Thursday, 24 September 2015

The Best and Worst Arguments

A common pair of questions asked in apologetics and counter-apologetics circles are “what is the best argument for god from the perspective of an atheist?” and “what is the best argument against god from the perspective of a theist?”

I don’t want to consider this particular couplet, but another related one, namely “what is the best argument for god?” and “what is the worst argument for god?”

Of course, I need to be able to provide an answer myself, so here goes:

Best argument for god

From my perspective, that would have to be personal experience.  I wrote a series of responses to WLC’s various logical arguments, but I didn’t respond to his occasional appeals to personal experience.  If a theist truly believes that he has interacted with the divine, then no amount of logical wrangling or rhetoric is likely to shift him.

Worst argument for god

From my perspective again, that would have to be the threat of death.  By this I don’t mean “if you don’t believe in god then you will not be rewarded with eternal life”.  I mean something like “if you don’t believe in my god, particularly if you previously believed or claimed to have believed, then I will kill you”.  If you threaten me with death if I don’t believe in flying monkeys (and I believe that your threat is credible), then I am likely to assure you that I do in fact believe in flying monkeys.  I won’t actually believe, of course, but if you are so obsessed with flying monkeys that you want me to believe in them and are willing to kill me, you possibly won’t notice my deception.  If I am an external observer, and I notice that your supposedly faithful disciples are actually just in fear for their lives, then I am going to be rather dismissive (albeit quietly) about the likelihood that flying monkeys exist.

What does this say about me?

I think that this is possibly the most interesting aspect of the exercise.  What I consider to be the best argument can be characterised as “coming from within” while what I consider to be the worst argument is imposed from without.

Despite my love of dismantling the so-called “logical” arguments of theists, logic doesn’t seem to play a part in what I consider to be the best and the worst arguments.  Equally, effectiveness of the arguments doesn’t seem to matter, since I don’t think that “best” argument would be effective for me – even if I experienced what could be considered a brush with the divine, since I’d be likely to consider it an aberration rather than anything veridical.  No-one who is not crazy, so far as I can tell, has a constant impression of being in contact with a god.  The “worst” argument could be highly effective, as far as I know – through a form of “fake it until you make it” or Stockholm syndrome (note that it seems that proselytising acts to lock people in to a belief-set, so “Recruit or die” might be more effective than “Believe or die”).

It’d be interesting to see what the axis of best and worst is for other people.


  1. If you want to know the best argument for God's existence, I find it to be the argument from change. I am quite sure that you are familiar with the Aristotelian unmoved mover. Well, this is the best argument. The argument from change can be briefly described as follows:

    For something to undergo change, it must have some potentiality actualized by an actualizer. In other words, change requires a changer - the change requires something that was already actual to act upon it. So, for a match to ignite, the match's potential to create flame must be actualized by something other than the match itself -- say, by a person striking the match head against the matchbox. And if any series of changes is followed back, there eventually must be a first cause. This first cause must itself be an unactualized actualizer. That is, to be a first cause, it must not have been itself acted upon by something else. This first cause must be itself unmoved and unchanging. It must have no potentialities (no ability to change), and instead must be pure actuality.

    So, this is the brief outline of a first cause, i.e., an unmoved mover. Many people apply this argument to temporal series to argue that the origin of the universe itself at some time in the past must be explained in terms of a first cause. You will see something quite similar to this argument with the cosmological argument, as defended by William Lane Craig among others. However, Aristotle (and following him, Aquinas) did not use a temporally ordered series to defend the argument from change. Aristotle himself assumed that the universe had no beginning and went infinitely into the past. For these philosophers, the argument from change was applied to a hierarchical series rather than a temporal series.

    In a hierarchical causal series, we can consider causality in a single instant or moment and trace its cause all the way down. For example, A cup may sit on a desk. Because it is being held up by the desk, the cup does not fall to the floor. This cause and effect relationship is occurring simultaneously, at a single moment. The cup pushes down on the desk as it is pulled by gravity at the same time that the desk supports the cup from falling. If we follow this series down, we see that the desk is held up by the floor or foundation of the house, which is held up by the earth. So when we say first cause in this sense, we do not mean first temporally, but first hierarchically. And again, to truly be the first cause of a hierarchical series, something must itself be an unactualized actualizer. So, there must be a first cause that is unchanging and purely actual in this hierarchical sense as well, even taking that the universe goes back infinitely in time.

    This uncaused cause, unmoved mover, unactualized actualizer, unchanging changer is, of course, God, as it has all the divine attributes: it is singular, it is unchanging, it is eternal, it is all powerful, and transcendent. This was a brief introduction and there is certainly much more to be said, but I think this captures the gist of the argument.

    The philosopher Edward Feser expands on these concepts, if you are interested:


  2. As for a worst argument... I'm never too big on people relying on their feelings. Only a step above this would be relying upon a holy book. While there may be some merit to these arguments, I find them to be the least convincing and least rigorous arguments for God's existence. But even these worst arguments speak to something.



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