Thursday, February 16, 2012

The State of the God Debates: Some lessons from Shook vs. Craig

Back in December, I was given two opportunities on the same day--and they conflicted.

That morning I got a phone call from John Shook, a friend of mine from graduate school and a former OSU colleague who now works for the Center for Inquiry (a kind of atheist think tank). He invited me to debate him at an event in California in February--perhaps on the topic of God and morality. Later that day, I was handed the violin part for "I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change." It was to run during February--encompassing the weekend of the event John had invited me to participate in.

My father having passed away just over a month earlier, I was thinking a lot about life priorities, about what goals matter the most for living a full, rich life. Participation in a debate about God and morality could certainly fit into a rich life, especially given my interests and profession. But so, too, could participation in the musical. The question was which would do more for me, at this point in my life, to help me build the best kind of life I am capable of.

I've been a violinist since the second grade--far longer than I've been a philosopher. In high school, playing the violin was central to my identity, and I very seriously considered a career in music. I've been involved with the local community theatre for far less time, but it has been a rich source of creative opportunity and community. And here was a rare chance to bring my long training as a violinist into the communal creativity of community theatre.

That's what I chose, and I haven't regretted it. In fact, the experience of connecting with this particular cast has been a great gift. I've made new friendships, deepened old ones, and laughed more these last few weeks than I have in years. The experience has also opened further doors for musical creativity. I've come to know the keyboardist, a very talented musician who does music (among other things) for a living and is eager to have me play with her band on numbers which call for a violin or fiddle part.

The debate with John would've looked better on my professional CV. It might have sold some of my books and helped get some of my ideas out to audiences who otherwise would've have heard them. These aren't trivial things, and I hope to have other opportunities to pursue these things.

But I doubt that flying out to California for a debate would've fed my soul the way that the last few weeks of communal, playful, joyful creativity have done. Part of the reason for that has to do with the current state of the God debates.

This morning, with the date for the debate-that-might-have-been drawing near, I found myself thinking about the option I turned down and I took another look at parts of John's debate with William Lane Craig from a couple of years ago. It reminded me of why debates of the sort exemplified there don't feed my soul (and why I wouldn't want to debate Craig).

Let me say, first, that intellectual exchange with those who disagree with me can feed my soul quite richly. I really enjoy going to professional philosophy conferences to present papers. And at such conferences, there is always a designated commenter on the paper you present. The commenter typically raises objections and critical questions. Sometimes the exchange that follows has some of the character of a debate. But it's also constructive. Each is afforded the space to develop his or her thoughts. If someone makes a good point, it is (usually) quickly acknowledged. And if someone is trying to make a potentially good point but is having some trouble finding the best way to articulate it, others will sometimes jump in (perhaps even a philosophical opponent) with a clarifying question: "Is this what you're trying to say?"

At its best, the aim at a philosophy conference is to increase clarity and deepen the collective understanding of the philosophical problem and the best arguments for alternative solutions.

That isn't the aim in most of the current God debates--where the objective is to win. When John first proposed a debate, my counter-offer (this was before I was invited to be part of the musical) was to have a philosophical conversation--that is, something more like what happens at a philosophy conference than like what happens in typical God debates. John thought that sounded great. But I know that even if we went into the event in that spirit, we would be doing so in a context defined by a different spirit--one in which the zero-sum model of a sporting event seems to prevail. And it's easy to get sucked in by that broader spirit--especially if you have an ego (as both John and I do).

One clip I looked at this morning from the Shook-Craig debate strikes me as instructive here. It appear on youTube under the belligerent title "Dr. William Lane Craig humiliates Dr. John Shook." Here's the clip:

There are a few lessons I want to extract from this clip. First off, the title of the clip is misleading. What appears here is a brief moment in a considerably longer exchange in which neither debater humiliated themselves, even if Craig did manage to trip John up a couple of times here. I'm not saying that Craig didn't make some legitimate points that should have been made--but the title of the clip treats this as equivalent to scoring points against an opponent in a win/lose sporting match. It's as if the video's poster is delighting in a good blow landed by a favored boxer in a title fight.

And then there's the applause. That doesn't happen at philosophy conferences. And when, in this clip, does the applause happen? When one debater "scores a point" against the other.

But the most important point I want to make is this: Presumably because Craig was interested in winning the debate, he didn't display any interest in unpacking the analogy that John was trying to invoke, to understand that analogy within the larger context of John philosophical convictions. Adept at debate, Craig piped in with telling questions or comments (verbal jabs) before John could fully develop his line of thought. This put John into a defensive posture which made it hard for him to collect his thoughts so as to be able to connect the example to its larger philosophical context.

Since I know John, I know that larger context. I pretty sure I know what he was trying to do. John is a specialist in John Dewey, an American pragmatist. Put in somewhat oversimplified terms, what matters most for pragmatism is how our ideas and beliefs are related to behavior. If two seemingly different philosophies have the same pragmatic impact--if they affect how we behave in identical ways--then they have the same pragmatic meaning. The test of truth, for pragmatism, is how an idea works in practice.

So how does that connect with the analogy John was trying to use, about investing money in the stock market? Here's the thing: If I have my money in the bank and I have no good reason to suppose that moving it to the stock market will be to my advantage--and I am risk-averse--then I will behave in the same way that I would if I have my money in the bank and believe that putting it in the stock market would be a bad idea, ultimately losing me money.

Craig is clearly correct to say that the lack of evidence for the view that the stock market will rise in the coming months is not evidence that it won't. But for the hypothetical potential investor with a conservative disposition, the absence of such evidence will have the same pragmatic significance as evidence that the stock market won't rise in the coming months. The belief clusters here are pragmatically the same. For someone who is a pragmatist, these two belief clusters have the same pragmatic meaning.

So, from this perspective, consider someone who (a) operates as if the natural world is all that exists until convinced otherwise by evidence of a supernatural reality, and (b) hasn't yet been convinced otherwise. Even if this person acknowledged that one cannot know that the natural world is all there is, this person would qualify as a naturalist from a pragmatic perspective. Why? Because the person operates practically in the same way that someone who is convinced that there is no supernatural reality would operate. Such a person is a pragmatic atheist. John has said to me before (not in these precise words) that he isn't big on the category of agnosticism precisely because self-professing agnostics typically operate as if there is no God--and so, from the standpoint of pragmatic philosophy, they are atheists.

John may very well have defined naturalism as the belief that the natural world we know through empirical inquiry exhausts what's real. But if he was operating with a pragmatic understanding of "belief," being a naturalist in this sense is consistent with being agnostic (in a more conventional sense) about the existence of a supernatural reality.

John is perfectly capable of making these points. But Craig's debating style, evidenced in this clip, interfered with rather than facilitated John's ability to lay out what he was really wanting to say. This made it possible for Craig to invoke more traditional terminology--which does recognize a distinction between agnosticism and atheism even when a person who professes not to know behaves as if there is no God. The result is that John's position could be neatly knocked down--but it was a mischaracterization that was being knocked down.

What John is committed to is the idea that, in the absence of compelling reasons to believe in a supernatural reality, we should operate as if there is none. We should be naturalists or atheists in the pragmatic sense. He is also committed to the view that there are no good reasons in favor of the idea that there are supernatural realities. Now, I disagree with John on both points. My first book, Is God a Delusion?, can in some ways be seen as an extended critique of both of John's commitments here, with special emphasis on the first.

But my point is this: We don't do the pursuit of wisdom a service by using the sort of debate techniques that interfere with the ability of others to lay out their position with the clarity needed to assess it on its own terms. Were Craig operating in professional philosopher mode rather than debate mode, he might have said, "If we take your investing analogy in such-and-such a way, it just seems silly. So I suspect you might mean something else by it. What would that be?"

But the current state of the God debates discourages that more philosophical approach. And it's not just theists who are guilty of favoring the pursuit of victory over the pursuit of philosophical clarity, even if in this clip it is the theist who's doing it. The new atheists offer plenty of examples of the same sort of thing.

Now none of this is to say that there isn't a place for debate. I think debate can be helpful in sparking more meaningful critical dialogue. Debates are exciting, and can attract interest in  toipc. The seductive power of the competition, the zero-sum face-off, can draw people into an issue in a way that exposes them to opposing arguments they wouldn't otherwise have heard, perhaps stimulating deeper reflection and more substantive dialogue. Unfortunately, this very same seductive power of zero-sum confrontation makes it always in danger of eclipsing and replacing more productive dialogue.

This is not just a danger in the contemporary God debates. Too much of what goes on in the exchanges between theists and atheists has just this zero-sum character. And that is why community theatre does more to feed my soul.

But real dialogue between people of opposing views can be deeply rewarding. It can be a creative and communal activity every bit as rich as working to create a theatrical production. I like to think that this blog is one place where such deeper dialogue can happen on issues about religion and God and ethics. The question is how we work to make that kind of dialogue happen more. How do we make meaningful critical discourse the natural outflow of those more sexy "debates" that bring attention to the issues--as opposed to allowing such discourse to be eclipsed by the debates?



  1. Hi, Eric-

    Me again!

    Let me make two points. One is to extend your discussion of agnosticis- that the naturalist position is more epistemological than readers might appreciate.

    "John may very well have defined naturalism as the belief that the natural world we know through empirical inquiry exhausts what's real. But if he was operating with a pragmatic understanding of "belief," being a naturalist in this sense is consistent with being agnostic (in a more conventional sense) about the existence of a supernatural reality."

    The issue is, as you indicate, not that what is real is exhausted by empirical inquiry, but that what we know of reality in a reliable fashion is exhausted that way. (This is perhaps what Craig was getting at, though since he doesn't agree, he hardly benefits from the point.) Whenever someone claims special discernment, (I just met a lady who claimed that an "intuitive" told her to look for her lost cat high on the hill behind my house!), honest analysis comes up empty. We are forever tempted by such delusions- apparently it is human nature. The Star Wars "force" comes to mind.

    So it (naturalism, and its concomitant, agnosticism) is a strong argument about what we really know, and how easy it is to fool ourselves about knowing things we don't know at all ... like hell, god, and the rest of it. The critical bar isn't even met to have hypotheses on these issues, let alone "knowledge", certainty, or book-length speculative models. Their obsessive pursuit is a mark of plain psychological / sociological fixation.

    The second point is about the philosophical profession. If that profession in its good-natured form of less-than-critical discussion allows members in good standing to miss so deeply the first point above, and found their careers on the "study" of angels, and write books about the nature of hell, the desires of god, etc., then it is systematically defective. Other disciplines have more ... discipline ... about their criteria and standards of truthfulness and knowledge.

