Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Belief in Search of Evidence

An occasional commenter on this blog, Dan, recently posted on his own blog, Rationality Now , a reflection inspired by a church sign. The sign said “Begin to weave and God will provide you with the thread”—which, as Dan pointed out, could be taken as a variant on the common saying (among Christians), “Just have faith in Jesus and He will show Himself to you.”

I should point out that this is only one possible reading of the sign. One might also take the intended message to be about projects that urgently need to be done, but for which you lack the resources. On this reading, the sign is meant to encourage you to begin such projects anyway, operating in the hope that once you are underway, the needed resources will begin to come in (provided by God).

And yet it seems plausible to claim that faith in Jesus, properly construed, is really a kind of life project. If so, then Dan’s interpretation of the church sign might not be so far off the mark. I suspect that most Christians will agree that “having faith in Jesus” is much more than just believing in a set of propositions. It’s a way of leading one’s life. (Agreement among Christians is likely to break down as soon as we ask what way of life is implied by faith in Jesus.)

But even if faith in Jesus is much more than belief in a set of propositions, the way of life implied by such faith will certainly presuppose a set of beliefs. To have faith is, in part, to live one’s life as if certain things are true. In the broadest terms, having faith in Jesus means living as if Jesus’ life and ministry express the ultimate reality, the divine, in some unique and profound way. And having faith in Jesus as savior means living as if Jesus has secured the redemption of the world; as if the evils that shatter human lives and infect human hearts are never the final word; as if somehow, because of Christ, even the most devastating horrors and malignancies have been stripped of the power to deprive our lives of meaning and value.

Living as if something is true—that is, exhibiting both outward behaviors and inner dispositions that make sense only given a set of presuppositions—is at least one definition of what it means to believe something. More specifically, this is the pragmatic sense of belief. When you live as if X is true, then you are giving pragmatic assent to X even if you withhold your intellectual assent. On an intellectual level you might say, “I have no idea if X is the case”—by which you probably mean that you have no more reason to think that X is true than you have to think otherwise, or something to that effect. But if you still live your life as if it is true, then you express pragmatic belief.

In his post, Dan pointed out that the common Christian saying, “Have faith in Jesus and He will show Himself to you,” amounts to the injunction to reach a conclusion before seeing any evidence for it—an injunction that many agnostics and atheists view with great suspicion, to say the least. After all, shouldn’t we form our beliefs on the basis of the evidence? Dan clearly thinks so, calling this kind of "belief-in-search-of-evidence" a species of "cart before the horse" thinking. He then goes on to criticize what he takes to be the essence of religious faith—which involves, as he sees it, not merely the act of embracing a conclusion before seeing any evidence (in the promise of evidence to come), but a broader indifference to evidence.

Now I agree that much of what goes by the name of “faith” in the lives of religious believers (but not all) is just as Dan describes it here: belief without any regard for evidence. And I also think that many who follow the dictum, “believe it first and evidence will follow,” do so improperly. Doing so would obviously be improper if one ought to withhold belief until the evidence comes in. And we can all agree that waiting for the evidence is quite frequently the proper way to proceed. But is that always the proper way to proceed? This is the question I want to explore here.

Put simply, the question is whether there are occasions when it’s legitimate to “believe first” (at least on some sense of “belief”) in order to see if the evidence follows. To assess this question, it may be helpful to consider some examples.

First, there is the matter of hunches. At least sometimes, a researcher or investigator has a strong sense that some hypothesis is true, and this sense inspires her to keep doggedly pursuing evidence in favor of the hypothesis despite setbacks that would have discouraged those less convinced (sending them off in pursuit of an alternative hypothesis).

Put in ordinary language, the researcher “has a hunch” and acts on it. To “have a hunch” means that you are willing to invest time and resources into investigating a possibility that, on the clear or explicit evidence available, seems no more worthy of investigation than countless other possibilities. You have “the hunch” that something is going on which, if it were, would leave certain traces. And so you don’t just proceed to look for these traces, but do so with an attitude of expectation. Perhaps, because of the strength of your hunch, you look longer than you might have otherwise. If you finally do uncover the traces that confirm the hunch, it may well be that the only reason you did so is because you kept looking long after others would have given up.

