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On the Nature and Existence of God.

Using the sophisticated tools of logical analysis, contemporary theistic philosophers such as William Alston, Alvin Plantinga, and Richard Swinburne have attempted in recent years not only to defend theistic faith against atheistic attacks, but to provide new rationales for theism. Because of this recent resurgence of interest in the philosophy of religion there is a need, according to Richard Gale, for "a return visit from Hume's Philo" (p. 2) - the skeptical protagonist of Hume's Dialogues on Natural Religion. However, although this skepticism "imbues" his book, Gale does not intend it to be entirely negative. Rather his criticisms will provide "a more adequate concept of God - a God that will provide a worthy object of worship and obedience, even if the case for believing it is shaky" (p. 3).

Although readers will not find a defense of the rationality of either theism or atheism, they will be treated to brilliant criticisms of recent noninductive arguments for the existence of God that purport to make it acceptable to theists and immune from deductive atheological arguments. Although Gale never says so, his work can be seen as an attempt to clear the way for faith.(1) Dividing the volume into two parts (atheological arguments and theological arguments), Gale addresses the question "of whether there is rational justification for belief that God, as conceived by traditional Western theism, exists" (p. 1). Since, however, he ignores "inductive arguments based on design, beauty, and lawlike regularity and simplicity for the existence of God as well as those based on evil to show the improbability of his existence" (p. 1), he does not, as he himself admits, fully answer this question.

What then is Gale's partial answer? A fair statement of it is to be found in the Epilogue:

Since I completely eschewed inductive arguments, no definite conclusion can be drawn regarding the rationality of faith. Only the hypothetical conclusion can be drawn that if the only available arguments were the epistemological and pragmatic arguments examined before, faith would lack any rational justification. Such an outcome would be welcomed by a wide range of Kierkegaardian types who completely eschewed any attempt to give an "objective" justification of faith. I resonate to their view of faith as subjective passion that outstrips our reason. [p. 387]

In the Introduction Gale argues that since the theologians' concept of God is a theoretical and metaphysical reconstruction of the ordinary anthropomorphic and scriptural one, "there is considerable room for conceptual maneuvering" (p. 4). Indeed, he says that we can redesign the concept in the light of atheological arguments. Obviously not every redesign of the concept of God will be acceptable. Some changes will be so radical that we will no longer be talking about God. The problem, as he sees it, is how to redesign the concept of God in the light of atheistic arguments without changing the referent.

Gale suggests that at the present time some defining properties of God are "hard core"; that is, "we would not allow a use of 'God' to be co-referring with ours if these properties were not at least partially constitutive of the sense of the name" (p. 7). As examples of hard-core properties he cites being supremely great and being eminently worthy of worship and obedience. On the other hand, "soft core" properties such as being absolutely simple, being unrestrictedly omnipotent, and admitting of no distinction between essence and existence "have come and gone as part of the sense of 'God' without affecting the referent" (p. 8).

The significance of the distinction between the two kinds of properties becomes clear when in the first part of his book Gale analyzes the atheological arguments purporting to show that the concept of a theistic God is inconsistent. His general position seems to be that, although many of these arguments force theists to give up the soft-core properties associated with God and thus to redesign the concept of God, they do not compel them to give up the hard-core properties that constitute the concept. For example, on most traditional accounts God is supposed to be a perfect being. However, Gale shows that this leads to inconsistencies and paradoxes. Gale suggests that theists should "bite the bullet and take back the requirement" (p. 29) that God has every perfection to an unlimited degree. Giving up this requirement, he says, would not affect the hard-core property of being eminently worthy of worship and obedience.

Gale's criticisms in the second part of the book against ontological, cosmological, religious experience, and pragmatic arguments for the existence of God are sophisticated, detailed, and devastating. Consider his criticism of Plantinga's version of the ontological argument. Defining unsurpassable greatness as the property being maximally excellent (essentially omnipotent, omniscient, omnibenevolent) and necessary, Plantinga has argued:

G. There is a possible world w in which the property of having unsurpassable greatness is instantiated.

It follows that unsurpassable greatness is instantiated in every logically possible world including the actual world. Since God is a being with unsurpassable greatness, God exists in the actual world. Plantinga maintains that although (G) is not rationally established, it is not contrary to reason. Thus, he concluded that, although his argument does not establish the truth of theism, it does establish its rational acceptability.

Gale's brilliant strategy is to argue that other statements that are more in accord with our modal intuitions - our immediate perceptions about what is either possible or impossible or necessary - than (G) are logically incompatible with (G), for example:

(E): There is a possible world in which the property of morally unjustified evil is instantiated.

