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A Post from Matt Jordan: Five False Assumptions

October 15, 2009

Finally, Dr. Matt Jordan gets off his educated rump to give us a post. He gave some lame excuses for his lateness such as teaching in a university, having a family, blah, blah. So, without further ado, Dr. Jordan:


Five False (or at Least Contentious) Assumptions

Reading through the comments on the religion & science event at COSI was, for me, an experience of Thomas Society déjà vu.  It seems to me that atheistic and skeptical commentators here routinely make at least five assumptions that run so deep that they aren’t even noticed.  Many folks appear to have an intellectual blind spot when it comes to these, and I’d like to point them out.

I’ve got three goals: (1) Identify these assumptions, these intellectual blind spots; (2) show that these assumptions are contentious claims that need to be defended–they shouldn’t be treated as obvious truths that all rational persons must acknowledge; and (3) show that these assumptions are false.

I’m confident I can do (1) and pretty sure I can do (2).  I doubt I can pull off (3) here, but I’ll take a stab.  You’ll notice that my discussion of each assumption is broken into three parts, corresponding to these three goals.  Here we go.


False Assumption #1: Reasonable People Are Empiricists

Some people seem to think that the word ‘evidence’ simply means “data obtainable through the physical sciences that confirms a hypothesis” or something like that.  Many of the same folks seem to think, unsurprisingly, that good arguments must appeal only to publicly available physical evidence in their premises.

But it’s reasonable to believe that other kinds of evidence exist.  For example, religious experiences are often appealed to as evidence for the truth of various metaphysical claims.  These are neither publicly accessible nor (obviously) physical, and yet a person need not be irrational to take them seriously or even find them compelling.  This is especially true of persons who are themselves the subject of a religious experience; think of Saul of Tarsus on his way to Damascus.  Surely it’s rational for him to believe in Jesus as Messiah on the grounds that he takes himself to have actually had an encounter with the risen Lord.  Furthermore, it would not be irrational for Saul’s associates to take the dramatic nature of his conversion–going from overseeing the execution of Christians to becoming one of the world’s most prominent advocates of the gospel message–as evidence that his claims about God are true.

Frankly, the kind of empiricism appealed to in some comments here is just untenable.  There are all kinds of things we know that we do not on the basis of scientific investigation, and there are many things we are justified in believing even if we have no good empirical evidence for them.  Examples include: truths of mathematics (e.g., 2 + 2 = 4) and logic (e.g., the validity of rules of inference), moral truths (e.g., good ought to be pursued and evil avoided; rape is morally wrong), and the principles that govern scientific investigation (e.g., rules of induction; if we have a sufficiently large sample of X, and every X we’ve seen is also a Y, then it’s reasonable to believe that the next X we see will also be a Y).


False Assumption #2: Only Scientific Explanations Count as Good Explanations

A scientific explanation cites some physical state of affairs and relevant physical laws to help us understand why some event took place.  Some people seem to think that this is theonly kind of explanation worth considering.

Sometimes, however, we ask questions that admit of different kinds of explanations.  If I come home from the office and find a present in the kitchen labeled “For Matt,” and I wonder where it came from, a satisfying explanation of that phenomenon will include reference to the desires and intentions of an intelligent agent–my wife, perhaps, or one of our kids.  Such explanations are called personal explanations.  We might also wonder about weird, metaphyical-ish questions like “why must the interior angles of a triangle equal 180 degrees?”  This isn’t the kind of thing I lose much sleep over, myself, but I can imagine someone appealing to the essential nature of triangles, or perhaps to fundamental principles of geometry, to answer this question.  This would an essential explanation.  Surely it’s not ipso facto unreasonable for someone to believe that these kinds of explanations might be legitimate in cosmology or biology.

Certainly, there are plenty of contexts in which it would be totally unreasonable to deny the legitimacy of personal explanations.  If I’m walking through the woods, and I find a tree with the words “matt go north south dangerous” etched in the bark, it would be wholly irrational for me to seek to explain this phenomenon merely in terms of physical laws.  The appropriate explanation is one that appeals to the work of some kind of intelligent agent–that is, a personal explanation–even if I don’t know who wrote the message or why.


False Assumption #3: Naturalistic Explanations Always Trump Theistic Ones

Richard Dawkins is the king of this, but it’s a very common assumption: if you have two explanations of some phenomenon, and neither one can be definitely proven, but one appeals to merely natural forces and the other appeals to God, then the rational thing to do is to to reject the theistic explanation in favor of the naturalistic one.

Take the fine-tuning of the universe as an example.  Given the mind-boggling number of physical constants that need to be “set” just right in order for life to be possible in the universe, and given that such fine-tuning would be taken, in mundane cases, toobviouslybe the work of an intelligent agent, and given that there are other lines of evidence that point toward the existence of a god, surely it is not unreasonable for someone to think that theism is a better explanation for fine-tuning than, say, the multiverse.

