Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Wanchick's Reply to Baggini

(Again, this is another article in my Drafts folder that was never posted before I stopped blogging. I think I wrote this in 2005 or 2006. In the spirit of clearing out the backlog, I am posting it now.)

Tom Wanchick has written a reply to or review of Julian Baggini's, Atheism: A Very Short Introduction:


First, Tom Wanchick seems to have missed the point that Baggini's book on atheism is, as the title makes clear, "A Very Short Introduction." As a result, Baggini's book is not as detailed or as comprehensive as other books. One important consequence of this is that Baggini does not discuss arguments for atheism and arguments for theism that many people on both sides consider important. Wanchick, however, focuses only on those theistic arguments he deems important. He complains that Baggini ignores arguments for God's existence based on facts about consciousness, intelligent design, the origin of life, but he says nothing about Baggini's silence on important arguments for atheism, such as reasonable nonbelief (i.e., divine hiddenness).

Second, Wanchick's assertion, "theistic models of personhood easily explain and in fact predict this same correlation," is just that: a mere assertion offered without an argument in support. It seems to me that Wanchick's "seed and soil" analogy is nothing more than a demonstration of the logical compatibility of theism and mind-brain dependence; Wanchick has not refuted Baggini's claim that mind-brain dependence is antecedently more probable given atheism than given theism.

Third, I find Wanchick's statement, "simpler hypotheses are preferred only if they are as good as their complex rivals," to be poorly worded. I think I know what he means by "good," but this sentence should be reworded to make that meaning clear. More important,Wanchick's reference to "theism's explanatory success" is obviously question-begging. And the fact that "Many philosophers find that it [naturalism] cannot" match theism's alleged explanatory success is evidentially worthless: there many, if not more, equally well-qualified philosophers who hold the opposite conclusion. So Wanchick's appeal to authority does not increase the probability that theism does, in fact, enjoy explanatory success.

Fourth, I think it is far from obvious that Baggini considers moral values, mental events, beauty, etc. to be "immaterial things." Just because Wanchick understands those concepts in an immaterial way, it does not follow that Baggini follows suit. This is also relevant toWanchick's later accusation that "naturalism lacks" a coherence that "theism enjoys." Given what Alvin Plantinga has taught us about the difficulty in establishing a a logical contradiction between theism and evil, I think it's pretty clear that the same difficulty applies to an alleged logical contradiction between naturalism and moral values, mental events, beauty, etc. I was hoping that Wanchick would avoid even the appearance (suggested by using the word "coherence") of claiming there is a logical contradiction. It is one thing thing to claim that phenoma like moral values, mental events, beauty are evidence for theism and against naturalism. It is quote another to claim that those phenomena are logically incompatible with naturalism. I do not find an argument for such a sweeping claim in Wanchick's review.

Fifth, Wanchick's discussion of "Atheism and Morality" is highly selective. Wanchick is entirely silent about the following significant points:

* The analogy in the "moral laws require a lawgiver" argument doesn't work, since "morality is separate from law" (p. 38)

* Virtually anything on pages 40-56.

Sixth, in response to Baggini's statement of the Euthyphro dilemma,Wanchick (correctly) says that many theists attempt to "circumvent the dilemma" by adopting a third position: God's nature, not His will, is the foundation of moral goodness. Baggini addresses this objection on p. 39, where he notes that "the Euthyphro dilemma can be restated in another way to challenge this reply." As Baggini notes, if God existed and if his nature were different, then morality could have been different and evil acts could have been good. But this is absurd. Hence, Baggini concludes, morality does not depend upon God.

Wanchick objects that God's nature cannot possibly be different. Notice, however, that Wanchick's reply is not strictly relevant to the Euthyphro dilemma or Baggini's modified version of it. For the original dilemma and Baggini's restatement of it are concerned with the moral status of a divine command given the truth of the divine command theory, not with the moral status of a divine command given the truth of the divine command theory conjoined with an auxiliary hypothesis about God's unalterable nature.

A simple example should make this point clear. It is the case that Tom Wanchick would never rape anyone, but we can still ask, "If Wanchick were to commit rape, would it be wrong?" And the answer is "Yes." Similarly, even if God would not approve of rape or muder, it is still true, according to the divine command theory of ethics, that if He were to approve of rape and murder, then rape and murder would be morally right.

Seventh, I agree with Wanchick that Baggini's statement of the cosmological argument misses the distinction made by the kalam argument between "everything has a cause" and "everything that begins to exist has a cause." (For the record, I consider that error to be a strike against Baggini's otherwise outstanding book.) Along the same lines, however, Wanchick seems to have missed the distinction between "beginning to exist in space and time" and "the beginning of space and time itself." It is this latter distinction that renders irrelevant Wanchick's appeal to the repeated verification of the fact that "things do not pop into existence out of nothing" in space and time. At least, Wanchick has provided us with no reason in his review to to think this repeated verification of events in space and time is relevant to the beginning of space and time itself.

Eighth, Wanchick's appeal to authority regarding the status of intelligent design is evidentially worthless, since the scholars he cites are not as well qualified as the scientists (theists and nontheists alike) who recognize the truth of evolutionary theory. This isn't an ad hominem against creationists, including intelligent design theorists. It is simply a recognition of the fact that the scholars cited by Wanchick--William Dembski and J.P. Moreland--are not biologists (nor, so far as I am aware, do they claim to be).

Ninth, I think Wanchick's review is incomplete, insofar as it neglects Baggini's chapters 4-6. Indeed, it is significant that Wanchick discusses "Atheism and Morality" but not Baggini's chapter 4.

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