My question to Peter Boghossian, at the microphone

Last time, we noted how Peter Boghossian has essentially published the atheist's version of Tactics (by apologist Greg Koukl). Recently, he lectured on its contents to a crowd at the University of Texas at Dallas, and I was the first questioner at the mic.

Sir, don't you mean ‘dogmatism’ rather than ‘faith’”?

I had learned first hand that, if you go in to Boghossian's book expecting it be a A Manual For Creating Atheists By Argumentation, then you will be disappointed. You create atheists, he insists, not by critically examining the arguments for and against theism, but by simply teaching them to eschew “faith,” where by faith he primarily _seems _to mean “dogmatism.” I approached the microphone and presented my question on this:

“I know faith can be a slippery word, but isn't your target, the thing you're aiming your guns at, something more like dogmatism rather than faith?”

Bogossian ultimately answered that Christians have “faith” insofar as their evidence does not warrant the degree of confidence they place in their beliefs. I feel the first thing to notice is that, while Boghossian starts off saying he wants to “help [Christians] value reason and rationality,” upon confronting the possibility that many if not most already do this, he essentially complains that such believers are then deluded. Fine, but that would require him to write another book, wouldn't it? Honestly, as he describes them, I think Boghossian's targets deserve to be targeted. They are the religious dogmatists who really do not value reason.  In fact, the objections he prepares atheist readers for are all variations of arguments that apologists hate too.

• “My faith is true for me.” • “My faith is beneficial for me.” • “You can’t prove there’s not a God.” • “Without faith, society would devolve morally.”

So again, at least concerning 95% of the book, Boghossian is not an enemy of Christian apologists, but a friend.

Where Boghossian goes wrong

But what about that 5% where we disagree? Well, Boghossian only mentions _one _actual argument for God's existence in his book, and it is more of a gesture at the argument rather than an articulation of it:

“Why is there something rather than nothing?”

Despite the mere gesture, he writes "This is the best argument I’ve heard for the existence of God" followed by two responses:

a) “Why assume nothing is the default?” b) “How do you know the universe didn’t always exist?”

Regarding (a), Boghossian even cited Adolf Grünbaum which, coming off of his ostensible standard of citing unqualified New Atheists bloggers and YouTube personalities, almost brought a tear to my eye. Both worries, of course, have no pull in fleshed out versions of the argument to which he is referring. So, I presented a fleshed out version on the microphone to him. But wait, what is the argument called anyways? After insisting that he had examined all the arguments for God's existence in front of a large audience, it was a little painful for everyone to hear him confess that he was not aware of the name "Leibnizian Cosmological Argument." (This is the kind of argument we just got done reflecting on after presenting it on Dogma Debate. In fact, David Smalley was in the crowd listening to our Q&A, and this where I was subsequently approached about presenting the argument on his radio podcast, which you can listen to here.) After presenting the actual argument, Boghossian _seemed _to notice that neither objection (a) nor (b) applied. His stalled response started with a friendly but odd discussion about so-called “sophisticated theologians,” randomly referring everyone to an atheist blogger's evolution website. After _literally _no less than five minutes of this, he fell back on (b), suggesting we do not “know” that the Universe had a beginning. This question applies to horizontal cosmological arguments (like the Kalam), but is widely acknowledged to be irrelevant to vertical cosmological arguments like the one I had just presented. My hope is that people noticed this without my explicitly pointing it out, because I did not have time to state it.

Before finishing his response, Boghossian spent another minute deriding a respected branch of philosophy. In my opinion, no one with a background like Boghossian's has an excuse for citing Popper's falsifiability criterion in a discussion like this, but it is what he ended up doing in his case. After admitting his view was unorthodox, he proposed we replace philosophy with science, noting that many philosophical premises are “unfalsifiable.” (So there!) There is so much I wanted to say but was not able to. For starters, this falsifiability criterion, which is unique to the so-called "demarcation problem" (on how to distinguish science from non-science) is widely rejected in the philosophy of science today—too many counter-examples have been discerned (I'll write on this soon). But set this aside. The real kicker is that no one in the history of thought has tried to suggest that the falsifiability of a proposition is a  requirement for its being a proper object of knowledge; not even the overly ambitious verificationist school of thought went that far. It is not hard to see why. For a quick example among many (this post is already too long), it would mean throwing out every university's history department, because historical claims are regularly unfalsifiable.

As a final flourish, Boghossian encouraged me to admit that we are not _certain _that the Leibnizian Cosmological Argument is sound. I immediately questioned the relevance of this, of course. What we are concerned with is not certainty, but epistemic probability. Such a complaint, if leveled elsewhere in truth-seeking, would paralyze all belief-formation! And that's just not good epistemology.

Final Thoughts

I have harsh criticisms, but I actually like Peter Boghossian a lot. I can tell from his book and his lecture, which dripped with sincerity, that he has grown up around the kinds of Christians that embarrass us all, and he is just genuinely unaware of contemporary Christian arguments and scholarship. That is to say, contra my first impressions (Peter “Let it go” Boghossian), I believe now that there is nothing _malicious _about his characterization of me and my peers. I believe he is more a victim of poor sample size than anything.

His passion is to help people out of blind dogmatism, which I can really get behind. Moreover, the guy is just super nice. For example, he expressed a hope that apologists were in the room multiple times, and asked that atheists allow us to come up first for questions. When talking, he was extremely cordial, and the general etiquette guidelines he gave to atheists for use in their discussions were masterful. Maybe I'll change my mind later, but currently Boghossian strikes me as an ideal dialogue partner.

Question: Do you think apologists are giving Boghossian too hard a time? Or do you think I'm going too easy on him?



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