The Perils of ‘Pop’ Philosophy

cahnMore than once I’ve heard (or read) people complain that too many popular writings/talks by Christian apologists lack the care and precision their topics require. While it’s important to address difficult issues in ways that non-specialists can understand, one must take care to ensure that simplification does not end up as distortion. (It’s rarely helpful to present ideas that are easy to refute, but not actually believed by anyone.) Unfortunately, I have to agree that this happens far too regularly within apologetics circles. However, this is not simply a problem that arises among ill-equipped Christian apologists. In what follows I aim to show that this is also a problem among those critiquing Christianity (or just critiquing arguments in its favor) and I hope to use a prominent atheistic philosopher as an example of what we Christian philosophers should be doing more regularly.

An easy example of simplification leading to distortion can be found among “New Atheists” like Richard Dawkins or Sam Harris. It’s now widely accepted that these two are really bad at philosophy and so few are surprised to see that their arguments against Christianity are pretty awful. Lest one think this conclusion is limited to Christians, consider what the atheist Michael Ruse has to say about them. He writes that the material “being churned out” by the New Atheists is “second rate” which is, he says, simply a “euphemism for ‘downright awful’.” Of Dawkins, Ruse goes on to write that he “is brazen in his ignorance of philosophy and theology” and that when refuting arguments for God’s existence he “is a man truly out of his depth” (Isis 98, 815).

Unfortunately, there are other actual philosophers who also show themselves to be “out of their depth” when it comes to discussing arguments for God’s existence. Take, for example, Steven M. Cahn’s God, Reason, and Religion (Thomson Wadsworth, 2006). In particular, his first chapter, “Proving God’s Existence?” is quite bad. Here Cahn sets out to determine whether there are reasons to believe an “all-good, all-powerful, all-knowing, eternal creator of the world” exists. Towards that end Cahn examines the cosmological argument, the teleological argument, and the ontological argument (tellingly, the refutations of all three happen in the span of five short pages). For the sake of time, let’s focus on just his refutation of cosmological arguments.

So, in this introductory text on the philosophy of religion, how does Cahn describe cosmological arguments? Thankfully, his summary is brief. The cosmological argument, he says, “rests on the assumption that everything that exists is caused to exist by something else” (pg. 2).

No! No! No!

In addition to wrongly claiming that there is a cosmological argument (instead of a whole variety of them), he makes a second mistake that I think any introductory philosophy student should be able to identify almost immediately. There are various ways to spell out cosmological arguments, but nearly all are much more careful in what they attempt to establish. Take, for example, the kalam cosmological argument. Here the “assumption” is not that everything that exists is caused to exist by something else, but that everything that begins to exist has a cause for its existence. This is not only more careful, and accurate, but it also immediately cuts off the problem Cahn goes on to identify.

This simple qualification makes Cahn’s main objection to “the” cosmological argument sound quite silly. What is his objection? Namely that, “if everything that exists is caused to exist by something else, then the cause of the world’s existence is itself caused to exist by something else.” What Cahn misses completely is that God only needs a cause if God began to exist. But why would any classical theist ever think that?

Oddly, Cahn tries to “save” the argument by noting that some could argue that God caused himself to exist. But, as one would expect, he finds this inadequate because “if the cause of the world’s existence can be self-caused, why cannot the world be self-caused?” Sure, why not? But, again, this only arises if one thinks God began to exist. This simplistic account of cosmological arguments prevents Cahn from even discussing what is probably the most plausible way to reject the argument. A far better way to object to the argument is to point out that if it is possible for God to have existed eternally, then wouldn’t it be possible for the world to have existed eternally too? While this notion ultimately fails, it is a far better objection than what Cahn considers and it is doesn’t depend upon a distortion of what proponents of cosmological arguments actually believe.

Here one might object by saying that the book is intended as an introduction to the issues and so must be written at an introductory level. Likewise, I can imagine the Christian apologist saying that the people he or she is interacting with have, at most, just a basic understanding of the issues. Fair enough, but if you can’t both present the ideas accurately and in a way that is understandable to those new to the subject, then maybe you should find something else to discuss. (Just a quick aside: When serving as a teaching assistant in graduate school I once told the same thing to a professor who in an introduction to philosophy course misrepresented a prominent theistic response to the problem of evil, and then proceeded to “refute” that misrepresentation. To his credit, after our little chat in his office, in the next class he revisited the subject and presented the argument in a more accurate way. I did find it interesting that most of the class quickly realized that the professor’s previous criticisms were suddenly inadequate.)

I was once told that every sermon should have a “take home message.” Perhaps the same is true for blog posts like this. So what, then, is the take home message? Well, the point is certainly not that it’s okay to misrepresent atheists because atheists have misrepresented us. Instead, I hope two things come from this post. First, to reiterate the above, as Christians we ought to be particularly careful to avoid the same approach as Cahn, Dawkins, etc. Whether you are an apologist teaching at your church or a professional philosopher writing an introductory text, if you can’t accurately present an argument in a way that others can understand, then you should probably just find a different argument that you can present accurately.

Second, I think we Christian philosophers need to follow Michael Ruse’s lead. Given his atheism that may seem like a strange thing to say that, but I find it commendable (okay, I also found it humorous) that he was willing to call out fellow atheists when they misrepresented their opposition and ventured outside their areas of expertise. Though Ruse agrees with their conclusions, he recognized that the arguments getting them to those conclusions don’t work. Instead of just ignoring bad arguments against atheism, or bad arguments for theism, we too need to be willing to provide correction. So, for example, if a Christian apologist pulls out a banana and proceeds to argue that its features prove God’s existence, I think it would be better for fellow Christians to point out the problems with such an argument than to let the refutations come from non-believers. I’m afraid our frequent unwillingness to critique one another’s bad philosophy, or to correct each other’s misrepresentations, winds up diminishing the good work that many Christian philosophers are actually doing.

Whether you’re a defender of Christian theism or a critic of it, complaints about your beliefs being misrepresented fall flat when you engage in the same sort of thing. I pray Christian philosophers and apologists will lead by example in both presenting careful analysis of opposing views and in critiquing those who fail to do just that.

If you would like to ask a question or make a comment about this post, please consult our Comment Policy here. If you’re on Twitter, you can connect with the Tyndale Philosophy Department at @TyndaleUCPhilos or me at @wpaul.

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