Responding to Shaun Smith’s Review of the Liberty U Debate

Last Thursday, Max Andrews and I debated the question of whether or not God exists on the Liberty University campus. There was understandably a lot of excitement among students over the event because it is rare to have an atheist as an invited speaker at such a deeply conservative and Christian school as Liberty. To give you some idea of what the campus is like, the lecture hall in which the debate was held was in the same building as Creation Hall, which displays information and artifacts advocating Young Earth Creationism and a literal reading of the book of Genesis. There is also an evangelism class that Liberty requires all of their undergraduates to take. Most of their faculty members have degrees in Divinity or in Theology. There was one student who, prior to the debate, approached me and asked if I were an actual atheist. I don’t think he had knowingly met one before.

At the debate, Max presented four textbook arguments for the existence of God – the cosmological argument, the fine-tuning argument, the moral argument, and Plantinga’s modal ontological argument – while I presented a number of either original or unorthodox arguments against the existence of God – a version of the argument from incoherency from Stephen Law’s Believing Bullshit, a version of the assumption of naturalism I’ve seen used by John Shook, something I call the argument from uneven resources (which is related to the problem of evil and is original to myself), and an argument based around provisional methodological naturalism (inspired by a paper by Maarten Boudry). I’ll likely be presenting these arguments individually in future blog posts.

A colleague of Max’s, named Shaun Smith, has posted a review of the debate to Max’s blog that is largely critical of the arguments that I presented at the debate. I thought that I’d take some time here to respond to his comments.

Shaun’s review begins remarkably critical of myself. He writes: “Max Andrews of Liberty University brought forth compelling arguments, including the infamous ontological argument. Dan Linford, of Virginia Tech, came with a few scattered thoughts, and a selected amount of tactics to try and move the conversation into, well, nothing really.” In this concluding paragraph, he writes: “This debate was friendly, polite, and open-minded. It was at the outset stated that Liberty was a ‘hostile’ environment for Dan. This proposition was proven false. Liberty students were so welcoming and open to what Dan had to say.” I think that the juxtaposition of these comments speaks for itself; far from proving the environment to be non-hostile, the comments from my debate opponent, from Shaun, from a Twitter feed set up for students to comment on the debate, and from a few (but, luckily, not all) students who approached me after the debate, I have to say that Liberty’s campus proved itself to be every bit as closed-minded and hostile as one might have thought going into the experience. In the coming weeks, I’ll devote more time to blogging about the various issues that the people and administration at Liberty posed. But for now, suffice it to say, I would have serious misgivings about doing a future debate on that campus. That’s not to say that I absolutely wouldn’t do a future debate, but it is to say that I would have serious concerns.

I would also say that my thoughts were far from scattered; I had several carefully worked out arguments against the existence of God and I made pains to be understood by a general audience. In contrast, Max’s arguments were obfuscated by the level of technical detail that he simply flashed by the audience at high speed, never stopping to explain technical terminology that even confused the philosophy colleagues who had come with me from Virginia Tech. Having read Plantinga, for example, I knew what ‘maximal excellence’ was supposed to mean; but how was an audience of undergraduates supposed to understand that concept, most of whom had never been exposed to modal logic? This is especially so when many philosophers who have not read Plantinga would have been confused by the mentioning of those words without a careful definition of them.

Shaun, apparently, did not understand one of my most important arguments – the argument from uneven resources. He writes: “That last point leads us into Linford’s second argument that was lurking, though not clearly exfoliated. Linford mentions that there are areas of the Earth that are just not resource friendly, hard to venture past the hunting/gathering stage. Very interesting indeed, though I do not see how this relates.”

Yet I clearly laid out this argument in premise/conclusion form. Here’s a copy of my slide that presented that argument:

1. The world was created with an uneven distribution of resources with no clear indication of what a given region has in its favor.

2. Humans were created as the kind of animal which has a propensity to not to share, to conquer others, and to hate the Other.