Were there explicit clues that suggested you should start your investigation with this hypothesis rather than some other one, you wouldn’t be acting on a hunch. You’d be acting on the initial evidence. To have a hunch means in part that, based on the explicit evidence, you could as readily have started with any number of other lines of investigation. But in the case of a hunch, your decision to start where you do isn’t arbitrary. It isn’t based on the mere fact that you have to start somewhere, and starting here is as good as anywhere. It is, instead, based on some level of conviction—some initial sense, not rooted in the explicitly available evidence, that this hypothesis is true. You choose to start here because there is a part of you that expects to find the traces you are looking for.

Put yet another way, the person with a hunch believes in the hypothesis more than do those who are simply going by the available evidence. There is at least a level of belief here that precedes the evidence and which may actually help to generate confirming evidence. At least on one level, the belief at issue here is pragmatic: the person with a hunch had different behaviors and dispositions than do those who lack the hunch. On the level of what they are inclined to do and expect and feel (e.g., surprise when the traces aren't there), they are like the person who thinks the hypothesis is true.

In short, there’s a real sense in which a hunch is a certain kind of belief-in-search-of-evidence. But I can’t imagine any researcher or investigator who would categorically condemn those of their colleagues who have hunches and act on them. In fact, I doubt that there are many researchers out there who don’t have occasional hunches, or who consistently resist them when they do.

That said, it is also true that, in scientific or forensic research, hunches can be dangerous. The decision to follow a hunch flirts with the kind of bias that undermines objective inquiry. A hunch becomes a bias, for example, when the researcher refuses to give up on it even once contrary evidence starts to pile up. It also becomes a bias when the researcher reads confirming evidence into ambiguous observations.

Let me clarify this last point. A body of clues often permits a variety of interpretations. If one interpretation supports one’s hunch while others don’t, it can be easy to accord preferential status to the supportive interpretation even though there are no other compelling reasons to do so. In short, one can ignore or fail to notice one’s own interpretive bias and so slide without realizing it from “The evidence is consistent with my hunch” to “The evidence favors my hunch over other hypotheses.” The police detective who falls prey to this danger when following a hunch may not only ignore a trail of evidence leading to the real killer, but may help put an innocent person behind bars.

But these risks do not constitute a decisive basis for ignoring hunches altogether and condemning those who don’t. If one is aware of the dangers, one can guard against them. And the fact is that acting on hunches sometimes bears important fruits.

Consider a different example: the act of trusting someone. Often, the only way you can find out whether or not someone is trustworthy is to actually trust them. That is, you begin by acting as if they are trustworthy. You invest them with responsibility and don’t hover over them to see whether they will fulfill it. You put yourself in their hands. You adopt behaviors and dispositions premised on the trustworthiness of the person, and in this sense adopt a belief in the pragmatic sense. When it comes to trustworthiness, it is often the case that only once you do this—only once you adopt a pragmatic belief—does the evidence for or against it becomes available.

Of course, here things get tricky, because often the decision to trust inspires someone to be more trustworthy than they might otherwise have been. Trusting can often operate as a self-fulfilling prophecy: give a dog a good name to live up to, and the dog is more likely to do so.

In my prison work with the Alternatives to Violence Project, we routinely introduce an array of trust exercises—trust circles and trust lifts—that call upon some participants of the workshop to voluntarily put their trust in others. Part of the point of these exercises is to give participants the chance to take the risk of trusting to see what happens (to believe in the trustworthiness of others as a way of discovering evidence of the same). But part of the point, I think, is also to inspire inner transformations in those who are given the experience of being trusted. The act of trust attributes to them a good character trait that they want to live up to. In doing so, they begin to own this character trait in a way that, perhaps, they hadn’t before. By being trusted, they become more trustworthy.

