The 500 Gods Argument

Moai on Rano Raraku caldera, Easter Island

A few weeks ago the CSU Sacramento Ratio Christi club, a club I co-founded, hosted Dr. Licona and Dr. McCormick for a discussion on the topic “Jesus:History or Mistake?” (here) During that debate, Dr. McCormick presented “The 500 Gods Argument”. A slide was presented with the names of 500 different gods that people throughout history had at one time or another believed in and have since been disbanded. His argument was this: “The only difference between you and me is that Yahweh is not on that list. There is only a one god difference between an Atheist and a Christian.” [paraphrased]. What surprised me so greatly was not the presentation of the argument but the assumed force that this otherwise weak argument possessed.

There are three responses to this argument that I would like to present in turn, from, in my opinion, least to most interesting in terms of implications:

  1. The One God Difference. Many philosophers and theologians have jumped upon the rhetorical irony and manipulation that this statement appears to convey. On the one hand, the “One God Difference” seems to artificially minimize the ontological, or existential, differences while at the same time ignoring the massive cultural, ethical, and worldview implications that those ontological commitments produce. For example, it is quite evident that Christianity, Islam, and Judaism are all monotheistic religions, they believe in one God; however, it would be quite impossible, or even ignorant, to say, “Well, since they all believe in one God, they’re basically the same religion.”  In the same way, though the ontological difference may be one, the implications are many. For while an Atheist may at surface claim that there is a small difference in our ontology, a difference of one, a more penetrating look will allow us to understand that the difference between, say, two and three is conceptually and numerically less difficult to understand than the difference between zero and one.
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  2. An induction problem. Another objection to this argument is that it is formally invalid. It doesn’t appear to follow that probing the non-existence of one god proves the non-existence of some other god. It would not appear to follow that since Zeus, a Greek god, does not sit upon Mount Olympus, then Thor, a Norse god, does not fly through the heavens. And because we can prove that Thor does not fly through the heavens, I don’t think it serves anything to prove that Ra, the Egyptian god of the sun, does not in fact scorch the earth. In fact, I’m almost certain that we could go down the list of all 500 gods, disprove the existence of each one, and still be left with work to do in disproving the 501st god.
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    Now many readers would ask at this point, and I think quite a reasonably, the question, “When do we just call it quits and say there exists no god?” Before I answer this question, I think it wise to provide two examples: an abstract example and a concrete example.
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    In mathematical systems that are axiomatic we are concerned with the consistency and inconsistency of those system. A consistent system is a system that can produce true statements and not produce any false statements. Or, put another way, an inconsistent system will be able to produce a statement that is both true and false. The problem with an inconsistent system is that if we can produce something that is both true and false, we can, in essence, force the system to make any statement we can imagine to be true. However, a unique problem has arisen in the philosophy of mathematics concerning these systems: when a system reaches a sufficient level of complexity, we can no longer test for consistency, we can only test for inconsistency. What this means is that we can have some system which we have not been able to produce a logical contradiction while still not having sufficient grounds for proving it’s actually consistent. At best we can say, “For all we know, we have not proven it inconsistent.” Far from a satisfactory answer.The reason I provided an abstract example first is because this concrete example is essentially the same thing. There was a time when everyone believed that all swans were white. How did such a belief come to be. Well, it is quite simple. People began to noticed a pattern in nature – the birds we call swans have time and again been white. This pattern was so prevalent that some organization of people came together and, quite reasonably, asserted “all swans are white”. But, little did they know, out in the world, beyond the watchful eye of those pattern-seeking people, there were swans that were black. And one day, to much dismay, such a swan was found. And now, for all we can say, “Most swans are white and some swans are black.”So, to answer the original question, “When do we just call it quits and say there exists no god?” I would propose another question, “When do we just call it quits and say there exists only white swans?”

    Many people will most likely respond with, “Well, that was anti-climatic.” Please read the next point.
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  3. Pushing the Argument the other Way. G.K. Chesterton once addressed a similar argument against Mr. Blatchford of The Clarion. Mr. Blatchford, while living in a different time and presenting a cluster of different arguments, did appear to present a similar argument to The 500 Gods Argument in this way – he appealed to the masses of “christ-like” figures as a disproof for the existence of Christ.
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    The 500 gods argument appears to be argued this way:
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    1. There have been 500 different gods that people have at one time believed in.
    2. No one believes in those gods any more.
    3. Therefore, we should not believe in your god.Notice the form of the argument. It is at once an appeal to a multiplicity of false experience to disprove any future true experiences. Allow me to provide a practical example:
    ..
    Imagine you arrive in a court room and the judge’s responsibility is to only evaluate the evidence provided for any particular case. A flood of people come running in, say 500, and they all claim there was a car accident some distance down the street. Now a judge, while on duty, cannot leave his post, so he is forced to accept only the testimony of those present. Each person gives his testimony, providing the description of the cars involved, the details of the people who were harmed, and the damage to the surrounding area.After the judge listens to each of the 500 people, he comes to find out something quite interesting. The testimonies all conflict in one capacity or another. Some say one car was involved while others say there were multiple vehicles; some say it was a GMC while others argue it was a Honda; some say it was a black car, others say it was a red car; and some say they hit a tree, while others say they hit a person. So the judge, understanding how bizarre it is for 500 people to rush into his courtroom only to provide contradicting evidence, rules that nothing must have happened.

