Saturday, 10 August 2013

"Old" arguments for theism

Not to generalize, but I've come across quite a few atheists/agnostics/postmodern theists who disregard theistic arguments just on the grounds that they are old/popular/talked about. I think the indignation stems from the fact since these arguments are old, a lot has been said against them, and hence a sort of "been there done that" mentality in their regard is justified.

In the above cases, it seems the theistic arguments are being regarded as static in nature, in that they don't undergo any develop at the hands of different proponents. This is clearly contrary to fact. The only thing about these arguments that remain static is the basic, core intuition. Other than that, almost everything else is improved upon with time. As such, there is no such thing as the argument from design/teleology, simply because of the fact that there has been many proponents of it, and hence many formulations. The teleological argument proposed by William Paley is clearly different from that which proposed by Aquinas, and the one proposed by Aquinas is different from the one proposed by Aristotle. All these versions of the teleological are markedly different from the more modern formulations based on newly discovered scientific facts, e.g. the argument from fine-tuning or the argument from biochemical complexity. The merits of each formulation of the argument, therefore, need to be judged as a case-by-case basis. Surely, someone who has read Aquinas' Five Ways or Paley's Natural Theology and found them to be unconvincing cannot conclude that the teleological argument is misguided, simply because there are far more sophisticated formulations available today. The same goes for almost all other arguments, e.g.:

- Different versions of the Cosmological Argument was formulated by Aristotle, St. Thomas Aquinas, Abu Hamid Muhammad Al-Ghazzali, Gottfried Wilhelm Von Leibniz, Stuart Hackett, William Lane Craig among others

- The Ontological Argument- St. Anselm of Canterbury, Descartes, Godel, Alvin Plantinga, Robert Maydole among others, etc.

Also, we need to realize that the static intuitive nature of concepts isn't only endemic to natural theology. The same problems and possible solutions persist in a broad form throughout history regardless of which discipline we consider. It's not that entirely novel concepts are introduced with every turn of the year, which is precisely why in textbook narratives, a historical discussion of the idea's development often precedes the idea itself. Ironically, this argument can be turned on the atheist herself. One of the key anti-theistic arguments- the problem of suffering- also happens to be extremely old, tracing its history back to Epicurus if not earlier. Would it not be considered naive if the theist were to disregard this argument just because its old? Certainly not, like all other arguments or concepts in any major discipline, it has underwent numerous revisions and re-formulations, and one would need to consider the most current and sophisticated version in order to rest her case. There is no one problem of evil and there is certainly no singular theodicy.

This problem becomes very prominent in context of debates about evolution, possibly due to emotionally loaded nature of the debate. Due to the nature of the topic, the key arguments for and against it would retain a broadly similar shape- existence of transitional forms, arguing for evolution on the basis of similarity, and so on. Just because the concept is old, doesn't mean new formulations cannot and are not made.

New formulations of these arguments are in a way necessary, because since these arguments appeal to our knowledge of reality, it is small wonder that as our knowledge in the fields of science and philosophy increases, the formulations might need to take into account the newly discovered features. The role of science in shaping the course of some arguments, for example, is prominent in the Teleological argument and the Kalam Cosmological argument.

The tendency is noted in popular discussions, and not in academic ones (at least not prominently); because the academic literature does make an effort to deal with each new formulation of an argument independently.

I guess the takeaway point here this: we should be careful when we speak about our familiarity with an argument, much less passing judgments on whether it's true or false. Just because someone heard a refutation of some- possibly early- formulations of an argument doesn't at all mean the argument is invalid; rather what it proves at best is that particular formulation is invalid. So maybe a more useful way of talking about such arguments would be not in reference to the argument themselves- that being too broad- but specific formulations. It would, for example, be more useful to say "I found Aristotle's formulation of the teleological argument unconvincing" as opposed to "I found the teleological argument unconvincing." The spirit of this counsel applies equally well to the theist as it does to the atheist, of course.


  1. Aoa

    How can you find God in all these arguments? Belief in.God should be innate, shouldnt it? If one has to read 21st century philosophers just to be convinced God exists, and to counter atheistic arguments, surely something is wrong with that kind of iman?

  2. Wa 'alaikumussalam wa rahmatullahi wa barakatuh,

    Firstly, I agree that belief in God is innate. These arguments aren't necessary for Iman, so you don't "have" to read these philosophers to believe in God. What these arguments do is, they reinforce the conviction you have by means of fitrah. When you are exposed to, say, too much anti-theistic polemic that is so prevalent in today's world, the fitrah may not function as it would in its pristine state. In these case, these arguments could be the saving grace, to get your fitrah up and running again. Of course, as per orthodox understanding of the fitrah, the fitrah is never damages, just silenced to relative degrees. So the convictions produced by these arguments may reinforce the voice of fitrah.

    Secondly, almost all of the major arguments for theism have been present throughout history in different forms. Much before 21st century ever came along, basic arguments like argument from design, cosmological argument(s), argument from order and regularity of the universe etc. have been almost ubiquitous in history. Some interpreters of the Qur'an would argue that such arguments are alluded to even in the Qur'an.

    Thirdly, this has to do with how the fitrah works. I'm not nearly knowledgeable enough to give some sort of verdict on the issue, so you're free to disagree here. Fitrah, like many other human faculties, need to be activated by something. For some people (Ikrama ibn Abu Jahl for example?), that "activation" may be in the form of grave danger, and the sense of helplessness it produces. For others, it may be the beauty and design of the creation (cf. Shaykh Tawfique Chowdhury, in one of his AlKauthar courses, said he became a theist when he first cut open a human body as a doctor). These arguments could play the role of these "activators". The difference between the above two examples and these arguments is, those things have an immediate, experiential effect, while the arguments try to systematize these experiential feelings to something tangible. If your fitrah is silenced enough, for example, you may explain away your awe of the nature's beauty as an evolutionary byproduct, as opposed to a signpost to God. So what these arguments do is they make it clear on paper that the innate yearning for God is indeed genuine.

    In summary, these arguments aren't at all needed for your or someone's faith, they should be treated as "contingency plans", just in case your innate belief in God gets silenced by sundry factors.