Does Robert Baty’s quiz show that atheists are wrong?

Christian Robert Baty has recently posted a challenge to atheists centered on his so-called “Atheism 101 Argument” and a related quiz. After seeing him post the argument to Peter Boghossian’s Facebook, I took some time today to provide a reply. His argument consists of a two premise syllogism and is logically valid (it’s a modus ponens argument). There is a further question concerning its soundness and whether or not atheists are forced to accept its premises or conclusion. As I understand it, Baty claims that atheists agree to accept his argument’s premises but refuse to accept the conclusion. I also understand that Baty thinks this implies that atheism is somehow contradictory or self-defeating (or perhaps that common defenses of atheism are contradictory or self-defeating). In addition, Baty states that when he posted his material to JREF, he did not receive a satisfactory response.

For those interested, Baty set up a Facebook page here. And although I have not had time to peruse them, he has previously debated this issue with Thomas Dziubla, an engineering professor from the University of Kentucky.

Baty’s argument is as follows, together with my response to each piece of the argument. I apologize in advance for Baty’s use of gendered language. (Which I actually find to be offensive, but I’m quoting straight from his own text.)

“MAJOR PREMISE:

- IF (A) man was able to originate
- the idea/concept of God through
- the power of imagination,
-
- THEN (B) man did originate the
- idea/concept of God through the
- power of imagination.”

I don’t think this conditional statement is true. Just because “man” is able to originate the “idea/concept of God through the power of imagination” does not imply that “man did originate the idea/concept of God through power of imagination”.

We can imagine a world much like the one we live in, except that it lacks African lions. One day, while watching some mountain lions in the American west, Bob dreams up a different species of large cat. He calls this new species “African lions”. This different species has a large bunch of fur around its neck which he imagines is called a “mane”. He also imagines that these African lions hunt deer-like creatures he calls “gazelles” and that they live in an environment with tall, golden grass he calls the “Serengeti”.

Now, Bob hasn’t performed any sort of great mental act that would be impossible for any of the rest of us to do. So, Bob’s mental activity is possible activity for a human mind.

Except that, in our world, the idea of African lions does not come from Bob’s imagination. Rather, it comes from actual experience with lions.

So the ability to “originate the idea/concept of God through the power of imagination” does not imply that “man did originate the idea/concept of God through the power of the imagination”.

Thus, I reject Baty’s major premise as it currently stands.

“MINOR PREMISE:

- (A) Man was able to originate the
- idea/concept of God through the
- power of imagination.”

I don’t accept this minor premise either, and for two reasons. To begin with, I’m not convinced that we have the “idea/concept of God” and I’m not convinced that we are able to generate that concept either. Second, Baty has not specified which God he is talking about; as such, I cannot say whether the God he is talking about can actually be imagined (and, thus, whether humans are capable of producing the “idea/concept of God through the power of imagination”).

I’m not saying that we do not have a concept of God. Rather, I do not know whether we do or not. I have some sympathy for ignostics or theological non-cognitivists, who would argue that there is no such concept. And there are Christian theological arguments – going back at least to Pseudo-Dionysius in the late 5th or early 6th centuries CE – that God is so incomprehensible that we cannot have a (positive) concept of God (or that our concept of God is extraordinarily limited). This is closely related to the apophatic tradition (the view that we can only say what God is not and cannot really say anything about God) and to the so-called Problem of Religious Language (that it seems our language lacks any of the appropriate predicates for talking about God).

In fact, there is an argument going back to Anthony Collins, George Berkeley, and David Hume that a traditional solution to the Problem of Religious Language (the Doctrine of Analogy, at least as envisioned by Peter Browne and William King) renders theism indistinguishable from atheism. For example, see Chapter XII of Hume’s Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion or Collins’s short, but excellent, Vindication of Divine Attributes. (There is a free copy of Collins’s Vindication on Eigteenth Century Collections Online, but you need to be a student or faculty member at a university that has a subscription to that database. Nonetheless, I have a pdf copy that I can send to anyone who is interested.)

