Posted by: Calum Miller | December 30, 2011

Robin Le Poidevin’s “Arguing for Atheism” #2

Last time I mentioned I’ve been reading Robin Le Poidevin’s “Arguing for Atheism: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Religion”. Having now finished it, I’m in a better position to comment on it as a whole. As I wrote before, this is purportedly one of the foremost challenges to theism (Keith Parsons describing Le Poidevin as one of those who had “[devastated] the theistic arguments in their classical and most recent formulations”), so I was keen to read it to see if it offered any convincing responses to typical theistic arguments, and to see if it offered any arguments for atheism.

The book is actually a relatively good introduction to the philosophy of religion – it tackles more contemporary issues than many introductions (such as the kalam version of the cosmological argument), and explains them clearly. It’s honest about its aims: namely, to provide an introduction to the area in the context of arguing for atheism. Unfortunately, it turned out to be a lot better as a normal introduction than as an argument for atheism. I don’t have much time to go through it in  detail, so I’ll just provide the key points of the book:

Part I – The limits of theistic explanation

Here, Le Poidevin criticises arguments for God’s existence, as well as the idea of God as an explanation in general. He discusses the three classical types of arguments (and recent counterparts) – cosmological, ontological and teleological.

Cosmological – temporal
This is essentially the kalam cosmological argument and, as explained in my last blog, the main objection given is that Le Poidevin expresses scepticism over the premise that the universe began to exist. This is not based on anything – it is basically just an assertion that there is no good reason to believe it. The reasons given for the premise are not difficult to find: it is hard to believe that Le Poidevin has seriously implied that he knows of no reason to accept that premise. Both scientific and metaphysical arguments can be given, but there is no time to rehearse them here (if you really care, see my article introducing the Kalam Cosmological Argument).

Next, Le Poidevin tries to question the authority of the first premise, that everything that begins to exist has a cause, asking whether it is an analytic a priori truth, a synthetic a priori truth, or an a posteriori truth. The first suggestion is disregarded, since there is no semantic contradiction in the idea that something begins to exist without a cause.

The second suggestion is dismissed by saying that we cannot conceive of the falsity of an a priori truth, whereas we can conceive of something beginning to exist without a cause. But it is not at all clear that we can conceive of something beginning to exist without a cause – even if we can conceive of something without explicitly conceiving of its cause. Indeed, Le Poidevin takes this point on board, and says that he will give a different objection later.

The third suggestion, that it is an inductively inferred truth, is dismissed by saying that causation is inherently a temporal concept – causation necessarily takes time. There therefore cannot be a cause of something which has existed for all time, and thus we have an intrinsic defeater for the premise. Even if everything within the universe (which did not exist at the very start of the universe) which begins to exist has a cause, it makes no sense to talk of a cause for the universe itself, since a cause is necessarily temporally prior to its effect, and there is nothing temporally prior to the universe. This doesn’t seem to me to be especially convincing – there doesn’t seem to be any prohibition of simultaneous causation. We might explain a dent in a cushion by a ball hitting it. But is the ball’s hitting the cushion temporally prior to the dent? Not really, but the ball is still plausibly interpreted as being the cause of the dent in the cushion.

Cosmological – modal
Here, Le Poidevin turns to the argument from contingency, that everything whose existence is contingent has a cause of its existence, that nothing can be the cause of its own existence, that the universe’s existence is contingent, and therefore that the universe has a cause which is not itself.

The primary objection here is based on the arguments against the temporal version, namely, that there cannot be a cause in the ordinary sense. If the universe is not temporally infinite, then the problem of atemporal causation arises. If the universe is infinite, then there can be no real first cause. I can’t see how any advocates of this kind of Leibnizian argument will be dissuaded by this objection. For these, the argument is not really about causation at all, but about sufficient reason. The idea is that everything which exists has a sufficient reason for its existence. Since the universe is contingent, there must be something necessary which in some sense explains its existence. Many, for example, would point to the analogy of a train. Each carriage’s motion can be explained by its being pulled by the carriage in front. Even if there are an infinite number of carriages, there are still other necessary components: engines, wheels and so on. On the modal version, God would be seen more as an explanation in terms of engines and wheels than in preceding carriages, and so there is no real problem here, either.

#3 will come tomorrow – for now, time to move onto my next few books: Michael Licona’s “The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach” and Peter Atkins’ “On Being”. Take care!



  1. And then Jesus came upon his disciples and said, “What’s this shit I’ve been hearing about a human sacrifice for sins!!? What kind of Neanderthal bullshit is that!!!? Blood sacrifice!!!!!!!!!!!? Listen, you can take that pile of Stone Age donkey shit and shove it straight up your goddamn asses!!!”–Jesus Christ, the Lost Gospel

  2. OK, thanks for your input.

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