PHIL/RS 335 The Evidential Challenge Flew, “The Presumption” Flew begins with a distinction fundamental to his understanding of the stakes. It’s a distinction in different senses of atheism. Positive Atheism: denies that there is anything like God. Negative Atheism: a-theist (where the a- is privative, like asexual). This sense is synonymous with “not a theist.” A-theism is not Agnosticism It’s important to recognize that negative atheism is not the same as agnosticism. Agnosticism starts with the possibility of God and then just shrugs. A-theist takes up a logically prior position, that is prior to assertions of the possibility, impossibility or necessity of God (152c2). This distinction emphasizes that the a-theist position is ultimately a position on the question of the status of claims about the theistic God. Who has the burden? Flew insists that a-theism reveals that the burden of proof is on the theist to: Articulate and defend a concept of God. Provide “sufficient reason” for believing that the concept refers to something. As Flew immediately emphasizes, the first task is by no means easy or obvious. There are many different conceptions of “God.” Problem of divine attributes. Ineffability (153c1). The Presumption of Innocence Flew then attempts to justify his insistence that the burden of proof lies with the “God-Talkers” by drawing an analogy to the presumption of innocence. What would count as proof of guilt is not limited to “demonstratively valid arguments” but any variety of sufficient reason (Prime Principle of Confirmation?) Both outcomes (innocent or guilty) are defeasible rather than dogmatic outcomes. The P of I establishes a starting point, but does not prefigure the outcome (155c1). Presumptions are not trivial. Imagine a criminal justice system that started with a presumption of guilt. The defeat of the presupposition doesn’t invalidate the procedural commitments. Should we accept the presumption? Usually, the burden of proof is understood to be on the positive/assertive side, but as Flew notes, it might be possible to gloss a-theism as a positive assertion. A more sophisticated read of the situation would be that the question of God’s existence, if it is to be engaged, requires a ground for the engagement. There needs to be something to debate, and as the God-Talkers want to debate the existence of God, they have to establish that ground. What’s the Policy? What any ground of engagement reveals is a policy (in the case of criminal justice, different policies lead to different presumptions). Flew acknowledges this and is explicit about the policy motivating his a-theistic position. Given that the issue is the capacity to articulate a concept of God and provide sufficient reasons for believing that it refers to something, Flew locates his policy in the epistemological questions that underlie these tasks: the capacity to have knowledge about these matters. In contrast to merely believing them, even if the beliefs are true. Thus, (157c1-2). Evaluating the Presumption of A-Theism (Pt. 1) Given the difficulties of identifying justifying grounds for the articulation of the concept of God and asserting its reference, Flew insists that we should adopt A-theism. He does acknowledge a number of objections to this position which he tries to address. Context: everyone (or almost everyone) believes, but Flew insists that the issue is not biographical, but epistemological. We have to begin with some beliefs; the only issue is the rationality of maintaining them. Flew responds that there is an important distinction between rational and founded. For him the question is not, “What is rational given a certain starting point?” (Hick) but “What is the appropriate starting point?” Evaluating the Presumption of A-Theism (Pt. 2) Another common rejoinder to a-theism is to reject the whole project of rational theological inquiry and to insist that God is not available to reason, but only to faith. Flew’s response is that even in the face of absolute indeterminacy, we are not free to believe anything we want, but only what it makes sense to believe, “Faith, surely, should not be a leap in the dark, but al leap toward the light” (159c1). What about Pascal’s wager? Flew points out that Pascal is focusing on motivating reasons, but founding reasons are a wholly different thing. It’s also the case that Pascal artificially frames the wager as if there were only two options, but surely there are more (agnosticism, a-theism) which changes the wager significantly. What about Aquinas? To bring his discussion to a close, Flew considers the force of Aquinas’s insistence that, “…the existence of God…can be demonstrated” (160c2). In reference to the 5 ways, Flew notes that one of the objections to which they respond is the presumption of (Aristotelian) scientific naturalism grounded in the principle of economy (the