Sunday, May 10, 2015

God and rational discourse

Before we can have a reasonable conversation about God, everyone playing has to pass the Defeasibility Test. A defeasible belief is one that is responsive to evidence, where “evidence” is used broadly to include empirical and conceptual considerations. Your belief is defeasible if you are prepared to revise it in the light of new evidence. Ask yourself this: Are there any considerations, arguments, evidence, or reasons, even hypothetically that could possibly lead me to change my mind about God? Is it a possible outcome that in carefully and thoughtfully reflecting on the broadest and most even body of evidence that I can grasp, that I would come to think that my current view about God is mistaken? If your belief isn’t defeasible, then engaging in discourse about God’s existence (or anything else) is, rationally speaking, a fruitless waste of time.

I also take something like fallibilism to be true. That is, it is possible for a person to have a fully justified but false belief. There are cases where someone has fulfilled all of his epistemic duties in gathering and considering evidence and he has drawn a reasonable conclusion from that evidence, but the conclusion still turns out to be wrong. To deny fallibilism is to claim that it is impossible to be fully justified in believing what is false. Given what we know about human cognitive systems, that’s just not plausible.

For lots of people, it turns out that even though they engage in what appears to be rational discourse about the arguments for and against God’s existence, their belief is not defeasible. So a preliminary question to having one of these discussions is: What is the relationship, as you see it, between reasoning about God and your belief in God? That is, is your belief in God more fundamental than your commitment to believe what reason and evidence indicates; or are you prepared, if the evidence, reasoning, and argument demands it, to abandon your view of God as irrational? The question is of obvious importance because you enter into a dialogue concerning the question of God's existence in bad faith if ultimately you don't really care what the evidence is. If the believer places a higher premium on believing than anything else, including being reasonable about counter evidence and arguments, then he’s just engaging in sophistry when he engages in dialogue.

Nicholas Wolterstorff says, in the remarkably titled Reason within the Bounds of Religion,
“The religious beliefs of the Christian scholar ought to function as control beliefs within his devising and weighing of theories. . . . Since his fundamental commitment to following Christ ought to be decisively ultimate in his life, the rest of his life ought to be brought into harmony with it. As control, the belief-content of his authentic commitment ought to function both negatively and positively. Negatively, the Christian scholar ought to reject certain theories on the ground that they conflict or do not comport well with the belief-content of his authentic commitment. Why is it that one must first run an evidential test on Scripture before one is justified in accepting it? Does this not fundamentally subordinate revelation to reason? What then is left of the authority of Scripture?
William Lane Craig insists that nothing could possibly counter indicate the truth of the Gospels because of a self-authenticating witness of the Holy Spirit in his heart that gives him knowledge independent of all questions of evidence.

Believing is somehow “self-authenticating” for them. It “carries its own evidence.” As they see it, it is a mistake to think that believing itself must be held to standards of evidence or rationality. Rather, our standards of evidence and rationality must answer to our belief in God.

Alvin Plantinga has similarly denied that belief in God must be justified in terms of other more basic claims that we allege to know better or with more confidence than we know God. Belief in God is the axiomatic starting point, not the result of reasoning.

The Talbot School of Theology has this doctrinal statement:
"The Bible, consisting of all the books of the Old and New Testaments, is the Word of God, a supernaturally given revelation from God Himself, concerning Himself, His being, nature, character, will and purposes; and concerning man, his nature, need and duty and destiny. The Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments are without error or misstatement in their moral and spiritual teaching and record of historical facts. They are without error or defect of any kind."
Consider some questions about these approaches: How is it that the belief can be taken up by one of these believers in a way that 1) subordinates reason and puts the consideration of evidence as secondary, and 2) is intellectually honest and respectable? If reason and evidence are subordinated, then what can keep the belief from first being acquired in a way that is arbitrary, prejudicial, and unprincipled? If someone’s belief is adopted and sustained in this contra-rational fashion, how can anyone take that believer’s belief seriously? How can someone with this sort of belief maintain that what he’s doing has intellectual integrity and that the rest of us ought to take his rationalizations seriously?

This person has said, in effect, “I have adopted this belief without regard for reasons or evidence, and I value being intellectually responsible about the powerful argument you are making less than I value my continued belief in God, so I will continue believing as I started, unaffected.” At this point, of course, there’s really nothing left to be said for the rest of us. If someone is resolved to believe at all costs, then nothing else that any skeptic could say, no matter how thoughtful or persuasive can undermine that stubbornness. At this point, we should be prepared to conclude that someone has simply left the rational thought game and must be considered a lost cause.