    One would think that of all professions, philosophy would have slightly better appreciation for this. My conclusion is that this mode of philosophy is a brand of creative and expressive writing that explores the writer's intutions. The semi-critical method of drawing out the presenter's intentions, as you relate it, is very reminiscent of the writer's workshop.

  2. Hi Eric

    I'm interested in the atheistic/agnostic distinction, or lack of it, suggested by your friend.

    It seems to me there are very real pragmatic differences between atheism and agnosticism, and they manifest themselves in such things as curiosity, tolerance and debating style, no small matters. As an agnostic I don't behave as if there is no God in one crucial respect, I don't behave as if those who do believe there is a God are mistaken; whereas the ahteist (even a fallibilistic one)surely does. I behave as if, having been faced with a dilemma to which no intellectual consensus can be framed, I have a psychological/narrative preference for not making any sort of commitment on the matter. And, so I readily accept that those with differing psychological needs will jump in other directions at this point.

    Moreover, I behave according to the belief that by understanding each other's jumps better, we can alter and enhance our ever-developing psychological tendencies.

    Because I don't think atheism would deliver me to the same behavioural stance, I'd conclude a pragmatist should draw a distinction between agnostic and atheistic outlooks.


    PS tempting to believe you may have faked Burk's entry above just to underline your point. (Hi Burk, nice to hear from you again.)

  3. Bernard,

    I tend to agree that agnosticism is pragmatically different form atheism--or at least can be. But it may also be that there are pragmatic forms of atheism that are consistent with agnosticism on a more theoretical level. That is, while there is a species of agnosticism that is pragmatically distinct from atheism, there is also a kind of theoretic agbosticism that is atheistic on the pragmatic level.

  4. Burk,

    You seem to be under the impression that seeking to understand precisely what your opponent in an argument actually intends to say is a kind of mushy procedure that derogates from logical rigor. But the opposite is surely correct.

    Take again the example from the Shook-Craig debate. Everything that Craig says is, logically speaking, entirely accurate. You cannot derive the conclusion that there exists nothing beyond a certain boundary from the absence of a compelling positive argument for something beyond that boundary. Now, IF John were actually asserting the contrary--or if his argument depended implicitly on holding the contrary, this would be a decisive point. If, however, John isn't asserting the contrary and his argument depends on something other than this claim, then Craig's entirely accurate statement nevertheless misses the point. Progress in the conversation is stymied. Surely critical rigor in a discussion with someone else requires not only that your own remarks are accurate on their own terms, but also that they pertain to what the other person is saying in the way that one takes them to pertain. If they don't (because one hasn't understood the other person), then one has a case of talking-past-one-another as opposed to a case of actual critical engagement.

    I happen to think that WERE Craig to have dug into John's underlying philosophical convictions more fully, accurately explicated John's view, and then critically engaged with it on its own terms, he would have been able to raise some very substantial concerns about it (including but not limited to the idea that agnosticism reduces to atheism on the pragmatic level that concerns John, such that someone who claim epistemic ignorance about anything beyond the natural world would thus qualify pragmatically as an atheist). But were Craig to have done that, the conversation would have abruptly become far more abstract and inaccessible to the audience. Although Craig could have made some compelling criticisms of John's actual position, fewer in the audience would have followed it--and so it wouldn't have had the same subjective effect of being a telling blow.

    I won't say that this is what motivated Craig NOT to go to that deeper, more accurate, and hence more intellectually rigorous level. I can't speak to Craig's motives. But I will say that if you are a seasoned debater and you see a person say something that, on its most straightforward meaning, is easy to refute quite forcefully and in a way that will be obvious to a general audience, it is VERY tempting to just go for the win.

    And this is why debate tends to be LESS critically rigorous than thoughtful philosophical discussion.

  5. And I suppose I should add, given the topic, that since this point seems so clear--since it is so obvious that taking the time to fully understand what one's interlocutor is trying to say is not "semi" critical engagement of the sort one finds in writing workshops but a necessary prerequisite for genuine critical rigor in an argument--it may be that I have entirely misunderstood your point. And so, it is appropriate for me to ask whether I got it right, and to give you a chance to clarify your position if I didn't...

  6. Eric-

    I agree that speaking past one another in a debate is not useful. And I am no more a fan of cheap shots than you. But understanding someone else's position is not predicated on sympathizing with it or treating it with kid gloves. It may mean cutting directly to the quick of matter to expose differences from a contrasting model, perhaps one with better evidence, or indeed evidence at all. This can be thoughtful as well, and indeed is the model of some of the culture's most central practices- law, politics, science.

    The problem with religion (and pro-religious philosophy) is that it lends itself to the most vacuous version of this kind of debate, which our politics are unfortunately headed towards as well- precisely because, unlike something like science, there is no shared criterion to bring the discussants together over something like evidence, experiment, .. something concrete. One presents his intuitions about X, the other her intuitions about Y, and a third dispairs of showing that neither one is talking about anything real- anything that could be called knowledge, even though the former both insist their intuitions are not really intuitions at all, but respectable models of reality.. indeed of the most momentous reality conceivable.

    You gesture towards disgreement with a substantive argument.. that in pragmatic terms, agnosticism reduces to atheism. Is this problematic? If one realizes how little warrant we have to believe in a god, many gods, or anything connected with supernaturalism, then any residual "belief" is merely sentimental affectation. If one does not philosophically believe, then one is without belief and a-theistic. I sense that you want to preserve the ablility of an agnostic to pine for something (mystery, etc.) her mind says is not philosophically known. I guess it turns on whether atheism is by definition positive and militant!

  7. Burk,

    One point you seem to miss about the way philosophy operates: Philosophers are in the business of using rigorous logical analysis to determine what could be true, what must be true, and what cannot be true within a context of starting points.

    In other words, philosophers routinely step into a framework of assumptions in order to assess the internal coherence of that framework, and to determine its implications--implications which can then be tested for consistency with some broader body of experience-derived beliefs, so as to determine how many "bullets" one needs to bite in order to accept the framework.

    Philosophy in this form is thus useful in critically assessing alternative holistic ways of seeing the world of experience. There is also the constructive/creative side of philosophy--the "speculative" side--which proposes holistic ways of seeing the world of experience. But such speculative philosophy is paired with the critical dimension so that once a holistic way of seeing is on offer its internal coherence can be assessed and its fit with the broader range of human experience assessed.

    This facilitates a progressive refinement of holistic worldviews in which some such worldviews fall by the wayside as a bad fit or as internally untenable, while others in the wake of progressive refinement become increasingly robust and coherent ways of seeing our experience.

    You can, of course, refuse to engage in this activity, insisting on limiting your belief-set to what is given by empirical methods. But in my experience, human beings are very bad at doing this. We're meaning-bestowing creatures who long for some picture of what it's all about. Broader assumptions about the meaning of the more limited belief-set thus creep in.

    More significantly, the refusal to form any beliefs about what isn't empirically testable morphs into the belief in the non-existence of such "transcendent" realities--and this set of empirically untested/untestable beliefs, this implicit holistic worldview, is then quietly withheld from the kind of critical scrutiny (in the light of other holistic worldviews) that philosophy pursues.

    And when philosophers engage in such critical scrutiny anyway, it becomes very easy to fall unconsciously into a defensive mode, protecting one's implicitly embraced holistic worldview from critical scrutiny by casting aspersions and insults at what philosophers do.

  8. It seems that an implication of the points made in my last comment is that agnosticism is a difficult approach calling for considerable discipline--especially on the pragmatic level, where the business of living tends to be shaped by a range of not-fully-conscious assumptions about the deeper nature of the reality that we encounter in experience. And this may explain John Shook's skepticism towards agnosticism as a distinct category, especially on the pragmatic level.

    Perhaps what follows, more accurately, is that we tend to be pragmatically agnostic about only some things at best, even if our theoretic agnosticism is broader. It does seem to me, however, that it is quite possible to be pragmatically agnostic about theism--that there are people who succeed at keeping their withholding-of-belief from slipping into disbelief at both the theoretical and pragmatic levels.

    For me, one of the most interesting questions is what is legitimate to pragmatically and theoretically believe while the ever-progressing philosophical project continues. That is, while theistic and atheistic holistic worldviews are evolving (or falling away) in the light of ongoing critical scrutiny, MUST one strive to be agnostic? Or can one be a FALLIBILISTIC believer/disbeliever? I think that dogmatic belief/disbelief is a clear impediment to the philosophical project, but I favor the legitimacy of fallibilism--in fact, for Hegelian reasons, I think that the philosophical project depends on the existence of fallibilistic believers (even if it may also depend on the existence of agnostics).

  9. Hi Eric

    I agree the question of fallibilism is fascinating, and appears crucial to your personal philosophy.

    I think of it, predictably, in scientific terms. All scientific belief is fallibilistic. We believe in a model because we have agreed it's the best we have so far, not because we are sure it is right.

    But, in areas where no such consensus has yet emerged, science quite sensibly insists upon agnosticism. Until the evidence is in, we just don't know, and admitting this keeps our minds open and our curiosity primed.To say, of a scientific model, 'well people can't agree on this, but I believe...' is quite rightly seen as an act of hubris.

    And when it comes to the metaphysical, I would make exactly the same objection to fallibilism, which has a whiff of a spin doctor's term about it. A fallibistic belief requires a commitment to one's personal intuition being superior to the intuitions of others (if this were not the case, why not reverse beliefs?) That's a lot of moral ground to cede, and I wonder why one would want to do it?

    The pragmatic defence, that believing thus makes my life richer, I think falls down. After all, when I read a novel, I believe in the characters as real people in pragmatic terms, I engage in the story as if they are real. But this is not the same thing as saying I believe they are real. The difference is at the meta level, in what I believe about my beliefs. In this way, the agnostic is perfectly able to take a 'behave as if it's real' stance towards any number of things (time, free will, causation). The crucial difference rests in how we respond to those who believe otherwise.

    My contention is that when it comes to belief in God, one tends towards fallibilism because if one belives for purely pragmatic reasons, while at the meta level holding this belief is grounded in nothing other than how it makes us feel, the benefit of the belief collapses.

    And this trade off makes belief intolerable to me, while for others the downgrading of their fellow human's intuitions is apparently a price worth paying. Each to their own.


  10. This sounds like a defense of those who study how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. Given certain premises, then rigorous logical analysis may yet provide an answer!