Furthermore, imagine someone who is in Saul of Tarsus’s position: he has powerful reason to believe not only in God, but in the particular God of the Jewish/Christian tradition who is revealed in the person of Jesus.  Because he is in an epistemically strong position with respect to this belief, he also has reason to embrace some of the things that “go along with it,” e.g. belief in the Hebrew scriptures as the word of God.  The fact that the scriptures teach that Yahweh is the creator of the whole physical universe thus gives Saul good reason to believe that some theistic explanations are superior to some naturalistic ones.  My suggestion, to be succinct, is this: Any person who rationally believes in God may rationally reject assumption #3.


False Assumption #4: A Good Argument for Theism Would Prove God’s Existence

Some people seem to assume that a “good” argument for theism is one that would compel all rational persons to believe that God exists.

One problem with this assumption is its failure to distinguish between two different kinds of theistic arguments.  One kind of argument is intended to show that theism is more reasonable to believe than atheism or agnosticism.  The other kind of argument is intended to show that theism is not irrational.  If we grant that the second kind of argument is interesting and important, then we’ll reject assumption #4.

I think it’s pretty clear, however, that assumption #4 sets the standards far too high.  There are  virtually no contexts–I can’t think of an example outside of mathematics or logic–in which we demand that a proposition be proven with absolute certainty before it is reasonable to believe that proposition.  So-called “cumulative case arguments” for theism seem to be examples of good arguments for theism that nevertheless fall short of proving their conclusion.


False Assumption #5: Natural Theology is a Dismal Failure

I’m surprised by the number of people who are confident in saying things like this: We now know that there are no good reasons to believe in God.

The plausibility of this claim, I suspect, hinges on the plausibility of assumptions 1-4 above.  I’ll leave it as an exercise for the reader to determine whether assumption #5 can be made plausible even if the others are rejected; my hunch is that most readers will grant me that if 1-4 are contentious, then 5 is too.

More bluntly, it seems to me that an assertion of assumption #5 is just an assertion of ignorance, plain and simple.  I don’t know what to say beyond that.  If you, dear reader, are inclined to assert that there are no good reasons to believe in God, then I assume that (i) you’re irrationally committed to some combination of assumptions 1, 2, 3, and 4; or (ii) you aren’t familiar with the work that’s been done in this area by theistic philosophers over the last forty years; or (iii) both (i) and (ii).

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26 Comments leave one →
  1. EC Schmidt permalink
    October 15, 2009 6:01 pm

    As a nonbeliever (of the apostate variety), I’m obviously going to take issue with your points, although I think points #4 and #5 have more to do with misunderstandings and miscommunication, rather than being actual “false assumptions.”

    #1: Reasonable People Are Empiricists

    “But it’s reasonable to believe that other kinds of evidence exist.”

    I’ll go along with that, even if I’d rather say that it’s not unreasonable to believe that other kinds of evidence exist. But it IS reasonable for me to take your word that your experience actually is evidence of something that can’t be measured empirically. Heck, I don’t even believe that my own spiritual experience(s) have anything to say about the world outside my own brain. And the fact is that we do have empirical evidence that these personal experiences are nearly universal, that they are a common feature of any kind of conversion, and that they are interpreted as evidence for a wide range of incompatible beliefs, or even non-beliefs. (The peace I feel as a nonbeliever is evidence to me that I’m doing what’s right for my life, even if I know it has nothing to say about objective reality.)

    #2: Only Scientific Explanations Count as Good Explanations

    “If I come home from the office and find a present in the kitchen labeled “For Matt,” and I wonder where it came from, a satisfying explanation of that phenomenon will include reference to the desires and intentions of an intelligent agent–my wife, perhaps, or one of our kids. Such explanations are called personal explanations.”

    I don’t think anyone would suggest that this is an unscientific or unreasonable way of thinking about the situation. You see a piece of the larger picture (the present), and you find similar pieces in your memory that help you fill in the missing pieces and construct a probably pretty accurate view of what happened. Of course, there are infinitely many logically possible explanations, but you rightly limit your choices to the probable, based on what you have empirically observed in the past.

    #3: Naturalistic Explanations Always Trump Theistic Ones

    “…surely it is not unreasonable for someone to think that theism is a better explanation for fine-tuning than, say, the multiverse.”

    I guess it depends how confidently they hold such an opinion. Both positions (and – once again – infinitely many other possible positions) are logically possible, and actually, I wouldn’t argue too strongly that the multiverse is inherently more likely to be true (despite the fact that I do prefer it, if those are the only options). I think that it IS unreasonable for either position to be held strongly, since the evidence is not overwhelmingly in support of either. I don’t have stats to back this up, but I would wager that far more believers in divine fine-tuning “know” this to be true than believers in the multiverse “know” that to be a reality.

