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Rationality, Atheism, and Mysteries. Prof. Matt McCormick Department of Philosophy California State University, Sacramento mccormick@csus.edu. What is an argument supposed to do? .

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rationality atheism and mysteries

Rationality, Atheism, and Mysteries

Prof. Matt McCormick

Department of Philosophy

California State University, Sacramento


what is an argument supposed to do
What is an argument supposed to do?
  • A successful argument for a claim p will be a set of reasons (different than p) that are true and that when taken jointly would imply the conclusion p to a reasonable person who does not already believe p.
what s the rational thing to do when you hear a successful argument
What’s the rational thing to do when you hear a successful argument?

Accept the conclusion.

If a reasonable person who does not already believe p:

  • understands and believes that all of the premises in the argument are true.
  • understands and believes that the premises when taken jointly imply p

then, that person is rationally committed to believing p.

can we give a successful argument for the non existence of something
Can we give a successful argument for the non-existence of something?

Some people say no:

In general, (it is alleged) you cannot prove a negative because:

  • You haven't looked everywhere.
  • Craig: Absence of Evidence is not Evidence of Absence.
  • You could be wrong.
  • You just don't know what is out there (or what God may be like.)
it is reasonable to conclude that many things do not exist
It is reasonable to conclude that many things do not exist:
  • Unicorns
  • the Tooth Fairy
  • Santa Claus
  • Dinosaurs
  • Bigfoot
hoax crop circles
Hoax: Crop Circles

Doug Bower and Dave Chorley from Southampton, England made the crop circles that had been showing up in English fields for 15 years. 

hoax loch ness monster
Hoax: Loch Ness monster

In 1993, Christian Spurling admitted that 60 years earlier, he and Duke Wetherall had faked this picture with a plastic and wood head over the body of a toy submarine with the intention of embarrassing a British newspaper.

you are already a reasonable atheist about lots of gods
You Are Already a Reasonable Atheist about Lots of Gods

Consider these gods:

  • Anansi, West African god who is brings rain, stops fires, and performs tricks.
  • Brekyirihunuade is the highest god in the religion of the Akan people. He knows and sees everything.
  • Cghene is the supreme God of the Isoko people of southern Nigeria. He created the world and all peoples.
  • !Xu is the central benevolent and omnipotent god of the bushmen of southern Africa. He is the sky god to whom the souls of the dead go.
  • Gefjun, the Norse goddess of fertility and agriculture.
  • Sobek, the Egyptian crocodile god of water.
it has been proven to your satisfaction that no such beings exist
It Has Been Proven to Your Satisfaction that No Such Beings Exist
  • You don’t believe that any of those beings are real.
  • And you think it is perfectly reasonable to be an atheist about them.
  • So it’s a mistake to say that negative existential claims about God or gods aren’t reasonable and can’t be proven.
the santa principle
The Santa Principle

A person is justified in believing that X does not exist if all of these conditions are met:

  • the area where evidence would appear, if there were any, has been comprehensively examined, and
  • all of the available evidence that X exists is inadequate, and
  • X is the sort of entity that, if X exists, then it would show.
is god like santa
Is God like Santa?

Now we have what appears to be a successful argument:

  • If conditions A,B, and C, are met concerning an entity, then it is reasonable to conclude that no such entity exists.
  • Conditions A,B, and C are met concerning God.
  • Therefore, it is reasonable to conclude that God does not exist.
a common response god is a mystery
A common response: God is a mystery.

Several claims are often made about our inability to understand God:

  • God’s real nature is vastly beyond our conceptual abilities.
  • So our attempts to understand God’s nature, motives, plans, and existence are handicapped by our limited conceptual tools.
  • Even though the arguments for God’s existence seem to fail, he could or does exist in some unconceived fashion.
  • A related claim: God’s goodness is so far beyond anything we can imagine, that what appears to be evil is actually good and part of God’s plan.
  • The problem is our limited intellects, not the impossibility of God’s existence.
some of these points are correct
Some of these points are correct:
  • There are mysteries.
  • We have our limits

The question is, what attitude is reasonable to take towards things that are at or beyond the limits of our abilities?

the mystery response undermines theism
The mystery response undermines theism
  • If there exists something that is ex hypothesi beyond our capacity to understand, then it cannot be reasonable to form any positive belief about it.
  • That is, it is inconsistent to simultaneously assert that it is reasonable to believe in the existence of something AND it is beyond our comprehension.
what should we believe about these sorts of entities
What should we believe about these sorts of entities?
  • It is possible that God is the sort of thing that cannot, in principle, be grasped by human understanding.
  • The universe could be populated with any number of things like that.
  • Anansi, Brekyirihunuade, Cghene, !Xu, and Gefjun could possibly exist. (But you don’t really think so.)
  • So should we be agnostic about God, and the infinitely long list of other things that could be like this?
agnosticism is not reasonable
Agnosticism is not reasonable.
  • It isn’t reasonable to be agnostic about Santa, dinosaurs, the Tooth Fairy, unicorns, and Sobek.
  • Once a certain threshold of investigation has been met, it is no longer reasonable to believe in X, or even to be agnostic about X.