    Additionally, I think it has not been possible, in practice, to actually apply "rigorous logical analysis" to the commonly imagined starting points/ premises with which philosophy concerns itself, due to their extreme emotional and psychological valence. Mathematics, yes. Philosophy, no. How long have people been discussing hell? Forever. How well is the rigorous, logical analysis of hell coming along? Is it progressive in its refinement? No, it is not. Beliefs have a way of remaining impervious to supposed rigorous logical analysis when they have no empirical component. That is why Hume said that reason is a slave to passions.. because it is, being routinely used to rationalize rather than to reason.

    So, speaking of what human beings are bad at, reasoning about imaginary eventualities and ontologies is surely one of them. We are indeed meaning-bestowing creatures, which is why bestowed meanings should be approached skeptically, not with presumptions of veridicality.

    "More significantly, the refusal to form any beliefs about what isn't empirically testable morphs into the belief in the non-existence of such 'transcendent' realities--and this set of empirically untested/untestable beliefs, this implicit holistic worldview, is then quietly withheld from the kind of critical scrutiny (in the light of other holistic worldviews) that philosophy pursues."

    I am sorry, but this seems incoherent. If a belief is untestable and properly deserving of agnosticism, (at best), then how it can someone (logically) give it critical scrutiny? I get the impression that you are defending the practice of reading into a belief system without granting it belief, as if I were to engage in Biblical criticism and philology. Or write a critical analysis of Harry Potter. Again, we are speaking of literature studies, not of philosophy. To count as even a candidate model of reality, a philosophical starting point has to have some empirical merit.

  11. Bernard,

    I'm still unconvinced by your contention that fallibilistically trusting one's own intuitions in some matter involves "downgrading" the intuitions of others--at least if "downgrading" their intuitions involves a kind of subjective stance towards the relative merits of one's own intuitions and theirs that necessarily involves some kind of morally troubling hubris.

    There's a sense in which I see fallibilism in much the way you see agnosticism--as a meta-level belief about my beliefs and belief-forming processes.

    That doesn't mean they're the same thing, of course. It is certainly correct that one can be fallibilistic about one's belief in some matter while also being quite convinced that one's belief is better grounded than the contrary belief of someone else. So fallibilism is compatible with a belief about the relative superiority of one's own belief--and such a belief will at least SOMETIMES be unjustified and so count as hubris.

    But again I think there is something to Allen Stair's take on fallibilistic belief that I sketched out awhile back and that offers the outlines for a species of fallibilistic religious belief that is not hubristic in relation to those who adopt an alternative.

  12. "How long have people been discussing hell? Forever. How well is the rigorous, logical analysis of hell coming along? Is it progressive in its refinement? No, it is not."

    Um...well, as someone who has studied the doctrine a fair bit in recent years, I'd have to disagree with that assessment. Not only have dominant theological opinions about hell changed in the light of critical reflection, but so have dominant popular understandings. The existence of trenchant holdouts who cling to the oldest, most retributive models of the doctrine shouldn't be confused with the absence of any progress.

    " That is why Hume said that reason is a slave to passions.. because it is, being routinely used to rationalize rather than to reason."

    This is an aside, but Hume was primarily making a claim here about the action-guiding capacity of reason. He thought reason could furnish only the means for attaining ends, not the ends themselves (which our passions give to us). As such, he thought reason could not lay down any categorical requirement on behavior, but could only tell us what to do GIVEN this or that objective. Kant trenchantly and powerfully challenged Hume on this point. In fact, I'd say that Kant succeeded in showing that reason can lay down categorical laws...even if, arguably, Hume's concern resurfaces at another level when we ask why we should care about the laws that reason lays down.

    The rest of what you say is so problematic that I'm not sure where to begin, and I have to go pick up my son. But you have clearly failed to get what I'm trying to describe about the philosophical method, so I'm not sure what more I can say. Perhaps you'd be better served studying the philosophical canon to understand how it operates...and THEN criticizing the discipline in the light of the kind of understanding such study would generate.

  13. Thanks for the correction on Hume.. I should have cited more recent cognitive work perhaps.

    Still the basic problem is that philosophy seems to be driven by intution. And when that intution is requited only by a long tradition of other people's intutions, then what do you have? A big echo chamber. In writing workshops, this is as it should be. But when the claim is that one is describing "reality", the practice does not work effectively. All external-reality-based disciplines have hived off by this point.

    If philosophy were only about ethics and other what-is-good issues that are fundamentally subjective, that would be OK, though recognizing that status would be helpful as well. Then it could seen as part of a spectrum with literature, politics, art, religion, and allied fields.

  14. Hi Eric

    I've reread your posting on Stair, and I think the examples he use involve exactly this type of downgrading. He notes the believer may feel no need to contradict alternative views, and is happy to accept each to their own, which is I think admirable, and nudges us closer to agnosticism.

    But, when pushed, doesn't the believer, say in something of divine nature, as much as they respect those who don't believe, still by the very act of believing, downgrade the alternative view. They are in essence saying, I find the alternate is less worthy of belief. And why? Well not for any reason that can bring us to a consensus, so by intuition. The implication being my intuition is a better bet than yours. This seems to me to be simply inescapable.

    One small step on though, to saying, I choose this stance for purely subjective reasons, not because I thinking it's true but because I enjoy acting as if it's true, and the downgrading no longer exists. It's the everyday stance we take towards the best tasting cookies or the most satisfying novel, so we know it's tremendously easy to maintain, and can yield highly satisfying relationships with the personal world of experience.


  15. Hi Eric,

    I am curious about this hell business. No doubt dominant views have changed with time, as you say above. But what caused this change?

    It might be that errors were found in old arguments, of course, but also that the assumptions on which they were based were replaced by new ones judged more adequate. I suspect the latter is the most important factor here. But what assumptions are made is largely a question of what seems intuitively acceptable, nothing we can prove in any way. Can we say then that the changing view of hell is largely a reflection of a changing moral and cultural landscape?

    If so, the “trenchant holdouts” you mention may be simply making different assumptions and cannot be said to be more “right” or “wrong” than others.

    You say that the new views represent progress. But how can we define progress in this case? Progress according to what?

  16. Eric,

    I agree that oral debates are not the best way to learn. Written debates are more useful. As are thoughtful interviews, such as the “Conversations from the Pale Blue Dot”. On the other hand debates between theists and atheists have punctured one of the most common atheistic myths, namely that theism is intellectually indefensible and that theists are less smart.

    I have a question about John Shook’s dabete with Bill Craig. In that debate John’s position was basically that a) we know that nature exists and b) we don’t have any good reason to believe that anything beyond nature (i.e. the supernatural – let alone God) exists. But theism is not the view that beside apples and atoms and galaxies, also a non-physical and very special thing called “God” exists. Rather, whereas naturalists believe that what exists is ultimately of a mechanical nature (and most believe that it is of a purely physical nature), theists believe that what exists is ultimately of a personal nature, indeed is grounded on the creative will of God. Thus the theist sees an apple falling and holds that God’s will is the ultimate cause of both the apple’s existence and of its lawful behavior while falling. Naturalists, on the other hand, believe that the apple and its behavior are metaphysically autonomous. Thus for John to put the issue as “we know that nature exists, and we have no reason to believe that anything beyond nature exists” is grossly misleading, for theism (as all metaphysics) is a theory about the nature of existence in the first place. Theists and naturalists agree that “nature exists” but understand that proposition quite differently. Strictly speaking “God exists” makes a claim about existence and not about God. (I wish people used instead “existence is God centered” – and thus reality is fundamentally purposeful and has a moral dimension).

    Now what I am describing above is not some kind of modern sophisticated theism, but only ancient classical theism. Arguably this understanding of theism goes back to Aristotle, and is developed in detail by the scholastics such as Aquinas. Finally classical theism is the official understanding of the theologians of all mainstream Christian churches. No educated theist holds that God exists in the same sense that an apple exists. So here is my question: Doesn’t John Shook, who is an academic philosopher, know what theism is about? I should think he does know. But then in his debate with Craig why does he use a line of reasoning that trivializes theism beyond recognition?

  17. Concerning Craig...

    I watched one of his debates a few months ago (as it happens, against Hitchens, but my interest was primarily with Craig). From what I saw, he is certainly a master at debating, relentlessly returning to his points with what seems impeccable logic. Overall, I didn't find he came out as arrogant. On the contrary, he seemed a nice enough man but totally and absolutely confident in his position. He also seemed to argue honestly, even refusing to take the bait when a questioner at the end gave him an opportunity to win a few debating points - saying, correctly, that the questioner objection was irrelevant.

    At the same time I must say I found some of his arguments pretty strange. Very early, he argued incorrectly that an actual mathematical infinite would lead to contradictions, helping himself with an irrelevant quote from Hilbert. A very bad start when a mathematician is listening.

    Later on, he quotes an astronomical probability against evolution occurring naturally, taken I believe from Tipler. But, as far as I can tell, this computation concerns spontaneous assembly of a gene or something, and is totally irrelevant to actual biological processes.

    I may have misunderstood and others may correct me but that's really what he seemed to argue. (Of course, he also used a number of more conventional arguments.)

    Now, if I am right, I would ask why a smart fellow like Craig resort to such obvious nonsense. Does he realize this and use the arguments anyway? Does he simply lack the knowledge to evaluate these arguments? Is he so blinded by his overconfidence that he will accept any argument going his way without noticing how weak it is? Or what?

  18. Hi JP

    It's not just mathematicians Craig offends with his self serving nonsense. At one point he claims that by the standards employed by historians, the resurrection of Christ is an historical fact. I can't think many historians would be all that chuffed to hear their rigour so casually denigrated.(It would after all make alien abductions a similar historical fact,convinced eye witnesses are plentiful).

    Hard to speak to Craig's motivations in this. As you say, he's clearly a smart guy. Perhaps it speaks to Eric's original point, of the shallowness of thought promoted by a need to win.I am tempted to conclude too that it points to the danger of giving too much credence to one's own intuitions, lest reason start to serve as a defender of, rather than an examiner of, the intuitive process.


  19. Hello Dianelos

    I think the expressing of God in the terms of existence being God-like has an appealing poetic quality and I agree, there may be much gained from using such a formulation.

    Does it follow though that this definition renders the Shook line naive? Perhaps the new formulation accommodates his reasoning just as well. I can't guess, of course, as to what God-like qualities you have in mind for existence, but if they are things such as self-necessity, or benevolence, then we can just as easily show that these qualities sit beyond our common evidence, in the same way that the mechnical qualities of existence yield to a communal set of models.

    From the lack of common evidence, we get to agnosticism, and from there, via Shook's use of pragmatism, (which I don't buy) to atheism.

    What do you think?