    #4: A Good Argument for Theism Would Prove God’s Existence

    “There are virtually no contexts–I can’t think of an example outside of mathematics or logic–in which we demand that a proposition be proven with absolute certainty before it is reasonable to believe that proposition. So-called “cumulative case arguments” for theism seem to be examples of good arguments for theism that nevertheless fall short of proving their conclusion.”

    I agree with all this, so maybe I’m not part of the “some people” you call out. Still, if you make a cumulative case, and someone tells you that your argument doesn’t hold water and shows why they think that, then isn’t everyone doing what they’re supposed to do in a discussion? Cases against theism (except possibly cases against specific strains of theism) also must be cumulative, and you would likely have objections to raise as well. We both agree that we’re following the evidence as far as we can take it, we both make our respective leaps from there (some farther than others), and we come to different conclusions. So what’s the problem?

    #5: Natural Theology is a Dismal Failure

    “I’m surprised by the number of people who are confident in saying things like this: We now know that there are no good reasons to believe in God.”

    I’m glad you grant that this point is dependent on accepting the others. I guess I would agree with the statement (but then I would, wouldn’t I?), but I don’t think it has any place in a debate. It’s basically a way to shame someone for having an “obviously” wrong view. On the other hand, most of us don’t have any problem saying something like, “We know that there are no good reasons to believe the Holocaust didn’t occur,” even though deniers would find such a statement dismissive of their arguments. (Please don’t read anything into my choice of example. It was just the easiest one.) I think the denial of the Holocaust is much more ridiculous than god-belief, but my point is that making a statement of that type is not automatically ridiculous, and we obviously have different levels of confidence in the weight of our evidence. I would treat those statements less as arguments intended to convince than as expressions of certainty in a position.

  2. Lor permalink
    October 15, 2009 6:21 pm

    This is the dumbest post I’ve seen on this awesome website so far.

    I do agree with some of what has been posted, but holy crap, some of it is really, ridiculously dumb.

    I’ll restrict my angry ranting to the refutation of point #3, as that’s an area where I have an amateur interest.

    “if you have two explanations of some phenomenon, and neither one can be definitely proven, but one appeals to merely natural forces and the other appeals to god, then the rational thing to do is to to reject the theistic explanation in favor of the naturalistic one.”

    If we assume that god exists, then any explanation for any phenomenon that appeals to God can be “proven” trivially. God is all-powerful, and he works in mysterious ways, ergo any possible thing can be ascribed to his divine intervention or will. Any constraints on his behaviour set down by the Bible are insufficient to eliminate him as a likely cause for any phenomenon.

    If we assume that god does not exist, we must build a theory which fits all the observable evidence we have. Extrapolation may be involved, but that extrapolation must be heavily concordant with the existing evidence. If further evidence comes to light which is not concordant with out theory, then the theory must be altered, or abandoned in favour of a newer one which more adequately explains the evidence.

    Weighing up a theistic explanation of something vs. a purely naturalistic explanation of something is an easy choice. We go with the theory that does not have a component which has never been proven, tested, measured, observed, validated or demonstrated, and the original publication for which was a book written 1800 years ago by 60 different iron age mystics over the course of 1500 years. In other words, we do not go with the theory that includes god.

    “Given the mind-boggling number of physical constants that need to be “set” just right in order for life to be possible”

    Whaaaaat? I am literally speechless. Someone please clarify what this “mind-boggling” number of physical constants is that need to be “set” for life to arise. And please tell me how we have shown that some form of life CANNOT arise if those constants are NOT set to the value they are in this Universe.

    ———————

  3. J. Matthew Gore permalink
    October 15, 2009 6:46 pm

    Dr. Jordan,

    It’s been over ten years since I last had the opportunity to comment on something that you’ve written, and it is indeed something that I’ve missed. But let me get to the point.

    With regards to Assumption #1:

    You’ve begun by begging the question. If you intend to claim that religious belief can be rational based on non-empirical grounds, then you’ll need to look beyond the realm of religious beliefs to offer support. That is to say examples that you’ve offered carry no weight with me because I don’t already accept that empirical claims can be accepted without empirical evidence.

    And of course, this is the real issue. In what domain of discourse OTHER THAN religion would you advise people to accept an empirical claim on the basis of something other than empirical (or empirically based) grounds? If you went to a doctor with your wife, and he pulled a bottle out of his refrigerator marked “CRM114” and told your wife to take it to treat her kidney infection, and you said “What is CRM114?”, and he said “I don’t know, but I chose it because X” (where X is a strong feeling, advice from an angel, premonition, or some other revealed or non-empirical grounds), would you seriously advise Mrs. Jordan to take it? Or if your contractor gave the same reason for making changes to the structural plans for your new home?

