Richard Gale Atheism And Theism

Review of ‘Atheism and Theism’ (1999)


Alexander Pruss and Richard Gale


The following article is a review of the “great debate” by J.J.C. Smart and J.J. Haldane. The original debate was published by Blackwell Publishers in 1996. This review will be published in FAITH AND PHILOSOPHY in January 1999.


The participants in this self-proclaimed “great debate” are less intent to win the debate than to promote their own favored version of atheism or theism, for Haldane that being Thomistic Roman Catholicism and for Smart a scientistic species of atheism. The debate would have had more meaning for the students to whom it is supposed to be directed according to the book’s cover if the debators had defended a more generic version of their respective thesis, thereby freeing them from having to make use of controversial metaphysical doctrines that are not familiar to students and which the debators do not have sufficient space to explain and defend properly. This would have made it more of a real debate. By tying his atheism to a reductive materialistic metaphysics, Smart gives away a significant advantage that the atheist has over the theist in their debate; for whereas theism is committed to a metaphysics that requires the existence of nonembodied spiritual substances, namely God and finite souls, atheism is not committed to any specific metaphysics and thus is less vulnerable than theism. Smart would have done better to base his atheism on the inductive argument from the apparently gratuitous evils of the world rather than the more vulnerable reductive physicalism.

The God whose existence is in dispute is that of traditional Western theism-a self-existent and essentially omnipotent, omniscient, omnibenevolent, sovereign being, who moreover, they both agree, should be viewed as timelessly rather than omnitemporally eternal. They have no interest in the big brother type finite deity of process theology. They also agree in espousing metaphysical realism-“that there is a world independent of human thought and language which may yet be known through observation, hypothesis and reflection.” (5) This world is “independent of our human concerns and categories.” (215) Thus, they will have no truck with language-game fideisms, especially of the noncognitivist variety. The format of the debate has Smart leading off and Haldane following, this giving Haldane the advantage of being able to respond to many of the issues raised by Smart. A valuable round of responses follows in which their points of disagreement are brought into bold relief, with Haldane again having the advantage of going last.

Smart gives a two pronged defense of atheism, both prongs being based on his underlying scientistic principle that “an important guide to metaphysical truth is plausibility in the light of total science” (6), together with Ockham’s Razor requiring that “entities should not be multiplied…without more than compensating explanatory advantage.” (20) It turns out that a “compensating explanatory advantage” must be in terms of scientific explanations, and thus the Sweeney Todd like manner in which Smart wields the Razor (on pages 26, 28, 49, 50, 172, 179, 181-2, and 186) makes Ockham’s Razor dependent on the former metaphysical principle. One prong consists in attempts to undermine theistic arguments and theodicies and the other in a positive argument for atheism based on his beloved reductive physicalism. Were he to have confined himself to the former task, he would be arguing only for agnosticism.

The first prong is an exercise in demolishing strawmen, the philosophical counterpart to rolling drunks. Smart invariably considers only the worst version of any given theistic argument. He writes like a Rip Van Winkle who has slept through the past forty years, as he ignores almost all of the important arguments for theism given during this period. It is not just that he fails to address explicitly the work of the Plantingas, Swinburnes, and Alstons, as well as many other very able analytical theists, but fails to consider their views, being content to confine himself to a mechanical repetition of the atheistic objections that predated their work and that it was their purpose to refute. Smart cannot give the excuse of a lack of space, because it takes no more space to give a good rather than a bad formulation of an argument and he wastes much space with pointless digressions on pages 21, 36-7, 42-6, 52, 58, 72-6, 175, 180-1, and 184 that have as their sole purpose the advancement of one of his pet philosophical theses rather than a defense of atheism. Probably the most flagrant example of Smart’s strawman approach is his divide and conquer criticism of theistic arguments in which each is considered in isolation and argued to be wanting as it does not render it more probable than not that God exists, thereby failing to consider what results when these arguments are agglomerated in Swinburne’s manner.

Smart considers the teleological argument in its new form that is based on the fine tuning of the laws of the universe in respect to the relative values of the fundamental constants of physics that were necessary for the emergence of intelligent life. The improbability of this happening by mere chance supposedly calls for an intelligent designer-creator. Smart expresses sympathy with Brandon Carter’s cosmological theory that postulates a vast multiplicity of separate universes, thereby rendering it understandable that some of these universes would possess the right sort of fine tuning, it being our good luck to occupy one of them. Smart might not have found this theory so attractive had he realized its theistic benefits in offering an attractive theodicy for gratuitous evil, for If there is this multitude of universes all that the theist needs to show is that our world overall is one that it is better to have been actualized than not. That there are possible worlds better than ours occasions no difficulty, on the reasonable assumption that there is an infinite regress of worlds with respect to the degree of goodness, since this is true of every possible world. Smart’s favored way of neutralizing the fine tuning argument makes use of Ockham’s Razor rather than the multiple universe theory, which theory, of course, is a mere fantasy. For Smart, the ontological extravagance in invoking God as the intelligent designer-creator is “not outweighed by its value in explaining these coincidences.” (28) Furthermore, the fine tuning might be amenable to explanation by some future cosmological hypothesis, and the mere hope of a scientific explanation in the bush is to be preferred to a theistic explanation in hand.

