Thursday, April 14, 2011
The “one god further” objection
A reader calls attention to Bill Vallicella’s reply to what might be called the “one god further” objection to theism. Bill sums up the objection as follows:
The idea, I take it, is that all gods are on a par, and so, given that everyone is an atheist with respect to some gods, one may as well make a clean sweep and be an atheist with respect to all gods. You don't believe in Zeus or in a celestial teapot. Then why do you believe in the God of Isaac, Abraham, and Jacob?
When you understand why you dismiss all the other possible gods, you will understand why I dismiss yours.
I see that that blog has now removed this one-liner, which is perhaps a sign that intellectual progress is possible even among New Atheist types. Because while your average “Internet Infidel” seems to regard the “one god further” objection as devastatingly clever, it is in fact embarrassingly inept, a sign of the extreme decadence into which secularist “thought” has fallen in the Age of Dawkins.
Suppose someone skeptical about Euclidean geometry said:
When you understand why you regard all the particular triangles you’ve observed as having sides that are less than perfectly straight, you will understand why I regard Euclidean plane triangles as such to have sides that are less than perfectly straight.
Or suppose a critic of Platonism said:
When you understand why you regard the things of ordinary experience as in various ways imperfect or less than fully good instances of their kinds, you will understand why I regard Plato’s Form of the Good as being less than fully good.
Would these count as devastating objections to Euclidean geometry and Platonism? Would they serve as fitting mottos for blogs devoted to “Common Sense Anti-Euclideanism” or “Common Sense Anti-Platonism”? Obviously not. They would demonstrate only that the speaker didn’t have the slightest clue what the hell he was talking about.
The “one god further” objection is no better than these stupid “objections” would be. The “Common Sense Anti-Euclidean” objection supposes that the concept of a triangle as defined in textbooks of Euclidean geometry is merely one triangle alongside all the others that one comes across in traffic signs, dinner bells, and the like, only invisible and better drawn. But of course, that is not what it is at all. What the textbooks describe is not a triangle, not even an especially well-drawn one, but rather (Euclidean) triangularity itself, and the triangles one comes across in everyday experience are defective precisely because they fail to conform to the standard it represents. The “Common Sense Anti-Platonism” objection supposes that the Form of the Good is merely one more or less perfect or imperfect instance of some class or category alongside the other instances, albeit an especially impressive one. But of course, that is not what it is at all. The Form of the Good doesn’t have goodness in some more or less incomplete way; rather, it just is goodness, participation in which determines the degree of goodness had by things which do have goodness only in some more or less incomplete way. Similarly, the “Common Sense Atheist” or “one god further” objection supposes that the God of classical theism is merely one further superhuman being alongside others who have found worshippers – Thor, Zeus, Quetzalcoatl, and so forth – only a superhuman being of even greater power, knowledge, and goodness than these other deities have. But of course, that is not what God is at all. He is not “a being” alongside other beings, not even an especially impressive one, but rather Being Itself or Pure Actuality, that from which all mere “beings” (including Thor, Zeus, and Quetzalcoatl, if they existed) derive the limited actuality or existence they possess. Neither does He “have” power, knowledge, goodness, and the like; rather, He is power, knowledge, and goodness (where the “participation” relation in Plato’s theory of Forms is transformed by the classical theist into a relation between created things and their uncaused cause, in light of the doctrine of divine simplicity – and also thereby transformed, by Thomists anyway, into a kind of efficient-causal relation).
Note that the “Common Sense Anti-Platonist” objection is a silly objection whether or not one accepts Platonism, and that the “Common Sense Anti-Euclidean” objection would be a silly objection whether or not one accepted Euclidean geometry. In the same way, the “Common Sense Atheist” or “one god further” objection would be a silly objection even if one had other grounds for rejecting classical theism. In all three cases, the objections represent a failure to understand even the fundamentals of the position one is attacking.
It is no good replying that lots of ordinary religious people conceive of God in all sorts of crude ways at odds with the sophisticated philosophical theology developed by classical theists – ways that make of God something like a glorified Thor or Zeus. The “man on the street” also believes all sorts of silly things about science – that Darwinism claims that monkeys gave birth to human beings, say, or that molecules are made up of little balls and sticks. But it would be preposterous for someone to pretend he had landed a blow against Darwinism or modern chemistry by attacking these silly straw men. Similarly, what matters in evaluating classical theism is not what your Grandpa or your Pastor Bob have to say about it, but rather what serious thinkers like Aristotle, Plotinus, Athanasius, Augustine, Anselm, Aquinas, Avicenna, Averroes, Maimonides, and countless others have to say.
Nor would it be any good to insist that the “one god further” objection is significant at least as a reply to the more anthropomorphic “theistic personalist” conception of God that has replaced the classical theist conception in the thinking of many modern theologians and philosophers of religion. For one thing, most theistic personalists, though they depart in significant (and in my view disastrous) ways from classical theism, are still committed to a far more sophisticated conception of God than purveyors of the “one god further” objection take as their preferred target. (Comparing God to the Flying Spaghetti Monster is not a serious reply to a theistic personalist like Plantinga or Swinburne.) More importantly, purveyors of this objection take themselves to be presenting a serious criticism of Christianity, Judaism, Islam, and philosophical theism as such – not merely of this or that modern representative of these views – and the historically mainstream tradition in these religions and in philosophical theology is classical theist, not theistic personalist. Hence to fail to address the classical theist conception of God is ipso facto to fail seriously to address the claims of these traditions. In particular, unless one has made a serious study of philosophical theology as it has been developed within the Neo-Platonic, Aristotelian, Thomistic and other Scholastic traditions, one’s understanding of traditional Christian, Jewish, and Islamic theology, not to mention philosophical theism, is simply infantile.
Needless to say, your typical “Internet Infidel” or “New Atheist” is entirely innocent of knowledge of these traditions. Nor is he much interested in finding out what they really have to say – he prefers to spend his time coming up with ever more elaborate rationalizations for refusing to find out. But like the Myers Shuffle (the secularist rationalization du jour), the “one god further” objection has this much going for it: It is an infallible indicator that one is not dealing with a serious or well-informed skeptic.
[For readers who are interested in learning about classical theism, I have defended it at length in my books The Last Superstition and Aquinas. I have also had reason to discuss it in several earlier posts, which deal with such issues as divine simplicity, the relationship between classical theism and theistic personalism, and the relevance of the classical theistic understanding of God to issues concerning morality and the problem of evil. See, for example:
Please read at least the posts linked to before commenting critically on what I’ve written in this one, since I would rather not have to repeat things I’ve said elsewhere.]