Further Thoughts on the Unimpressiveness of Humans Argument for Atheism

A few weeks ago I posted an article on an argument for naturalism/atheism that focused on the unimpressiveness of humans. To my own pleasant surprise, that article became the most read post ever on my blog, and I received a good amount of response, including an email from Jeffery Jay Lowder himself, who was extremely helpful and kind. This post will take a look at some of the responses, and then offer a reply in return.

First, concerning one of the two possible approaches I mentioned. In my article, I wrote:

“there are two approaches we could take here. The first is to grant that the argument works and is a good F-inductive argument all other evidence held equal, meaning that we admit this fact actually does favor naturalism over theism, but to maintain that the overall evidence for theism outweighs the evidence for naturalism, such that this argument is like the instance of coming across a yellow Martian: it is only a very weak sort of evidence.”

But in his email Mr. Lowder pointed out that concluding that this particular piece of evidence (which we shall label U) is only weak support for naturalism does not follow automatically from saying that U is outweighed overall by evidence for theism. It could be, logically, that U is actually very strong evidence for naturalism, but that the overall evidence for theism is even stronger (or weaker, depending on your position). That was my mistake. In reality, Mr. Lowder pointed out that there are four possibilities here (quoted directly from his email):

a. U strongly favors N over T; U is not outweighed by other evidence which favors T over N.
b. U strongly favors N over T; U is outweighed by other evidence which favors T over N.
c. U weakly favors N over T; U is not outweighed by other evidence which favors T over N.
d. U weakly favors N over T; U is outweighed by other evidence which favors T over N

Where U = the unimpressiveness of humans, N = naturalism, and T = theism. In my post I did not make clear which of these possibilities I was discussing. Of course, I went on to argue that U does not favor N over T at all, but for the first approach, knowing these distinctions is helpful. I won’t go into much detail here as to which of the four possibilities better fit this particular argument, but I will make one point: the present argument is a nondeductive argument (see the previous post for an explanation on types of arguments). Deductive arguments, if valid and sound, absolutely guarantee the truth of their conclusion, with 100% logical certainty. Nondeductive arguments, no matter how strong they are, in principle can never give the same absolute guarantee as a deductive argument, only giving a probable conclusion. So even if one holds that U very strongly favors N over T, if we have even one deductive argument that establishes T over N (as I think we do), that is enough to outweigh U as evidence for N.

Mr. Lowder then offered me two “initial thoughts” to my argument itself that U does not favor N over T at all. The first was directed at my use of “necessary” in reference to God’s existence. He provided me with a quote from Paul Draper objecting to Plantinga’s assertion that theism is logically or conceptually necessary. This, however, is not what I meant at all. I write mainly concerning classical arguments and not contemporary ones, so I should have been more precise in terminology. By necessary I just meant that certain deductive arguments (such as the Prime Mover, First Cause, or Contingency arguments) guarantee a posteriori the existence of God as a necessary being, not that theism itself is a priori a logically or conceptually necessary proposition.

Next, Mr. Lowder responded to some of my comments on the possibility of existence of beings such as angels, which would be immaterial rational forms. He also clarified that this argument from the unimpressiveness of humans is an instance of understated evidence, which is, if I understand correctly, evidence which fits into a broader category or topic (see his post on it here). Specifically, Mr. Lowder says the unimpressiveness of humans should be considered within the context of “fine-tuning for habitability”. I’ll now quote Mr. Lowder’s own words:

“In the context of so-called ‘fine tuning for habitability’ arguments, Draper seems to grant that, by itself, the existence of intelligent (embodied / biological) life is evidence favoring T over N. But, he argues, we know more about intelligent (embodied) life than [that] it exists. We also know that the only known form of intelligent life is human, and humans are unimpressive when compared to the creative abilities of God. If all we knew beforehand was that God wanted to create intelligent (embodied) life, we wouldn’t predict that. We’d predict that God would create a more impressive form of intelligent life than humans. Either he wouldn’t create humans at all or, if he did create humans, He would create humans in addition to some other more impressive form of intelligent (embodied) life.”

For Draper, some inductive arguments for theism commit what he calls the “fallacy of understated evidence”, which means that it argues some fact in a topic/category favors T over N, but doesn’t take into account all the relevant facts in that topic/category. The relevant example here is the fine tuning argument. Some theists argue that the fine tuning of the universe for life is evidence for theism over naturalism. The unimpressiveness of humans, however, is presented as a sort of counter fact, or an example of other facts within the same overall topic that actually favor naturalism. This will be explained further in the next quote. For now, I want to repeat some of my critiques from the previous post, as well as add a new question. First, two statements are made: 1) humans are unimpressive when compared to the creative abilities of God, and 2) if we knew beforehand that God wanted to create intelligent embodied life, we wouldn’t predict that he’d make humans. We’d predict that God would create a more impressive form of intelligent life than humans.

In the previous post, I questioned the legitimacy of 2. I said that “impressive” is a highly indefinite term the standards of which are not clearly established. I also offered several reasons for thinking that actually, we might not predict that God would create “more impressive” forms of embodied beings. I also questioned the jump from 1 to 2. Even given that God might be able to create “more impressive” forms of embodied beings, that doesn’t necessarily lead us to expect him to create those more impressive beings. In order to make this jump logically, we’d need to know that God values or desires the more impressive forms over the less impressive forms, and I argued that we aren’t in a position to be able to know that.

Second, although I didn’t mention this in my original post, I would also like to raise a question about the legitimacy of 1. In particular, I’d like to ask for examples of possible “more impressive” features that an embodied intelligent being could have which humans do not. This is probably easily answered (although I’m not entirely sure) and so is a weaker response than the ones offered above, but it still significant.

Mr. Lowder continues:

“As you write, one of the KEY issues with all of these kinds of arguments is what we should expect on theism. Here I will simply point out that you have a dilemma. On the one hand, you could agree that theism leads us to expect that, if God exists, God would create intelligent (embodied) life. In that case, the unimpressiveness of humans is evidence favoring N over T. On the other hand, you could deny that theism leads us to expect that, if God exists, God would create intelligent (embodied) life. In that case, the unimpressiveness of humans is not evidence favoring N over T, but equally the life-permitting conditions of the universe are not evidence favoring T over N.”

As I stated above and in my original post, I don’t think it’s correct that the unimpressiveness of humans is evidence favoring N over T even if we have some reason for thinking that God would create intelligent embodied life. I think it’s actually very plausible to expect God to create the kind of embodied intelligences which humans are. But even if this were not the case, the “dilemma” is not very much of a dilemma for me, since I’m not an advocate of any of the fine-tuning arguments anyways. I have not yet done sufficient research in that branch of argument to respond to this latter point, but that’s irrelevant, because I’m not committed to defending them.

But suppose that I were committed both to defending a fine tuning argument and to holding that the unimpressiveness of humans is not evidence favoring naturalism over theism, how would I respond? Well, from what I understand, Draper’s fallacy of understated evidence applies only to inductive arguments, and there are some deductive forms of fine tuning arguments which I’m not sure the fallacy would be applicable to (again, I have not as of yet put enough research into fine tuning arguments to be confident in these things, but, once more, that’s not significant because I’m more than fine with saying that none of them work).

I’d like to offer my thanks once again to Mr. Lowder for taking the time to not only read my article, but personally send me responses that were both kind, gracious, and helpful. It truly meant a lot to me for someone of his caliber to do such; it was very much appreciated.

 

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