Some Atheists Seek to Create Doubt, Not Reveal Truth

Philosopher Peter Boghossian has developed a version of Tactics for atheists in his popular A Manual for Creating Atheists. But unlike Stand to Reason’s tactics (see here for some of my thoughts on their purpose), it seems his approach is more concerned with using possible counterexamples to create doubt than it is with clarifying thinking to reveal truth. For example, he says,

Showing someone doesn’t have the necessary justification to warrant belief in a claim in which they’re certain is fairly easy…. [A]ll one has to do is find some condition that could possibly hold that undermines the truth potential for the belief in question. [Emphasis mine. See my post on “possible” vs. “reasonable” regarding this tactic.]

The goal of Boghossian’s “treatments” is to create psychological doubt in his “subjects.” (Though, as he says, “Sometimes, even after years of treatment, the faith virus is not separated from its host.”)

The following “intervention” from his book (minus the parts of his commentary that aren’t relevant to this post) illustrates the problem with this approach:

[Peter Boghossian]: So what’s your best line? I mean, what’s the line you’re gonna use that will convince them [God exists]? You can try it on me if you want. Maybe you’ll convince me. (Self-conscious laughter)

[Security Guard]: Okay. So look around you. How did this get here? This had to have a cause, right? All of this.

PB: Well, what if it was always here?

SG: What do you mean?

PB: Well, you assume that nothing is the default. What if the default was something. In other words, what if there was always something stretching back into infinity.

SG: What do you mean?

PB: What do you mean what do I mean? You assume the universe had to have a beginning. What if there was no beginning?

(Pause)

SG: I never thought of that.

PB: Well, I think about this stuff a lot, so don’t feel bad. Plus this is what I do for a living. So if it’s possible that the universe always existed, what would that mean to you?

The obvious conclusion was that if the universe always existed then God didn’t create it. It’s a short intellectual step from God not creating the universe to God not existing—but SG didn’t see that yet. I continued.

SG: I’m not sure.

PB: Well, let’s think through it together.

(Pause)

PB: So the main argument for God was, “Look around you. How did this get here?” But we know there’s another possible explanation for what there is. So if the universe always existed, what would that mean?

(Pause)

SG: I’m not sure.

PB: Well, if the universe always existed then it wasn’t created. If it wasn’t caused what would that mean?

(Pause)

SG: That there’s no God?

I tried to hide my joy, show my approval, and acknowledge our success.

PB: Yup. That’s what it would mean.

Hopefully, you can see the problem even if you can’t put an official name to it: The argument that brought Boghossian joy and elicited his approval contains a formal logical fallacy. It’s called “denying the antecedent,” and it goes like this:

If A, then B.
Not A.
Therefore, not B.

Here’s how his argument falls into this form:

If the universe had a beginning, then God exists.
The universe did not have a beginning.
Therefore, God does not exist.

At this point, the reason why this form of argument is invalid should be clear: Does God’s existence depend on the universe having a beginning? And could there not be other reasons supporting belief in the existence of God that don’t depend on the universe having a beginning (as, indeed, there are)? But the problems with Boghossian’s argument don’t stop there. In addition to the formal fallacy, there is also very good evidence the second premise (“the universe did not have a beginning”) is false. So in the end, his “what if” does nothing to refute the security guard’s belief in God.

Surely, as a philosopher, Boghossian knows this. So why does he consider this a “success”? Because his tactics aren’t about truth, they’re about doubt; and if doubt is the main goal of his “interventions,” then anything that moves his “subjects” towards doubt is a success. Even invalid arguments with false premises.

I agree with Boghossian that too many Christians out there don’t think logically about their faith. That’s what puts them in danger of being hoodwinked by fallacious reasoning like what you see above.

We have a lot of work to do.

blog post |
Amy K. Hall

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