drange writes:

1. If God exists, then he is immutable.
2. If God exists, then he is the creator of the universe.
3. An immutable being cannot at one time have an intention and then at a later time not have that intention.
4. For any being to create anything, prior to the creation he must have had the intention to create it, but at a later time, after the creation, no longer have the intention to create it.
5. Thus, it is impossible for an immutable being to have created anything (from 3 and 4).
6. Therefore, it is impossible for God to exist (from 1, 2, and 5)[1]

This argument fails because premise 4 is false. An immutable God could changelessly will the creation of the universe in the form of an "if-then" command rather than directly. For example, rather than God creating in a way that requires a change of mind, He could changelessly will something like "If there is no universe, then let the universe begin to exist" or "If there is no light, then let light begin to exist at t1." Such conditional acts of will do not require a change in God's intentions after the goal is obtained. This notion of conditional willing can also explain how a changeless God can answer prayers (and therefore seem to change His mind). For example, God could changelessly will something like "If Moses prays, then he will hear a voice (in my name) denying his petition for the first four times that he asks, but when Moses prays the fifth time, he will hear a voice (in my name) agreeing to his request because of his faith and persistence. Moses' request will then be granted."

I conclude that Krueger has given us no reason to think that any incompatible properties arguments are a threat to theists. At best, such arguments (if granted) only force the theist to revise the God-concept so as to avoid a contradiction.

The Argument from Suffering/Evil.

Krueger offers a bare-bones version of the argument from evil (hereafter abbreviated AE). He writes:

1. There is needless suffering in the world.
2. If god were to exist, then there would be no needless suffering in the world.
3. Therefore, god does not exist."

Not good. How does Krueger know that premise 1 is true? What appears to be needless suffering may, in fact, have some purpose. The mere fact that we do not know what the purpose of suffering is does not constitute evidence for the absence of purpose. Indeed, we should not expect to have a clear idea of what sufferings an infinitely wise being (like God) would or would not allow, for our own wisdom is very finite. The argument also fails because the assertion of the truth of premise 1 presupposes the conclusion of the argument, viz. it simply assumes that there is no God who ultimately gives meaning to what appears to be pointless suffering. The argument is question-begging; it assumes that there is no God in order to supposedly show that there is no God.

Another problem is that the second premise of the argument is obviously false. Consider that a free-willed being could choose to rebel against God's perfect will, and thereby cause himself to suffer needlessly. Had he been living in submission to God's plan, then whatever suffering he faced would have a purpose. But free will makes it possible for us to deviate from God's plan, and therefore undergo unnecessary pain. Consider that on the Christian worldview, many people choose to suffer in hell, rather than submit to God's perfect will. Whatever suffering goes on in hell is pointless and wasted because the people there have freely repudiated God's will forever.

Furthermore, we should expect there to be seemingly needless suffering given the existence of certain descriptions of God. For example, virtually every page of the Bible contains some account of natural or moral evil taking place without God moving to contravene it. Therefore, we should expect there to be very intense suffering given the existence of the God of Christianity. Note that this does not mean that the God of Christianity is not omnibenevolent, for it is conceivable that God is allowing suffering for some unknown good purpose, or as the necessary consequence of the abuse of free will. This type of "expectations defense" works against much more sophisticated versions of the "argument from evil" than what Krueger offers. Consider Drange's version of AE. Drange writes:

Situation L = the situation (or situation-type) of the amount of suffering and premature death that is experienced by humans in the world at the present time being significantly less that what it actually is at present. (In other words, if the actual amount, at present, is, say, a total of n units of suffering and premature death, then in situation L that amount would be, at present, significantly less than n units.)