Thus, there are both believers and non-believers who, for a variety of reasons, would argue that we do not have a concept of God or that, at the very least, we have very little of a concept of God. Given my sympathies for views of that kind, I’m not sure whether or not we are able to dream up the idea/concept of God through the “power of imagination”.

There is also the issue of which God we are talking about. Even the theist will agree that some conceptions of God or gods were dreamed up. For example, the many gods which inhabit Terry Pratchett’s novels were cooked up in Terry Pratchett’s head. Other gods – such as the god of classical monotheism (i.e. the god of the scholastics) – might be so utterly incomprehensible that we have no “idea/concept” of them (as I already discussed).

Thus, I do not accept Baty’s minor premise either.

“CONCLUSION:

- (B) Man did originate the idea/concept
- of God through the power of imagination.”

I see very little reason to accept this conclusion. For one thing, I did not accept either the major or the minor premises of this argument. For another, there are other ways in which the “idea/concept of God” may have originated than through the “power of imagination”. For example, there is a view from evolutionary psychology that ideas about supernatural agencies came about as the joint byproduct of the evolution of a variety of cognitive and cultural phenomena and that no person or persons simply dreamed up those supernatural agents, as popularized by Daniel Dennet in his Breaking the Spell and by Pascal Boyer in his superb Religion Explained.

Having moved through Baty’s argument and provided my critiques of it, I’ll now address his quiz questions.

Baty tells us that: “If your answer is not ‘yes’ to each question [on the quiz], then your default answer is ‘no’.” But why should we accept that? I see no reason to accept the idea that I have to completely reject something if I fail to accept it. In any case, let’s play by his rules and see where that gets us.

“Question #1:

Do you think the argument is so constructed that
if its premises are true its conclusion will follow
as true therefrom (i.e., that it is logically valid)?”

- Robert Baty – Yes
- Dan Linford – Yes, it is a modus ponens argument.

“Question #2:

Do you think that you can take the minor premise
and conclusion of a logically valid modus ponens
form argument and construct the major premise
therefrom?”

- Robert Baty – Yes
- Dan Linford – Yes, and we can demonstrate that using the argument Baty has provided. The argument has the form:

Major premise: x->y

Minor premise: x

Conclusion: y

Taking the minor premise and the conclusion, we have:

Minor premise: x

Conclusion: y

We know that this is a logically valid argument and we know the form of a modus ponens argument, so the major premise must be: x->y.

“Question #3:

Do you think that the major premise of the above
argument may be properly inferred and properly
constructed from the minor premise and conclusion
of the argument?”

- Robert Baty – Yes
- Dan Linford – Yes.

“Question #4:

Do you think that there are atheists who
implicitly and/or explicitly believe the
conclusion to be true?”

- Robert Baty – Yes
- Dan Linford – Yes, there are at least some atheists who think that. I’m not one of them.

“Question #5:

Do you think that there are atheists who
implicitly and/or explicitly believe the
minor premise to be true?”

- Robert Baty – Yes
- Dan Linford – Yes, there are at least some atheists who think that. Again, I’m not one of them.

“Question #6:

Do you think that there are atheists who
implicitly and/or explicitly believe the
major premise to be true?”

- Robert Baty – Yes
- Dan Linford – Yes, though, once again, I’m not one of them.

So, I’m at a loss to see what Baty’s point is supposed to be. Are there atheists who believe some absurd things? Certainly. That does not surprise me. In any case, I fail to see how Baty’s quiz or argment has somehow undercut atheism or what I would consider to be good arguments for atheism.

I did have a short exchange with him on Peter Boghossian’s Facebook wall concerning Dave Foda’s response to the argument. I’ll provide the text of that exchange below, in case any readers are interested in reading it. Dave’s original response can be found here.

Robert Baty — Having read Dave Foda’s assessment of your test, I think the issue he raises should be understood as follows.

Dave thinks that the argument you provided (and attribute to atheists) is valid but not sound. He seems to think that a slightly modified version — incorporating ceteris paribus conditions — would be sound.