    Your additional examples are not convincing. Truths of mathematics are analytic, and are only true because of the rules and definitions stipulated [is 2+2 still 4 in base 8, or do the interior angles of a triangle still equal 180 in non-Euclidean geometries?].

    Within the domain of deductive logic, the rules of inference are just that; stipulated rules. I think that we can look to Hume for explained elucidation of the fact that rules of inference are not based on pure reason, but on our experience with the constant conjunction of events and our cognitive habit of drawing causal relationships.

    I will not comment extensively on moral “truths”, except to wonder where you think that we get them, if not from the experience of our social interaction and our biology.

    Your final example of scientific investigation… was that just to see if anyone was paying attention? It is the epitome of empiricism. ?

    With Regards to #2:

    You’ve cited a very restrictive definition of what a scientific explanation is, but even if I accept it, your “Personal Explanation” falls into that category. It’s not at all unlike a behavior prediction from biology. You’ve based your conclusion on past (empirical) experience, presumably, and know that since these events were caused by spousal gifting, that this one probably is too. If I were to find a package on my table labeled “Matt”, I’d be crazy to think that it was from your wife because I lack the evidence of past experience to lead me to that conclusion (among other things).

    We don’t study or understand human agency in terms of the laws of physics, obviously, but that doesn’t mean that our knowledge is non-scientific. It may fall under the study of psychology, neurology, sociology, etc, but it at LEAST falls under the category of knowledge gained from past, empirical experience (where our neural biology isn’t sufficient).

    About #3.

    Your interpretation of Dawkins’ argument isn’t very charitable, and consequently, I think it missed the point. And the number of constants is pretty small (perhaps 20, depending on how you formulate them). But that’s neither here nor there.

    I think that most atheists (myself included) and indeed, all cosmologists that I’ve read, are willing to admit that we just don’t know all of the answers about the beginning of the universe. Dawkins offered some speculation, and that’s it. The problem with the theistic explanation, according to Dawkins, is that it raises more questions than it answers, and is therefore a poor explanation. That is, essentially, that if the universe is so complex and apparently designed, then something/one that is complex enough to design it calls that much more for explanation… so who designed God? But that’s too long an argument to address here, so perhaps another time.

    About #4.

    Agreed. Science doesn’t prove theories. It may offer confirmation, or it may disprove an alternative. Yay for Karnap! (But not prove a nagative 🙂 ) Yay for Bertrand Russell!

    About #5

    Since you understand that this one hinges on 1-4 (or at least 3), I’ll leave this one alone. However, you should find it equally troubling that the claim (slightly differently worded) is accepted by a great number of Christians. That is, they don’t try to suggest that there is any evidence (or even rational argument) that will support belief in God, and certainly not a particular god. They will say that it’s simply a matter of faith.

  4. Andrew permalink
    October 15, 2009 8:29 pm

    I may do a longer response, but xkcd, as usual, says it all.

  5. Ray S. permalink
    October 15, 2009 11:48 pm

    Andrew concisely points out why so many of us love science. I use it in a broader sense that th OP though who seems to think his plausible explanations for the surprise gift are not scientific explanations.

    For me, 1-3 are not assumptions, but a recognition that these methods actually work reliably. Item 4 is palpably false within the context of science, which as I use the term, never ‘proves’ anything, but instead further refines our understanding of reality.

    Now number 5 is one I can agree with, but mainly because I think all theology is a dismal failure – natural, revealed, or whatever.

    I really don’t get the examples offered in #1. Whatever Saul may have ‘known’ after his reported experience doesn’t seem to use the word ‘know’ in the same way I use it in regard to science. And if we include such ‘evidence’ in an effort to expand our ‘knowledge’, we also need to include alien abduction, Bigfoot and the plates revealed to Joseph Smith by the angel Moroni, All of these are similar evidences. I understand why Saul might have changed his mind, but his experience informs me no more than Whitley Strieber’s experiences.

    To say that 2 + 2 = 4 is an example of a truth not based on scientific investigation makes me wonder what definitions you are using for so many of these words. Perhaps a refresher course in science and its method would be useful to you.

  6. Richard Eis permalink
    October 16, 2009 5:34 am

    My turn. Yay.

    1) Your “experience” is only evidence if it is linked in some way to god. Since I cannot verify that link (I can’t get into your head) this “information” becomes useless to everybody except the person having the experience. this is why it’s bad evidence.
    2) We never see the hand of God move in a way as specific as writing on trees.
    3) Naturalistic Explanations Always Trump Theistic Ones because of past experience. I can also test natural explanations. It should therefore be the first thing you think. If I say god did it, well I can’t test that so it should be the very lat thing I think after other explanations have been dismissed.
    4) I have never heard of a person being converted by good logic argument. I have noticed that faith tends to be very emotive instead. Believing in spite of the evidence being the gold standard of faith.
    5) We now know that there are no good reasons to believe in “your specific religion”.