    Chesterton jumps upon this conclusion as somewhat bizarre in itself. Why, when presented with the claim that history is speckled with dozens of “Christ-like” figures, we come to the conclusion, “therefore, there must have been no Christ-like figures”? In the same way, is it not a bit bizarre to say, “Well, since billions of people throughout thousands of years of history have had conflicting descriptions of god, there must be no god?” We have, in a way, tried to legitimize the argument, “from the multiplicity of claims for the existence of god there must be no god.” But, if we put the argument on its head, and say, “Well, let us suppose God does exist, would it be odd then to see that so many people claim that a god exists?” Of course not!

    This response, of course, does not go to argue for the existence of any particular god, as all the testimonies of the car accident wouldn’t go to produce evidence of any particular car accident. But this argument serves to say, “Well, it would seem, if anything, while the multiplicity of testimonies do not serve to argue for a particular car accident, it does seem to serve to prove that something did happen – and it was significant enough that 500 people were willing to testify its happening.”

I’ve always found The 500 Gods Argument to be a bizarre argument because of its lack of force while being presented as if it was an end-all point. But if you do run into a person making this argument or happen to find yourself sitting in on a lecture with a slide, then you have at least three points to argue. First, the difference between no gods and one god is a vast difference with many implications. Second, the induction is a fallacious form of reason. And third, in a more common sense sort of way, it would actually seem to be that this argument favors the theistic position, not provide evidence against it.

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2 thoughts on “The 500 Gods Argument

  1. It’s great that you’ve spend some more time thinking about this Logan. I didn’t talk about this argument much in the debate: too many other things going on. That might explain why the idea I have here doesn’t resemble any of the arguments that you’ve attributed to this sort of atheist. Let me take a brief pass at a point that’s more teeth than the straw men you’ve built up here. Consider the patent office. Over the years, the patent office has received thousands of patent applications for perpetual motion machines. For a long time, they did their due diligence and actually investigated the plans/blueprints and checked them to see if the machine would actually work. After analyzing hundreds and even thousands of these “arguments” for the existence of a perpetual motion machine, they decided to change their policy. From now, they said, if you want a patent on a perpetual motion machine, you need to present us with a working model. The idea of a perpetual motion machine runs against too many of the other things that we know are true. it doesn’t fit with the rest of the evidence. Furthermore, we’ve seriously considered thousands of cases in their favor and they’ve all been found wanting. So until something significant changes about the way that the case is being presented, we are justified, provisionally, in concluding that perpetual motion machines aren’t real. It might turn out that some new evidence or facts could come to light that would force us to overturn what we’ve concluded on the basis of this long and thorough investigation, but until then, we are inductively justified in concluding that there are no such things. This conclusion remains defeasible, of course.

    Another way to to think of the argument is like this: Humans have a very high error rate when it comes to making supernatural claims. See this long list of gods, demons, spirits, ghosts, and other supernatural entities that they have claimed were real, but upon closer investigation it became obvious that there was a natural explanation. So that erodes the reliability of humans when they offer new supernatural claims. Sure, they might be telling the truth, but we have to consider the source. And when humans make these sorts of claims, they are far more likely to be wrong than right, we have found. Interestingly, you can plug some values for these probabilities into Bayes’ theorem and get some probability estimates for these supernatural claims. And since the accuracy rate for supernatural claims is so low, it seriously undermines the result. Lots of interesting stuff here.

    MM

    Liked by 1 person

    • Dear Dr. McCormick,

      Thank you so much for providing me with your thoughts; I hope you didn’t mind my delayed response as I took time to ponder what you had written.

      I do want to apologize if what I had presented above has come as a misrepresentation of either your position or the position of those who have made a similar argument. This response may prove to a bit longer than even the original post, but I want to least demonstrate that the perhaps the claim that my post was a strawman argument is more due to the brevity of this post than the misrepresentation of either yours or other’s position in this argument.

      The first point that was taken into consideration in the above post was that often times a claim is thrown out that the difference between an atheist and a theist, particularly a Monotheist, is simply one god. Many individuals from a variety of backgrounds has flagged this sort of argument as in way rhetorically minimizing the differences by reducing all commitments in ethics, metaphysics, epistemology, and culture down to a single criteria – a numerical existential commitment. The additional point I provided, which I have not heard argued by anyone, is that even if we do allow for a simple numerical criteria, mathematically speaker zero and one is a massive difference (versus, say, the difference between one and two). However, I do know that you didn’t touch on this point in your response, but this will become important at the end of my response, so allow me to leave this train in mid-thought and pick it back up at towards the end.

