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Review of Arguing About Gods


[This book review is a slightly modified version of a review originally published on the author’s Versteht blog.]

 Review: Graham Oppy. 2006. Arguing About Gods. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press. 472 pp.

An unfortunately common charge to hear in debates between theists and nontheists is that one side has neglected their intellectual duty to inform themselves and truly think through their position. Resources in both apologetics and counterapologetics often frame the material in such a way as to give the strong impression that if only their opponents would just open their eyes and accept the evidence right in front of them, their minds would be changed. Little room seems to be left for mere disagreement. Yet while self-deception is surely an issue for many, it would be premature to dismiss either side under so gross a generalization. Intelligent, deeply thoughtful people are counted among believers as well as unbelievers. Perhaps the fact that arguments for and against a deity have persisted into the 21st century, some bearing sophisticated developments from their older forms, ought to tell us something about the debate as a whole. Whether or not God exists, the question of when and for whom it should be reasonable to believe or disbelieve remains a dauntingly hazy one.

Arguing About Gods is another entry in the long line of treatments of the philosophical arguments in support and rejection of “orthodoxly conceived monotheistic gods,” albeit one that brings a depth of discussion and a fair-headed consideration of reasons and motives that helps to set it apart from many other entries. Graham Oppy is professor of philosophy at Monash University and head of the School of Philosophical, Historical and International Studies. He has served on the editorial boards of renowned philosophy journals such as Religious Studies and Philo and has published numerous articles and books, including Ontological Arguments and Belief in God (1996) and Philosophical Perspectives on Infinity (2006). He has also appeared as a guest on my Armchair Atheism podcast.

I. Arguing About Arguments

What would make for a successful argument for or against a god? This question, so often overlooked in debates and texts purporting to offer sound reasons for belief or doubt, suitably sets up the first chapter of Arguing About Gods. Although this subject matter could easily become a book unto itself, Oppy narrows things down a bit by identifying four criteria required by successful arguments:

  1. An account of rationality and rational belief revision;
  2. an account of arguments;
  3. an account of rational argumentation among rational agents; and
  4. an account of the difficulties that arise as result of the fact that we are not perfectly rational agents.

It may look as if these criteria set the bar extremely high, but they rather seem to emerge out of an equitable and reasonable consideration of how we interact with beliefs and with others who hold other beliefs. Intelligent people can disagree without there needing to be someone guilty of irrational thinking. Many of us hold different bodies of evidence before us at different times in our lives, just as we hold different prior beliefs at different times in our lives. Accusing of irrationality those who have not come across the same evidence that we have encountered, in the same order and with the same realizations, will only be a double-edged sword, as there always remains the likely possibility that there are additional circumstances unbeknownst to us that would cast things in yet another light. If one is irrational simply for going by what she knows and what is available to her mind, then it is difficult to escape the charge that all of us are hopelessly mired in irrational thought.

Fortunately, this doesn’t appear to be the case. There is at least some basis for distinguishing between good reasons and bad reasons for believing that certain things are true. We are able to persuade each other into and out of various beliefs, especially by presenting new information and challenging prior beliefs. While not all of this is done with defensible reasoning (perhaps not even most of it), there are nonetheless characteristics of generally persuasive arguments to which we can point and take note. If the purpose of an argument is to convince someone to accept a view—to engage in rational belief revision—then a successful argument for or against God will be one that is capable of persuading rational people to adopt the proposition being defended. This does not mean that a good argument is one favored by consensus, but just that a good argument will do its job in accordance with the four criteria outlined above.

As Oppy points out, “[o]ne does not need to suppose that one’s reasons are available to other points of view in order to continue to accept them as reasons.”[1] This insight might not sit well with some theists or atheists due to its seeming justification of obstinacy. No one wants to be wrong in their worldview, and there are those so committed to never being wrong that they are willing to deny anything and everything presented to them, often on subjective or personal grounds. These individuals apparently feel that they are untouchable to others. However, Oppy’s point is also what enables us to be reasonable in rejecting the obstinate person’s subjective reasons as sufficient reasons for belief for ourselves. It need not matter if so-and-so has had a personal revelation from Dionysus since you can just as well know enough to distrust such revelations, regardless of how utterly convinced old so-and-so might be of it.

II. The Trinity of Theistic Arguments

Three classic and fairly popular arguments for the existence of God are the ontological argument, the cosmological argument, and the teleological argument. In Arguing About Gods, each argument is given its own chapter in the order just laid out. This review will skip discussion of the chapter on the ontological argument for a couple reasons, one being that the level of discourse in it is very technical in nature, and covering it would occupy more space here than I wish to occupy. The second reason is that the chapter seems to be a supplement to Oppy’s earlier treatment of the argument in his 1996 book referenced above. Since I have not yet read his Ontological Arguments and don’t want to give an incomplete impression of the work, I will simply move on to the cosmological argument now.

