Stringer’s Modal Arguments for Atheism

Ryan Stringer, a contributor to the internet infidels community, proposes that there are modal arguments for Atheism which have the following form:

A. It is possible that p.
B. Necessarily, if it is possible that God exists, then it is necessary that God exists.
C. Necessarily, if God exists, then it is not the case that p.
D. Therefore, it is not possible that God exists. (from A, B, & C)

Stringer then proposes that modal arguments for Atheism can be generated by simply stipulating values for p. He presents a few suggestions of his own: 1) Gratuitous Evil, 2) All Minds are physically realized, 3′) the world’s metaphysically free, non-God creatures produce more moral evil than moral goodness such that their freedom is not worth the cost, and so on. For his whole article, I invite people to check out this link here. I think this is a valid and interesting way to formulate arguments for Atheism, and the method may be of pedagogical merit for theists as well. Whatever value can stand in for p is something which the theist will have to argue is not only non-actual, but not possible. Take gratuitous evil as an example, about which I’ve written previously; one will find that if gratuitous evil is possible then a maximally great being exists in no possible world, and if a maximally great being exists in any possible world then gratuitous evil exists in no possible world.

Suppose the theist thinks that God’s existence is an analytic truth (as do I); she will then end in thinking that for any value satisfying p, it is an analytic truth that ~p, even if the entailment isn’t obvious to everyone (i.e., it isn’t obvious to those who don’t think theism is an analytic truth and recognize God and p to be logically exclusive). This form of argument can make more obvious to the theist and atheist alike what kinds of things are countenanced as possible on a theistic view of modality.

Now, I anticipate that somebody may object to me by citing a methodological inconsistency on my part. I have said before that as a general methodological rule one should always presume possibility in place of presuming impossibility. In other words, the claim that something is impossible requires a burden of proof not demanded of the more modest claim that something is possible. One should always differ, in the absence of a defeater, to the view which enriches, rather than impoverishes, one’s view of modality. I have even used such a methodological rule to undermine atheological parodies of the ontological argument since the atheological parodies depend on impoverishing rather than enriching the range of the possible. ‘However,’ one may object ‘you forget that if more than one value satisfies p then, by your own methodological rule, you should prefer to accept as possible all values satisfying p instead of preferring to accept the possibility of a maximally great being, shouldn’t you?‘ This is an interesting objection, especially since part of the reason I think theism is an analytic truth is that I think it can be inferred from an obviously sound cosmological argument in combination with (or supplemented by) a logically valid and self-evidently sound ontological argument, and one of the arguments I’ve given for the ontological argument is that the major modal objection against it (which comes from atheological parodies) impoverishes modality such that, as a methodological principle, one should prefer the theological to the atheological conclusion.

However, since nothing which satisfies p is going to be an analytic truth, and since theism seems to be an analytic truth, one cannot argue that just because many values satisfy p one should prefer to accept p as possible even if it entails that theism is impossible. Theism, being an analytic truth, can only be presented to some modal-opponent to which we should differ in its place if that modal-opponent is proposed as an analytic truth. I suspect that there are no values satisfying p which are stipulated as analytic truths, and so no matter how many values satisfy p, the set of such values will never act as a defeater for theism since they are not analytic. The same could be said for values of q satisfying the condition that q⊃~PNC where PNC stands for the principle of non-contradiction.


About tylerjourneaux

I am an aspiring Catholic theologian and philosopher, and I have a keen interest in apologetics. I am creating this blog both in order to practice and improve my writing and memory retention as I publish my thoughts, and in order to give evidence of my ability to understand and communicate thoughts on topics pertinent to Theology, Philosophy, philosophical theology, Catholic (Christian) Apologetics, philosophy of religion and textual criticism.
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13 Responses to Stringer’s Modal Arguments for Atheism

  1. Mike says:

    I’m not convinced theism is an analytic truth. So does that defeat your dismissal of Stringer’s argument?

    • No, not necessarily, but in your case somebody would have to weigh the probability of all values p being false against the probability of all values of x being false, where ‘if x then God exists’.

      • Mike says:

        Ok, I’m curious, do you think the statement “God exists” and the statement “gratuitous evil exists” are logically compatible?

      • No. I think they are mutually exclusive statements precisely because of what the adjective ‘gratuitous’ is intended to indicate in that sentence.

  2. Perhaps this deserves a more careful answer on my part though. Clearly my ‘dismissal’ of Stringer’s argument is based on the supposition that Theism is an analytic truth, but I don’t think it would have to be. Suppose somebody does not think that Theism is an analytic truth. Let’s suppose they also don’t think that the existence of gratuitous evil is an analytic truth, and that, in fact, they don’t think that any values satisfying p, including gratuitous evil, are know as analytic truths. So long as they know that it is an analytic truth that (T⊃~P) and (P⊃~T) where T is Theism, they will have to decide which of the two are more reasonable to hold: T or P. Now, I had said that as a methodological rule people should differ to the position which allows for more possibilities rather than less, and that this would seem to mitigate prejudice in favor of T. However, T might still be preferable, even if it weren’t analytic. For instance if T were a properly basic belief, or if one could show that (T≡Wx) where Wx stands for ‘x obtains in some possible world’, and could subsequently show that all the values of Wx made one’s modality richer than all the values of P, then one could still have grounds for preferring T to P.

    • Mike says:

      It sounds fancy but I don”t think holds up. I have a strong preference for values of P than for values of T as at least with P values we can confirm them with tangible scientific evidence. With out complicating things, all we need to do is demonstrate that gratuitous evil can exist in some possible world and that would ruin the possibility of certain kinds of theism from being true in any possible world. That to me is easily achievable in using the actual world.