In any case, it seems to me that your argument tries to press atheists into accepting a particular syllogism. However, atheists have no reason to accept this syllogism as such. They can certainly say that they don’t know whether the premises — and the conclusion — are true, but that they find them to be more or less likely to be true. That seems to be something like how we usually reason under uncertainty.

His response:

“Dan Linford,

Thanks for considering the Exercise as completed by Dave Foda.

Dave has agreed with me as to all 6 questions.

For those atheists who are so bold as to declare that the origin of the idea/concept of God was the result of the powers of imagination, that is the argument that “entails”.

I agree with you that it is not sound because when pressed, atheists tend to admit the premises cannot be established even though they believe/think they are true.

That’s one of the points of the Exercise.

As Campbell and Owen discussed back in 1829, the options were determined to be reason, revelation or imagination.

They both denied it was reason.

Campbell argued for revelation.

Owen believed it was imagination.

Not much has changed since then, but many an atheist still boldly claim that man just dreamed up the notion of God. Then, as we have seen here, when push comes to shove they refuse to accept their own ‘entailed’ argument and admit that they only “believe/think” some ancient savage dreamed up the idea.”

My reply:

Robert –

I don’t think you’ve really addressed what I said. Part — though not all — of what I was stating was that Dave was wrong to have accepted the argument as is. Rather, to be consistent with his own views, he should have demanded that the original argument be modified *before* he agreed to it. I think Dave makes a mistake in his response, but its a trivial mistake that does not alter his ultimate conclusion. Namely, he should have demanded that you add ceteris paribus conditions (are you familiar with what that means?).

As for your response to me, it strikes me that there two huge problems with the way you’ve thought about this.

1. The discussion had by Campbell and Owen in 1829 is idiosyncratically related to their time period. If you compare the discussion between those two with the discussion either in Berkeley’s Alciphron or Hume’s Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, then you find that thinkers in the 1700s would not have been so quick to dismiss the idea that one knows about God through reason and not through revelation or through the imagination. Also compare that discussion to the Catholic doctrine of preambulae fidei, where, at least as understood in the 18th century, stated that one needed to prove God’s existence by reason before accepting revelation. Another reason to think that the discussion by Campbell and Owen is idiosyncratic, and not directly relevant to discussions about atheism today, is that many atheists do not think that God is known about through revelation, reason, or through the imagination. Rather, the concept of God is one which naturally emerges from the intersection of a variety of natural forces. People believe in supernatural agents not because any particular person or persons thought them up, but because the concepts naturally emerged as an evolutionary or cultural byproduct. See, for example, Daniel Dennet’s view in Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon.

2. Believing that x is the case is not the same thing as knowing for certain that x is the case. But your argument assumes from the get-go that responders have to either accept premises or not, that they can’t simply lean in one direction or another, but must be steadfastly committed to one particular idea. What I would propose for you to consider is that most of our beliefs about the world are not things which we are steadfastly committed to. I don’t see why beliefs concerning God should be any different.

And Baty’s final response before I drafted this document:

Dan Linford,

You bring up some interesting issues and there are, of course, many angles to the matter.

However, I stand by my representations of the state of the matter, despite modern embellishments, and the claims I make for my argument.

If you wish to further explore my claims and Dave’s failed attempt to distract from the matter, please provide your answers to each of the questions and we can take any problems you have with my claims and the Exercise step by reasonable step.

Preferably, Dan, at my place.

Thanks again for your interest and participation.

And that’s where the Facebook exchange ended. This article was the result of Baty request to assess his argument and test. I’m looking forward to seeing what Baty thinks of all of this.

2 Comments

  • November 6, 2013 - 3:59 pm | Permalink

    I thank Dan for bringing my Exercise to your attention.

    I thought I would make this brief appearance to thank him and acknowledge the presentation.

    I don’t think it properly reflects what my Argument and Exercise is all about, but I will have to take up the details of that later as I get time.

    It’s been a busy, busy day.