Then AE, making reference to situation L can be expressed as follows:

(A) If the God of evangelical Christianity were to exist, then he would possess all of the following four properties (among others):
(1) being able to bring about situation L, all things considered;
(2) wanting to bring about situation L, i.e., having it among his desires;
(3) not wanting anything else that necessarily conflicts with his desire to bring about situation L, as strongly as he wants to bring about situation L;
(4) being rational (which implies always acting in accord with his own highest purposes).
(B) If there were to exist a being who has the four properties listed above, then situation L would have to obtain.
(C) But situation L does not obtain. The amount of suffering and premature death in the world at the present time is not significantly less than what it actually is at present.
(D) Therefore, [from (B)&(C)], there does not exist a being who has all four properties listed in premise (A).
(E) Hence [from (A)&(D)] the God of evangelical Christianity does not exist.[2]

Here is the refutation:

The Expectations Defense against Drange's Version of AE

1) If premise (A) of Drange's version of AE were true, then if the God of Christianity (hereafter abbreviated GC) existed, He would have worked to the best of His ability to cause situation L to obtain. [Premise (A) of AE defines GC as someone who is rational (which implies always acting in accord with one's highest priorities) and as someone who has it among His top (nonoverridden) priorities to bring about situation L. If both of these attributes are granted, it is conceptually impossible that GC would hold back or "slack off" in His efforts to cause L to obtain. Were He to do so, it would imply that He was irrational (not acting in accord with His highest priorities), or had some higher purpose which overrides His desire to bring about L.]

(2) It is not the case that GC, given His existence, would have worked to the best of His ability to cause situation L to obtain. [The Bible is absolutely rife with passages that imply or explicitly state that GC has a history of allowing (and even causing) suffering and premature death. One can open to virtually any page in scripture and find an instance of suffering or premature death that GC does not contravene. The Bible also states that GC will continue to allow suffering and premature death to occur in the world up until the return of Christ.]

(3) It is not the case that premise (A) of Drange's version of AE is true. [from (1) and (2) by modus tollens]

(4) If it is not the case that premise (A) of Drange's version of AE is true, then his version of AE is unsound.

(5) Drange's version of AE is unsound. [from (3) and (4) by modus ponens]

The scriptural description of God allowing suffering enables us to conclude that the Biblical God (if He exists) must have some unknown overriding reason for allowing it. Hence premise A3 of AE is to be rejected. Given this refutation of Drange's argument, I conclude that the failure of AE in this debate is not merely the result of Krueger's decision to present a diluted version of AE, but is the result of a fatal problem with the argument itself.

The Argument from Nonbelief

Krueger presents an emaciated version of Drange's argument from nonbelief (hereafter abbreviated ANB). He writes:

Let set P be defined as the set of the following propositions:
(a)There exists the god of theism.
(b)The god of theism loves humanity, and
(c)This being wants each person to be saved by having certain beliefs sufficient for salvation, such as beliefs P1...Pn.

This simplified argument from nonbelief, then, is the following:
1.If god exists, then god wants what is best for each person.
2.What is best for each person is that he or she is saved.
3.Therefore, if god exists, then god wants each person to be saved by having the beliefs of set P.
4.If god wants everyone to be saved by having the beliefs of set P, then everyone would have the beliefs of set P.
5.Not everyone has the beliefs of set P.
6.Therefore, god does not want everyone to be saved by having the beliefs of set P.
7.Therefore, god does not exist.

This argument is unsound because premise 4 is false. It is logically possible that God may have an unknown overriding reason for allowing people to disbelieve even though He wants them to come to believe. In order to get the argument off the ground, Krueger needs to add a premise stating that God wants nothing more than for people to come to believe. Therefore, this particular version of the ANB is without merit. Consider instead Drange's original version, which accounts for the possibility that God may have an overriding reason for allowing nonbelief. Drange writes:

The gospel message = the following three propositions:
(a) There exists a being who rules the entire universe.
(b) That being has a son.
(c) The ruler of the universe sent his son to be the savior of humanity.

Situation S = the situation (or situation-type) of all, or almost all, humans since the time of Jesus of Nazareth coming to believe all the propositions of the gospel message by the time of their physical death.