But this is an interesting point. Sometimes what we pragmatically believe shapes the reality around us—a fact that can operate both for good and for ill. In short, there may be circumstances in which it behooves us to believe the best hypothesis, even when there is no evidence to think it likely, precisely because expecting the best often makes the best more likely.

Finally, consider the case of a convicted murderer who seems to most everyone to be a kind of moral monster, a psychopath incapable of remorse or compassion towards his victims. But one person—a nun, say—is convinced that there is something good in every human being. Armed with this conviction, she seeks to reach that something in him. She really believes that it is there, and that a real human connection with this man, a mutual acknowledgment of shared humanity, is therefore possible.

There is, we can suppose, nothing in the man’s behavior that gives the nun any indication that he really possesses the capacity for such a connection with others. Everyone else has dismissed him as a psychopath lacking the kinds of human emotions and dispositions that make love, empathy, and compassion possible. His behavior is entirely consistent with such a dismissal of him. But this nun is convinced, in spite of this evidence, that somewhere buried beneath all the crud is a spark of human goodness. And so she reaches for it—persistently, sincerely.

Here’s what I think about such a case. If that “spark” is there, it’s only someone who is sincerely convinced that it’s there—someone like the nun—who’s likely to find it. Someone who doesn’t believe this will be neither persistent enough nor sincere enough to get through the crud. The vulnerable humanity of this criminal, if it’s there, is only accessible to those who are already convinced that it’s there, and who therefore have the behavioral dispositions and feelings necessary to reach it. Evidence for the existence of this spark will come only to those who believe in it before any evidence is available.

So here’s the question: Is the nun’s conviction inappropriate? Should we condemn her for it? Should we insist that belief must follow evidence, and thus conclude that she ought to reject the claim that this man has a tender human core she can reach, at least until evidence comes in—thereby guaranteeing that the evidence will never come in? Or should we, rather, declare along with William James that “a rule of thinking which would absolutely prevent me from acknowledging certain kinds of truth if those kinds of truth were really there, would be an irrational rule”?

The point is this: The decision to follow a hunch, or to trust a stranger, or to have faith in the potential of a human being who shows no evidence of potential, can be legitimate (even though it isn’t always so). But such decisions are cases of belief-in-search-of-evidence. That is, they involve pragmatic belief—acting as if something is true—before the evidence is in, while at the same time facilitating the acquisition of evidence.

And so I conclude that there are legitimate cases of believing in the hope that evidence will follow. The question, then, is whether there are theistic correlates for such cases—ways of having faith in God that exemplify legitimate belief-in-search-of evidence. Is there such a thing as a legitimate God-hunch, or a legitimate act of trusting in that which transcends the world of ordinary experience, or of seeking sincerely to establish a personal connection with the transcendent based on the conviction that it is there and has some the personal character that makes relationship possible? If so, what are the parameters within which such faith must fall in order to be legitimate?


  1. I enjoyed reading this post, not just because it was "inspired" by my blog post, but because, as usual, I found your points through-provoking, viewpoint-expanding, and, of course, because I find much to agree with. :-)

    It's true that I put a pretty high importance on evidence to form my beliefs, though the evidence cannot always be personally investigated (ie... I'm pretty sure that New Zealand exists, despite not having visited) and, as you demonstrate, sometimes the belief has to come before the evidence. Another example that you can probably appreciate would be my "belief" that my daughter is going to grow up to be a wonderful adult. I have no evidence to back it up, of course, or even any real basis to infer it... because she's an only child and I've never raised a child before. She's eight, so I'll get the evidence in another ten years (or more!). That's probably a good example of a hunch with some extreme bias!

    In most cases, however, I think that "belief before evidence" cases really do have at least some evidential basis as a starting point (some more than others). I trust someone because my experience has shown most people I know to be trustworthy. A researcher may get a hunch about something, but the hunch is usually based (at least in part) on his understanding of how things work in his field. For instance, astronomers probably won't posit that a newly-discovered planet would be made of cheese (pardon the silly example).

    Of course, someone, somewhere had to trust someone before having evidence or experience, but that would have happened long before my lifetime and the experience would be handed down through generations from that point... a knowledge of human nature.