  20. Bernard,

    Regarding the following: "But, when pushed, doesn't the believer, say in something of divine nature, as much as they respect those who don't believe, still by the very act of believing, downgrade the alternative view. They are in essence saying, I find the alternate is less worthy of belief. And why? Well not for any reason that can bring us to a consensus, so by intuition. The implication being my intuition is a better bet than yours. This seems to me to be simply inescapable."

    What I want to say at this point is that in my own experience of engaging with (non-fundamentalist expressions of) alternative faith traditions, agnostics, and (non-fundamentalist expressions of) atheism, my affirmation of the perspective most in tune with my own rock-bottom intuitions (in something more than just a pragmatic way) doesn't carry with it any explicit INTENT to "down-grade" alternative perspectives in the sense of implying epistemological fault or deficiency. I mean, I sometimes DO intend to attribute epistemological deficiency in my engagement with some people who believe differently than I do (for example, when I argue that their embrace of a doctrine of eternal damnation is a poor fit with their concept of God or with any coherent understanding of free will). My point is that the mere decision to trust where my intuitions lead does not AS SUCH carry any explicit intent to attach epistemic deficiency to those whose intuitions differ and who choose to follow them. And sometimes I clearly intend NOT to down-grade in this way.

    The question, then, is whether the very act of trusting one's own intuitions in a context where intuitions vary amounts to such a down-grading of rival intuitions, such that the intent NOT to down-grade is inconsistent with what is actually being done.

    Here, I think we have to make sure to keep clearly in mind a distinction between two senses of "down-grading"--(1) The subordination of others' clear intuitions to my own in the formation of my belief; (2) The meta-level judgment that all those whose clear intuitions conflict with mine suffer from an epistemic defect.

    The species of down-grading that you seem to be attributing even to the fallibilist who pursues his/her intuitions fallibilistically (and, in any event, the species that appears to be problematic) is (2). The species of down-grading that in an immediate sense seems inevitable is (1). So the question is whether engaging in (1) requires (on pain of inconsistency) making the judgment at issue in (2). Put another way, is there some epistemic defect found in doing (1) while refraining from doing (2)?

    I'll need to think about this some more, but my gut level sense (intuition?) is that there are conditions under which one can consistently do (1) while not doing (2), even though there are also conditions under which one cannot.

  21. Dianelos,

    John Shook has a new book, THE GOD DEBATES, that might help clarify the scope of his understanding of the perspective you describe--but I haven't read it yet, and I haven't discussed theism with him in these terms (he left OSU before either of us became seriously involved in philosophy of religion). So I can only guess that (a) he does appreciate the perspective according to which theism and atheism are different accounts of what existence fundamentally is and what the things in ordinary experience (that is, in the natural world) are ultimately like in their basic nature, (b) that he was speaking loosely in this clip and in the debate, and (c) were he to express his point more precisely, he would pursue an argument along the lines that Bernard sketches out.

    This is not to say that I think the line of thinking is successful when formulated in terms of the very traditional approach to theism that you describe. In fact, I suspect that once we elaborate John's argument in these terms, it becomes more clear than it is under John's looser language that theism and naturalism are both in the business of affirming the existence of the world of direct experience and then offering a controversial "way of seeing/understanding it" that goes beyond what is immediately given in experience.

    But developing that point is a matter for another time.

  22. JP,

    Your question about the evolution of the doctrine of hell and what drives it is interesting and important, but exceeds what I can do justice to in a comment. What I'll say is that I approach such matters in a roughly Hegelian way, where an idea is tested in the field of lived experience, including communal experience, and inadequacies are discovered by virtue of the failures of the idea in that testing ground as well as through more purely theoretical concerns with consistency, etc. And this means that the critical testing of religious hypotheses, and their subsequent evolution, will inevitably take place in terms of broader cultural forces within which religion is embedded.

    But this fact does not imply that the evolution is simply the result of something alien to religion ("secular culture") imposing itself on religious sensibilities. That would presuppose a separation between secular and religious culture, and a separate evolution of the former apart from the latter, that I doubt exists. In a nutshell, if secular culture can influence the development of religion communities' understandings of doctrines such as hell, then that fact suggests that one can and does influence the other--and given the strong influence of Christianity in Western history, there is good reason to suppose that the "secular" tropes that transformed the religious doctrine were themselves strongly shaped by developments in religious culture.

  23. Bernard,

    It’s not so much that existence is “God-like” than that existence is “God-centered” or “God-based”. Let me explain what I mean:

    People long ago found out that at least parts of their experience of life is intelligible. In other words they found out that “why” questions could often be answered in a way that gave them a deeper understanding of the reality we all exist in. Now there are two possibilities: Either “why” questions continue infinitely, i.e. one can always ask one more “why” question expecting to find an even deeper explanation, or else reality is based on some grounding facts (the so-called “brute facts”), about which to ask “why” does not anymore make any sense.

    Assuming that reality is based on some kind of grounding facts, what can we say about their nature? There are two dominant ideas: Either this ground is basically of a personal nature, or else this ground is basically of a mechanical nature. The latter view about the nature of existence is called “naturalism” and the former “supernaturalism”.

    The ancient Greek popular religion assumed that all existence was based not on one but on a great number of fundamental spirits, some great (as the gods on Olympus) and some minor (like the spirits which animate and explain one particular river or one particular tree). Philosophical contemplation and mystical experience though moved supernaturalists to posit that all is grounded on just one person, and further one who is perfect in all respects. Which view we call theism. This is the dominant supernaturalistic view.

    Conversely, within naturalism people realized that the only way to find out about the mechanical nature of existents was through the use of the physical sciences. Thus the dominant naturalistic view today is scientific naturalism, namely the view that reality consists of nothing but what the physical sciences describe.

    Now if I understand you correctly you are suggesting the following way to attack theism: Assume that all existence is indeed God-based. We know of many things that exist, such as the physical universe. If the physical universe were God-based then we would expect the physical universe to have some properties. But the physical universe lacks such properties, which makes it unlikely that its existence is based on God. For example, the universe is too big, or too old, or too filled with suffering, or the evolution of the species is too messy a process, or the design of the species is too inefficient, or there don’t seem to be any physical things behaving in a non-mechanical manner, etc.

    I think this is a valid line of attack. Which, incidentally, can be used against scientific naturalism also. For example the theist may point out freedom of will, or moral truths, or consciousness, or the deep mathematical structure of the physical universe, or the apparent fine-tuning of the fundamental constants - as features which we would not find in reality if scientific naturalism were true.

  24. Hi Dianelos

    Not quite what I meant, although as always your responses are fascinating.

    I would suggest there are aspects of the mechanical world upon which we can agree, and beyond this, both mechanical mysteries and metaphysical posers (including those you mention regarding the grounding of reality).

    While very many people find the arguments regarding suffering, free will etc compelling, the point is many do not (as we've found when pursuing our differences on free will), so we remain in an area of controversy, where all we have to guide us is instinct, and our instincts differ.

    The pragmatic naturalist then might not argue that the world is mechanically grounded. Instead they might simply point out that as we move beyond the mechaincal, our consensus dissolves, and we must choose between personal superiority of insight or agnosticism.

    For those who's tastes lead them to agnosticism, the case for a pragmatic collapse into atheism is made.

    I remain agnostic because I don't buy the last step, and my personality is such that I am ubable to believe deep down that my own intuition is superior to that of others. My intuition has proven to be such a lousy tool so consistently that it feels to me simply ludicrous to use at as anyhting other than a guide for further investigation.

    This, I propose, is the bedrock difference between the agnostic and the believer, and the area of theology I find most interesting.


  25. Eric

    Yes, absolutely right. I am arguing that holding (1) while not maintaining (2) is an inconsistent position, unless one's beliefs are framed in terms of personal taste:'I believe this because this belief suits my tastes best' as opposed to 'I believe this because I think it is more likely to me true than any alternatives I've considered.'

    Maybe there's another way of framing beliefs that avoids the inconsistency, I'm not yet convinced fallibilism does the trick because it involves choosing one option ahead of another, without invoking subjective values, which is precisely the downgrading I have in mind.


  26. Bernard,

    "...still by the very act of believing, downgrade the alternative view. They are in essence saying, I find the alternate is less worthy of belief. And why? Well not for any reason that can bring us to a consensus, so by intuition. The implication being my intuition is a better bet than yours. This seems to me to be simply inescapable."

    My question would be- how do you escape the very problem you are thinking only applies to "believers"? An agnostic or atheist is a "believer" simply in the opposite direction. You clearly (and atheists obviously do) think that withholding judgment (or the atheist's assertion that there is no God) is the more worthy belief. Right? How is your intuition that withholding belief makes more sense better than the alternatives?

    The agnostic and the atheist are both asserting that their intuition is better than the believer's. The agnostic's and the atheist's intuition to the contrary is no more capable of bringing us to a consensus either. In fact, it is less capable. This is clear from the fact that so few in history and even in modern times have identified themselves as agnostic or atheistic, as far as entire states or cultures.

  27. Hi Darrell

    Good question. The problem I'm getting at arises when intuitions clash, and the person owning a particular intuition treats it as something more than a personal taste.

    As far as I can tell, there is no equivalent problem when lines of reasoning or evidence clash, insomuchas the participants in the debate can examine the evidence or reasoning and either find a flaw, or identify the bedrock differences (at which point the problem of how to attach significance to this difference comes into play again).

    What I am currently offering then is a line of reasoning, one that says to choose belief A on reason of intuition is by definition to reject the intuition that might have led you to B. This might be logically wrong. I don't know and have no intuition about it. I put it up that somebody may expose the logical flaw. If they do, I'll change my mind.

    Where intuition comes into play is at the point of taste, where I claim a personal distaste for promoting my own intuition. I own this as a matter of taste, and have no opinion as to whether this particular stance is good or bad. It's like a taste in music, it just is.

    This is not to say we can't trace the likely impacts of certain tastes and preferences being adopted, at which point we return to an empirical study, albeit it a very complex one, and such data will feed back into personal tastes, one imagines.

    So, the simple answer, how to avoid the trap of privileging my own intuitions over those of others? By conceptualising them and expressing them purely as matters of taste.


  28. Hi Bernard,

    Yes, I remember the resurrection bit – I found it quite astonishing that he went there.

    Now, concerning agnosticism, I agree that in areas about which we know nothing at all, it is appropriate to hold our judgment and accept our ignorance, in other words adopt a stance of agnosticism.