John Leslie’s axiarchism, which argues for a creative ethical principle at the back of the universe, is criticized by Smart on the grounds that modern anthropology and sociobiology make it implausible that there are objective moral truths. This manner of refutation seems to violate the principle of minimal ordinance enjoining us to use the weakest premises that are needed to establish a desired conclusion, for there should be a refutation that does not need to commit itself to a highly controversial nonobjectivist theory of ethics.

Smart considers only one version of the ontological argument, Descartes’, which is one of the worst versions ever given. After demolishing it, he makes the wild generalization that “The upshot of all these considerations is that the ontological argument…does not work, which is as much as to say that there is no logical contradiction in denying that God exists.” (38) Thus, Smart concludes from the failure of one argument attempting to show a contradiction in the supposition that God does not exist that there is no contradiction in this supposition. One might just as well conclude from the myriad of failed attempts to derive a contradiction from the denial of Fermat’s Last Theorem that the denial of this Theorem involves no contradiction. But, as Wiles has recently shown, it does. As an afterthought, Smart remarks that “if its [the ontological argument’s] contention that there is a logical contradiction in denying the existence of God were true then the assertion of the existence of God would be trivial. Thus ‘p v not-p‘ tells us nothing about the world.” Pace Smart, a sound ontological argument need not be at all trivial, any more than Wiles’s proof of Fermat’s Last Theorem is trivial. Anything that could earn a person tenure cannot be trivial.

The version of the ontological argument that Smart attributes, perhaps on somewhat dubious textual grounds, to Descartes commits the fallacy of making an embedded reference to God in a premise that illicitly becomes unembedded or detached in the conclusion, an example of which is the inference to the conclusion that God has existence from the premise that the concept of God (or the definition of God) involves having existence. Smart conveniently ignores the modal version of the ontological argument based on necessary existence, which does not commit this, or any other, fallacy.

Smart’s next polemical target is the cosmological argument’s attempt to deduce the existence of a necessary being from that of contingent ones. He rejects this argument, because he thinks that proper sense cannot be made of the concept of necessity, a conclusion that he reaches after criticizing prominent theories of necessity. What is not made clear is why the theist must be able to give an analysis of the sort of necessity that is involved in God’s necessary existence. Why can’t it be taken as a primitive, in the way in which Plantinga takes as primitive the notion of “broadly logically necessary,” which admits of elucidatory examples but no definition? Alternatively, theists could explain their sense of necessary existence in terms of the sort of existence enjoyed by a being whose existence can be deduced from its essence, giving the ontological argument as an example.

Smart’s argues against the cognitivity of religious experience “because there are clearly no special religious sensations as there are visual, auditory and factual sensations.” (48) This denial that God can non-naturalistically operate on the mind presupposes naturalism, which merely begs the question against the theist. Furthermore, God could be the remote cause of religious experiences by employing naturalistic causes as middlemen. Smart also claims that “The sceptic can say…that religious experience provides no objective warrant for religious belief unless the possibility of a naturalistic explanation of the experience can be ruled out as implausible.” (49. Our italics.) This requires too much. On Bayesian grounds, to get incremental warrant for religious belief requires simply that religious experience be more probable under religious hypotheses than under naturalistic ones. Unless one accepts Smart’s extrascientific presumption of naturalism, the question is not whether the naturalistic explanation can be ruled out as implausible, but whether the religious one is more likely. If so, then religious experience provides incremental confirmation for religious hypotheses and a cumulative case with other theistic arguments needs to be considered. Smart’s claim that “Someone who has naturalistic preconceptions will always in fact find some naturalistic explanation more plausible than a supernaturalistic one” merely invites the challenge from the theist as to whether it is rational to have such preconceptions. Smart’s objection to religious experiences being cognitive based on there being no agreed upon objective tests and checks for their veridicality is an example of his playing Rip Van Winkle, because it totally ignores the elaborate attempts to rebut this charge in books by Wainwright, Guting, Alston, Swinburne, and Yandell. While there is much to question in their efforts to establish the cognitivity of religious experiences, their combined efforts make out a very formidable case that cannot in good conscience be ignored in the way Smart does.