    So I think you're right that there are situations where belief has to come before the evidence, but it's generally not a completely "blind" belief. I think, for me, that's where I part ways with religious faith. I don't have the evidence to create that first small stepping-stone that could potentially start a path to religious belief.

    That said, your point about "living as if something is true" hits home with me. Though I don't hold to the truth of many religious beliefs, the generic ideas of kindness and love which are promoted by many religions, I find to be not only worthwhile, but morally imperative. So, in a way, I do live my life as if (some of) religious propositions were true. I have meaning and purpose in my life. I don't despair of evil things happening around the world. I don't see pain and suffering as reasons for losing hope. I place an extremely high value on treating people with kindness and respect.

    Perhaps that qualifies me for what you called "pragmatic belief." :-)

  2. Dan:

    From where I stand there is plenty of evidence for theism, indeed overwhelming evidence if you think about it. For example the very existence of consciousness is much more probable on theism than on naturalism, and consciousness is the single greatest fact there is, indeed is the space where we discover any other evidence. Also the existence of objective moral values, the existence of free will, the way how observational facts discovered by non-classical science allow for mathematical modeling but resist the naturalistic modeling of the underlying reality, how other physical facts such as the apparent fine-tuning of the fundamental constants force naturalists to propose wildly implausible worldviews, indeed the meta-philosophical fact that scientific naturalism is becoming increasingly problematic on various fronts whereas theism is slowly becoming more coherent and intelligible – they all offer independent and strong evidence for theism. Authors like Eric Reitan, aware of the fact that people commit themselves to religion because of faith, i.e. because of a commitment based on their experience of transcendence, or on value judgment, or on hope rather than on intellectual reasoning, therefore stress the former over the latter. There is indeed much more to religion than its intellectual content, indeed religion is first and foremost a path of self-transformation and even of self-transcendence - but this does not mean that religion lacks intellectual justification in some way.

    Now when one turns the table and asks tnaturalists what evidence they have for naturalism, the typical answer is: “the success of science”. But science would be successful if God existed and had created the physical universe that science studies, so the success of science cannot be used to differentiate between the two hypotheses and therefore does not count as evidence for one if them, naturalism. Actually theists have argued in the opposite way, namely that the success of science is evidence for the existence of God. The general idea is that the intelligibility of the universe (which is a necessary condition for the success of science) is more probable on theism than on naturalism. Why? There are two independent reasons here. First, it looks improbable that a brain which has evolved naturalistically for tasks such as avoiding tigers should be capable of doing highly abstract science such as discovering general relativity. Secondly, it looks improbable that a naturalistic universe should happen to be as mathematically elegant as modern science requires. After all a mechanistic universe which resists mathematical modeling would be as efficient for the naturalistic evolution of species, including intelligent species that avoid being eaten by tigers. On naturalism the success of mathematics in the scientific project appears to represent nothing less than a major miracle.

    In conclusion I claim that the impression that there is little or no evidence for theism but plenty of evidence for naturalism is just a modern myth.

  3. Dan--Your point about hunches having a starting point in some level of evidence is well-taken. I was actually thinking about this as I was writing my post, but the post was getting so long that I didn't develop it.

    More precisely, I think many people with hunches are responding to subconscious clues not immediately accessible to their conscious mind. Or their intellect is "jumping ahead" of their more plodding mind to intuit a logical implication that it would take effort to demonstrate. Then again, sometimes a hunch isn't subconscious genius but unfounded prejudice. So hunches shouldn't be trusted blindly. But neither should they be ignored.

    I've personally long had the "hunch" that there's more to reality than meets the empirical eye. In a way, my work in the philosophy of religion is an attempt to explore that hunch, to see if it's based in an intellectual intuition that leaps ahead of my more plodding mind, or is nothing but an unjustified prejudice.

    My tentative conclusion so far is this: My hunch IS a response to a subconscious recognition, namely that certain rather important elements of the human experience are more readily explained (as opposed to being explained away) under an interpretive worldview that affirms realities transcending physical matter and energy.

