The Apostle Paul vs. the Maverick Philosopher

From Romans 1:18-20

18 The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of people, who suppress the truth by their wickedness, 19 since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. 20 For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse.

Bill Vallicella, aka the Maverick Philosopher argues that Paul’s argument here is unsound (if viewed as an argument) because Paul is begging the question. I’ll get to his argument in a moment, but before I do, I’d like to mention the assumption that Paul’s argument is about individual guilt determined by individual action. Most modern Christians would likely agree with this assumption, but a possible alternate reading is that Paul is talking about the corporate guilt of humanity as a whole. For every civilization where we have a history going back more than a couple of thousand years, they did at one time believe in a creator god of some sort.

For the remainder, though I’ll assume Paul is talking about individual responsibility. Here is part of Bill’s comment on Paul’s argument:

Paul is concerned to show the moral culpability of unbelief.  He assumes something I don’t question, namely, that some beliefs are such that, if a person holds them, then he is morally culpable or morally blameworthy for holding them.

Suppose we take Paul to be giving an argument. What is the argument? It looks to be something like the following:

1) It is morally inexcusable to refuse to acknowledge what is known to be the truth.

2) That God exists is known to be the truth from the plain evidence of creation.

Therefore

3) It is morally inexcusable to refuse to acknowledge that God exists.

This argument is only as good as its minor premise, (2). But right here is where Paul begs the question.  If the natural world is a divine creation, it follows analytically that God exists and that God created the world.  Paul begs the question by assuming that the natural world is a divine creation.

I don’t think the moral failure suggested in (1) is what Paul had in mind, but I’ll keep (1) as the major premise for now.

Bill’s problem with the minor premise (2) is that (according to him), it begs the question by assuming that the world is created. This puzzled me because Paul was not trying to prove that God created the world. In Vallicella’s own restating of the argument, Paul’s conclusion is that it is morally inexcusable not to believe in God. The conclusion says nothing about how the world was created; so how can assuming that God created the world be begging the question (which means assuming the conclusion)?

In fact, Bill’s restatement of the argument contains an irrelevant clause–there is no need to mention the creation of the world at all, and the argument could be made more succinct by trimming premise (2):

(1) It is morally inexcusable to refuse to acknowledge what is known to be the truth.

(2′) That God exists is known to be the truth.

Therefore

(3) It is morally inexcusable to refuse to acknowledge that God exists.

This is a valid argument (meaning that if the premises are true, the conclusion must be true), so apparently Bill’s problem is not with this argument itself, but with the truth of my premise (2′), and in what he sees as the argument for (2′) suggested by his premise (2). It seems that Bill thinks the implicit argument for (2′) given by (2) begs the question. So what might the argument be that begs the question?

I’ll admit, I spent an inordinate amount of time trying to figure this out. I started with the assumption that the argument had to have “that God created the world” as a middle term and (2′) as a conclusion, but nothing came to mind that could be reasonably considered begging the question.

I finally got a clue by re-reading this: “If the natural world is a divine creation, it follows analytically that God exists and that God created the world.” Aha! If the analyticity is an element of the critique (I’d say it’s synthetic a priori, not analytic, but it doesn’t matter for our purposes) then maybe Bill thinks the argument is an argument about what someone can or should conclude. My first attempt at this involved a sub-argument included in a meta-argument about knowing that which is is provable, but eventually I simplified it to the following argument-inside-an-epistemic-context. By that, I mean that I’ve taken a valid argument and wrapped each proposition inside “__is known to be true”. There are problems with epistemic contexts and normal deduction, but let’s ignore them. The argument is:

(S1) That God created the world is known to be true.

(S2) That if God created the world then God exists is known to be true.

therefore

(2′) That God exists is known to be true.

This argument seems to be valid if we assume epistemic closure–not the new internet meaning of close-minded, but the original philosophical meaning of believing all of the logical consequences of your beliefs. Inside this argument is the valid argument:

(R1) God created the world.

(R2) If God created the world then God exists.

therefore

(R3) God exists.

This argument begs the question in just the way that Bill says, because asserting that God did something assumes that God exists, and when you embed all the propositions in “__ is known to be true” you still have an argument that is apparently valid given epistemic closure and that can reasonably be said to beg the question.

But I’m not sure I have it right even yet, because the argument above is an rather silly example of begging the question, and if Bill is suggesting that this is the argument that Paul was making, then I submit that Bill is violating the Principle of Charity–and that doesn’t seem like Bill at all. A more charitable reading would be that Paul’s assumption “God created the world” is made outside of the epistemic context, something like:

(T1) God created the world.

(T2) That if God created the world then God exists is known to be true.

therefore

(2′) That God exists is known to be true.

This argument is not begging the question because it is possible that God exists and God created the world, but no one knows about it. Of course, this argument also isn’t valid, but Paul probably didn’t have such an argument in mind. More plausibly, he was thinking of an argument like this:

(A1) There is a chain of reflection from natural assumptions that everyone undergoes at some time in their life, which leads them to the conclusion that God exists and has certain properties. I use “reflection” and “assumptions” rather than “reasoning” and “premises” in order to emphasize the informal nature of this process.

What might that chain of reflection be? Well, maybe it could be schematized something like the following chain of reasoning:

(U1) The world has organization and purpose.

(U2) Organization and purpose are constructed by a person.

(U3) Therefore, the world was constructed by a person.

(U4) I am a part of the world.

(U5) Therefore, the person who constructed the world constructed me.

(U6) I know beauty and goodness.

(U7) Therefore, I was constructed by a person capable of constructing a knowledge of beauty and goodness.

(U8) The world is incomprehensibly immense.

(U9) Therefore, the world was constructed by a person capable of creating the incomprehensibly immense.

etc.

Also, Paul would not have claimed (I don’t think) that the assumptions of the argument would be in any sense unavoidable. That is, the assumptions are not a priori nor made practically certain by experience. Rather, Paul’s point would be that such a course of informal and intuitive reflection based on natural assumptions would lead one to a reasonably firm knowledge of God.

What I have said so far is (I claim) enough to establish that Paul cannot be reasonably accused of a logical blunder, but it does not make the argument plausible–at least not to a typical modern philosopher, logician, or scientist. I’ll address that in a future post.

2 thoughts on “The Apostle Paul vs. the Maverick Philosopher”

  1. Doesn’t this argument, well set of arguments, have a weakness in that they presume a monotheistic universe? Putting aside multiverses of course. What if Satan created the physical universe and God created just the life part? I suppose I’m creating something of a labeling issue here but conceptually this is a thing I’ve been pondering for quite some time.

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    1. Let’s identify the arguments: (1) My argument that Paul was not begging the question, (2) Bill’s argument that Paul was begging the question, (3) Paul’s argument that disbelieving in God is morally wrong, (4) the argument, allegedly available to everyone, that proves that God exists.

      I assume you are talking about a weakness in (4). If so, then I agree that as given, it is not very persuasive. I’ll try to make it more persuasive in a future post.

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