  7. Matt Jordan permalink
    October 16, 2009 7:43 am

    Yikes! There’s obviously a lot to think about here. I’m posting this brief comment now, just so those who are interested know that I’m not ignoring this. I don’t have time today or this weekend, however, to give any kind of very thoughtful reply, so for now, the following will have to suffice:

    1. I think at least some of my commentators misunderstood my central aim in the post. Take EC Schmidt’s very first statement that, as an unbeliever, he or she is “obviously” going to object to my claims. For the record, I don’t think I said anything that an atheist needs to reject. It is obvious that an atheist can’t draw the same conclusions I’ve drawn without changing her mind about atheism, but she might fully agree with my rejection of empiricism and other claims above.
    You might think of my post as an attempt to clarify the ground rules concerning what’s legitimate and what isn’t in philosophical debates about religion. You can be a full-fledged atheist and think that I’m right about those rules.

    2. Based on a cursory reading, it’s obvious that there’s a lot of love for science here. I think that’s fantastic. But I wonder how many people are making an illegitimate leap from the claim that the physical sciences provide us with knowledge about the physical world to the claim that only the physical sciences can provide us with any knowledge at all (or something very similar).

    Now I have to get a bunch of grading done and host some out-of-town visitors for the weekend. But I promise that I’ll have something more substantive to say to all y’all next week–probably Tuesday, though I can’t guarantee it.

  8. Ray S. permalink
    October 16, 2009 8:07 am

    Maybe you can answer this without spending a lot of time: What do you consider ‘physical sciences’ and are there sciences that are not physical?

  9. Andrew permalink
    October 16, 2009 8:50 am

    “2+2 = 4” isn’t so much a truth as a tautology; the symbol “2” is just a convenient shorthand for “1+1”, and “4” a shorthand for “1+1+1+1”, so saying “2+2 = 4” is just saying “1+1+1+1 = 1+1+1+1” in disguised symbols.

    This tends to give rise to the belief that statements like “2+2=4” are somehow qualitatively different to statements like “E=mc^2” or “momentum is conserved” and so on, with the assumption being that “2+2=4” is logically necessary while the others are mere empirical observations. But the truth is more complex than this; many physical laws which were discovered empirically, or which were hypothesized and then tested, turn out to be logically necessary: we define “momentum” in a certain way, we define “law of physics” as something which holds everywhere in space, and we discover that “momentum is conserved” is (by Noether’s Theorem) a logically necessary consequence of the definitions, not an empirical truth. (In a very real sense, empirical testing of such laws just show us whether or not our measuring equipment is measuring the same quantity that we defined, and that we didn’t make a mistake in the logic somewhere.)

  10. Ray S. permalink
    October 16, 2009 9:30 am

    Andrew, your comment reminded me of something I meant to post earlier in regard to the fine tuning argument. Though my higher math is somewhat rusty, I seem to recall that one can derive the value of Pi from other observations about circles and geometry. Why do the fine tuning proponents never seem to argue that Pi could be a little larger or smaller? Perhaps it’s because they correctly see that it is a relationship that must be the way (value) it is. Why they cannot see that the other allegedly independent variables might be related to one another I do not know. We do not know yet and do not have another universe handy in which we can do testing.

  11. Ms. Crazy Pants permalink
    October 16, 2009 9:43 am

    Why would religion even be concerned with scientists if it wasn’t trying to force itself into the science classroom? The science classroom only deals with science and how science does things, and to try to introduce non-scientific ways of looking at the world makes the science class a bit of a farce.

  12. October 16, 2009 10:07 am

    But it’s reasonable to believe that other kinds of evidence exist. For example, religious experiences are often appealed to as evidence for the truth of various metaphysical claims.
    . . .

    You might think of my post as an attempt to clarify the ground rules concerning what’s legitimate and what isn’t in philosophical debates about religion. You can be a full-fledged atheist and think that I’m right about those rules.

    I wonder how many people are making an illegitimate leap from the claim that the physical sciences provide us with knowledge about the physical world to the claim that only the physical sciences can provide us with any knowledge at all (or something very similar).

    I think it would be more accurate to say that it is not unreasonable to credit that other kinds of evidence may exist, but it is decidedly unreasonable to expect that any claims to other such evidence will be at all persuasive in debate or as proof.

    Let me be the first atheist to say that I do not believe that someone basing their personal belief on personal experiences is in any way irrational. But I think what you fail to grasp is that when religious believers make a claim to the legitimacy of their faith based upon such “religious experiences” they are making an empirical claim from their point of reference.

