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3.5 out of 5
ISBN/ASIN : 0879758236
Manufacturer : Prometheus Books|
Release data : April, 1993
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A good read, though theist arguments were generally poor
I should preface this by saying that I am, in fact, a theist.
That said, I thought that the *theist* position was very poorly represented. Moreland and Craig's arguments were simply bad philosophy. There was the occasional good point here and there, but on the whole, there were so many holes that even I, an amateur, could have picked them out. Fortunately, Neilsen did an excellent job of riping their arguments to shreds. I found this very intellectually interesting, as it this exchange really illustrated the common standards of a good philosophical argument.
Flew and Parson's arguments were also not so great, but still better than Moreland's. Fortunately, Willard's piece (one of the theists) was simply excellent. He too pointed out the numerous issues with Moreland's argument, and even Neilsen complemented him on his argument. In fact, Neilen commented that a debate between he and Willard would have been far more fruitful, and I wholeheartedly agree. (I would likely not hesitate to give such a work a 5-star rating, assuming they found some better arguers than Moreland and Craig to round out the work.)
In general, I do recommend reading this book, because it's useful to see how one should *not* argue, and what does make a good argument. (Of course, a sophisticated philosopher may find this all very tedious, in which case they should probably simply read the individual works of Neilsen and Willard.) In my opinion, the quality of Neilsen and Willard's arguments do make up for the rest of the arguments. Craig's arguments are interesting, though, in my opinion, untenable.
On the whole, I'm surprised to see that other reviewers thought that the theists won--I thought the atheists won! On the theist side, there was only one philosopher worth his salt, while all the atheists were generally quite good. (Though, I should say, I was not very impressed with Flew's arguments, as presented here. I'm not familiar with his other work, which I assume is much better, given his esteemed status in the philosophical community.) I was also very intellectually disappointed in Moreland and Craig, especially because I myself am a theist. They are very clearly allowing their beliefs to cloud their arguments, and they seem blind to the many fallacies they are promulgating. In fact, they give theist philosophers a bad name. (Without Willard's piece, in fact, I would simply not have recommended this work.)
So, in conclusion, I think this is a good work, but could have been much better.
Good enough to argue with.
All of the protagonists in this book are sharp, knowledgeable (in some ways but not others), polite, and engaging. The Christians probably "won," though I am not sure whether that is because of laziness on the part of the atheists, or the inherent weakness of their position. Of the primary debaters, Moreland is more on target intellectually, though less original. All the secondary debaters made good points.
The besetting weakness of this book (ironically, Nielsen and Craig agree) is that Nielsen is too contemptuous of or bored with conventional arguments for God to engage them. He thinks Hume and Kant have answered them in theory, why go to the mat on details? (Nor does he even explain why their arguments were so forceful.) Instead "God" is incoherent by definition, case closed. He then blames Morehead and Craig (in a polite way) for the poor debate: Get over this proof of God thing, already! His attitude was not much better in his debate a few years later with Craig. Perhaps rather than debating God with orthodox Christians, Nielsen should have taken part in activities he liked, whether darts or snow-boarding. Yawning in the face of your opponent is not only rude, it leaves the impression one lacks reason.
Nielsen's own argument was to me sometimes interesting, but seldom persuasive. "It makes no sense to say something is indirectly observable if it is not at least in theory or in principle directly observable as well." Not only do modern theories in physics seem to contradict this dicta, in reality, we don't directly observe anything -- sensual images cascade to consciousness along a long series of photo-chemical and mechanical reactions, whose validity we cannot test directly. In that sense, I sometimes wonder if God may not be more directly "encounterable" than anything in the sensual world.
Much of Nielsen's argument rests on the weight of abstract adjectives that apply more to the God of Advetic Hinduism than of orthodox Christianity. "You can't encounter a transcendent being." "An infinite individual is a contradiction in terms," because an individual must be "distinguishable from other individuals and thus finite." But the Christian God, as opposed to Brahma, is not "infinite" or purely "transcendent" in the senses that his argument require. Nielsen is likewise fond of the word "anthropomorphic," though as one respondent points out, the Christian view is theomorphism: that we are created in the image of God. Given his contempt for orthodox Christianity, it is perhaps not surprising that Nielsen admits he knows little about the gospels or cosmology. Why does he come to these things, anyway?