    But then, something peculiar happens. Faced with this unknown, potential solutions are often presented as theism versus non-theism (or belief versus unbelief) as if this was a kind of 50-50 proposition with both sides equally possible. But, in the absence of any evidence, theism is just one possibility among innumerable ones, the vast majority of them we can't even imagine. Without strong reasons to do so, giving theism a special status as a major contender in the field of possibilities seems to be a logical error, a clear case of false dichotomy.

    If so, is not someone strongly committed to agnosticism in a general sense (“we have no clue what ultimate reality is”) also committed to the idea that theism, being only one (or a few) possibility among zillions, cannot at this point be considered as more probable than any other? Some sort of probabilistic pragmatic a-theism, one could say. Perhaps this is what this so-called collapse into atheism is about.

  29. Bernard,

    “Good question. The problem I'm getting at arises when intuitions clash, and the person owning a particular intuition treats it as something more than a personal taste.”

    I have a hard time believing you would spend the time you do within this conversation on this blog noting the problems you have with theism if your agnosticism were only a “personal taste.” In fact, you present your case. You debate. You try and persuade. You try to point out the errors of logic or reason in the other person’s argument. This is all well and good. But it is not the effort one would make if he thought his belief in agnosticism were a personal taste such as liking soccer over baseball.

    You treat your personal intuition (that it is highly doubtful there is a god) in a much more serious and thoughtful way than a person would if the dispute were over which color was more beautiful, red or blue. You are truly doubtful, right, that there is no god? You truly believe this in a serious way, right? If so, then it is something you believe strongly and the simple fact is that no one spends the time or effort trying to persuade others that vanilla is better than chocolate.

    So, I think you run into the same problem you are raising as only applying to “believers.” I don’t see it as a problem however. To disagree about fundamental matters like belief in God is not to “downgrade” the other’s belief because of that very disagreement. It is, rather, to recognize the seriousness of the matter in which there is disagreement.

  30. Hi Darrell

    Absolutely not. Look at the effort people put into literary analysis, whilst understanding completely that at heart the final judgement with regard to worthiness is a matter of taste.

    The beliefs you attribute to me simply aren't mine.


  31. Bernard,

    But no one equates the philosophical questions and conversation regarding the existence of God or transcendence and what that means in regard to ethics, politics, and meaning in general as equivocal to literary analysis. To do so would be to reveal one’s presupposition and a-priori belief that God did not exist. This is akin to Burk’s statements that what Erik and other philosophers do is really more along the lines of what goes on in a “writer’s workshop.”

    People get worked up about a lot of things, but no one equates liking one baseball team over another (personal taste) as the same as what goes on in discussions about God’s existence. And this is true of literary analysis too, although it is a more serious discussion than favorite baseball teams.

    I didn’t think I was attributing to you beliefs, which you haven’t already made very clear you hold. Please help me out here: Do you do not hold seriously the belief that God’s existence is highly doubtful or problematic?

  32. Hi Darrell

    I do hold this equivalence, so perhaps you mean 'nobody but you.' However many many people I talk to hold it too. Maybe it's just that because the debate is so dominated by believers (by which I mean both atheistic and theistic believers) that we become used to ignoring the agnostic's approach. So here I am, making it a little harder to ignore.

    There is a danger here in dwongrading the great importance of literary analysis, perhaps. Some literature appears to allow some people to live more deeply, more meaningfully, to explore more fully the human stain, to borrow a literary metaphor. Analysing it allows us to deeper our interaction with and appreciation of the literature. Sharing, pondering, arguing, revisiting; to those of a literary bent this is the stuff that makes life worth living.

    And yet, notice that all of this sharing, growth and consideration occurs within a taste context. Every participant in the conversation realises that all they are digging their way into is their own personal capacity to repsond to the text. Nobody believes there is, in amongst all this tremendous richenss, anything approaching the concept of truth.

    When I argue with somebody about a book, I do it to better understand their response, and my own, not to show them that their reading is wrong. A reading may be uninformed, but never wrong, the notion of wrong in this context is absurd.

    So, personally, I take literary analysis far more seriously than the philosophy or religion, simply because for me personally, the potential for growth is so much greater.


  33. Hi JP

    Yeah, I've often wondered about this. For what's it worth, where I currently tend is, for that which is beyond our imagination, a good first step is not to try to imagine it. So, how many potential solutions are there to the problem of reality? Who knows, or who even knows if they are so distinct as to make counting a sensible tool here, or ... well it escapes my imagination. So I avoid the probability analogy because I don't think we have the information that would tell us whether it holds.

    Also, as with the fine tuning argument, I find the premise 'this cna't be true because it's improbable' problematic. If there are enough options and the probability function spreads fairly evenly over them, then by necessity the truth will be vanishingly unlikely, and so resisting a solution on the grounds of its unlikeliness seems an overenthusiastic application of probability theory.


  34. If I may add to what Bernard says, the "importance" that some topic has, whether personally or otherwise, doesn't bear on its epistemology.

    However momentous, if it expresses intuitions without engaging in external verification .. (where scriptures count as other people's intutions, unless proven otherwise) .. then you are dealing with a humanity rather a science. You are speaking to and of the human condition.

    This is important to the highest degree, but shouldn't be confused with knowing anything / finding anything about external "realities"- hell, god, supernature, the ultimate, etc.

  35. Darrell

    Sorry, I realise I didn't directly answer your final question.

    So, the answer is no. I don't hold the belief you describe regarding the doubtful nature of God's existence. Some find it doubtful, others don't. Who am I to say which is right?

    Of course I have personal tastes in the matter, which enrich my life, but that is quite different from a belief.


  36. Bernard,

    Don’t you think it rather convenient to label everyone else’s views as “beliefs” while you get to refer to yours as matters of “taste” only?

    Putting that aside, I think in the academy and in general most people would not equate (however respectful and worthwhile literary criticism to be) with the age-old philosophical questions of God’s existence and how the answers to that question and all its ramifications has literally affected entire cultures and civilizations. I’m afraid the relatively modern debates within literary analysis have not had the same effect or quite the gravity, again, no matter how important literary criticism might be.

    Finally, I would suggest to you that agnosticism is impossible without some belief in something- whether empiricism, naturalism, “science,” literary analysis, or some other foundational view of what is true and that can best lead us to truth. So your “taste” is still grounded in a belief. Agnosticism is not a negative—a skepticism. It is just belief in another direction. One can only doubt something and be skeptical because of his positive beliefs in other areas. I doubt many things. Why? Because of my positive belief in something that leads me to call those many things into question. And therefore we still have not escaped the original problem you noted and originally brought up in this thread. Using you own line of thought, how are you not downgrading theism if you believe in some other non-theistic or transcendental foundation for what you believe to be true?

  37. To follow-up on the literary question, it is certainly possible to look at religious beliefs, or perhaps their development, more as a act of creation than of discovery.

    One indication is that, despite the large variety of religious beliefs, the vast majority of believers (if not almost all) are perfectly happy and comfortable with their beliefs. Even fundamentalists who believe in a retributive God and eternal damnation would not lightly change for a more lenient deity. Because, I suggest, they find in their God something that they need, something that suits them.

    Were beliefs the result of a discovery process (of some objective reality), we should expect a significant number of believers to be unsatisfied with what they found. But if my hypothesis above is right, what we find instead is more compatible with a process whereby beliefs are developed to fit the believer – in other words, a work of creation.

    Another indication is that conversions do occur. But aren't these conversions almost always resulting in more satisfaction for the believer? Can we imagine a convert saying something like this: “I find my new beliefs less fulfilling than my former beliefs but I am nevertheless convinced they are truer”?

    Isn't all this a little peculiar? If my sense of the relationship between believers and beliefs is right, what happens is that beliefs are chosen or created according to personal needs or desires (“tastes” may be a little too weak). It would be a most extraordinary thing if a process of discovery resulted in such perfect matches.

  38. Hi Darrell

    Thanks for staying with this thread, I very much enjoy investigating it and your questions are helpful.

    Yes, if I was saying my thoughts are tastes, and yours are beliefs, that would be self serving. Actually, I am saying we all have the choice to describe our views in terms of taste (that is, claim they are grounded in subjective values) or in terms of beliefs. My claim then is that the taste solution, (which I have a taste for) avoids the downgrading trap.

    You appear to be arguing that agnosticism must be grounded in beliefs in order to get off the ground. This is true, and so I distinguish between commonly held beliefs (where no downgrading occurs because we're all on the same page, some examples of inductive reasoning for example) and controversial beliefs, where contradictory views are widely held and we have no licence to assert our own view as superior. I think you can get to agnosticism along this route this way:

    I begin with an observation open to refutation. That no current set of evidence and reasoning compels us to one side or other of the theism debate.

    Next,a claim from reasoning. If the argument can not be communally resolved, belief on either side will involve an appeal to intuition.

    A further logical claim. To back one's intuition is to reject the intuition of those who have reached the contradictory conclusion.

    Finally, the claim that re-expressing one's beliefs in terms of tastes avoids the downgrading problem, for those who find this, well, distasteful.

    So, that's it, the whole arguemnt. Four steps, each open to refutation, either through exposure of logical flaws (which are likely, given my limited talents in the area) or provision of counter example.

    In other words I'm claiming this view is implied by commonly accepted lines of evidence and reasoning. You seem to be saying that hidden somewhere in here is a hidden appeal to personal intuition. I don't see it, but am happy for you to point it out ot me.


  39. Bernard,

    “You appear to be arguing that agnosticism must be grounded in beliefs in order to get off the ground. This is true, and so I distinguish between commonly held beliefs (where no downgrading occurs because we're all on the same page, some examples of inductive reasoning for example) and controversial beliefs, where contradictory views are widely held and we have no licence to assert our own view as superior…”

    First of all, theism is not a controversial belief. Atheism and agnosticism are. The great majority of people world-wide are theists or believers in something transcendent. And are you forgetting that most atheists (and I would suggest most agnostics as well) clearly write and speak as if their “belief” (no God) is superior to theism? I think we can respect each other’s differences of opinions in these areas without it becoming a matter of superiority. Ironically, this attitude is “belief” based! For instance, the Christian view puts quite a premium on humility and the fact we are flawed and prone to see things the way we want to see things. After all, the first admission a Christian makes is that he/she was wrong about many things. Other views, such as Nietzsche’s atheism, do not put a premium on humility. So, interestingly enough, the very attitude you are proposing is more than a “taste” it is a sensibility that arises from “beliefs!”

    “I begin with an observation open to refutation. That no current set of evidence and reasoning compels us to one side or other of the theism debate.”