3. If (1) and (2), then the world was set up in such a way so as to produce massive amounts of suffering, war, strife, starvation, etc, and for some cultures to do systematically better than others.

4. A loving, all-knowing, all-powerful god is not likely to create a world of that kind.

5. Therefore, we have evidence that a being of that kind does not exist.

Afterwards, I took care of two objections and talked about the strength of the argument by examining Max’s thoughts on the problem of evil (as stated on his blog), the results of a survey of philosophers of religion (who found that the problem of evil was thought to be the strongest argument against the existence of God), and by stating that most replies to this argument would run up against the kind of epistemic view that I had laid out at the beginning (which Shaun states, in his review, he agrees with).

Max’s argument was supposed to be a cumulative case for the existence of God, but it’s not clear how the four arguments he presented accomplish that. Actually,  surprisingly, Max has presented a stronger version of that argument on his blog.

An argument cannot even be a cumulative case if it isn’t drawn out how all four of the arguments collectively act to raise the probability of God’s existence. What’s required of a cumulative case is a linking argument; i.e. an argument which shows how all four of Max’s arguments work together to jointly establish the conclusion that Max’s God exists. However, as an example, in the version presented at the debate, it wasn’t obvious how Max’s arguments were jointly sufficient to establish a claim about immanence, although Max would agree with most theologians that immanence is part of what distinguishes theism from mere deism (as he has assured me in e-mails).

There was a chance in the debate for each debater to interrogate the other. Max had asked me for an alternative non-theistic explanation of where the universe comes from. I had said that this was not relevant to the debate, which, apparently, irritated a large portion of the audience because they took it as me avoiding Max’s arguments (which I wasn’t). I should have been more clear that it’s not relevant for me to be able to supply an alternative; all I have to do is to show that Max’s positive case doesn’t work. The burden is not on me to show that we already have the explanation, especially when I had added that there is no current scientific consensus on the issue. I had actually already surpassed my own burden of proof by providing positive arguments against the existence of God instead of merely providing reasons to think Max’s arguments don’t work.

Similarly, Max asked me about meta-ethics. I had claimed that meta-ethics wasn’t relevant for the debate, not because Max couldn’t provide a theistic explanation of morality, but rather because most meta-ethical views were secular and that it wasn’t clear how positing a god actually solved meta-ethical problems. It wasn’t incumbent on me to show which meta-ethical view (if any) works; rather, the burden was on Max to show that his view beats out all other possible non-theistic meta-ethical views and to supply a case for moral realism. My only claim is that Max cannot do so. Nonetheless, I finally said that, for the sake of argument, I’d be willing to consider Contractarianism as an example of a secular meta-ethical view. As soon as I did so, Max dropped the point and moved onto something else. I can only presume that he didn’t actually have a response, because otherwise he would have rebutted my claim that Contractarianism is a meta-ethical view for which God is not required.

Despite all of that, Shaun wrote: “I cannot say that this debate served to achieve its end. There is nothing more embarrassing for a debater than when he or she tries to say that cosmology and meta-ethics are irrelevant.” Shaun goes on to state: “Dan Linford needs to address the arguments presented, not deflect and dodge them.”

I did address the arguments. In fact, if any one was guilty of not sufficiently addressing the other’s arguments, it was Max. One of my arguments – the incoherency argument – was never addressed by Max. My main argument – the argument from uneven resources – received only two easily refuted responses.

The first was that God had placed people in various places throughout history for His own reasons. That’s a kind of response that was very easily refuted; the game is not to fix the round peg of theology into the square hole of our observations of the world, but to find the square peg that actually fits. And using a hammer to force the round peg to fit is clearly cheating. At the outset, I had set up an epistemology in order to refute a large number of responses and — predictably — Max’s response is easily rebutted by the epistemic rules I had laid out. Max never objected to those epistemic rules and Shaun actually stated in his review that he agreed with them.