    My list of such elements is similar to what Dianelos mentions in his post: subjectivity, the experience of freedom, the sense that some entities (e.g., my children) possess a value that is more than just a subjective projection but is an objective reality that DEMANDS a valuing response from me and others.

    But I don't go as far as Dianelos because my broader conclusion is that, at least in our current epistemic situation, human experience is ambiguous and admits of reasonable interpretations on both sides of the naturalistic/supernaturalistic divide.

    My thinking here might be illuminated by an analogy to the famed "duck-rabbit" image. In some of the more detailed versions, a meaningless stray bump on the "duck" viewing is the rabbit's nose on the "rabbit" viewing. Does it follow from this that we OUGHT to view the image as a rabbit, since that makes sense of the bump in a way that the duck viewing cannot? Hardly. After all, the contrary can probably be said with respect to some OTHER element of the picture. The fact is that the image is ambiguous, and each way of seeing it makes sense (while seeing it as a gun-toting cyborg does not).

  4. I think following hunches are important if only so that true newness can emerge. If we were to only believe our demonstrated positive science, for example, then it seems unlikely to escape beyond deducing within the language/methodological rules of the constructed system.

    For me, I recognize Christian faith as a significant historical tradition of seeking true newness--for instance, new transformed life in Christ is a central theme.

  5. The case of hunches is a good example that in actual life we often form beliefs and take action on insufficient evidence, without thereby being “irrational” to the least degree. Indeed, strict and consequent skepticism leads to nihilism. Still I’d like to offer a few comments here:

    1. When many theists without being aware of sufficient evidence form metaphysical beliefs and take action on them it’s not like they are failing some epistemic duty in comparison to naturalists. After all it’s not like there is clear evidence, physical or otherwise, for naturalism. When asked most naturalists will opine that the natural sciences imply or support naturalism (by which I understand any mechanistic conception of reality) - but on further analysis this train of thought is found to be clearly fallacious. In general I have been consistently unimpressed by the arguments I have seen put forward for naturalism. (If the reader can recommend a book with the strongest argumentation for naturalism I’d be thankful.)

    2. To have a “hunch” I think under-represents the psychological reality of faith. Rather the concept that better captures what faith is about is “realization”. So the theist realizes that, despite one’s obvious personal limitations and many failings, there is an intrinsic direction and purpose in one’s nature best expressed as “being made in the image of God”. It is I think through this particular understanding of the nature of oneself, much more than through a particular understanding of the nature of the physical world one sees around oneself, that the theist affirms the existence of God.

    3. Even though there is some elegance in the idea that God created the world to be religiously ambiguous, and a lot of sense in the idea of the epistemic distance to God (any obvious evidence for God would be utterly overpowering and therefore would make impossible the realization of a free and creative relationship between humans and God), I think that they are true only at first sight. Rather I believe that God, being the foundation of reality, is ultimately an inescapable object of knowledge any way one engages with reality: be it through the intellect, be it existentially in living the good life, be it in contemplation, and even I suspect in artistic creation.

    I would like to stay on the issue of the epistemic path to God. Eric, you say that the human experience is ambiguous and admits of reasonable interpretations on both sides of the naturalistic/supernaturalistic divide. In this context I’d like to understand your response to the following version of the argument from morality:

    1. It’s impossible to doubt that objective moral values exist.
    2. If reality is naturalistic then objective moral values do not exist.
    3. Therefore it’s impossible to doubt that reality is not naturalistic.

    As a matter of my own cognitive reality, premise #1 is factual. Indeed I could not doubt that it is objectively wrong to torture a child for fun even if my life depended on my doubting it. (In your book, if I understand it correctly, you say that those who fail to value, say, human life, as an external reality demanding a positive response from us, are sociopaths – page 48.) Premise #2 is an implication from the generally accepted premise that one can’t derive an “ought” from a naturalistic “is”.

    So, when you say that human experience is ambiguous do you mean that arguments against naturalism such as the above have some weakness, or perhaps that they are balanced out by other equally strong arguments against theism, such as some version of the argument from evil?

