Sophisticated my foot

Oct 20, 2011 Comments Off by

Certain schools of nonsense – perhaps all of them – have “sophisticated” advocates their critics are told must be countered for said criticisms to count for anything. Religion is a classic example of this at the time of writing. “Sophisticated theologians”, we are told, are the ones we must refute. One point I think needs to be made more than it currently is (Greta Christina has made the point, but it appears to be rare) is that not only do these “sophisticated” advocates not produce better arguments for their views than their like–minded but unsophisticated counterparts, but in fact make the exact same arguments. This makes the effort to divide the defenders of these ideas into the sophisticated and the rest as dishonest as it could possibly be.

We can see why they have no choice but to do this. Insofar as an argument for a view can persuade some of it and/or sound to some who are already persuaded like a credible candidate they can give (dishonestly or otherwise) for why they think as they do, that argument will become well–known among all those committed to mounting such a defence. Any argument with a “sophisticated” origin, be it genuinely sophisticated or merely seemingly so, will be no exception to this, though in its proliferation it will end up with champions who may not understand the argument well enough to defend it properly in debates or understand how one can tell whether it works or not (which of course it does not). Ontological, cosmological and design arguments and theodicies regularly show themselves in this way. People like Plantinga and Swinburne can spell their way to the ends of these arguments better than the countless borrowers of these arguments, but that is about as far as their greater “sophistication” goes.

Indeed, the frequency with which we should end up hearing the same arguments endlessly repeated will be inversely proportional to how many of them there are, and there are never very many of them, even with the greatest ingenuity. Once you recognise that teleological arguments posit a god with the excuse being to explain an aspect of the universe (and not one we’re entirely sure is really there, by the way), and moral and transcendental arguments do so too, you realise all of these are just specific versions of the design argument. So there are, in fact, only three kinds of argument ever developed in the entire history of religion for any deity: cosmological, ontological and design. (The argument that certain claims of miracles must be historically accurate is a subtler example; it is said not only that the historical events they describe must have occurred, but that those events must also have a divine explanation if they indeed did occur. Such arguments can therefore be criticised for either one of these points’ failings. My point is a cosmological, ontological or design argument is made as part of any case for a deity so far developed.) These all–too–familiar arguments could just about come in different degrees of “sophistication” if some but not all of their formulations actually work, but of course none of them do.

Why is such a clearly wrong idea as that these famous theists are “sophisticated” in their defence of theism so popularly championed? The reason, of course, is to try to insulate their claims from being seen to be at fault. “Oh, no, this will never do; you didn’t refute Swinburne! His is the case no–one can take down!” Of course, one can refute Swinburne. “Oh no, Plantinga’s the best one!” Take him down; what do they say? “No, no, no, Aquinas!” And so on. There are enough theologians out there, especially if the dead are included, for them to keep you busy with this trick indefinitely. One way around this is to refer the theist to other theologians’ demolition of the theologian du jour., as none of them have achieved anywhere near universal acceptance of their arguments amongst theologians. Why should I be more convinced of a case for a deity than some theists are?

Christianity, Religions and other Belief Systems

About the author

For most of my time as an undergraduate there was an atheist society in my university, which was founded late in my first year there. I was a committee member from then until my degree ended, by which time the society was atheist, secularist and humanist (you needn't be all three!). This gives me many experiences to relate. I have long critiqued pro-religious arguments, including in hundreds of posts - many of them thorough rebuttals to articles - on under my name. My degree was in physics, and I know a lot of the science - physics and otherwise - relevant to the debate on religion.
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