In part 12 of my extraordinarily comprehensive review of Why I Became an Atheist I pointed out that John Loftus’s critique of the ontological argument (or family of arguments) was limited to a few critical comments on Anselm’s argument as well as a dismissive wave to Alvin Plantinga’s contemporary version. One reader, Blanked Slate, seems to think this is quite appropriate. He wrote:
“My point was simply that the book is explicit about targeting a certain level of intellectual sophistication (that of a typical undergraduate) and that for that level of sophistication a discussion of Anselm’s original argument which fails to discuss 20th century modal logic versions is adequate. If anything, it is to be expected since that is exactly how undergraduate texts in the philosophy of religion typically approach the question, a fact that you have conceded.”
This comment is flawed on multiple levels. To begin with, there are several excellent explanations of the basic layout of contemporary ontological arguments which are perfect accessible for the undergraduate. See, for example, Peter Van Inwagen, Metaphysics 4th ed. (Westview Press, 2014), chapter 6; Jay W. Richards, The Untamed God: A Philosophical Exploration of Divine Perfection (InterVarsity Press, 2003). So Lotus can’t claim he ignored these arguments because they’re too sophisticated for his readership.
Second, if Loftus’ modus operandi is to avoid the strongest arguments against his view because they’re too sophisticated for his audience, he has an obligation to make this clear. But in fact, his quick dismissal of Alvin Plantinga’s contemporary version of the argument clearly conveys to the reader that contemporary versions of the ontological argument add nothing of substance to the discussion. That’s clearly false, and thus Loftus’ behavior here is indefensible.
Finally, Blanked Slate points out (again) that introductory philosophy of religion textbooks would focus on Anselm’s argument. But that’s completely irrelevant as I already explained:
“Yes, introduction to philosophy of religion texts cover Anselm’s argument. That’s the purpose of an introduction to philosophy of religion textbook, to introduce students to the most historically influential and readily accessible forms of arguments.
“But this isn’t an introduction to philosophy of religion textbook. It is presented as a magisterial refutation of Christianity, a grand “debunking”, one that aims to show how Christians are delusional.”
I’m taking the time to rebut Blanked Slate for a couple reasons.
First, his comments illustrate the extent to which some people are willing to go to excuse shoddy argument. Second, the same problems that beset Loftus’ treatment of the ontological argument are evident in the rest of the chapter. In his interaction with cosmological arguments, for example, Loftus begins with a quick two page interaction with “The Thomistic ‘Five Ways’ Arguments” (84-85). Thomas’ formulations, influential though they may have been historically, are hardly at the vanguard of contemporary argumentation.
Incidentally, Loftus’s categorization of all five ways as cosmological arguments is another example of his trademark sloppiness since only the first four of the five ways are cosmological arguments (motion, efficient cause, necessary being, gradation). Thomas’ fifth way is an argument from design. (Close enough, right? No, not if you care about accuracy, which Loftus clearly doesn’t.)
Loftus quickly surveys several other cosmological and design arguments in the chapter. But in each case, it is a wholly one-sided affair in which Loftus provides some pithy comments and quotes to dismiss each argument. Never does he consider the rebuttals defenders of these arguments would provide to the various objections he raises. Consequently this is a highly selective, very cursory and grossly one-sided treatment of very difficult issues. It is all the more extraordinary when one remembers that Loftus supposedly seeks to observe William Clifford’s strong evidentialist maxim “It is wrong always, everywhere and for anyone, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence.” Does he think his highly selective, cursory, grossly one-sided treatment provides sufficient evidence to believe God doesn’t exist?
Does Loftus not understand the arguments or is he being deceptive?
At a few key points Loftus makes the claim that various arguments for God’s existence don’t establish that the Christian understanding of God is correct. For example:
“At best, even if we grant that cosmological arguments succeed, all they end up showing is that some kind of philosopher’s god exists and that this kind of god is consistent with the God that Christians believe by faith. But just showing that the god of the philosophers is consistent with the God of their faith does not show that the God of their faith exists.” (85)
“So even if cosmological arguments are sound, I just don’t see how it follows that this universe was caused to come into existence by the trinitarian Christian God of the Bible.” (86)
The fact that Loftus makes these points as if they are significant is nothing short of mystifying. Surely he is aware of the nature of cumulative case arguments. After all, he is purporting to be offering one in this very book. No defender of the cosmological argument has ever proposed that the argument establishes the truth of distinctively Christian claims. That was never the intention of the argument.
This leaves me trying to understand what point Loftus is trying to make here. You can see how absurd this is by taking one of Loftus’ two quotes and reversing it. So imagine if somebody offered this rejoinder to Loftus:
“So even if cosmological arguments are not sound, I just don’t see how it follows that this universe was not caused to come into existence by the trinitarian Christian God of the Bible.”
Do you see how stupid it would be to offer this as a rebuttal to Loftus? When he critiques cosmological arguments he isn’t explicitly aiming to demonstrate that the trinitarian God doesn’t exist. Instead, his argument is intended to defeat the cosmological argument in particular within a broader cumulative case against Christianity. Consequently, anybody who offered such an objection to Loftus would either evince a basic failure to understand the point of his argument, or they would be offering a deceptive objection to it.
In like manner, when Loftus suggests that the inability of the cosmological argument to establish distinctively Christian claims reveals a weakness in the argument, he either fails to understand at a basic level the point of the argument within a cumulative case, or he is attempting to deceive the reader by mischaracterizing the function of the argument so as to convey the impression that it has failed in its ends. Since Loftus demonstrates at least a basic working knowledge of the function of the cosmological argument and he clearly understands how cumulative case argumentation works, it appears to me most likely that at this point he is attempting to deceive the reader.