For the unfamiliar, the cosmological argument is, in one basic form, the argument: “1. Some things exist, and their existence is caused. 2. Whatever is caused to exist is caused to exist by another. 3. An infinite regress of causes resulting in the existence of a particular thing is impossible. 4. (Hence) There is a (unique) first cause of existence that is not itself caused to exist.”[2] Oppy first considers the variations on the argument endorsed by St. Thomas Aquinas, René Descartes, and Gottfried Leibniz before moving on to more modern versions. A particular point of interest is the exception granted by all cosmological arguments to the “uncaused cause,” claimed by theists to be God. Oppy writes:

[It is doubtful] that Descartes—or any other monotheist—can consistently endorse the assumption that nothing can exist or happen without a cause. For monotheists almost always suppose that their god exists uncaused. Perhaps it might be said that there is really no inconsistency here, that what the monotheist means is that nothing other than an orthodoxly conceived monotheistic God exists without a cause. But what reason is there to believe this modified principle? If we are prepared to allow that there can be things that exist without a cause, then why shouldn’t we suppose that the physical universe is an object that exists uncaused? As many non-theists have noted, arguments for the existence of God that include a premise to the effect that every object and event requires a cause are bound to prove too much, because the causal principle in question can be satisfied only by an infinite causal regress, or a circle of causes, or the like.[3]

Apologists are fond of arguing that the universe could not just pop into existence uncaused, by itself and out of nothing, but this appears to be a mere restatement of the causal principle on which the cosmological argument rests. And, as Oppy notes, this principle is inconsistently upheld by monotheists who claim their God to be the uncaused cause of the universe.

What about the kalam, though? The kalam cosmological argument specifies that only what “begins to exist” has a cause; its aim is to eliminate the objection that God, as an existing entity, must require a cause. It is often left ambiguous what exactly “begins to exist” is supposed to mean, but at the very least our experience seems to tell us that things that begin to exist have a time prior to their coming into existence when they did not exist. This could not be the case with our universe, where space and time are bound together. Thus, even if we entertain the notion that the universe did have an absolute beginning—which is scientifically controversial, to say the least[4]—problems persist with the cosmological argument.

In chapter four, Oppy examines the teleological argument as articulated variously by William Paley, Michael Behe, and William Dembski. With respect to Paley’s famous watchmaker analogy, Oppy contends that even if Paley had stumbled across a CPU in the desert, design could’ve been inferred without knowing its function since it’s made of parts not naturally occurring in such an arrangement. It is not, then, that we infer design from function, but rather that we infer it from the origins of a thing and the origins of its parts. Of course, in the case of natural phenomena the question of origins is the very question under debate. To claim that the natural world is designed is to undermine the actual inference that we make when we contrast an object with the natural occurrence of its parts.

The analyses of Behe’s irreducible complexity argument and Dembski’s fine-tuning argument are some of the highlights in Arguing About Gods. On the former, note is made of Behe’s vague remark that irreducibly complex systems like the bacterial flagellum cease functioning if most of their proteins are removed, which doesn’t mesh well with the thought that such a system is composed of several parts without remainder. Additionally, the irreducible complexity of the modern flagellum would not necessarily mean that the ancestral forms were irreducibly complex, nor would it mean that ancestral subsystems could not have evolved to produce it.[5] Even the possibility of “scaffolding” in evolution, as Richard Dawkins has suggested, could serve to rebut the force of the irreducible complexity argument.

Dembski has argued that fine-tuning must be due to either regularity, chance, or design, and that one moves through these explanations in that order due to their varying levels of parsimony. An observation with a high probability can be accorded to regularity, and one with a sufficiently low probability can be accorded to chance; but if both are rejected, design should be inferred. Against this, Oppy objects that Dembski’s categories involve too much ambiguity, making a leap from the lack of viable, known explanations in a category to the assumption that there are no viable explanations in said category. Furthermore, the process does not really take into account the delicate balance between simplicity and goodness of fit in assessing hypotheses, nor does it engage with prior probabilities.

Before closing out the chapter, our author takes note of David Hume’s prescience of design arguments, advocating the worthwhile suggestion that critics of design not rest their case entirely on scientific evidence for evolution, but recognize the philosophical problems posed to teleological arguments centuries ago in the Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion.

III. Wagers, Evils, and Other Entertainments

Excluding the final chapter of concluding remarks, chapter five, on Pascal’s wager, is the shortest in the book. Over seventeen pages, Oppy considers the original wager and some of its variants. Three principle objections provided will be familiar to those acquainted with the literature on the argument. First, it is argued that “unorthodoxly conceived” gods and evil gods constitute a strong challenge to the idea that nothing stands to be lost in wagering in favor of the traditional theistic God. Such beings might desire to punish those who wager on a deity like Yahweh, and reward those who bet against its existence. Second, the wager treats belief as if it can be willed into being, when it doesn’t appear that we can simply convince ourselves of the truth of some proposition solely on the basis of its utility. Lastly, Oppy notes the questionable assumption at the heart of the wager: one ought to always seek to maximize utility in decision-making. This seems at odds with the supposed character of a Supreme Being like Yahweh, who throughout Scripture prizes honest faith above “going through the motions.”