Smart objects to pragmatic arguments because they enjoin persons to “brainwash” themselves into believing that God exists, since rational methods are not available to self-induce belief. This objection applies only to a strawman pragmatic argument, since both Pascal and James made it clear that one is permitted to self-induce a belief on nonepistemic grounds only if the question does not admit of epistemic resolution. Thus, the pejorative term “brainwashing” does not apply to their arguments, since one gets brainwashed into believing something only when the issue is epistemically decidable, and, furthermore, only if it is another who does the brainwashing. Smart’s discussion of the argument from miracles is used as a lead-in to theistic arguments based on a “Sacred Book.” Not surprisingly, his naturalistic commitments lead him to be unimpressed by such arguments.

He next considers the problem of evil but does not do much in the way of mounting a positive atheistic argument from evil, instead confining himself to refuting theistic efforts to neutralize the problem. Smart attacks a strawman version of the Free Will Defence, because he burdens this defence with a burlesque version of incompatibilism that equates a free act with an indeterministic one! (70) Furthermore, his claim that “Because free will is compatible with determinism God could have set up the universe so that we always acted right, and so for this reason alone the free will defence does not work” (71), fails to realize that such determining of human behavior on God’s part could be seen to be freedom-canceling, and for reasons accepted by his own brand of soft determinism, since it involves one person completely determining all of the actions of another person. It is not that the latter’s actions are determined that is freedom-canceling but the manner in which they are.

In an apparent frolicsome effort to find the worst theodicies and defenses he can, Smart presents one based on Cantor’s set theory in which the total goodness of a world containing an infinity of goods is not diminished by the inclusion of some evil, thereby excusing God for creating some evil. (72) Smart must have heard this one off the second commode in the men’s room of his favorite pub, for he did not find it in the writings of any respected theist.

It is not until his “Reply to Haldane” that Smart considers the really powerful argument from evil, the inductive argument from apparently gratuitous evil (184), but he fails to develop it adequately, which would require defending its highly controversial “presumption of atheism” premise-that failure, after a properly conducted inquiry, to find an adequate explanation for the known evils of the world disconfirms theism. Smart’s failure to properly press this argument would justify withholding his royalties pending an investigation into whether he threw the debate. Smart’s only positive argument for atheism is based on his reductive physicalism, but it never gets spelled out: Its key premise, the contingent identity theory, never is presented no less defended. A lot of critical water has passed under the bridge since he first published it in 1959. Given the manner in which it was savaged by the likes of Cornman, Kim, Brandt, Shaffer, Malcolm, K. Baier, and Kripke, Smart cannot expect his opponent to grant him this theory, especially since he does nothing toward meeting their objections. He is preaching to the converted, primarily his materialistically inclined countrymen who approach philosophy like fugitives from a Foster’s beer commercial. Throughout he appeals to his own gut intuitions in favor of scientistic theses without giving any argumentative support for them, prompting the response that what Jack Smart finds reasonable or acceptable, while of interest to his loved ones, has no more philosophical relevance than that he prefers hiking in the bush to climbing mountains. (See 21, 29, 34, 46, 69, 178-80, 182, and 187 for these scientistic autobiographical credos.) The most blatant example of this is his underlying scientistic principle that “an important guide to metaphysical truth is plausibility in the light of total science.” Because this principle, as Haldane ably points out (192), finds no support from science, it appears to be self-refuting when applied to itself.

Maybe the most serious shortcoming in Smart’s defense of atheism is its lack of passion. Unlike the great atheists and agnostics, who portray a world-view that they see as ennobling because appeal is made to basic human values of integrity, courage, and human solidarity (You can almost hear Camus’s Sisyphus humming “Whistle While You Work” as he puts his shoulder to the boulder over and over again in his endeavor to become a fatality), Smart gives too thin a motivation for becoming an atheist. The best that he can muster is that an atheist will avoid a clash with science and his metaphysics of reductive physicalism. (6) Unfortunately, he neither shows that theism clashes with science nor gives us any raven for accepting this metaphysical theory.

John Haldane, in contrast, presents an impassioned defense of theism that will stir his readers even if they do not agree with him. And, unlike Smart, who does little more than give us a wet sweatshirt, Haldane finds ways of arguing for philosophical commitments about which he is sweating with conviction. His formulation of what he calls “analytic Thomism” is an important contribution to the on-going debate about theism and deserves to be given very serious consideration.

Haldane, because of his commitment to proving the existence of the God of Roman Catholicism, requires, in accordance with the teaching of the First Vatican Council, that God’s existence be knownable by the light of natural reason. This might give a needless opportunity to his atheistic opponent Smart, since now Smart can win the debate by arguing for the weaker thesis of agnosticism. But Haldane is very caggy, because he gives a significantly watered down versions of the knowability requirement according to which theism is a “reasonable belief” (210) for which there is argumentative “support,” although no “irrefutable proof.” (4) His weak claim that it is not “impossible, in principle, to prove the existence of God” (4) does not entail that we human beings can, in the full-blooded sense of having both the capacity and opportunity, come to know of the existence of God by the light of natural reason.