    But as Eric has pointed out many times, the question of God’s existence is based upon how one is willing to interpret the evidence and what counts as evidence, not on whether any exists. That the vast majority of people from time immemorial have been theists or believers in something transcendent clearly has and does compel people one way or the other.

    “Next,a claim from reasoning. If the argument can not be communally resolved, belief on either side will involve an appeal to intuition.”

    This is not true. What both sides appeal to are differing ways to interpret the evidence of the world they live in and their experience of that world. Does this involve intuition? Or course, but intuition is involved in every investigation including scientific ones. But intuition is only part of it and there is more to appeal to than intuition.

    “A further logical claim. To back one's intuition is to reject the intuition of those who have reached the contradictory conclusion.”

    I disagree. To interpret the evidence differently is to nothing more than that—to interpret it differently. Besides, your charge, if it were true, would logically apply to the intuition that agnostics have that there is probably no God, so, again, I don’t see how you escape your own judgment here. You just noted in your first point that there is no evidence or reasoning to compel you to one side or the other. Thus, your agnosticism is partly based upon intuition. So?

  40. Hi Darrell,

    [...] differing ways to interpret the evidence.

    What I understand is this: interpret the evidence one way, you get theism; another way and you get atheism, or agnosticism, and so on.

    But then, in effect, what you're saying is that there is no fact of the matter concerning the existence of God and other such matters. Because unless there is an objective way to evaluate these interpretations, it is meaningless to say that one is “better” or “truer” than another. It all becomes a matter of personal preference.

    I could perhaps agree with that.

  41. Hi Darrell

    It may just be I'm unclear with my definitions here, as your refutations don't appear to contradict the points I thought I'd made. Perhaps I can clarify:

    On the first point, by compelling, I mean that the direction of the compulsion is universal. Yes, people feel compelled in their religious beliefs, but it is exactly as you note, they are pulled to one side or the other. So on this foundational observation we are in agreement.

    On the second point you address, you agree intuition is involved, but point out it's not only intuition. And of course, on this I agree. Thoughtful people carefully weight evidence, review lines of reasoning and then jump. The fact that some jump one way and some another, however, tells us that intuition determines the jump direction (were this not so, all similarly informed people would jump the same way, as they do, say, on the existence of cells, shape of the earth or cause of pregnancy). So I don't think we are in disagreement here either.

    Where we may disagree is on the third point. You say to interpret the evidence differently is to do nothing more than that. My claim is a person who chooses interpretation A is by definition rejecting interpretation B as less worthy. If this is not so, then why not choose B instead? And this is the crux. There are ways around this that do not compromise humility.

    One is to say, well I just chose A, so what? I don't know if I'm right or wrong, I had to guess something, so I guessed this. It was random. Another is to say, well I chose it because it suits me, it fits my needs, but it may not fit the needs of others. In other words, my choice is subjective.

    However, to say 'I really think there is/isn't a God, this isn't a random psychological twitch of mine, nor is it a self serving story, it's what I believe to be true', is to leave such humility well behind. My central claim is that fallibilism doesn't get us past this problem.

    Finally, agnostics don't necessarily have an intuition that there's probably no God. Some may have an intuition there probably is, and others an intuition that probability is an unhelpful term here. The thing about agnostics is we don't trust our intuitions unless backed up by commonly held lines of evidence and/reason. When we're just making stuff up, we acknowledge it's what we're doing.


  42. Bernard,

    Well, we addressed the “evidence/reason” issue. Theists believe commonly held lines of evidence and reason and still come to different conclusions. Eric has gone over this many times.

    But let’s not quibble about inconvenient facts—you are indeed correct. While you objectively gaze down and only weigh the evidence, everyone else is “making stuff up,” have "psychological twitches", or are simply spouting “self-serving” stories. Clearly I can see how that makes agnosticism the more humble position and one that certainly doesn’t downgrade theism in the least…

  43. JP,

    If you are saying that we all live by faith, then I think that is certainly true. If we believe in God, we do so by faith. If we don’t believe in God, we do so by faith. I think the same is true of agnosticism. It is a view that comes by faith. I would rather use the word “faith” instead of intuition. I should add that I am using “faith” in the philosophical sense, which does not mean in spite of or without any evidence. What I mean is that we all have the same evidence, the universe, history, and our individual and shared experiences. When we gather all this up, reflect, and try and draw conclusions (whether the atheist, theist, or agnostic) we do so by faith.

    In that way it is a personal decision, but it is hardly a personal preference such as preferring vanilla to chocolate. Since it goes to deeply held issues regarding existence, the meaning of life, purpose, and morality we can certainly believe our position is true and that others are mistaken. Clearly, you think theists are mistaken. So what? Disagreement hardly equates to superiority. Acting superior because one thinks he is right, is more an unfortunate sensibility or personality problem than anything intrinsic to the matter of perhaps being right about something.

  44. Hi Darrell

    An interesting response.

    You're right, we often go over the evidence/reason material; I'm not sure why as we are in absolute agreement on it, as per your comments to JP.

    The much more interesting issue is, what are we to make of our faith positions, when we find it necessary to make such leaps (and on the existence of God, agnostics find no such need, it's the position's defining characteristic)?

    Perhaps I can ask you a question? When you make a faith leap what do you think drives you one way or the other (once the evidence and reason has been laid out, and we are forced to move beyond it?) In my case, it's the absolute opposite of the position you accuse me of. In fact, I think there is nothing at all objective about my faith positions. I think they are psychological twitches, genetic tendencies and self-serving stories. I used these terms not to denigrate you, but to illuminate my own position.

    As an agnostic, often I simply don't leap at all; I don't find it all necessary, for instance, to have an opinion on God's existence. I don't know, end of story. I don't even know what the word God might mean. But, when I do find the need to construct a story, I do exactly that and then own the construction as subjective.

    How about you? What do you think guides your leaps of faith? Is there an answer the theist can give to this that doesn't compromise humility? This is what interests me.


  45. Hi Darrell,

    In fact, I am suggesting something more radical: that there isn't a fact of the matter concerning the existence of God.

    You have often mentioned how world views determine how we evaluate evidence and the conclusions to which we are led.

    I am going one step further and suggest that statements about God's existence are only about particular world views and not about any objective reality. In other words, that it is meaningless to ask whether the statement “God exists” is true or false in any absolute or objective sense: the statement has only meaning within the context of a specific world view.

    This may seem extreme but it appears to fit well within the world-view dependent model of how we interpret facts. I'm not sure where this leads but I think this approach is worth a look. Any thought?

  46. Bernard,

    I understand you want (or it is more to your taste) to avoid privileging your own intuitions over others. You don’t wish to downgrade other people. You only like to embrace beliefs for which there is consensus (and further perhaps, for which there is scientific consensus). In this context I’d like to offer the following thoughts.

    1. People do err. To believe in X knowing that others believe in not-X entails that one thinks that one is right and that others are wrong. (Let’s here overlook the fact that different people understand X differently, for example I don’t believe in the God virtually all atheists don’t believe in.) But I don’t think that holding that one is right and others are wrong entails downgrading others. Doing mistakes is part of the learning process, and in any case all non-dogmatic people are aware that they may be mistaken too. The other day I was reading one of the letters of Michelangelo, in which he described how his caster had made a mistake that had ruined one of his sculptures, and how he would have to work very hard to fix his caster’s mistake. But he was also very forgiving of him observing that “whoever makes, makes mistakes.” I thought that was a very good quote.

    2. Consensus says little. At the beginning of the 20th century “all” educated people (theists, atheists, and agnostics alike) believed that the physical universe is deterministic, and they believed that on overwhelming and centuries old scientific evidence. As it turns out they were mistaken.

    3. The human condition is such that one must make choices. In our context some choose (for some reason – even taste) to believe in a mechanical reality, some choose (for some reason - even taste) to believe in a religious reality, and some choose (for some reason – even taste) to withhold belief. But even the latter make a choice and will have to live with the consequences, exactly as is the case with the former “believers”. Ultimately our choices define who we are and how we experience life.

    4. Contrary to the widespread impression, believing something on faith need not be less intellectually sound than believing something on evidence. Let me try to explain what I mean:

    If all goes well, believing on evidence is the following process: One has some evidence which justifies a belief, which leads one to embrace that belief, which leads one to make certain choices in one’s life. I am saying “if all goes well” for it happens that the choices one makes may lead one to find contrary evidence (i.e. defeaters) for that belief.

    If all goes well, the faith process is as follows: One embraces a belief on faith, which leads one to make certain choices in one’s life, which leads to evidence which justifies that belief. Of course if things do not go well the evidence one finds defeats the original belief.

    Now please compare the above two processes. If all goes well then both lead to justified, indeed empirically justified, beliefs. If not all goes well then both lead one to find out one’s error. In short, I am arguing that evidence-based and faith-based learning processes can be similarly effective. In real life I suspect we learn by using both processes at the same time, i.e. by using both evidence and faith while building our beliefs.

    But there also differences. In general a belief supported by evidence is more likely true than a belief unsupported by evidence (and it is thus less likely that future evidence will falsify that belief). On the other hand, a fact about the human condition is that there are many contexts where there isn’t (or even where there can’t be) prior evidence, but where one must nevertheless believe something. (Or where to withhold belief may be a costly or risky choice.)

    In conclusion my argument is this: The human condition is such that 1) thinking hard about beliefs, 2) trusting in one’s cognitive faculties, 3) keeping an open mind, and last but not least 4) living one’s beliefs - is the best winning strategy as far as knowledge goes.

  47. Hi, Dianelos-

    Thanks for taking up Bernard's questions, which were well-put. If I could comment ...

    "If all goes well, the faith process is as follows: One embraces a belief on faith, which leads one to make certain choices in one’s life, which leads to evidence which justifies that belief. Of course if things do not go well the evidence one finds defeats the original belief.

    Now please compare the above two processes. If all goes well then both lead to justified, indeed empirically justified, beliefs. If not all goes well then both lead one to find out one’s error."

    Given our known psychological propensity for confirmation bias, this method of reasoning can support virtually any position or faith. The evidence adduced is typically not of a mathematical nature, but turns on satisfaction with one's life, which is notoriously subject to ideological influence and psychological relativism.

    So I would suggest that the project of having faith first and then supporting it with "evidence" is fatally flawed from a philosophical standpoint, even when it is quite psychological congenial and empirically all too common-place.

  48. Hi Dianelos

    Thanks for that.

    This is an issue, I think, about metabeliefs. What attitude do we take towards the stances we adopt?

    We seem to agree that in the end we are in the business of making guesses about how the world might be, based on our imperfect data. In this sense, the notion of commonly held beliefs becomes crucial, as we can say of a belief that everybody holds (the earth is round) that it represents a best current guess. We make this claim on the grounds that no alternative currently has any traction.