    Religious believers who make appeals to personal experience are saying: “I have empirical evidence – my own personal experience – that justifies to me my religious belief.” In that context, such a claim is not irrational or unreasonable. What makes such claims illegitimate in a philosophical debate, is that such claims provide no persuasive force since they are, by definition, inaccessible by anyone outside the claimant’s point of reference.

    Argument and debate require a common point of reference. (Note this is different from a common worldview or agreement.) Without the common reference there can be no debate, only an exchange of proclamations. Scientific evidence provides this, non-empirical claims do not.

  13. Richard Eis permalink
    October 16, 2009 10:16 am

    -Andrew, your comment reminded me of something I meant to post earlier in regard to the fine tuning argument.-

    Yes, i’ve noticed fundies I talk to can’t get their head around the idea that the universe defines pi, not the other way around. They think you start with the constants and “laws” and they tell the universe what to do. And obviously the laws and constants come from an “intelligent” source.

  14. Ray S. permalink
    October 16, 2009 10:21 am

    Religion desperately wants the credibility of science. Religionists are aware that there are many different religions, some contradictory, with equal claim to truth. Some of them see science as a way to validate their own claims at the expense of the heresies (from their view). Others see science as an impediment to their perception of reality, and therefore need to corrupt it or destroy it.

    i’d almost go so far as to say that if your religion is dependent on revelation of some sort, the more necessary it is to attack science in order to maintain the reveled ‘knowledge’.

  15. Richard Eis permalink
    October 16, 2009 10:32 am

    Indeed. They might not like it, but science is often the measure for religion. Otherwise it’s just subjective experience and faith.

  16. Andrew permalink
    October 16, 2009 9:56 pm

    I would make the following argument (which undercuts most of the five points of the original post):

    A) A rational person forms, evaluates and (when necessary) discards his beliefs by means of rational methods.

    B) A rational person evaluates his methods (i.e. his epistemology) as well, choosing more reliable methods over less reliable ones, and valuing beliefs obtained from or confirmed by more reliable methods over those which can only be confirmed by less reliable methods.

    C) A method is reliable to the extent that it consistently produces beliefs which make correct predictions about reality, and to the extent to which it produces consensus and convergence on beliefs independently of initial assumptions, prior beliefs, etc.

    D) We can rank the major methods of assessing beliefs as follows, in order of reliability (most reliable first):

    1. Logic and mathematics (as applied only to concepts)
    2. Scientific method
    3. Personal experience
    4. Critical historical analysis
    5. Expert opinions
    6. Plausible inferences (e.g. induction)

    [This list is from Carrier’s “Sense and Goodness Without God” which goes into it in much more detail, with justifications.]

    E) Methods of forming or evaluating beliefs which do not produce reliable results are not used by a rational person.

    F) Methods such as the method of tradition, the method of revelation etc. are not reliable; they do not lead to forming new correct beliefs, in fact they strongly tend to preserving old false ones. Accordingly use of these methods is not rational.

    We can apply the scientific method reflexively to this argument. Specifically, we can make the prediction that the use of the methods listed above, with respect to their relative reliability, will produce more reliable beliefs and better consensus about those beliefs than using unreliable methods would. We observe, however, that in existing fields of study, the degree of success closely follows the extent to which the most reliable methods are applied.

    The success of the scientific method compared to other methods is sufficiently great that the claim “X is outside the scope of science” must always be treated with skepticism. Instead, if we want to make progress in some field X, we should instead be asking “how can we apply the scientific method to X, or failing that, the most reliable alternative methods available”.

    So to apply the above to points from the original article:

    #1: “Reasonable People Are Empiricists”

    This is especially true of persons who are themselves the subject of a religious experience; think of Saul of Tarsus on his way to Damascus. Surely it’s rational for him to believe in Jesus as Messiah on the grounds that he takes himself to have actually had an encounter with the risen Lord.

    It may have been rational in his day to believe that; but it is not rational to believe it today. This is because we know that the scientific method is more reliable than personal experience, and therefore we should not privilege beliefs based on nothing more than personal experience over ones based on scientific investigation. Furthermore, science provides us with specific reasons to discount this particular kind of personal experience.

    (Now, this clearly isn’t a conclusion that most people are ready for; but that is just a reflection of the fact that people are not in general rational.)

    Furthermore, it would not be irrational for Saul’s associates to take the dramatic nature of his conversion–going from overseeing the execution of Christians to becoming one of the world’s most prominent advocates of the gospel message–as evidence that his claims about God are true.

    Again, at the time it might have been rational; but not now, for the same reasons as above.