The second was that the argument from evil actually shows that God exists because, without God, evil couldn’t exist. The response I provided was two-fold: first, the argument from evil does not require evil to exist; it only requires suffering. Second, the argument from evil can be seen as a reductio of theism; surely the theist believes that evil exists, but then its not clear why the world should be constructed as it is. And given that the world we see is not the kind of world we would expect God to make, the existence of the world cannot be used as evidence for God.

But Shaun is apparently still confused by the way that explanation is supposed to work. He writes, “Another issue pertains to the questions that were being asked. Max was defending theistic arguments for God, ones that many atheists would counter with other evidence, strictly pertaining to the argument. Linford, however, did not bring those to light in this debate. Instead, he brought forth more questions and tried to use them as arguments. Questions are not arguments. Well God cannot explain this or that? Well how can God explain this? The problem is that Max showed you that God explains these issues, now you must address those.”
Except that one of the explanatory virtues associated with positing an explanation is to show:
6. That an explanation doesn’t just introduce more mystery;
7. That the explanans (the stuff doing the explaining) in an explanation confer a high probability on the explanandum (the thing being explained).

My raising of those questions was supposed to show that Max’s explanations fail to be explanations because of (6) and (7). For example, if Max cannot show that the universe we live in is the one that God would be likely to create, then observing that the universe exists cannot count as evidence for God (see (7)). Conversely, if I am able to posit so many troubling questions, then positing God just introduces more mystery (see (6)).

And so my argument was supposed to show that Max’s supposed explanation fails as an explanation.

Shaun is apparently still confused that, in providing a negative view, I do not have to provide a meta-ethical view. He writes, “Why is that I am obliged to not torture children for fun? If Dan were to not deflect this meta-ethical issue, I would be very intrigued by what an atheist would offer forth on this.” Well, I’m sorry that Liberty University does not teach meta-ethics! The problem is not that the atheist has no meta-ethical views which s/he could produce as a response; rather, the problem is that there are simply too many such views and, as a non-meta-ethicist, I have not yet made up my mind about which meta-ethical view I would choose. I should add that these views are secular in that God is not necessary for them, not in that they can somehow count as arguments against the existence of God. Here are some examples:

8. Ethical non-naturalism (for example, David Enoch’s view in Taking Morality Seriously)
9. Contractarianism (for example, John Rawls’ view)
10. Utilitarianism (John Stuart Mill)
11. Neo-Kantian Deontology
12. Naturalistic moral realism (for instance, Richard Boyd’s view in “How to Be a Moral Realist”)
13. Humean Conventionalism
14. Non-theistic Virtue Ethics (God isn’t necessary, for example, in Aristotle’s Nichomachean Ethics)

And that’s just a sample. Really, there are only a small minority of ethical views which actually require that God exists. And then there are all of the meta-ethical views which we haven’t thought of yet. For Max to claim that God is indispensable for metaphysically grounding morality would require him to show that all of these views, including the ones that we have yet to think of, do not actually work.

As I said during the debate, I’m frankly tired of meta-ethical concerns arising in debates over God’s existence. I just don’t see the relevance, other than that theists either (a) want to make atheists appear to be immoral people or (b) are ignorant of the contemporary state of meta-ethics as a discipline. For additional possibly meta-ethical views, see the flow chart provided by David Faraci here.

Shaun goes on to say that my response to the Ontological Argument was insufficient.

In responding to the Ontological Argument, I stated three objections:

15. There are multiple modal logics, and the axiom S5 – which is required for Plantinga’s argument to go through – is sufficiently controversial that it cannot be simply invoked without argumentation.

16. It’s not clear that great-making properties exist, or, if they do, which properties those are.

17. Plantinga does not think that his own ontological argument is actually sound. Rather, Plantinga thinks that his argument is merely valid and that its validity establishes the rationality of theism (a view which he has taken quite a bit of criticism for).