Matt McCormick
Department of Philosophy
Sacramento State


  1. Matt, you ask the reader to consider this question: "Are there any considerations, arguments, evidence, or reasons, even hypothetically that could possibly lead me to change my mind about God?"

    I don't think this is a very easy question for a believer to answer, do you? What if someone were simply to say "Gee, I really don't know." Maybe we should just debate and find out? Is this person arguing in bad faith in your view? Do we really have to be able to specify in advance what would change our mind?

    Alternatively, consider the person who tells you that absolutely nothing could change her mind. My question for this person would be: How could you possibly know that? You may have what feels like an absolute commitment to believing in God, but many people who have lost their faith would have said this about themselves at one point or another.

    As I see it, rational change in view about something you believe very strongly is something that does, and ought (in Bayesian terms), occur very slowly. I don't think people need to be able to say what would change their mind completely, but I would really like them to be able to say what would make them less certain than before.

  2. Obviously if someone can articulate a specific sound argument in favor of the opposite view of what they currently believe, then something insane would be going on. So the question is more about a self-report of whether it feels like to her that she's receptive to evidence generally. Now whether an introspective report about that amounts to anything, I don't know. Talk is cheap. There are some people, as I point out, who have openly announced that they prioritize believing over considering reasons for or against believing. That strikes me as insane. The rest of us have our own measures of dogmatic commitments lurking in our hearts. And figuring out if that's the way I'm believing something is really hard. I'm urging a third person perspective too, because I think that can provide the subject with some more useful information about the rationality or irrationality of how he is believing. Zoom out and try to see the way you are believing from another person's perspective. If you didn't believe and you heard all of the stuff you are saying and thinking, would it lead you to believe? Should it really lead someone else to believe?

    1. Matt,

      I've been thinking about your response to Randy here a bit, and it seems to me that there is at least one way of operationalizing the sort of 'third-person' approach you have in mind here. Let me know if this is barking up the wrong tree:

      If a high percentage of previously uncommitted persons (by their own lights) end up believing in claim C after being presented with the arguments widely thought to be the strongest for C and the strongest against C, then I am being irrational if I do not believe in C under the exact same conditions as this group.

      Is that the sort of thing you mean to endorse?

      And, just to give you an explicit chance to commit yourself here, does this principle--or whatever ends up taking its place in your most satisfactory formulation--also put pressure on non-religious folks to 'be more rational' in believing in a particular religious doctrine, if that's where the numbers point at the end of the empirical studies?

      The trait of holding beliefs about God in a non-defeasible way--whether it is a good trait or a bad trait--does not strike me to be a trait that is necessarily limited to theists and agnostics. Atheists might have that trait too. In the right circumstances, at least.

      I do not have the quotes to prove it, but perhaps you do--are there any good examples of atheistic philosophers who commit themselves to what sort of evidence would be sufficient for them (as an individual) to transform their atheism into theism?

  3. I think people who openly prioritize believing are mostly completely sane; and in fact practically rational to the extent that they reasonably predict negative consequences for giving up on a view that to a large extent constitutes their membership in a supportive community, not to mention one that is at the center of their worldview and in virtue of which an enormous number of experiences during their lifetime have been interpreted. But your main points stands, since in the end all you are asking is that people who know that they value community over evidence not to pretend otherwise on your dime. I know for a fact, though, that people who think this about themselves have been surprised, and in fact thrown into a state of personal crisis, after taking certain classes at the SacState philosophy department.

  4. Matt,

    Thanks for weighing in here. Since it's not every day that I find you quoting and linking to the doctrinal statement of my one of my alma maters (is that the proper way to pluralize 'alma mater'?)--Talbot School of Theology--I figured that as a good alumnus (that is the proper way to pluralize 'alumni'), I should stick up for her just a bit here.

    It's not clear to me that the quoted portion of the statement makes quite the mistake you are seeking to isolate in this post. They don't seem to be making, for example, quite the same move (whether it's a mistaken move or not) as Plantinga, Wolterstorff, and Craig here. I had a bit of trouble with the link, but when I Googled 'Talbot School of Theology doctrinal statement' I came here:

    I do not find anything in the rest of Talbot's doctrinal statement that commits those who sign it to believing it (or any of its parts) in some sort of epistemologically basic way, or in a way that puts faith above reason, or in a way that relies on the Holy Spirit for distinctively epistemic work (although "Holy Spirit" is mentioned six times). Perhaps a signer of the statement believes it for coherentist reasons. Or evidentialist reasons. Or basic reasons. Or perhaps she is unsure what reasons she has for believing it, but does in fact find herself believing it.

