Thursday, March 26, 2009

Bayesianism and the Outsider Test

At this point I don't so much object to the OTF, as much as I think it is less than perfectly clear what asks me to do. From the minute I had a conversion experience in 1972 I've been as aggressive as anyone in asking tough questions of my faith. I'm the guy who majored in philosophy because if there were any arguments good arguments against Christianity, I wanted to hear about them while I was still and undergraduate, as opposed to finding out about them when I was older. I would have to say that right up there with the works of C. S. Lewis, I would have to put Russell's The Value of Free Thought as one of the essays that has influenced my intellectual life the most, and I read that in 1972 also. My education, except for three years in a liberal seminary, has been spent in secular institutions which have been relatively hostile to Christianity. I've been as skeptical of Christianity as anyone I know, unless skepticism requires actual disbelief.

But I'm skeptical about a few other things, like the human ability to be completely neutral in evaluating anything. We often go wrong when we assume that just because we stop believing something that some of our peers still believe, that somehow this is due to our intellectual superiority or something like that.

I also am convinced that people should continue believing what they do believe unless there is evidence that suggests they should give up their belief. I have doubts about how far it is possible to make ourselves "outsiders" to our own belief systems, be it Christian, Jewish, atheist, or what not. That is why I am very reluctant to issue diagnoses of intellectual dishonesty or stupidity or what have you. However, our belief systems should be open to evidence, positive and negative, concerning what we believe.

We're all in Neurath's boat, and I think taking all the culturally conditioned planks out is going to cause the boat to sink. I'm pretty convinced by the arguments against classical foundationalism, even when the Cartesian quest for absolute certainty is abandoned. If I were to describe my epistemology, I would describe it as subjectivist Bayesian. We start with whatever we confidences we have, and we adjust those confidences based on the evidence has we encounter it. Bias is gradually eliminated in this way, and over time, if the evidence is strong enough, the prior are swamped and everyone agrees. This may take awhile for religion, not because there are a bunch of brainwashed Christians out there, but because of the sheer complexity of the issue, and the emotional involvement of both sides in it.

A good discussion to get into related to this came up with the idea of "freethinker." Russell defined "freethinker" in terms of the methods people use to decide their beliefs, and Jeff Lowder argued in a paper "Can a Christian Be a Freethinker" that we have no good reason to believe that a Christian couldn't meet those criteria. Unfortunately, in one passage in his essay, Russell presumes that if a university were to hire a Christian in its philosophy department, that person could not be a freethinker.

How could the Outsider Test be presented to someone who believes in subjectivist Bayesianism as an epistemology? Are we being asked to accept a set of evidence against all religious beliefs?

What I fear is that there is an outcome-based criteria for whether someone has really applied the Outsider Test, and that is if they leave the fold. Otherwise, they couldn't possibly have applied the test, now could they?

15 comments:

normds said...

Victor, I'm really glad I found your blog! Finally someone else (and another Christian to boot) who is willing to really take things apart and study them as best as is possible given the universal nature of bias, as you have recently described.

Along the lines of the topic of this post, here's an exchange I had a few years ago with Mr. Dan Barker. I deliberately left my original question as bare as possible, to see what he'd do.

______________________________

Hello,

As a Christian, I'm curious about whether you believe I can be a freethinker?

Thanks, Norm


Norm,

Yes, you can call yourself a "free thinker" (2 words), but the single word "freethinker” has been used since the early 1700s to refer mainly to people outside of religion. (Look up "freethinker" and/or "freethought" in the dictionary.)

So, it might be a bit confusing if you call yourself a "freethinker" (1 word) because many will assume you are an atheist or agnostic.

Additionally, the bible is very clear that Christians are not free to think for themselves. Paul admonishes believers to "bring into captivity every thought unto the obedience of Christ." (2 Corinthians 10:5) Captivity is not freedom. The author of the Proverbs advises believers to "lean not on your own understanding." Martin Luther called reason the enemy of faith: "Whoever wants to be a Christian should tear the eyes out of his reason."

