Sunday, June 1, 2014

Begging the Question

Developing a sound argument is a good idea all of the time, but the need for it is doubly apparent when discussing the existence of God. After all, what are the intertoobz good for?

Take for instance the claims - made to me by a colleague on Twitter - that “most of the arguments in favor of God don't beg the question“ and “Neither the cosmological argument nor the ID argument nor the morality argument beg the question“. If one accepts the definition (as another Twitterer contributed) “To beg the question literally means to assume the truth of an argument's conclusion in its premises“, then we can evaluate these claims to determine if they beg the question. I’ll focus on the Cosmological Argument for God (hereafter CAG) as an example.

First, the standard no-frills CAG from Wikipedia:
  1. Every finite and contingent being has a cause.
  2. A causal loop cannot exist.
  3. A causal chain cannot be of infinite length.
  4. Therefore, a First Cause (or something that is not an effect) must exist.
Consider the argument carefully. First, we notice that the word God does not appear. It is generally assumed that God is that first cause, but God is not a necessary conclusion of the argument. You’ll notice that a First Cause is all that can be concluded - and that’s assuming you accept the premises without objection, an assumption we could easily challenge. I’ve stated elsewhere that the assumption that “God is that first cause“ could just as plausibly be replaced by “A banana slug is that first cause” or “A stink beetle is that first cause” or “InfiniTwinkie is that first cause”. These alternative conclusions are just as well rationally and evidentially supported as a conclusion of God. Where do people arguing CAG go wrong? Clearly, the unstated premise that God must exist in order to be used in the conclusion is the problem, but how do you work out all of the premises and objections to them, and your counter arguments to the objections, so that you can arrive at a persuasive argument? The easiest way is to use Argument Maps - or alternatively - just write out the argument as stated, and notate the pros and cons, and their pros and cons, until the argument has no obvious holes. I'll try to demonstrate that below. For my example, I’ll adopt a fairly uncontroversial convention that C is the Claim or Conclusion that the claimant is trying to make, P1 through P99 are the Premises that lead to the Conclusion. Since the P and C symbols are used already, I’ll use S (“Support”) in place of “pros”, and O (“Objection”) in place of “cons”, so that S1 through S99 are the Support for any of the claimant’s Premises, O1 through O99 are Objections to the Claim or any of the Premises or Support that the claimant has offered. My other convention will be to label the various premises and objections in Domain Name-like notation so that we can keep track of what the statements refer to, in case further discussion is required. Finally a caveat: the Support and Objections that I use here are for illustration only. They are not deeply thought out nor meant to represent a knock-down argument for or against the Conclusion. I will only offer my S and O notation for Premise 1 and the Conclusion because my goals for this post are: 1) demonstrate an argument outline; 2) evaluate the conclusion of CAG to illustrate the general question-begging that exists in it.

Here we go:

  • P1: Every finite and contingent being has a cause.
    • P1.S1: P1 is warranted because everything we observe in daily life has a cause - nothing “pops out of nowhere”
      • P1.S1.O1: personal experience is unreliable - this is not a matter that can be resolved subjectively. A more rigorous scientific approach is required.
      • P1.S1.O2: quantum mechanics indicates that particles do pop out of nowhere all the time. As for the first moments of the universe, at present it appears that this occurs in the physical realm of quantum mechanics, thus making it plausible that the universe did indeed come into existence probabilistically without a prior physical cause.
  • P2: A causal loop cannot exist.
  • P3: A causal chain cannot be of infinite length.
  • P4: Therefore, a First Cause (or something that is not an effect) must exist.
  • P5: (assumed)That First Cause must be God
    • P5.O1: The existence of God is conjectural
    • P5.O2: Even were the existence of God to be established, there is no reason to think that it participated as a first cause for anything we can observe
  • C1: Therefore God exists
    • C1.O1: The conclusion is rejected due to P5.O1 and P5.O2
Assuming that you fleshed out P1 through P4 to your satisfaction, exhausted all of the Pros and Cons to the argument, when you get to the unstated premise (which I list as P5) that the First Cause must be God, you arrive at the point where the question-begging occurs. If two believers are discussing this argument, the existence of God could be axiomatic to them, but take away the two believers, and where does that leave God? Take away every human being on the face of the earth, and all that’s left is an indication that beings on this planet once believed in various greater powers. A visitor from another world might investigate the nature of earth, and would find no reason to believe that any of these greater powers that human artifacts refer to existed in real life. None.

THAT’S what’s wrong with CAG, KCA, ID, the argument from objective moral values, and anything else that a believer might employ in an attempt to make belief in an actual God sound rational. God is not available to be used in these arguments. You have to assume the existence of God before you can use it in arguments that attempt to demonstrate its existence, and that, fellow travelers, is begging the question.

No comments:

Post a Comment