Since God is all good and all powerful in every world, there could not be a world with unjustified moral evil. This argument should not be confused with the traditional argument from evil. There the atheologian must argue that the actual world has unjustified evil. In Gale's argument, since God exists in all possible worlds, it is enough to show that at least one possible world has such evil.

What can one say about Gale's position?(2) His criticisms of theistic arguments are excellent. Moreover, they complement rather than repeat the ones I gave in Atheism: A Philosophical Justification.(3) There is, however, a major difference between Gale's position and mine in that earlier volume. I defended atheism and criticized various attempts to found religious belief on faith. Gale seems to see nothing wrong with belief in God even if the case for God's existence is shaky. Indeed he seems to be in sympathy with such a view despite the grave problems with basing religious belief on faith, many of which I outlined in my book.

Gale's thesis that atheological arguments force theists to redesign their concept of God but not to reject belief in God is also open to question. His argument depends in large part on the distinction between hard-core and soft-core properties. Atheological arguments, according to Gale, affect only soft-core properties. So one can save the concept of God while avoiding the atheological arguments. Unfortunately, the meaning of the hard-core properties that Gale relies on is unclear and, consequently, the claim that changes in soft-core properties do not affect hard-core ones is unjustified. I am not at all sure what being eminently worthy of worship means or what being supremely great entails - the two hard-core properties mentioned by Gale. Given the unclarity of these notions one wonders how one tells if a change in soft-core properties does or does not adversely affect supreme greatness or being worthy of worship. Yet Gale appeals again and again to these notions to justify modification of the concept of God in the face of atheological attack.

Moreover, at times one wonders if Gale fully grasps the extent of the modification that is required. For example, Gale seems to suppose that temporalizing the concept of God so that God cannot know what decisions he will make is something that theists can easily live with. However, things are not so simple. If God cannot know what decisions he will make in the future, he cannot know anything about the future. Recall that God always has the option of intervening and performing a miracle. So he cannot know whether any event that is in accord with natural law will in fact occur since he cannot know whether he will intervene and prevent it from occurring. Similarly, he cannot know whether any human action will occur since he cannot know whether he will prevent it.

But there is more. Given any nondeontological moral theory - that is, any theory that takes future consequences of an action into account in determining its morality - it is difficult to see how God could know whether his past decisions are moral. Since he cannot know anything about the future he cannot know whether his past decisions are moral. Since he cannot know anything about the future he cannot know whether his past actions are morally correct for their correctness will depend (at least in part) on what will happen. (Only if a pure deontological theory is correct - seemingly an unlikely possibility - would this criticism not hold.)

Given these problems would religious believers still think God is supremely great and worthy of worship (whatever exactly these terms might mean)? This is surely not obvious.

In closing let me comment briefly on an aspect of Gale's methodology. His critique of Plantinga's Ontological Argument turns on the acceptance of the modal intuition that (E) is true. The question arises of how modal intuitions are to be objectively confirmed. This is a problem that is seldom addressed and yet is of fundamental importance in areas such as the philosophy of religion that rely on modal concepts. We know that modal intuitions differ from person to person and seem in part to be a function of one's background beliefs. For example, according to Gale, Philip Quinn conducted a poll in the Philosophy Department at Plantinga's university, Notre Dame. Everyone polled thought (E) was false. Not to be outdone, Gale conducted his own modal intuition poll at the Philosophy Department at the University of Pittsburgh. Everyone he consulted maintained that (E) was true!

Gale suggests that a way out of the deadlock is to poll ordinary people about their modal intuitions. Indeed, he says that he actually did this and that each ordinary person for example, a janitor, a maintenance man, a barmaid - had modal intuitions that matched his own. He seems to assume that in view of this evidence his readers will be justified in accepting that his modal intuition is correct.

Polling ordinary people may be a solution to the problem, but surely Gale is naive to suppose that his readers will have much confidence in the results of his poll of ordinary people. We know that the outcome of polls is often a function of what questions are asked, who asks them, and how they are asked. We are given no information about the way in which Gale's poll of ordinary people was conducted. Polling is a tricky business that should only be conducted by those who know what they are doing. Philosophers who want to conduct polls to test modal intuitions should either get proper training or expert help.


1. This interpretation is confirmed by his reply to Paul Helm's "Gale on God," Religious Studies, 29, 1993, pp. 245-255. See Gale "A Reply to Paul Helm," Religious Studies, 29, 1993 p. 257.

2. For further criticisms of Gale's position see Helm's, op. cit. and Gale's reply in Gale, op. cit., pp. 257-263.

3. See Michael Martin, Atheism: A Philosophical Justification (Temple University Press, 1990), Chap. 10.

Michael Martin is professor of philosophy at Boston University and author of Atheism: A Philosophical Justification (Temple University Press).
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Author:Martin, Michael
Publication:Free Inquiry
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 22, 1995
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