    It is true a best guess may turn out to be wrong, in fact the progress of science relies upon this very observation, and here your example of deterministic mechanisms is most apt. But, prior to quantum mechanics, a deterministic guess was indeed the best available guess, and still stands as a very useful approximating device in most circumstances (as does Newtonian physics). It was this fidelity with common experience that made it such a good guess in the first place.

    I am arguing that when such commonality does not exist (so reasonable people, similarly informed, can make different guesses), we no longer have grounds for speaking of best guesses. Here your guess really is as good as mine, we are in essence both constructing stories to fit our needs.

    Now, to believe such a personal guess is to disbelieve the alternative, despite us having no grounds for thinking one is any better than the other (apart from the subjective grounds that this guess suits me personally, so a statement of taste). Or alternatively, if we think we do have grounds we are being, to my mind, unspeakably arrogant. I have no taste for such hubris, and so think about such 'beliefs' as just idiosyncratic guesses.

    People who make statements like 'I believe there is a God' are doing something quite different from owning a personal guess. All power to them, each to their own, but I wonder why they are so reluctant to admit the self promoting attitude upon which this stance must rest.


  49. Bernard,

    “Perhaps I can ask you a question? When you make a faith leap what do you think drives you one way or the other (once the evidence and reason has been laid out, and we are forced to move beyond it?) In my case, it's the absolute opposite of the position you accuse me of. In fact, I think there is nothing at all objective about my faith positions. I think they are psychological twitches, genetic tendencies and self-serving stories. I used these terms not to denigrate you, but to illuminate my own position.”

    So let me understand: You believe your agnosticism could just be a psychological twist, or genetic, and is a self-serving story? If so, then why would you trust it or even suggest it to be a good option to anyone? That doesn’t make any sense to me at all. If I felt my belief in God was any of those things, I would just be quiet about it and let it go. I certainly wouldn’t care one way or the other if others thought differently and I certainly wouldn’t waste my time on a blog discussing it. It would be like arguing over whether red wine was better than white.

    Also, I would love to hear what Burk and JP thinks about the fact that you seem to be saying their atheism or agnosticism is only a twitch, or genetics, and it just a self-serving story. In other words, their position, you seem to be saying, is not based upon evidence or objectivity (and I agree with you) but is simply their own personal preference—only true for them (where I would disagree—and I think Burk and JP may join me there).

    “As an agnostic, often I simply don't leap at all; I don't find it all necessary, for instance, to have an opinion on God's existence.”

    Every choice of this nature is a leap, whether belief, doubt, or unbelief. And again, the only reason one can say “I don’t know” is because he has positive beliefs in other directions which allow him to doubt certain assertions, such as “God exists.” Again you are trying to privilege your position but it will simply not do. You certainly do not have to have an opinion of whether or not God exists, but I would hazard to guess that your doubt comes from other faith positions you already hold like empiricism or naturalism. I just don’t see how you get off this hook. Again, it is convenient to label everyone else as being committed one way or the other, while you stand back and hold judgment. But all one need do is ask why he withholds judgment and we will hear all sorts of positive assertions (empiricism, naturalism, scientism, etc.) which are all philosophical positions held by faith.

    “How about you? What do you think guides your leaps of faith? Is there an answer the theist can give to this that doesn't compromise humility? This is what interests me.”

    I really don’t like the phrase “leap of faith.” Again, I am not using the word “faith” to mean without evidence or in spite of the evidence. I think what can guide our faith positions is humility—knowing that that we could be wrong. The issue you are addressing is more a sensibility, a personality issue, a social dysfunction as far as making being right a superiority issue.

  50. JP,

    “I am going one step further and suggest that statements about God's existence are only about particular world views and not about any objective reality. In other words, that it is meaningless to ask whether the statement “God exists” is true or false in any absolute or objective sense: the statement has only meaning within the context of a specific world view.”

    I don’t see how this is one step forward. You are asserting the atheist’s or naturalist’s point of view. The Christian is saying that God’s existence is about objective reality in the sense of being real, outside our minds and wills, although he is not saying God is like a UFO or Big Foot.

  51. Hi Darrell

    Well, I am not claiming that my arguments are based upon subjective leaps. In fact I am suggesting quite the opposite, that the position I am developing here relies only upon shared understandings of evidence and reasoning. Now, this is a strong claim, easily open to refutation by exposing a logical flaw or providing a counter example. That you haven't yet done this is interesting, but the invitation still stands.

    To recap, the position is this:

    Some things everybody agrees upon. We call these facts, but really mean we accept these as our best guesses. They include some physical relationships, and some logical propositions. We accept they might be wrong, but as nobody has a working alternative, we all accept them until that changes.

    Many of our beliefs require more than this. We must make assumptions which are not commonly held, or guesses about a state we have insufficient knowledge on (like the future, or another's thoughts). We sometimes refer to this set of assumptions as our world view.

    These world views can not be supported solely by shared evidence or reason. If they could be, they would be held by all those in possession of the relevant data and understanding.

    At the point where we claim a belief, based upon a world view, we are privileging our world view above those of others.

    This last step can be avoided if our metabelief is that such world views are in fact adopted for subjective reasons, essentially that our nature/experience/needs have delivered them up to us, and their fit with these needs is the only truth they represent.

    Now, my strong assertion is that the above is not itself dependent upon a particular world view. Rather it is the result of observations and lines of reasoning that we all agree upon. Of course, I might be quite wrong, and so again I invite you to show me where in this argument such an error has occurred.

    Note, the last step in the argument promotes a certain taste position (agnosticism) for those who prefer not to promote their own guesses over those of others. Nevertheless, the point itself is grounded not in this taste, but is a logical proposition, open to refutation.

    My agnosticism is absolutely world view dependent, which is why I promote it only as a personal taste.


  52. Hi Darrell,

    [...] God’s existence is about objective reality.

    For what is's worth, this is what I have in mind here:

    In what sense is the proposition “the Earth is round” about objective reality? Strictly speaking the proposition is not directly about reality but about a representation or a model. It involves ideas, concepts and states a relationship between them.

    Now, of course, there is a connection between such propositions and objective reality in the form of “experiments” of various sorts. There are things we can do to test the proposition against reality. You can do this, do that, make some measurements, and so on – in other words establish a mapping between the “abstract” concepts in the proposition and sensory data (directly or indirectly). This is how the proposition acquires its concrete meaning and why we can say, informally, that the proposition is about reality.

    However, when we consider the proposition “God exists”, there is no such mapping. There is no way to establish a connection between the proposition and reality in an unambiguous way, as is the case with scientific propositions or statements about ordinary things. “God exists” is a proposition of a different kind. And, if we cannot “map” the words to actual data, then the proposition is not about objective reality but about something else.

    Saying that we can see or perceive God's actions in ordinary things does not work because we can just as well claim the opposite – this is entirely subjective. In the case of the shape of the Earth, we cannot at the same time measure it as round and as an elongated cylinder: this is what “objective” means.

  53. Darrell-

    Speaking for myself, the way I would put it is that the choice on which you are so focused- whether there is or is not a god- is itself the psychological twitch at issue. Since we don't know and can't know, it is hardly worth spending our time "believing" one way or the other. The philosophical default is agnosticism, and to dispose of the question as irrelevant, unanswerable, and without any compelling need to answer or compelling evidence to do so.

    Proceeding from this as the objective state of the matter, one is faced with many people who nevertheless insist that this question of god is of momentous personal, political, intergalactic, cosmic etc. importance and must absolutely be answered. Have they ever read Freud? The most coherent and efficient hypotheses that come to my mind are psychological in nature, not cosmological. That is where my tendency to atheism comes from- a blend of negative (scientific) and positive (psychological) evidence. But it is by no means a leap of faith, a "deep belief", or a closed and shut case- just the best guess based on the relevant evidence.

    As Bernard says, it is a guess, and I do chose to promote it to some degree, since I believe it has some merit! I believe that we all have that right, but at the same time, one's confidence in one's argument needs to relate to the evidence behind it. If it is frankly faith-based, then there really is nothing behind it that supports it as a rational argument. At best it would be a perspective /style of living that argues for itself by example.

  54. Burk,

    Given our known psychological propensity for confirmation bias, this method of reasoning can support virtually any position or faith. The evidence adduced is typically not of a mathematical nature, but turns on satisfaction with one's life, which is notoriously subject to ideological influence and psychological relativism.

    I both agree and disagree with what you write here.

    Let me start where I disagree. There are many cases where we cannot escape embracing a belief on faith (i.e. on insufficient objective evidence), and it does not rarely happen that we recognize afterwards that that belief was wrong. Examples would be beliefs one must embrace before deciding what to study, or beliefs one must embrace before deciding whom to marry. It seems the human condition is such that some of the most important decisions in one’s life depend on beliefs one embraces on faith, or at least mostly on faith. There are examples galore. Whether to go out and do what one thinks is right, is a case in point. Even in science, when a researches picks a certain line of work in which she will invest years of her life, one must ultimately embrace some beliefs on faith. Again, it is not rarely the case that *after* embracing a belief on faith we find out that that belief was wrong. It is also not rarely the case that we find out that that belief was right. That’s the way it goes. (Indeed, my larger point here is this. We may disagree and debate as much as you wish about claims concerning the foundational nature of the reality we live in. But all our knowledge is ultimately based on the human condition, i.e. on the whole of our experience of life, and we should at least be clear about the basic facts and structure of the human condition itself.)

    Now here is where I agree with you. The human condition is not an unchangeable thing. The choices we make (which are influenced by the beliefs we have embraced) not only change our life from the outside but also from the inside as it were. The young man who decides to study engineering rather than art changes not only the objectively observable facts of his life, but also *how* that life is experienced. The quality of our experience of life, that unobservable but hugely relevant parameter about the value of our life, depends to a significant degree on our beliefs and choices (driven by these beliefs). To a remarkable degree we *become* what we believe. Which of course implies that we end up experiencing our lives in a way which confirms our beliefs.

    I think this is particularly so in the context of metaphysical beliefs (whether religious or naturalistic) where it seems that confirmation bias is strongly at work. One reason for this is probably the fact that time-tested metaphysical theories are for all practical purposes unfalsifiable either by objective or subjective evidence. Both naturalism and theism, intelligently conceived, have that property. This means that any evidence (objective or subjective) one may encounter will fit with one’s respective worldview, especially after one has firmly embraced that worldview. In other words people often change in a way that confirms their worldview. (I am here referring to the local maxima we were discussing with Eric in the context of Hegel’s epistemology.)