    There are all kinds of things we know that we do not on the basis of scientific investigation, and there are many things we are justified in believing even if we have no good empirical evidence for them. Examples include:
    [snip topics already addressed]
    moral truths (e.g., good ought to be pursued and evil avoided; rape is morally wrong),

    The two criteria given in (C) above can, I would argue, be applied to moral beliefs too. The second criterion (that a reliable method should lead to consensus) can be applied in an obvious fashion: when we do, we find two things:

    1) There is significant lack of consensus about the truth values of moral statements; while there is a subset of moral statements which are generally regarded as true (or false), there is also a significant subset on which there is no agreement.

    2) There is an even greater lack of consensus in metaethics; even for moral statements which are generally regarded as true, there is significant disagreement about why they should be regarded so, or even about whether “true” is a meaningful property of a moral statement.

    Therefore we come to the conclusion that the methods being used generally within the field of ethics are not in fact reliable. (This may not bother philosophers, since it gives them something to argue about.)

    This comment is already far too long so I won’t go further into ethics.

    #2: Only Scientific Explanations Count as Good Explanations

    We might also wonder about weird, metaphyical-ish questions like “why must the interior angles of a triangle equal 180 degrees?” This isn’t the kind of thing I lose much sleep over, myself, but I can imagine someone appealing to the essential nature of triangles, or perhaps to fundamental principles of geometry, to answer this question.

    As it happens, the interior angles of a triangle don’t necessarily equal 180 degrees; the actual value depends on the curvature of the surface, which is a topological invariant. (This is why it’s not possible to produce accurate flat maps; the surface of a sphere has positive curvature, and therefore triangles with interior angles greater than 180 degrees, whereas a flat map would have zero curvature.)

    But while we can prove things about triangles and curvature from mathematics alone, it’s not necessarily the case that we can determine, say, the curvature of spacetime without actually measuring it.

    #3: “Naturalistic Explanations Always Trump Theistic Ones”

    Well, actually, so far they always have. Without exception. We’ve seen that over and over again in the sciences (cf. Laplace, reported as saying “I had no need of that hypothesis” when replacing a theistic explanation of Newton’s with his own naturalistic one).

    Naturalistic explanations work. Theistic ones do not; they either close off further investigation (until forcibly ejected), or they introduce worse problems than they resolve.

    Take the fine-tuning of the universe as an example. Given the mind-boggling number of physical constants that need to be “set” just right in order for life to be possible in the universe, and given that such fine-tuning would be taken, in mundane cases, to obviously be the work of an intelligent agent, and given that there are other lines of evidence that point toward the existence of a god, surely it is not unreasonable for someone to think that theism is a better explanation for fine-tuning than, say, the multiverse.

    Lots of wrongness here. Firstly, there are not a “mind-boggling number” of physical constants; there are only a handful that are relevant to this issue, and (a) we don’t know if they’re really independent; (b) while varying one might make the universe uninhabitable, that doesn’t mean we can’t fix that by varying another one, so there isn’t just one single setting that works, but a huge number; (c) there may be physical processes at work which have the effect of either constraining the values or influencing their probability.

    Secondly, fine-tuning would not “obviously” be taken as evidence of intelligence. In nature, many apparent cases of fine-tuning turn out to be examples of processes such as self-organizing behaviour or dynamic equilibrium.

    Thirdly, even discounting the above, it is still unreasonable to take theism as a better explanation than, say, a multiverse, for a long list of reasons:

    1) we know one universe exists, therefore it is more plausible and more parsimonious to postulate the presence of more than one universe than to introduce an entirely new entity of a wholly distinct kind;

    2) to postulate theism as an explanation, when (for example) deism would suffice, is clearly not parsimonious at all;

    3) there is no explanatory advantage in a theistic explanation;

    4) we already have significant reason to reject theism based on other arguments;

    and so on.

    Furthermore, imagine someone who is in Saul of Tarsus’s position: he has powerful reason to believe not only in God, but in the particular God of the Jewish/Christian tradition who is revealed in the person of Jesus. Because he is in an epistemically strong position with respect to this belief, he also has reason to embrace some of the things that “go along with it,” e.g. belief in the Hebrew scriptures as the word of God. The fact that the scriptures teach that Yahweh is the creator of the whole physical universe thus gives Saul good reason to believe that some theistic explanations are superior to some naturalistic ones.

    Saul’s position is only “epistemically strong” by the standards of his time. A modern-day Saul would have no such excuse. (If you allow personal experience to trump the scientific method, contrary to the reliability ordering I gave earlier, you have to accept not just all other religions as valid but also things like alien abduction.)

    Thus, we can’t accept the fact that Saul believed that his own (new) beliefs were justified, because we have access to knowledge that he did not.

    My suggestion, to be succinct, is this: Any person who rationally believes in God may rationally reject assumption #3.

    Begging the question, since it is essentially impossible to “rationally believe in God” without rejecting #3 first. Which leads us neatly into:

    #4. “A Good Argument for Theism Would Prove God’s Existence”

    Let’s see an argument for “theism is not irrational” that does not start out by rejecting #3 above.