Using the above definitions, ANB may be expressed as follows:

(A) If the God of evangelical Christianity (GC) were to exist, then he would possess all of the following four properties (among others):
(1) being able to bring about situation S, all things considered;
(2) wanting to bring about situation S, i.e., having it among his desires;
(3) not wanting anything else that necessarily conflicts with his desire to bring about situation S, as strongly as he wants to bring about situation S;
(4) being rational (which implies always acting in accord with his own highest purposes).
(B) If there were to exist a being who has the four properties listed above, then situation S would have to obtain.
(C) But situation S does not obtain. It is not the case that all, or almost all humans since the time of Jesus of Nazareth have come to believe all the propositions of the gospel message by the time of their physical death.
(D) Therefore, [from (B)&(C)], there does not exist a being who has all four properties listed in premise (A).
(E) Hence [from (A)&(D)] the God of evangelical Christianity does not exist.[3]

Despite its superiority to Krueger's version, Drange's argument fails too. Consider the following refutation:

The Expectations Defense against Drange's Version of ANB

(1) If premise (A) of ANB were true, then if the God of Christianity (GC) existed, He would have worked to the best of His ability to cause situation S to obtain. [Premise (A) of ANB defines GC as someone who is rational (which implies always acting in accord with one's highest priorities) and as someone who has it among His top (nonoverridden) priorities to bring about situation S. If both of these attributes are granted, it is conceptually impossible that GC would hold back or "slack off" in His efforts to cause S to obtain. Were He to do so, it would imply that He was irrational (not acting in accord with His highest priorities), or had some higher purpose which overrides His desire to bring about S.]

(2) It is not the case that GC, given His existence, would have worked to the best of His ability to cause situation S to obtain. [GC is described by the Bible as a being who has allowed vast amounts of unbelief in the gospel message. The scriptures also detail the fact that GC chose the highly inefficient method of using human missionaries to spread the gospel, and allowed them to suffer adversity and face great danger in their efforts to preach the word. He allowed this slow and perilous dissemination of the gospel message despite having the ability to convince the whole world without difficulty.]

(3) It is not the case that premise (A) of ANB is true. [From (1) and (2) by modus tollens]

(4) If it is not the case that premise (A) of ANB is true, then ANB is unsound.

(5) ANB is unsound. [from (3) and (4) by modus ponens]

Premise A3 is the weak point in Drange's argument. The fact that the Biblical God has a history of allowing unbelief shows that there must be some unknown overriding reason for why He has chosen to allow it.

It is clear that there is no way to argue for the non-existence of the Christian God from the phenomena of evil and nonbelief. Of course, there is the obvious theological question of why a supremely good God would allow such things, but I will not speculate on such issues in this rebuttal. The essential point of the expectations defense is that despite these theological mysteries, there is no way to take evil and nonbelief as evidence against the existence of the Christian God, for we should expect there to be plenty of suffering and unbelief if the God of Christianity exists (at least up until the return of Christ).

Conclusion

Krueger's opening statement does not really argue a case for atheism, for even if I were to grant all of Krueger's arguments, I could still maintain my belief in the mystical concept of God that I defended in my opening statement. Even if this major problem is ignored, however, it has been shown that Krueger's arguments fail on their own terms. Krueger's incompatible properties arguments are easily answered with the adoption of more sophisticated definitions of omnipotence and omniscience. His attempts to use the arguments from evil and nonbelief are also sorely lacking.[4] I conclude that Krueger's opening statement has given us no good reason to think that atheism is true.

Notes:

[1] Incompatible-Properties Arguments: A Survey

[2] Drange, Theodore M., Nonbelief and Evil, Amherst, N.Y.: Prometheus Books, 1998. p.53-54.

[3] Ibid., pp.59-60.

[4] For a more detailed treatment of Drange's arguments see: McHugh, Christopher, "A Refutation of Drange's Arguments from Evil and Nonbelief," Philo 5 no.1 (2002): 94-102.

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