Gary Gutting, professor of philosophy at The University of Notre Dame, has been bashing atheism in the New York Times. His latest column, a critique of Gnu Atheism, has been pretty well eviscerated at Butterflies and Wheels and Pharyngula. I want to talk about something that hasn’t yet come up: Gutting’s complete failure to show that we should take the existence of God seriously. He’s adept at producing philoso-speak, but a miserable failure at adducing evidence.
First, his claim. Gutting basically reprises the Courtier’s Reply, saying that nobody should take The God Delusion seriously since
Dawkins does not meet the standards of rationality that a topic as important as religion requires. The basic problem is that meeting such standards requires coming to terms with the best available analyses and arguments. This need not mean being capable of contributing to the cutting-edge discussions of contemporary philosophers, but it does require following these discussions and applying them to one’s own intellectual problems. . . .
Friends of Dawkins might object: “Why pay attention to what philosophers have to say when, notoriously, they continue to disagree regarding the ‘big questions’, particularly, the existence of God?” Because, successful or not, philosophers offer the best rational thinking about such questions.
What is the “best rational thinking” of contemporary philosophers that bears on Dawkin’s case? First, that God could be simple. Ergo, Dawkins’s argument that a complex God demands explanation holds no water. P. Z. and Ophelia have exposed this gambit for the ad-hocery that it is.
Gutting further argues that “Dawkins’ argument ignores the possibility that God is a necessary being (that is, a being that, by its very nature, must exist, no matter what).” Wrong. Dawkins certainly discusses—and disposes of—ontological arguments like the “necessary-being” gambit in The God Delusion. He also discusses first-cause arguments analogous to those used to buttress a “necessary being.“
But who cares? I can’t conceive how philosophical argument alone, without any input of data, is going to prove—or even strongly suggest—that God exists. Indeed, as Gutting somewhat poignantly admits, all the “best rational thinking” of philosophers hasn’t settled the case:
Of course, philosophical discussions have not resolved the question of God’s existence. Even the best theistic and atheistic arguments remain controversial.
But the “best atheistic argument” is not controversial: it’s simply this: “I don’t see convincing evidence for God.” As the best theistic arguments fail, the best atheistic argument becomes even stronger.
But philosophy is overrated here. The existence of a deistic God—one who doesn’t do anything tangible—is forever beyond the purview of both philosophy and science. And for a theistic God, philosophy alone won’t do. You need evidence, and by that I mean something more than revelation or intuition. Rather than keep countering the feints of apologists wielding the rubber rapier of the Courtier’s Reply, let us go on the offensive, asking them to state their positive case for God. And by this I mean answering these three questions:
1) What evidence do you have for God’s existence?
2) Does that evidence, whatever it is, support the particular God you accept rather than gods of other faiths—or a different kind of god entirely?
3) How would you know if you were wrong?
In practice, these good folks never go beyond #1. Nor does Gutting. So what does he bring to the table? He’s got one argument:
Revelation and intutition.
As Gutting says:
There are sensible people who report having had some kind of direct awareness of a divine being, and there are competent philosophers who endorse arguments for God’s existence. Therefore, an agnostic stance seems preferable [sic] atheism.
Leaving aside the issue of whether a person claiming that God exists because she’s “aware of him” could be considered sensible, this is hardly evidence, and certainly no reason to think that, well, maybe there might be a god after all. Jails and asylums are full of people who have direct awareness of things that don’t exist. Tons of people believe in alien abduction. Millions more have direct awareness that diluting one biomolecule in an ocean of water makes a good nostrum. And if you argue that those who are “aware of God” are much more numerous, I respond that those cases of awareness are not independent, since nearly everyone is taught from infancy that God exists.
As for those “competent philosophers” who endorse arguments for God’s existence, Gutting himself has admitted that those arguments have all failed. I give those “competent philosophers” no more credence than I do the “competent postmodernists” who declare that there are no objective truths.
And if you dare suggest that we need not just mass intuition, but material evidence, Gutting has an answer:
But what is the evidence for materialism? Presumably, that scientific investigation reveals the existence of nothing except material things. But religious believers will plausibly reply that science is suited to discover only what is material (indeed, the best definition of “material” may be just “the sort of thing that science can discover”). They will also cite our experiences of our own conscious life (thoughts, feelings, desires, etc.) as excellent evidence for the existence of immaterial realities that cannot be fully understood by science.
Here Gutting is wrong, for while science is impotent before the completely immaterial, it’s not before the material effects of immaterial beings. A theistic God is one who has effects on matter, and so comes within the purview of science. Does Gutting not realize that a virgin birth, or a resurrected dead person, or answered prayers, constitute material realities supposedly produced by an immaterial reality? Gutting’s argument works for an indolent deistic God, but not a theistic one. Any God who works in the world becomes a god whose existence can be demonstrated empirically. And of course that’s the kind of God that most Americans accept.
People like Gutting spend their days attacking Dawkins because they can’t themselves confect a convincing case for God. When they’re forced to produce one, it invariably comes down to asserting either a) “You can’t prove me wrong since my God is totally elusive, dude” or b) “God exists because I and lots of other folks think he does.” These arguments don’t play well in public, which is why religious scientists always wriggle like eels when asked to explicitly declare their beliefs and justify their faith.
We should spend less time defending ourselves against things like the Courtier’s Reply and more time demanding that our opponents make a positive case for God, answering the three questions given above. That, I think, is the best way to show that they got nothing.