      • I think that’s just confused. There’s no scientific evidence for any values of P that I can think of. If you could demonstrate that gratuitous evil were possible in some logically possible world then it would mean that Theism (of the typical Anselmian variety) would be logically impossible, but there’s no way to license the claim that any instances of evil are gratuitous. How would one demonstrate that?

      • Mike says:

        Well maybe we disagree on what gratuitous evil is. Would you agree that gratuitous evil is suffering that is caused or allowed for no logically necessary reason?

      • No, obviously that’s not what anybody means by gratuitous. Gratuitous evil is evil for which there is not any morally sufficient reason – and it just isn’t possible for us, from our epistemic vantage point, to argue that any instance of evil is gratuitous in this sense.

      • Mike says:

        Well how do you define evil?

      • As a deprivation of good.

  3. Bartone says:

    It’s possible that:

    a) All minds are physically realized
    b) Gratuitous suffering exists
    c) Omnipotence is not actualized
    d) The total sum of information there is, is unknown

    All those are possibility claims, not claims that something is impossible. Thus, by your own assertion; the burden is certainly on you to show they are impossible as that is a wilder claim. I mean, the above only have to true in one possible world (that is pretty modest). However, those possibilities show Theism false. Also, what support can you give for the assertion that God existence being possible is an analytic proposition? The idea of sentient beings is based on emperical observation; an observation of a world where there just so happen to be beings. The idea of God is based on this contingent fact.

    • Thank you for your comment. First, obviously each of the theses you present bear a relation to Theism of mutual exclusion. Therefore, to assert any one of them is as much to assert the impossibility of Theism, as to assert Theism is to assert the impossibility of any of them.

      Second, I would be happy to accept the burden of proof here anyways, and give good arguments for the existence of God (of which there is no short supply). I think the arguments for Theism are by far and away better than the arguments for the contrary.

      Third, the assertion that God’s existence is possible certainly does seem to be an analytic proposition (since if something is possible then it is necessarily possible), but I think you meant to ask why I think that God’s existence is an analytic proposition. Here I think people like Bertrand Russell are on to something when they make the conditional claim that if Theism were true, it should be very surprising if it weren’t an analytic truth. In part, if one can run a logically valid non-question begging ontological argument (which I suspect we can) then it will plausibly follow that God’s existence is an analytic truth. Note that not much hangs on that as far as I’m concerned. I don’t need Theism to turn out to be an analytic truth to have a justified belief in it anymore than I need for anything else to be an analytic truth in order to believe it justifiably.

      Fourth, and finally, this point about empirical observation and contingent sentient beings: I think the point is just completely misconceived. First, the idea that there are sentient beings does not come from empirical observation, but by immediate apprehension. I realize that I am a sentient being first of all, and that knowledge is prior to any empirical observation I make about my surrounding environment. I then project by analogy my experiences onto others, and I come to believe that there are other things like myself, other people and other sentient beings. My knowledge that there is at least one sentient being, though, is not empirical, but rational (and that’s a huge difference epistemically speaking). Finally, Theism may be taken as an empirical postulate, if you like, and even as a kind of empirical hypothesis, if you like. I don’t think that’s the right way to think about Theism (after all most Theists won’t conceive of God as a tenuous hypothesis that we posit to explain some body of empirical data), but even if you insisted on thinking of Theism in that way I don’t see that this would give us a problem. What could you have in mind? Maybe something like this: suppose that my empirical observation of beings around me brings me to believe that many beings in the world are sentient, contingent and the like. Eventually I postulate that there is some ultimate sentient being, but I’m left with problems. For one thing, I postulate a sentient being which is incontingent, when my experience of all sentient beings is that they are contingent, and likewise I posit that the being I have in mind is immaterial while I seem to find in the world that if sentience/consciousness isn’t itself physical, at least it’s coextensive with materiality. So, I seem to have no good grounds for inductively inferring that there is some such being as I come to imagine.

      If this is what the problem is supposed to be then I think it itself is more problematic than it’s soundness would be for the Theist. After all, just because I have never experienced grass being any colour other than green, it does not follow that I could never posit without observation that some blade of grass is purple. It might be hard to imagine how that could play a role in some explanatory story, but nothing precludes it’s being open to me in principle, even if I am a strict and stringent empiricist. The fact that I observe green grass whenever I observe grass does not mean that I can’t make good empirical sense of grass being turquoise or purple or any other colour you like. This is because the idea of grass is distinct from the idea of it’s being green. Perhaps I couldn’t imagine an immaterial blade of grass, but I can imagine a non-green one because it’s colour has nothing to do with the idea of the thing. Similarly, the only way the human mind could even conceive of a person being immaterial is if there is nothing about sentience, consciousness or personhood which is conceptually bound up with materiality. Just because every mind I encounter, or believe I’ve encountered, seems to be coextensive with a body does not mean that bodies and minds are conceptually bound up. In fact, I think that we apprehend ourselves to be immaterial persons, and this is the only reason we can go on to imagine immaterial persons at all. The human mind would never be able to entertain the notion of an immaterial mind if it’s conceiving of a mind were strongly conceptually bound up with the idea of physicality. Physicalism may turn out to be true, but it certainly isn’t intuitive. So I don’t see that there’s any serious problem here. Indeed, to claim that it is logically impossible that there be an immaterial sentient being would just be to beg the question against Theism. It would also be to make the stronger claim, and it would require a burden of proof which, I suspect, cannot be carried. Now, perhaps I’m getting ahead of myself, since I don’t actually know that you think anything like this, but I can’t imagine what else you had in mind in those last sentences of yours.

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