    #5: Natural Theology is a Dismal Failure

    Here’s a challenge: show us any one result which was obtained by means of natural theology, and which (a) told us something we didn’t already know or expect, and (b) is accepted by consensus outside of whichever school or sect produced it.

  17. October 17, 2009 11:01 am

    As for 1 and 2, I don’t think that this fairly applies to all (or even many) atheists, though perhaps a few. I’ve heard many arguments against theism that rely entirely on logic rather than evidence. I daresay that most of the recognizable, classic arguments against God’s existence are rationalistic and not empirical at all.

    Saul of Tarsus may be justified in believing that he had x experience, but he would not necessarily be justified in believing that his intuitive interpretation of it accurately portrayed objective reality. If everyone who fell down, blinded by a bright light, and heard voices in his head was taken as an objective observer, we’d have alot stranger beliefs than what we have now.

    Logic and rationalism yield models of the world, but evidence and empiricism inform us of whether those models actually are true or workable in this particular universe. They are both critical to each other, and one really cannot exist without the other. Logic gives empiricism it’s predictive power, while evidence imparts rationalism with actual relevance.

    As for 3, as I argued in my ‘Justified Belief’ article, naturalistic explanations are epistemologically ‘ordinary’ by definition where ‘supernatural’ ones are epistemologically ‘extraordinary’. That, in and of itself, is why naturalistic explanations will always have far more explanatory power. Even if we could verify a miracle empirically (which, if they really happened as according to scripture would be easy and frequent), we would do even better when we could reason out the mechanism by which the divinity behind it performed it. If there were no mechanism, then the divinity could not have ’caused’ it at all. For this reason, the term ‘supernatural’ itself seems to break down, and I applaud a number of Christians for avoiding it’s use (Jon Weyer for one at least).

    As for 4, I would generally agree. It is useful to create models that show that your propositions are sensible even if you do not yet have the evidence to show that they are true. Even I have come up with a model that under strict naturalism could account for all of the ‘supernatural’ activity in the Bible and God’s nature and attributes with the exception of immutability).
    But again, a logical model only shows that a proposition is sensible. It takes empiricism and evidence to further show that it is true.

    Lastly, 5. As a logical model, as I said above, I can envision how theism could work naturalistically. The problems in believing Christianity lie not in whether it is a sensible proposition, but in that where it attempts to make fair, empirically verifiable predictions about the world (prophecy, the powers imbued to Christians, science, etc) it fails. So while I agree that your propositions are (or can at least be rendered) sensible (as a weak atheist I can do that much), I cannot affirm that they are actually true.

    Let me know if I misunderstood you at any point.

  18. AdamK permalink
    October 17, 2009 12:58 pm

    Some wonderful replies to a disingenuous post. Thanks.

    All of this rationalizing is pointless. I am perfectly willing to believe in some religion if someone provides some evidence for it — some subject-matter. All you have is traditional superstition and a social club.

    I’m perfectly willing to wait as long as it takes for more. If personal revelation is what it takes, it ain’t happening; your god has revealed itself to me as the empty set.

  19. Eric Worringer permalink
    October 18, 2009 5:15 pm

    Mike-
    When I plant a church, I am going to hire you as a consultant, a sort of atheist-in-residence, to remind me not to sound like an idiot.

  20. October 18, 2009 8:10 pm

    lol

    I actually agree with the substance of most of what Matt said, I just think that only the least experienced atheists do these kinds of things.

    You could let me preach. I’d keep it entirely biblical 😉 I promise.

  21. Richard Eis permalink
    October 19, 2009 8:11 am

    -I actually agree with the substance of most of what Matt said, I just think that only the least experienced atheists do these kinds of things.-

    Yes, good evidence isn’t always available and it’s possible to be too pedantic…

  22. Matt Jordan permalink
    October 23, 2009 6:00 pm

    So it’s 5:00 on Friday, and I’m finally getting around to reading through these comments. I’m posting this reply now to test the waters: is anyone still checking this thread, waiting to see what I have to say in response, or will a reply just be read by me?

    As a tantalizing tidbit, I will make this profound comment in response to all of the above:

    I don’t think AdamK knows what the word ‘disingenuous’ means.

  23. J. Matthew Gore permalink
    October 23, 2009 6:34 pm

    Some of us have subscribed to the topic and will get email notification whenever you reply, so there’s no point in waiting any longer 🙂

  24. Ray S. permalink
    October 23, 2009 6:58 pm

    sure, go ahead.

  25. Andrew permalink
    November 1, 2009 9:49 am

    We’re still waiting 🙂

  26. AdamK permalink
    November 2, 2009 2:04 pm

    I know what it means, and I stand by it.

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