  6. Dianelos--Very helpful comments. Thank you for sharpening the issues. Let's look at the moral argument for God as you sketch it out:

    1. It’s impossible to doubt that objective moral values exist.
    2. If reality is naturalistic then objective moral values do not exist.
    3. Therefore it’s impossible to doubt that reality is not naturalistic.

    With respect to the first premise, I want to consider something that the philosopher J.L. Mackie says when he confronts the moral argument for God. Specifically, he says this:

    "...there is available an adequate alternative explanation of moral thinking which does not require the assumption of objective prescriptivity. In consequence, although the objectivity of prescriptive moral values would give some inductive support to the hypothesis that there is a god, it would be more reasonable to reject the kind of moral objectivity that is required for this purpose than to accept it and use it as a ground for theism."

    In short, Mackie takes it that the falsehood of the "moral objectivity thesis" is more plausible than the truth of the "theism thesis." Why? Because he believes BOTH that there is an approach to morality that is entirely plausible but doesn't involve a commitment to its objectivity--specifically, for Mackie, Hume's senitmentalism--AND that there are serious concerns speaking against the plausibility of theism (the problem of evil being, for Mackie, a major one).

    Now I do not find Hume's sentimentalism even remotely plausible as an account of morality. But I know so many very good philosopher who DO find it plausible that I'm uneasy about simply dismissing all of them as confused or as willfully doubting what cannot be reasonably doubted. Especially given that some of the Humeans I know are what I would describe as good people.

    But in my more belligerent moment I AM inclined to say that Humeans are denying what can only be denied on pain of losing touch with the heart of morality--specifically, that there is something about my children (as representative of human beings generally), something true of them, which demands a valuing response from others.

    So let's grant premise 1 of your argument. It seems to me that naturalists might deny 2 by invoking a kind of neo-Kantian foundation for morality--something on the order of what Alan Gewirth or Christine Korsgaard develop. What they argue, in effect, is that rationality demands treating beings who are rational AS valuable--that, in short, there is something intrinsically irrational about failing to value the rationality of other rational beings. On this view, the value of my children still is not an objective property they possess, but it is something that all rational beings are required to subjectively attribute to them on pain of irrationality. And so a valuing response IS demanded of all rational beings on account of my children's rational natures and their own.

    This still doesn't quite do it for me. But I can see why someone might think that this account of my children's value comes CLOSE ENOUGH to accounting for my moral experience that, once the perceived problems with supernaturalism are taken into account, they find it more reasonable ALL THINGS CONSIDERED than an account of morality which presupposes supernaturalism.

    While I disagree with this judgment, my experience is that the debate at this juncture often takes the form of a very healthy one between intelligent people who are wrestling with highly complex questions. And when that is the case, my inclination is to say that here is a place where reasonable people can disagree, at least given our current epistemic situation.

  7. Eric:

    One thing I valued in your book is how fairly you expounded everybody’s arguments, and with what sense of empathy. I agree that many atheists are reasonable and intelligent people of good will, but I also think that our current epistemic situation is such that broad warrant for the truth of theism and for the falsity of naturalism is not beyond reach. But let me respond to your points:

    Premise #1 expresses a fact about my cognitive state as far as ethics is concerned, so it’s incorrigibly true for me. So what about Mackie’s contention that there is an alternative (surely naturalistic) explanation for my moral thinking? It seems to me that this contention is unjustified, or rather, as is often the case with naturalistic claims, rests on an almost blind trust on what science can do. After all, given the mind-body problem, I think it’s extremely unlikely that there exists a naturalistic explanation for my experience of thought, let alone for my experience of morality. But let’s assume that such an explanation is possible and will be found. This would still be quite irrelevant, after all this explanation assumes the truth of premise #1 and tries to explain it. And, as per the genetic fallacy, such an explanation would also be irrelevant to the separate question of whether objective moral values do in fact exist. But would perhaps the presence of a naturalistic explanation of theistic thought increase the probability of naturalism versus theism? Quite on the contrary. After all, on theism, nobody would expect God to have created nature in such a way that holding true beliefs should be the result of an un-natural process. Conversely, on naturalism, it is at least awkward to concede that naturalistic processes may well produce a brain which is inescapably fooling one.

