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Review of Jordan Howard Sobel’s “Logic and Theism”

Review of Jordan Howard Sobel’s Logic and Theism (2006)

Review: Jordan Howard Sobel. 2004. Logic and Theism: Arguments For and Against Beliefs in God. New York: Cambridge University Press. 652 pp.

The book is long, abstruse, technical (making ample use of symbolic logic and Bayesian notation), and written in a rather difficult style. Nevertheless, for those up to reading it who have an interest in its topics, it is a most valuable work. It is directed mainly at professional analytical philosophers with a background in both deductive and inductive logic. For such readers, I recommend this book most highly.

The main emphasis of the book is on logic rather than theism. Consider, for example, the ontological argument, which is roughly the idea that God must exist because God, by definition, has no imperfections, and nonexistence would be an imperfection. Most philosophers regard this as either cognitively meaningless or as a kind of play on words, a semantic puzzle to sort out if one has some extra time. There is hardly anyone who is a theist on the basis of the ontological argument. I taught philosophy to thousands of students, and not a single one of them ever put any stock in it. Nevertheless, Sobel devotes 139 densely packed pages to the ontological argument. The material is delightful for those who have an interest in logic (esp. modal logic) and in thinking that is precise and detailed. Such people should definitely get this book. But those who are more interested in theism than logic, especially the more common forms of theism, need to be cautioned strongly about it.

Some people have an interest in converting others either to or away from theism. They seek arguments that are both cogent and persuasive, the sort that are presented in public debates on the existence of God. Sobel’s book has very limited use for such people. Many such arguments attempt to present phenomena which are alleged to be best explained by the God hypothesis, and one main way to attack them is to delve into scientific explanations for the given phenomena. That calls for some appeal to the findings of physics, biology, and other sciences. Sobel does very little with any of that. His focus is not so much on issues of fact and content as on issues of definition and logical structure. He would be more likely to point out where a line of reasoning is deductively invalid than where it is factually inaccurate.

However, Sobel does discuss at great length various versions of the cosmological argument and the argument from design, including the so-called fine-tuning argument. His work there is excellent. Among other things, he patiently examines the many arguments and replies contained in David Hume’s Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion. For a historian of philosophy interested in Hume’s philosophy of religion, Sobel’s detailed treatment is most valuable. Sobel also neatly explores Hume’s attack on the argument from miracles. In fact, all the main arguments for God’s existence are demolished in a most expert manner. What is needed now is a “popularization” of Sobel’s work for the benefit of the many who would have difficulty getting through its technicalities. A “Sobel for Dummies” is in order.

The book also contains two chapters devoted to issues connected with God’s alleged omnipotence and omniscience. Sobel finds that although it is possible to define the given terms in intelligible ways, none of those ways correspond to what most theists would like for their concept of God. The sort of omnipotence and omniscience that theists usually try to ascribe to their deity turns out to be incoherent. Sobel’s work here is precise, detailed, and, in the end, I think, accurate. It deserves a high place among the latest writings on the given topics in analytical philosophy of religion.

The next two chapters explore the problem of evil in great depth. Sobel’s treatment of the topic is superior to most. He first takes up the evidential problem of evil and argues that the evidence we have makes atheism more likely than theism. The next chapter provides an exhaustive examination of various forms of the so-called “logical problem of evil,” concluding that the sort of deity discussed by philosophers and theologians, one that is perfect in every way, can be proven not to exist by appeal to the nature of our world.

The last chapter of the book, entitled “Pascalian Wagers,” explores the quite different issue of practical reasons for believing (or self-inducing belief) in God. Sobel assumes the voluntarist outlook that it makes sense to speak literally of “choosing to believe or not to believe.” I myself have strong misgivings about such an outlook. It does not seem to me that such an action is performed frequently or that it is performed by psychologically normal people. Rather, I find that normal people usually just believe automatically in accord with their assessment of the evidence available to them, and do not make choices to believe or not to believe. Aside from the voluntarism issue, the chapter does a good job in exploring the various different practical reasons that advocates of the so-called “Pascal’s wager” have put forward. Again, the great technicalities involved in the issue are brought out and expertly dealt with.

The book’s subtitle is “Arguments For and Against Beliefs in God.” Why the reference to “beliefs in God” rather than simply “God’s existence”? Part of the reason, I gather, is that the last chapter goes into practical reasons for belief, which is different from an argument for God’s existence. But why the plural term “beliefs” rather than “belief”? In what way is one person’s belief in God different from another’s? Is it just that there are two people involved, so the beliefs are numerically different? I looked for clarification of this matter, for example in the preface to the book, but was not able to find any.

My main criticism of the book is that Sobel defines “God” throughout as “the being most worthy of worship” or as “the being that is most perfect in every way.” I do not find those definitions to be useful or even cognitively meaningful, nor do I find them to be the definitions appealed to in most arguments for God’s existence, although they could have some role within the ontological argument and possibly the argument from evil. They have a value-component that prevents any God-talk that employs them from being objective. That is a point made by J. L. Mackie, and even agreed to by Sobel at the end of his chapter 1, yet Sobel appeals to the defective definitions anyway. I should think that a definition like “the supremely powerful creator and ruler of the universe,” perhaps tacking on “who loves humanity,” would come closer to common usage and would have more relevance to the usual arguments for God’s existence to which people actually appeal. And the “loving humanity” part would make connection with the argument from evil as well. This issue of the definition of “God” strikes me as the weakest part of the book.

Overall, the book is excellent and of great value for professional analytical metaphysicians and philosophers of religion. Such people should make every effort to obtain a copy. I do not see how there could be important cutting-edge research on the relevant topics that fails to take account of Sobel’s work. But for the average person with an interest in arguments for and against God’s existence, it would be quite safe to pass it by.

Copyright ©2006 Theodore M. Drange and Internet Infidels, Inc. All rights reserved.