simplest explanations are the best). This reveals that even Aquinas did not understand atheism as merely a competing assumption but as a question of a wholly different order. Gievett, “A Pascallian Rejoinder” Geivett begins by recasting the ground of the issue somewhat. Rather than frame the issue in terms of positive and negative atheism, or in terms of God-Talk and non God-Talk, Gievett prefers a distinction between Direct and Indirect atheological arguments. Direct: positive atheism (God does not exist). Indirect: 2 types. Failure of natural theology (defined in the note on p. 163c1) + lack of evidence makes it unlikely that God exists. Presumption of atheism (is this the same as the presumption of a-theism?). Taking aim at the Presumption Geivett is interested in the last of these possibilities which he identifies with Flew. As he spells out (163c2) he is trying to address a number of concerns: articulating and criticizing the position he represents as Flew’s, justifying natural theology, and, ultimately, advancing an essentially Pascallian (that is, prudential) basis for believing in God. Where is Flew? As Geivett’s discussion of the presumption of atheism makes clear, Flew’s position is a subtle one that can be difficult to distinguish from similar, though fundamentally different, positions. To label a-theism as negative atheism may ultimately be more confusing than helpful, as it potentially confuses Flew’s position with agnosticism. What Gievett does focus his attention on is the epistemological concern for the burden of proof and the analogy with a presumption of innocence. As Gievett acknowledges, we shouldn’t make to much of this analogy (he recognizes that it is not an attempt to make an argument by analogy). Theistic Responses Geivett identifies two possible responses to what he’s characterized as Flew’s response. One can accept the challenge and try to provide a clear, unambiguous concept of the divine and then try to demonstrate it’s reference (“simple defeaters”). Alternatively, one can challenge the presumption on the grounds that belief in God doesn’t require justification or that it requires justification different from the model advocated by Flew (“rejoinders”). Simple Defeaters? In order to simply defeat the presumption, some successful program of natural theology would have to be advanced. As we’ve reviewed them, and as Geivett acknowledges, the traditional arguments have not been able to rationally “compel belief in God”. At best, it seems, they’ve provided enough reason to call into question positive atheism. Geivett does insist, however, that this accomplishment, perhaps coupled with prudential concerns like those advanced by Pascal, could be a potential simple defeater. At the very least, he insists, the limited success of the programs of natural theology surely require a rebuttal before a negative atheism could be maintained (168c1). A Rejoinder? As Geivett acknowledges in section 4 of his article, the struggles of Natural Theology would seem to make a rejection of the presumption of a-theism a necessary first step in successfully addressing the atheist challenge. In order to advance towards this first step, Geivett offers what he calls a “Pascalian Rejoinder.” As he presents it, the rejoinder is based in two claims (170c2). Presuming that God does not exist? It is obviously less than certain that this gloss on Flew adequately captures the sense that Flew clearly employs when arguing for a presumption of atheism. See on this, Flew’s rejoinder to Geivett (176c1). Given that Geivett chooses to interpret Flew in this way, it is not surprising that he concludes that Flew’s position is no different than positive atheism (174c1). However, as Flew emphasizes in his rejoinder, his understanding of a-theism does not rule out an openness to the divine, which is what Geivett insists is a necessary first condition of any theistic demonstration. What is Prudent? On this question, Geivett seems on safer ground. As he emphasizes, Flew’s position seems to amount to a “wait and see” attitude, but such an attitude may not adequately address the existential significance of belief. It does seem important to know something about this issue, not just in a disinterested intellectual or abstract way (like knowing whether string theory is an adequate account of the fundamental forces working in the universe), but in a “I don’t want to burn in hell” way. Geivett insists that Flew’s insistence on the logical priority of atheism over all forms of God-Talk is just not appropriate given the importance of the issue. We might wonder, however, if this importance isn’t just an effect of a theistic habit or prejudice. After all, if we remain open to the questionableness of the divine, we might find compelling reason to believe in a God who would reward the a-theistic questioner and punish the “faithful” believer.