    Further, nowhere does the argument imply that in order to be moral one must believe in the objectivity of moral values, so the fact that Humeans are often good people is irrelevant. Actually, on theism, there is an excellent explanation of why it is possible for people who hold many false ontological and meta-ethical beliefs to nevertheless form right ethical beliefs and act on them – namely that we are all made in the image of God and hence share a nature which strives towards goodness. On theism, the fact that so many atheists are good people only demonstrates the power of God’s goodness, indeed how fundamental and universally present that power is in the human condition.

    As far as premise #2 goes, please observe that the argument is against naturalism and not for theism. So this premise does not claim that only a theistic reality comports with objective moral values, only that a naturalistic reality doesn’t. This much strikes me as obvious, because there isn’t anything in the blind evolution of a mechanism that would render some of its parts “good” and some “evil” (indeed Mackie agrees on this point, see his argument from queerness). Now there may exist non-naturalistic and also non-theistic ontologies which comport with the existence of objective moral values. You mention an intent to build such an ontology on a neo-Kantian foundation; I know Keith Parsons thinks that using Aristotle’s categories may work. My hunch is that all non-theistic ontologies (which are also non-trivial, i.e. at least minimally account for our basic experience of life) will turn out to be incoherent, and that it is in this sense that the existence of God is not only true but necessarily so. (Incidentally, the idea that it is irrational not to value rational beings may be correct but is also limited. After all, mentally handicapped children are not less valuable. And destroying a far away dead planet just for the fun of it, is clearly objectively wrong too. Somehow all of existence is valuable to some degree, which comports splendidly well with the idea that all of existence is God’s creation.)

    In conclusion then I think this argument gives a reason why I, or anybody in my epistemic condition (which I suspect is everybody), should not believe in naturalism.

  8. Some further thoughts on the issue of morality.

    I personally was moved towards Christianity by the power of Jesus’s ethics in the Gospels. I know from discussing with atheists that some of them at least were moved towards atheism because of ethical considerations too (e.g. as a reaction to the perceived hypocrisy of religious organizations). So it may be the case that it is our ethics which moves our ontology, and not the other way around. Perhaps we realize that our ethical reasoning is more trustworthy than our ontological reasoning. I find it remarkably interesting that non-theists are now trying to build viable ontologies on a moral foundation. Actually, the different ontological worldviews expounded by the various great religions may simply reflect different intents to make sense of the same ethical core in which our human nature partakes. The dynamic ethical “ought” may be more foundational in reality than the static ontological “is”. Come to think of it this view makes perfect religious sense, for, on religion’s positive conception of reality, today’s “ought” becomes the future “is”, and today’s “is” is the realization of the past’s “ought”. The Christian dictum “God is love” may have a deeper and more literal meaning than what is generally assumed, and reality may be a far more dynamic place than what some theists believe (perhaps because of an exaggerated interpretation of God’s timeless properties).

  9. Dianelos--This is beautifully said. I think I agree that our ethics (at least at the deepest and most universal level) is in some way more trustworthy and immediately evident than our ontology, and may offer the clue to understanding the latter.

    As for the more profound claim--"The dynamic ethical 'ought' may be more foundational in reality than the static ontological 'is'"--the conviction (if only implicit) that this is so may not only distinguish theists from atheists (insofar as treating the ethical as foundational may call for agency at the root of reality), but also the more benign versions of theism from the uglier variants.

    As to your previous post, there is of course a sense in which I agree with you that ethical experience is more naturally and readily explained (rather than explained away) on a non-naturalistic ontology than a naturalistic one. My point is that while I find this to be so, others do not--and many of these others seem to be every bit as thoughtful and intelligent and morally attuned as I am. And the complexity of our experience, as well as the complexity of criteria that go into the assessment of alternative worldviews (for example, the weighing of simplicity against explanatory power), push me to favor the more modest conclusion.