Shaun, once again, either did not understand what I said or wilfully misrepresented it. In any case, he states, “Just because you are not able to answer the ontological argument does not mean you have to resort to false facts. Alvin Plantinga, indeed, holds to his own version of the ontological argument.”

Yet Plantinga, while defending the ontological argument, does not think it actually establishes that God exists. In his SEP article on the topic, philosopher of religion Graham Oppy writes:

Perhaps somewhat surprisingly, Plantinga himself agrees: the “victorious” modal ontological argument [the argument Max presented] is not a proof of the existence of a being which possesses maximal greatness. But how, then, is it “victorious”? Plantinga writes: “Our verdict on these reformulated versions of St. Anselm’s argument must be as follows. They cannot, perhaps, be said to prove or establish their conclusion. But since it is rational to accept their central premise, they do show that it is rational to accept that conclusion” (Plantinga 1974, 221).

Shaun states that: “…when did Modal Logic become controversial? I really would like to see some source work on that issue.”

Again, I did not claim that modal logic was controversial. I claimed that the axiom S5 was controversial and that S5 is crucial for Plantinga’s ontological argument to succeed.

Nonetheless, modal logic actually is controversial. For a quick reference, there is the Quine/Kripke debate over modal logic or the more recent meta-ontological literature, a large portion of which is highly skeptical of whether or not traditional, armchair metaphysics is capable of showing anything substantive about the world at all. The kind of criticisms levelled by James Ladyman, et al, in their recent Everything Must Go could easily be levelled against most, if not all, of Plantinga’s work. But even amongst those philosophers who do accept some form of modal logic, S5 is the most controversial (as a colleague admitted to me today, “S5 is crazy!”).

When I interrogated Max, I had asked about his response to one of my arguments. I had claimed that scientists had learned better than to use theology to guide the formation of their hypotheses, through a sort of meta-induction over the history of science. This and other arguments were supposed to pose a problem if Max claimed he was using a science to infer that God exists. Max’s rebuttal had been that God’s existence is a metaphysical conclusion and not a scientific one, which seemed to indicate that Max had in mind that there existed some sort of special metaphysical method that could somehow answer substantive questions about the world which science could not answer. However, upon being asked what that special metaphysical method was, Max responded by claiming that his inference that God exists used a historical/scientific epistemology, but was not science — it was philosophy. That seemed a strange distinction to make, especially since I knew from his blog that his cumulative case argument was supposed to be grounded in Peirceian abduction (whose name Max mispronounced and whose view Max straw-manned; nonetheless, Peirce had developed abduction as a way to describe science and so would not have recognized the kind of distinction Max was trying to make). I asked Max for clarification on the sort of distinction he was trying to draw; what is it about the inference to God’s existence that was not scientific, in Max’s view? Was it merely that it was work being done by philosophers? Or was there a more substantive distinction? He kept repeating that the method was scientific, but somehow he wasn’t doing science. At one point, I even caught him in a contradiction, though he simply repeated the same response back to me. Finally, at the exact moment when time was called, Max agreed that his inference was supposed to be scientific. Of course, that invalidates his earlier response to my argument, but we didn’t have time to explore that implication.

Stay tuned for more discussion of the debate…


  • Frank Bellamy
    April 3, 2013 - 8:37 pm | Permalink

    “if Max cannot show that the universe we live in is the one that God would be likely to create, then observing that the universe exists cannot count as evidence for God (see (7))”

    Not necessarily. If, for example, the probability of this universe existing on the theory that God exists is 1%, and the probability of this universe existing on the theory that God does not exist is 0%, then God is actually a very good explanation of this universe. It doesn’t matter what the absolute probability that God would create this universe is. What matters is relative probabilities, is this universe more likely to exist in a case where God exists than in a case where God does not exist? If so, then the existence of this universe is good evidence of he existence of God.

    • Dan Linford
      April 3, 2013 - 8:41 pm | Permalink

      Well, which probability one needs to actually show to be increased is at least controversial and depends on what sort of view one takes on (see, for example, Elliott Sober’s “Evidence and Evolution”).