  • November 6, 2013 - 6:42 pm | Permalink

    I will try to keep my initial analysis of the article simple and, if there is interest, we can build up from there.

    In the opening paragraph, Dan writes:

    - “As I (Dan Lindford) understand it,
    - Baty claims that atheists agree to
    - accept his argument’s premises but
    - refuse to accept the conclusion.”

    You will notice that Dan does not appear to have any reference to support his “understanding” of that. Actually, he MISunderstands it; in my opinion.

    Here’s the conclusion of the argument:

    - “Man did originate the idea/concept
    - of God through the power of imagination.”

    That is foundation of the argument for purposes of the exercise and, in my experience, is a common, explicit, affirmative claim made by atheists and that without qualification.

    If you are of such a sort as have not experienced seeing or hearing an atheist make such a claim, then you probably need to do some homework before proceeding.

    Dan goes on writing:

    - I (Dan Linford) also understand that
    - Baty thinks this implies that atheism
    - is somehow contradictory or self-defeating
    - (or perhaps that common defenses of
    - atheism are contradictory or self-defeating).

    Since his earlier “understanding” was a “MISunderstanding”, it is expected that what follows continues off course, and that turns out to be the case.

    The argument and exercise are simple, quite simple, and it seems so many from the skeptical side seem to think there is some trick to it, some trap.

    There isn’t.

    It just simply helps illustrate the state of the issue fundamental to atheism and how some atheists really struggle in trying to demonstrate they can properly apply basic critical thinking skills when their position is the subject matter used in the critical thinking exercise.

    Dan Linford rejects, or pretends to, any truth claim that might be made for the major and minor premises and the conclusion.

    So do I.

    Dan tries to get around the alternatives offered, but, I propose, any other choice besides “revelation” (God exists and revealed himself) and “reason” (God exists and without revelation God was discovered through valid, sound reasoning) which he uses to provide an explanation for the origin of the idea/concept of God can be properly, simply, and reasonably classified in the “imagination” category.

    I did think his reference to Daniel Dennett appropriate for I have used an unrebutted review of that book of his as a reference point. In summary, the reference noted that Dennett admitted that he doesn’t have an origin for the idea/concept of God tied down, but thinks there are several theories about that independent of “reason” and/or “revelation”.

    Things really haven’t changed since Campbell and Owen took up that question and that is one of the points to be made in considering the exercise.

    As to the 6 questions, Dan Linford answers, best I can tell:

    1. Yes
    2. Yes
    3. Yes
    4. Yes
    5. Yes
    6. Yes

    Welcome to my club, Dan! :o )

    Dan writes following his successful completion of the exercise, in part:

    - “I (Dan Linford) fail to see how Baty’s
    - quiz or argument has somehow undercut
    - atheism or what I would consider to be
    - good arguments for atheism.”

    What it demonstrates, in part, where it is uncontested that atheists do go around claiming “imagination” accounts for, without qualification, the origin of the idea/concept of God is that they believe/think that to be the case beyond the reach of the evidence.

    Atheists don’t believe in God.
    No argument needed; good or bad.

    However, when atheists go beyond simply lacking a belief that there is any God, then they have to accept my argument, implicitly and/or explicitly, as representing, in my opinion, their best argument for their atheism; or at least an argument they have to deal with and cannot show to be sound.

    If Dan thinks he has a better 3 line, modus ponens argument leading to the conclusion “therefore, there is no God”, I challenge him to present it for my consideration.

    Come to think of it, I thought atheists these days mostly took pride in giving up that “bold” (i.e., ain’t no God) position in favor of the milder “I just don’t believe/think there is a God”.

    On a more fundamental level, the history of the argument and exercise demonstrates the reluctance of and possible inability of atheists to demonstrate their basic critical thinking skills.

    (See Peter Boghossian’s FaceBook page discussions on these very matters for the “proof” of that most recently)

    Thanks Dan for taking the time and pursuing these important public issues.

    Let me know if there is any “clean up” work to do to bring the present discussion to a reasonable conclusion.

    Sincerely,
    Robert Baty

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