  55. Hi Dianelos

    One thought about the human condition perhaps. It seems to be in our nature to overextend our beliefs, if we are not careful to guard against it. So, you speak of the need to form beliefs in the case where the future does not yield up its information, when deciding what to study, or planing for an event on the back of a fifty fifty weather forecast perhaps.

    But might we see these necessary speculations as something quite distinct from beliefs? When the vineyard owner takes a punt, and puts the harvest off another week, they don't necessarily believe there will be no frosts. If somebody asked them, will there be frosts next week, they might honestly answer 'I don't know, although I rather hope not.'

    They are pragmatically committed to a course of action, but quite agnostic with regard to its appropriateness. This is quite different from the way I believe, say, in the existence of the keyboard in front of me, where there appears to exist sufficient evidence to do more than blindly guess.

    So, in terms of metabeliefs, the circumstances you outline acknowledge that what is in play is guesswork. Is this also how you see your belief in God, a matter of hopeful guessing, no better or worse than the hopeful guess of an atheist, or do you think there's more to it than that?


  56. Bernard,

    The quest for truth is a difficult project. There are clearly better and worse ways to think. That’s why we have the philosophical field of epistemology.

    One thing that almost everybody agrees with is that when we know of some error (whether committed by us or by somebody else) it’s a good idea to think why that error was committed. Indeed, that’s the beauty of mistakes: one learns from them. (Arguably the only way to learn is by making mistakes, but no matter).

    So consider the case of how almost everybody at the beginning of the 20th century believed that the physical universe was deterministic and how they were all wrong. You write that at that time determinism was the best possible guess. I disagree. People committed that error by overestimating the reach of scientific knowledge, by misunderstanding the relationship between scientific model and reality, and by suppressing the relevance of their own experience of life (namely of freedom of will). And, after all, it’s not like they didn’t know of prime-facie random events such as tossing a coin, nor were they unaware that a great number of coin tosses produces a quasi-deterministic 50/50 distribution of heads and tails. So, in my judgment people erred so gravely about determinism because they were blinded by the success of the physical sciences to the degree that they abdicated their capacity for critical thought.

    I think that the way that science dumbs people down continues. In the beginning of the 20th century philosopher Bertrand Russell rightly observed that when scientists speak of “light” they don’t mean “the thing which seeing people experience and blind people do not”. Which should be quite obvious. The various names that science uses from our everyday experience of life mean something quite different in the scientific context. Well, about a hundred years after Russell pointed out that error people almost without exception continue to commit it. So, for example, you constantly hear people say that according to general relativity “mass bends space”, as if the concept of space allows for such “bending”. Physicist David Deutsch goes so far as to claim that peoples’ sense of time is "nonsense", when of course peoples’ sense of time *defines* what “time” means. Thus science continues to move people to commit huge and rather obvious errors of reasoning. In my judgment the culprit is not so much scientists (who wrongly believe they are experts about the meaning of science, when in fact they are merely experts in discovering mathematical patterns in physical phenomena), but rather modern philosophers whose job it is to lead people into good practices of thought, and who have so far failed to interpret science correctly (probably because they are as blinded by science’s success as the next person).

    I agree with your dislike of “guesswork” and that’s why I think a very good epistemic principle is not to make unnecessary assumptions. Without making unnecessary assumptions then, here is in my judgment the best way to think about the physical sciences: Part of our experience of life is that of physical phenomena. Physical phenomena display stable order (for example day follows night and night follows day, an apple left free in the air falls, etc). That order can be abstracted in mathematical form to great precision. That and nothing more is what the physical sciences do. That precision in turn helps us construct useful machines. – Now the next step takes us into philosophy: The fact and the nature of the mathematical order present in physical phenomena clearly tells us something about how reality is. What exactly is a matter of contention. So, for example, naturalists think that reality itself is a fundamentally mathematical construct, a mechanism. Theists on the contrary think that reality is fundamentally a thinking mind, and that the order we observe is caused by it.

  57. Bernard,

    I would still like to hear how JP and Burk respond to your assertion that atheism and/or agnosticism is either a psychological twist, or genetic, and is ultimately a self-serving story; or, in other words, is no different than belief in God.

    Beyond that, I don’t see a single assertion or explanation being made by you that you haven’t already made and that hasn’t already been addressed. I think I have already pointed out the errors in your reasoning and I think Eric has as well.

  58. Hi Dianelos

    Perhaps I misunderstood you. Absolutely, the best we can say of a scientific model is that it's our best predictive model. Whether it describes reality as such is a different assertion and not one I would support.

    Our apparent experience of free will didn't provide a falsifier of determinism, and nor did the behaviour of a coin. Both were explicable within that framework, and more importantly, there was no superior predictive model available until the the physics advanced. Hence, best guess is a good description.

    As you say, the key matter of contention between what the order we observe tells us about reality, and the very fact that it is a matter of contention, should warn us that both camps are at this stage guessing, weaving personal stories to fit their needs. Which is a perfectly reasonable thing to do. What is not reasonable, I don't think, is to claim one is doing more than this.


  59. Hi Darrell

    Oh well, thank you for staying with the conversation as long as you did. Another time perhaps.


  60. Hi Darrell,

    Yes, is belief versus unbelief a symmetrical situation? I don't think so, at least if belief means a more or less well defined belief, as theism.

    Let's say the question is “what is beyond the physical world?” I think the proper attitude is to accept our ignorance and hold our judgment, in other words a position of agnosticism. The latter is a personal choice, a psychological twist if you wish: I don't have a problem not knowing, I can live with doubt and uncertainty. Others need or choose to make a guess – that's a personal thing.

    Now, theism is just one guess among many and its popularity does not make it any more likely to be true. Unless there are solid grounds to consider it likely (and there is none that I know of), it's just a guess. A-theism in this sense is not advocating any special answer to the question above but the refusal to give theism special status on the basis of its popularity. Framing the question as a more or less 50-50 choice between theism and a-theism is a logical error.

    Of course one may disagree that there are no solid grounds for theism but this is another debate. Given this evaluation of the evidence, the above position follows naturally.

  61. Bernard,

    I agree that our experience of free will does not falsify determinism. For all I know in a deterministic reality intelligent beings may evolve who insist that they have free will. I sometimes wonder how an intelligent computer in our world would discuss free will. Stanislaw Lem has written some interesting stories about robots – who knew they were robots - arguing about their religious worldviews. But perhaps deterministic intelligent computers will turn out to be impossible (as is argued by some very smart people, e.g. Roger Penrose).

    On the other hand an almost universally accepted epistemic principle is the following: If X seems to be true then one should believe in X unless one has a defeater for X. So, for example, if it seems to you that there is a keyboard in front of you then you should believe that one exists in front of you, unless you have some good reason to doubt it. I think that people at the beginning of the 20th erred in embracing determinism, because their misinterpretation of physical science led them to think they had a defeater for their experience of free will, when in fact they didn’t. And the fact that philosophers since the ancient Greeks and certainly since Kant had made it clear that one should not confuse how reality seems with how reality is, makes that error at least among professional philosophers hard to justify. What’s more, most (about 85%) modern philosophers continue to hold that science describes physical reality and not just physical phenomena (a view called “scientific realism”). It seems that fashion plays a large and misleading role in philosophical thought. – Which, I dare say, goes against the grain of trusting the consensus.

    I’d like to go back to a previous question. You write:

    So, in terms of metabeliefs, the circumstances you outline acknowledge that what is in play is guesswork. Is this also how you see your belief in God, a matter of hopeful guessing, no better or worse than the hopeful guess of an atheist, or do you think there's more to it than that?

    (I dislike your use of the concept of “guesswork” because all of the quest for truth, even in the physical sciences, starts as guesswork.)

    I think that both the philosophically aware atheist and theist are convinced of their respective worldviews for similar reasons: They find that they comport well with their experience of life, they find that their worldview is the more reasonable (or intellectually defendable) one, and they find that their worldview is the most pragmatically useful one.

    The philosophically unaware atheist and theist embrace their respective worldviews because of environmental factors including peer or social pressure, or simply because of fashion. I suspect that many atheists have embraced atheism because they hold that the smartest people are atheists. Many theists on the other hand may have embraced theism because of the naked fear of being punished after death.

    The important thing to consider here is this: Religion is primary not a belief system but a way of life (or, what’s saying the same, a way of being). The belief systems are secondary, and are there to make sense of that way of life. So, when people from the outside of religion focus on religious beliefs they are putting the cart before the horse; they are approaching religion from a false angle. You often speak of “psychological preferences and needs”, “hopeful guessing”, etc. The fact is that the seriously religious people find their way of life deeply satisfying, enriching, and empowering – which becomes for them as much an empirical confirmation of their worldview as it is for the scientist to find empirical confirmation of some theory. The idea that religious beliefs are not empirically confirmed is one of the major modern myths. The difference is that the laboratory of the religious confirmation is the whole life of the individual.

  62. Thanks Dianelos

    I think we are using a different notion of consensus here, in that the one you attack is certainly not one I would defend.

    I agree, if people make the mistake you attribute to many, of equating our models of reality with reality itself, then they appear to committing a logical error that, when explained, will often be taken on board.

    I am claiming something quite different about consensus. I speak here not of broad fashions, but of models that are universally accepted as the current best guess. Determinism, as you speak of it, never reached this threshhold, although various physical models that worked deterministically did. In the absence of the later-developed probablistic models, these individual models were indeed best guesses, they provided the most accurate predictions then available (which is all our models can do). Interestingly, the probablistic models now are continuing to pose problems, and we would be foolish to expect they will never themselves be supplanted, so when you say that the world turns out not be deterministic, I wonder if you too aren't overinterpreting science in this very way.

    I appreciate the point that the way to test a personal belief is to live it out. I agree entirely. This is exactly what I mean when I say that such belief systems are subjective. The evidence we use may not apply to other members of our community. And so, is it not better to say 'this is true for me' in the same way that it might be true to me that a certain style of wine is superior to others? I discover my preference by living it out, while understanding the preferences of others will play out differently, purely because of their unique lifelines.

    When we say 'the earth is round' we are maing a different type of statement, one whose lived out truth is not affected by the world view of the person making the satement. The round earth represents a best guess, as there is no better performing alternative on the table. In the God/wine case there are many alternatives available, each of which works best for some people.

    This distinction seems important to me, in that a failure to make it can lead people to misinterpret statements like 'I believe there is no God' and so buy into fights with people they essentially agree with.

    Thanks, as always, for your time.