      Nonetheless, if I stuck with the view you presented here, then what Max would need to show is that the God hypothesis raises the probability that we have the universe that we have and that it does not lower it. If positing God actually makes the universe we see *less* likely, then we have evidence against God instead of for God. He didn’t demonstrate that either.

      • Frank Bellamy
        April 3, 2013 - 9:45 pm | Permalink

        I wasn’t aware that that view of probability and evidence was controversial. Can you say a little more about the controversey? But you are absolutely correct about the implications of my view.

        • Dan Linford
          April 3, 2013 - 10:38 pm | Permalink

          Well, the general topic is here is confirmation theory, which is a very broad subdiscipline of philosophy of science. What you said is probably in the same ball park as everyone’s intuitions, but there are a lot of questions about which probability we should use, whether we should even use a probability, etc. For instance, does Bayes’ Theorem capture the right conception of confirmation? If it does, how could we talk about the prior probability of an entire theory — for example, what’s the prior probability of Newtonian gravitation? How would one even compute such a thing?

          The framework that my debate opponent uses is a version of a view called Likelihoodism (actually, as it turns out, a really bad version of that view. I didn’t want to ask my opponent a question that the audience wouldn’t understand so I didn’t slam him on it, but the version he presented actually doesn’t work at all). Under that view, a set of observations O is said to favor hypothesis h1 over hypothesis h2 iff:


          This is what’s called the Likelihood Principle. Importantly, for the principle to actually work, one needs to have some way to restrict or filter the set of live hypotheses before this computation is even done, otherwise there are absurd hypotheses which we would say are highly likely (if I hear a noise coming from my attic, this notion of ‘likelihood’ would say that it is highly likely that there are goblins in the attic making that noise). There are various proposals in the literature for what these additional conditions would need to be, though theists typically pick out criteria that end up favoring God and others pick out criteria that ends up ruling out God. On the other hand, there are practising scientists who use the principle; so something about it must be correct (not to mention that it can be proven from Bayes’ Theorem).

          Notice that this is a very different conditional probability than the one you pointed to (which would be P(h|O)).

  • John Doe
    April 9, 2013 - 6:09 am | Permalink

    After the initial debate, I noticed that Max begins by stating that “That was a bit of a scattergun approach, a bunch of quick small arguments. It was really difficult I admit to follow them without the rigid format” Max proceeds to defend that he believes that god would create this type of universe and goes into an awful contradictory analogy of good and evil being objective and how if a car gets a flat tire, it was still designed by someone. This immediately contradicts a perfect, good, all knowing god. In my opinion, he has no idea how to defend his position from his initial points, and I would actually like to see a more knowledgeable debater on the theism side, as opposed to a guy who knows how to use words and concepts that the audience is not familiar with, and who can actually argue his side.

    He also is trying to make a strong argument of the gravitational constant on the existence of god? I have no idea where he was trying to go on that point, and he actually ruins any credibility that he has by not explaining that more.

    • Dan Linford
      April 9, 2013 - 11:55 am | Permalink

      Thank you for the comment!

      I think that the point about the gravitational constant was the fine-tuning argument; i.e. that the physical constants fall within such a narrow range that it would have required an intelligent mind to set them. Really, this is just another instance of the god-of-the-gaps (i.e. here’s a hard scientific problem and the only way Max can imagine to solve it is by invoking God. Therefore God exists!).

      I agree that Max probably had no idea how to defend himself against what I said. The critical review posted by Shaun Smith seems to reveal that they wanted me to show up and give standard responses and arguments (Shaun even states what he wanted me to say; but I see no reason why I should show up and state what everyone else has already said on the subject). I was already walking into the proverbial lion’s den and I saw no reason to play into their game. Since they didn’t expect me to say what I had said, and I had essentially ruled out any kind of response that he could have given, he was at a loss as to how he could respond.

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