However, we know that there are many reasonable Christians who are kind and open-minded. (I used to be one of them, as a minister who preached for 19 years.) They are better than the bible, kinder than Jesus, smarter than the biblical god, and it is to their credit that they have risen above the brutality and irrationality of their scriptures to be good people. These people might, in fact, be called "free thinkers" (2 words), if they are willing to submit their dogma to honest critical examination . . . which is what happened in the Enlightenment, when authoritarianism came under fire.

I wish you the best.

Dan Barker
FFRF, Inc.


Thank you Mr. Barker for the quick and helpful response.

I feel that I must respond to a few comments you have made, and if anything sounds rhetorical or snide, please know that it is not intended. I’m sure you are aware that e-mail often lacks the benefits of body language; I ask questions and make comments in the spirit of honest curiosity and debate.

The explanation of “Freethinker” you gave makes sense only in the sense that language and terminology often don’t make sense. I certainly don’t blame you that a term coined in the 1700’s does not match it’s actual use, and I can’t expect you to make things right.

Your misuse of scriptures to prove your point is, to be honest, upsetting.

“Additionally, the bible is very clear that Christians are not free to think for themselves.”

Actually, what the Bible is very clear on is that Christians are not to rely on their own doctrine; the Bible is to be the bedrock from which their minds are free to study the world around them. Christians must be free to study and ponder the things of the world (being in it, not of it) because if they were not free to do so, they would become robots without free will and the universe would cease to have a purpose. I can explain that in more detail if you wish.

A good earthly example of this would be the occupation of homicide detective. It is their job, day in and day out, to study and apprehend murderers. They MUST be free to ponder the minds and take on the motives of their suspects; otherwise they would have to rely solely on logic and evidence. While logic and evidence may be all that is allowed in court, I think you’d be hard pressed to find a good detective that doesn’t step outside these bounds on a regular basis. This does not mean that a homicide detective IS a murderer.

2 Cor. 10:5 We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ. (NIV)

2 Cor. 10:5 We are destroying speculations and every lofty thing raised up against the knowledge of God, and we are taking every thought captive to the obedience of Christ, (NAS)

2 Cor. 10:5 Casting down imaginations, and every high thing that exalteth itself against the knowledge of God, and bringing into captivity every thought to the obedience of Christ; (KJV)

These passages clearly show that as Christians, we are to look at and correct thoughts unto the obedience of Christ – in other words, correct thoughts (lies) unto the obedience of Christ (truth). We as Christians cannot do our job if we are not allowed to think for ourselves. Thinking of something does not necessarily change a person; in fact, it generally makes them stronger.

With all due respect, to take a word like “captivity” out of context and state “captivity is not freedom” is deceptive in the truest sense of the word.

Prov. 3:5 Trust in the LORD with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding;

This passage means that as Christians we are to trust in the Lord, and not our own understanding of things; it says nothing about not studying and thinking about things.

Again, you have used a phrase out of context to prove a point.

Martin Luther, well, he’s Martin Luther, not the Bible. I don’t know enough about him to make a comment, but I fail to see how his words have any bearing on this topic.

The term “freethinker” is deceptive, but as mentioned, I don’t blame anyone for this; it is what it is.

There is nothing in the Bible that says a Christian can’t “freely think”.

Your accepted definition of “freethinker” is not free at all. It reminds me of a conversation I had long ago with an "alternative music" fan, who proudly announced to me that "I don't listen to anything from the Top 40, those people have no imagination and are slaves to what people tell them to listen to". I looked at them and said "Then you're just as much a slave to the Top 40 as they are".

Science does not know enough about the origins of life on earth and the conception of the universe to allow ”freethinkers” to dismiss anything at all.

Sincerely, Norm


Thank you, Norm, but your reply proves my point. Christians are not free to think for themselves.