    However, the section dealing with "Theological Distinctives" does mention several biblical references in parenthetical statements--what are often called "proof texts" for the propositions they parenthetically modify. This suggests that the writers of the statement were aware of the difference between believing something for reasons, and believing something for no reasons at all.

    In any case, nothing I've said here touches what I take your main points to be in the post--about the impropriety of believing a claim for no reasons, or of believing a claim against what one takes to be strong reasons, or of believing a claim in such a way that refuses to commit oneself to what reasons would be sufficient to change the certainty with which one holds the claim, and so on.

    I just think we should recognize that a person usually cannot read any of those things directly off of the content of a given claim--even if the claim is something like "what I take to be these inspired writings have no errors of this type in this area of inquiry…"

    1. A mistake I realized in my reply: 'Alumnus' is the proper (masculine) way to de-pluralize 'alumni'.

  5. It seems entirely standard, and rational, for a person to take certain beliefs that present themselves to that person as indubitable, or very difficult to doubt, as foundational and very resistant to revision. (NB: the folks you talk about don't say that believing is self-authenticating; rather, the testimony of the Holy Spirit is. This testimony is supposed to be a *very strong* bit of evidence for their Christian belief, just not the sort of evidence that's publicly accessible.) People standardly, and rationally, will deal with putative counter evidence in a variety of ways that preserve the foundational belief and conclude that the reasoning and evidence that is supposed to undermine the foundational one is flawed. Now it would be irrational for someone to acknowledge the validity and truth of the counter reasoning and evidence, accept that it conflicts with the foundational belief and not at all be moved from it, but I don't think this combination is standard. What's standard is the thought that it should take *a lot* to dislodge you from that which seems to you indubitable. We shouldn't think (right?) being reasonable about counter reasoning and evidence means to think that everything is equally up for grabs.

  6. This is all very interesting to me. Perhaps most interesting is the idea that someone could have 100% credence in a few beliefs (e.g., religious or atheistic) and FROM THAT STARTING POINT not be able to be budged since all other arguments are based on evidence that can rationally be doubted (even a tiny bit). Of course, as Matt suggests, one can question the rationality oh having 100% credence in those kinds of beliefs. But we can also question the plausibility of maintaining 100% credence in those initial beliefs (as Randy points out). So, I think we can agree that those 100% beliefs can change credence (even totally reverse). Now, imagine that you have one of those 100% beliefs, and you share strong social ties with others who agree. Then, everyone else on the world who shared your 100%er reversed their belief. Why? I'm not sure that it matters. Let's say that the causal process was very similar to the one that led to them having their 100%er in the first place (Surely we aren't born with them). So, now (thanks to the latest PEW poll) you know that you are the only person with ANY credence in your 100%er. Would you be able to maintain that belief? Would you start looking more seriously at the reasons for and against (on a equal footing)? At this stage, you might stick to your guns, but you might want to keep your view to yourself, especially if the reasons in favor of your belief are personal, rather than generally compelling (e.g., personal experience of X vs. robust scientific evidence for X). I'm pretty sure we dub people with just personal reasons in that situation as insane (hence why the person might want to keep it to themselves). In the end, the only plausible kind of reasons to have one of these 100%ers, is prudential reasons. Luckily (for those with 100%ers) prudential reasons are a very important class of reasons (in this context and generally).

  7. Dan, interesting, I was actually thinking of something similar last night. My thought was to imagine someone who lived in a world in which every single person believed in God, and for whom the belief was absolutely foundational in Kyle's sense, but who was then transported into the future, a future that was palpably fantastically more knowledgeable about the world in general, and in which nobody at all believed in God, and which in fact understood the belief as the kind of magical thinking that is typical of pre-scientific cultures.

    If we are Bayesians, then any belief to which we attach a probability of 1 is something that evidence qua evidence actually can not change. Clearly, as you suggest, we aren't Bayesians, since our beliefs can change as a result of a bump on the head, and a radical change in social ties may be such a bump.

  8. Just to be clear: the thing that I described as standard and not insane doesn't assume anything about the person having 100% credence in the foundational belief or it being absolute. I don't think that's what the folks Matt is talking about have in mind either.

    1. Just as long as it applies to a possible person in a possible world, I'll consider my ramble a positive contribution to philosophy (if not a contribution to the community) :)