Philosophy for Craig is a contact sport, and he vigorously sorts arguments right and left (or right and wrong), as happy to contradict Moreland as Nielsen. I am not sure he has always been so cheerful about being contradicted, but his arguments are forceful, knowledgeable, and to the point.
Overall, Anthony Flew seemed pretty good, honest and "present" as the Buddhists say. But a second weakness of this book is that the skeptics argued erroneously from comparative religion, and the Christians answered them only partially. Flew accused Jesuits who identified the Chinese "Tian" with "God" of a "Jesuitical maneuver." In my opinion as a China scholar, Matteo Ricci, the primary Jesuit in question, was on the right track. Many people who have studied Chinese culture in depth have agreed, including the great Kang Xi emperor, the scholar James Legge, and others. (See my True Son of Heaven: How Jesus Fulfills the Chinese Culture.) A case can be made from anthropology that people in most cultures around the world have in fact been aware of the Supreme God as understood by Christians.
Parson's argument about molecular evolution unfortunately goes unanswered; I think this is an interesting topic for debate. His argument against the resurrection seems to me like begging the question. He complains that it is "more reasonable for an atheist to believe just about any alternative scenario, no matter how improbable." Whatever happened to proportioning belief to the evidence? Parsons says, suppose Mother Theresa claimed she could fly by flapping her arms. Obviously we would not believe such a report, so why believe the resurrection? Such an example only shows he has not really come to grips with the nature of and evidence for the resurrection (see, in particular, N. T. Wright's The Resurrection of the Son of God), or of the Gospels. I argue in my new book, Why the Jesus Seminar Can't find Jesus, and Grandma Marshall Could, that Gospel miracles are "realistic, purposeful, constructive, respectful, and pious." The picture of Mother Theresa flapping her frail arms like a pigeon qualifies in none of these regards. Parsons is going to have to read the Gospels more fairly if he wants to persuade anyone that his explanation is the true one.
Flew assumes the Christian Creator "sees the production of human life as an or the main object" of creation. So why bother with all those other galaxies? But Christian intellectuals who have grown up on C. S. Lewis (most of us, maybe), have never claimed that God's only purpose in creating is human life. Who knows what else he has in mind? Flew replies in advance that the response "His ways are not our ways" is just a post hoc response. On the contrary, admitting the limits to our knowledge has been part of Christian theology from ancient times, and is in general wise epistemology. As Confucius said, "To know what you know, and know what you don't know, this is knowledge."
I find the atheists represented here enjoyable to read, and highly knowledgeable in some areas. It must be tough to be a professional philosopher: aside from logic, language and epistemology, you have to know a little bit about almost everything, it seems. Here you get useful bits of knowledge and thought from most all the contributors, though.
Interesting and entertaining
This book is simply fun to read. There are arguments of all sorts about the existence of God. There are comments on the arguments from various people and comments on the comments. I certainly enjoyed it.
Moreland, as the Theist, gave several arguments for the existence of a Supreme Being (although I have to admit that he didn't include my favorite of them, the ontological one). Nielsen's argument for atheism was essentially the positivistic one: that key religious claims are unfalsifiable and therefore meaningless.
But there were a couple of surprises. First, Moreland made a serious effort to rebut Nielsen's arguments, saying that God is in fact detectable and that therefore key religious statements are indeed verifiable. And second, Moreland used some scientific arguments to bolster his claim! This surprised me, given that Moreland's understanding of the Science he was using appeared to be somewhat shallow. Also, scientists play for keeps. When a scientific theory gets shot down, it's generally as dead as a doornail. I was wondering if Moreland really wanted to play for such stakes.
Some people were surprised that Nielsen used only one argument. I wasn't: it is a powerful argument and it is all he needed. Still, I was surprised by a couple of things from him. First, he dismissed the belief in existence of Zeus as plainly false and superstitious. I think such statements, while they may be valid, are subject to as much debate as the main topic. Second, I expected Nielsen to say that the evidence for the resurrection of Jesus was weak. He didn't do that. Instead he said that even if he were to concede that Jesus was resurrected, that would not be evidence in favor of the existence of a Supreme Being.
All in all, a well-done book.