A Post from Matt Jordan: Five False Assumptions
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).