What kinds of possibilities would it take for a perfectly good being to refuse to create a universe? Where is the line drawn between a universe with ‘the right amount’ of moral evil, and a universe that would contain too much evil for an all-good God to create it? In chapter six, the argument from evil is taken into evaluation, generating some fascinating and troubling questions. The role of free will in the grand scheme of things serves as a significant focus for much of the discussion, prompting inquiries into the prioritization of different goods, the grounds for intervening in evils that may disguise unknown goods, and even the nature of Heaven. On this last inquiry, Oppy is joined by Nick Trakakis and Yujin Nagasawa.

If Heaven is necessarily a place of no moral evil, such that none of its agents are free to perform evil actions, and if Heaven is also a place overflowing with good, then it seems to follow that free will must not in fact be the weighty good that it is assumed to be by theists who take up the free will defense against the problem of evil. Likewise, if eternal fellowship with God in Heaven is understood as the only incommensurable good, even above the good of free will—as a great many strains of Christian theism seem to maintain—then it does not appear so far-fetched after all to think that God might indeed want “robots,” or creatures created to be always in communion with him from the instant of their origination. The doctrine of Heaven, seen by some as justification for the evils experienced in this world, actually poses a striking difficulty for the free will objection to arguments from evil.

Chapter seven in Arguing About Gods features a rundown of various additional arguments in order to round things out. Unfortunately, this also means some depth of analysis is sacrificed, and a few selections in it feel out of place from the more advanced critiques in the earlier chapters. Oppy examines arguments from consensus, arguments from scripture, arguments from beauty, and an argument from the ‘moral superiority’ of believers, which, while perhaps suited to popular-level texts of the sort, are just easy targets in the overall picture of this work. One might wish that the author would have done without these arguments and devoted more discussion to the argument from hiddenness and the argument from objective moral values, both of which are given fairly brief comment.

On the other hand, the chapter does have its better moments. Consciousness receives a concise yet fitting treatment. Along with J. L. Mackie, Oppy observes that whatever problems materialism has in explaining the connection of the neural with the mental, theism has a problem in explaining why consciousness is found only in certain creatures’ neuronal systems. An added question for theism would be why, even if consciousness is one of the best things of the universe to our eyes, we should suppose that it would be the sort of good that a god would specifically select. Though, as one might expect, no comprehensive naturalistic account of consciousness is offered in the book, significant reservations are raised about the efficacy of arguments from consciousness to the existence of any god. Oppy’s discussion of miracles, while in some opposition to Hume, is also a notable portion of chapter seven.

Last but not least, Arguing About Gods closes by coming full circle to the subject of belief and its consequences, drawing on W. K. Clifford’s “The Ethics of Belief” and William James’ “The Will to Believe.” Oppy advocates for a refined version of Clifford’s principle that beliefs always ought to be proportioned to the available evidence, and rejects James’ criticisms of Clifford, as well as James’ defense of passional acceptance of beliefs, referring to the latter as “wishful thinking.”

IV. Concluding About Gods

It has sometimes been suggested by nontheists that the persistence of faith despite the failure of the traditional arguments for God shows the irrationality of belief in God. In similar tone, some theists have suggested that the persistence of faith shows the strength of the arguments for God and the irrationality of unbelief. But things are rarely so simple as the most outspoken evangelists of any perspective may try and lead us to believe. Arguing About Gods is a fine testament to this fact, considering both theistic and atheistic arguments with equal precision and discretion, ultimately finding them all to admit of enough room for disagreement that none can be truly called successful. Undoubtedly, this conclusion won’t sit well with many theists or atheists, and I’m not entirely sure I accept it myself, but it does highlight the complex nature of the web of beliefs that we all have, and the difficulties that are involved in changing minds.

For those interested in the philosophical arguments over God, this book deserves a place of honor next to Mackie’s The Miracle of Theism or even Hume’s Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion. Although symbolic logic and technical language make numerous appearances, much of the text will still be discernible to nonphilosophers through attentive reading. Because of its many unique and rigorously defended positions on a variety of subjects, as well as its insights into old and familiar debates, I believe that Arguing About Gods is a text well worth returning to from time to time. Not only has it aided me in my appreciation of the case for unbelief, it has also contributed to a more sympathetic understanding of the theistic outlook, which ought to be true of any scholarly and well-balanced survey of arguments for and against orthodoxly conceived monotheistic gods.


[1] Graham Oppy, Arguing About Gods (New York, NY: Cambridge, 2006), p. 30.

[2] Oppy, Arguing About Gods, p. 99.

[3] Oppy, Arguing About Gods, pp. 113-114.

[4] Sean Carroll, From Eternity to Here (New York, NY: Dutton, 2010), pp. 3-4.

[5] Ken Miller has lent support to the ancestral subsystem argument by comparison of the flagellar motor to the Type-III Secretory System at The Flagellum Unspun.

Copyright ©2014 by Taylor Carr. The electronic version is copyright ©2021 by Internet Infidels, Inc. with the written permission of Taylor Carr. All rights reserved.

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