      In your response, you provided an example concerning the US Patent Office and their special requirements for any person providing patents for a perpetual motion machine (which I agree has a fascinating history that really demonstrates man’s willingness to push-on in the face of so many failures over so much time.). However, failing to understand how your example is significantly different than the example I provided concerning white swans. The reason this is so is because of the point I was attempting to draw. For whatever reason, many people will conflate the rigidity of conclusions from deductive logic into the realms of inductive logic. And so I was providing a practical example of where even a significant probability that there should be only white swans, ends up becoming false.
      However, allow me to alter the white swan case so that it is almost exactly identical, at least in principle, to your example. Instead of the “pattern-seeking” community declaring there are only white swans (and then eventually proven wrong), they instead say, “Well, we are really tired of going on black swan hunts, if someone claims to have seen a black swan they must bring it to us.” Even in this case, I think the “patter-seeking” community and the US Patent Office is saying the same sort of thing. Namely, they are not drawing from a set of failed encounters and then saying, “Therefore, there are no black swans, or there are no perpetual motion machines,” a claim extending out into the natural world of biology or physics; instead, it appears that they are making a claim concerning the practical allotment of resources.

      Now at this point, I think there can be raised a perfectly rational question and that is this: “Fine. Just for the sake of argument, say everything you’ve written is true. Logan, at what point can someone have rational grounds for believing in an inductive argument regarding the existence of any god, given that you’re not throwing out all of inductive logic for the sake of saving your God?”

      I think the first part that goes into responding to this question is to highlight where we are concerning the maximum strength of the conclusion of the 500 gods argument. At the beginning of my original post, and even at this post, was to show that this argument doesn’t, despite how it is often presented, feature any deductive force, it is only inductive force. This effectively alters the argument, in the best possible scenario from, “Because we have disproven 500 other gods, therefore, this 501st god doesn’t exist,” to, “Because we have disproven 500 other gods, therefore, it is highly unlikely that the 501st god exists.” Though I do believe this difference is the difference between night and day, I think we can do even better.

      The question concerning human error rates. I think we can both agree that human beings are error machines. And even Christianity would stand fully behind you’ especially if we take the definition of “sin” all the way back to Aristotle’s definition of “missing the mark” (concerning archery). However, I don’t think the indictment to human error rates is germane only to the supernatural. As Daniel Kahneman very well illustrates, we can barely get the natural world – the world we can see, touch, taste, smell, and hear – correct. Even when we are presented with the facts of the situations, we are often still reluctant to alter our views (As he pointed out concerning his own experiences in recruiting candidates for Israel’s military). If we were to run Bayes’ Theorem given human error concerning the natural world, I think we could anticipate it would be quite low (I think the history of physics by itself can attest to that, let alone the rocky development of many of the social sciences). In any case, I would quickly be willing to admit, and even concede the point, that the way in which we can verify natural events and supernatural events are quite different and that problem is perhaps why were are having this discussion in the first place.

      However, I brought up the point concerning human error rates because its inclusion, nonetheless, shifts the grounds of the argument again. Instead of saying, “Because we have disproven 500 other gods, therefore, it is highly unlikely that the 501st god exists,” to “given that we have a low probability of getting anything correct about the world around us, because we have disproven 500 other gods, therefore, it is highly unlikely that the 501st god exists.” But I still think we can do better.

      Allow me to resume with my first train of thought, concerning the limiting of criteria to numerical existential commitment. If we can agree that mere numerical existential commitments are not sufficient to characterize any god that someone believes in, that special nuances must be taken into account – such that there are significant differences between Zeus, Krishna, and Yahweh that span significant metaphysical, ethical, political, and cultural differences – then it because increasingly difficult to group them altogether into a Bayesian calculation. My point here would essentially be a bringing together of the first two points in my original blogpost.

      So the shift in the original argument to now, would be this: “Because we have disproven 500 other gods, therefore, this 501st god doesn’t exist,” to “given that we have a low probability of getting anything correct about the world around us, because we have disproven 500 other gods which are not significantly similar, therefore, it is highly unlikely that the 501st god which is significantly dissimilar exists.” While I don’t think this is a defeat for this argument, I do think the shift, at least rhetorically if not also logically, is massively significant.

      But, at this point, we still need to ask, “Does this argument flow to the atheist or to the theist?” And this is why I find Chesterton’s point so interesting. If we take our presuppositions into account, it seems that this argument becomes neutral. To the theist, he can say, “Well, if my God exists, of course people would come to different interpretations concerning his characteristics”; To the atheist, he can say, “Well, of course everyone is getting it wrong, there are no gods to find.” But if we remove our presuppositions, I think we begin to see Chesterton’s point that the theist’s explanation is much simpler than the atheist’s. Both of us, or all three of us if we include Chesterton, find ourselves in a world in which the belief in god has plagued the human race. This phenomenon is unique to human beings (for all we know), but exists regardless of age, sex, prior dispositions, health, culture, level of education, or period in time. Chesterton’s point is that if we look at the atheistic framework, much is left to be explained; if we look at the theist’s framework, Christianity in particular, this world would be expected.

      Liked by 1 person

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