I have not misused the bible, nor have I taken anything out of context. If you are upset by my honest interpretation of the book, then I am sorry. But we are all free to interpret it as we see it, especially considering the context of the time it was written, and the original languages. I am an ordained Christian minister who has preached from every book of the bible. I have translated much of the NT from Greek manuscripts. I know what I am talking about.

You are free to think what you will . . . I will not send you to hell for such freedom.

But you are not free to tell me that I cannot call it as I see it. I think it is YOU who is misusing scripture. I think you will grow to see that.

I wish you the best.

Dan Barker
FFRF, Inc.


My reply...

Mr. Barker said...
"but your reply proves my point."
Care to give me some examples of where?

(This will be my last request, even if you choose not to reply)

Thanks for your time, Norm


Mr. Barker chose not to respond again
_____________________________

Edward T. Babinski said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Ilíon said...

VR: "... I have doubts about how far it is possible to make ourselves "outsiders" to our own belief systems, be it Christian, Jewish, atheist, or what not. That is why I am very reluctant to issue diagnoses of intellectual dishonesty or stupidity or what have you. ..."

Do you know how to say non sequitur?

Ilíon said...

VR: "... If I were to describe my epistemology, I would describe it as subjectivist Bayesian. We start with whatever we confidences we have, and we adjust those confidences based on the evidence has we encounter it. Bias is gradually eliminated in this way, and over time, if the evidence is strong enough, the prior are swamped and everyone agrees. ..."

Don't you understand that "evidence" *also* tends to be 'theory laden?'

Edward T. Babinski said...

Vic, read your skeptical comments over at DB concerning the "outsider test."

I know you're even skeptical of the Christian doctrine of "eternal hell," which means that perhaps you don't fret as much as many "eternal hell" believers do over whether or not your religious beliefs are correct. Therefore "tests" of your beliefs probably don't matter as much to you emotionally as they might to someone who believes with far less doubt in an "eternity of hell torments."

Secondly, speaking of Bayesianistic probabilities, I have difficulty believing that religious doctrines and dogmas are on the same scale as other beliefs I entertain. Don't unproven grandiose metaphysical systems and beliefs merit more skepticism than other types of beliefs? A "god-man," "spilling blood as substitutionary sacrifice," a "trinity," a "life after death," an "inspired holy book?" How can such things be proven or even be made to seem AS REASONABLE AND "GIVEN," as the countless other more mundane beliefs I presently entertain that seem to me to be based on less questionable grounds?

And speaking in terms of "hell" (whether eternal or not) how exactly can I be held accountable for not finding religious doctrines and dogmas sensible/rational?

Lastly, you need not be an atheist to have questions/doubts as both you and John Loftus agreed. All you have to have in the case of someone who leaves a religious fold are more questions than answers. I daresay, there are even some agnostic Christians out there who may still attend church or even preach, but who have more questions than answers, and whose "Christian faith" is closer to ingrained habit based on soothing repetition than on actually claiming to have answers. And John is probably not going to force such people out of their church group world any more than you and your AFR are going to convince them that God exists and all of the Chrisitan doctrines and dogmas are true. That person's religious life coupled with their questions is all part of the spectrum of human habits and emotion. But as such, such people living in such situations only heighten my own skepticism and certainly doesn't make me wish to return to church.

Likewise, I've read that generally speaking, the older a person gets, the more set in their ways they become. That too is part of what John is speaking about concerning the outsider test. In fact one evangelical poll indicated that every year past 20 a person lives without "receiving Christ as their personal Lord and savior," that the odds of them doing so later in life begin to decrease dramatically.

These are generalizations based on polls and some personal experience. There are exceptions. But if the polls fit the circumstances in general then isn't the Divine Being kind of messing with us? Do we really have to believe all that stuff. And do those who believe religious dogmas and doctrines really have to believe it in their teens, or dramatically increase their risk of eternal damnation as the polls would indicate if you indeed believe that is what they are risking by not becoming Christians?

Again, more reasons for me to question such matters.

Lastly, you never proved a thing concerning the AFR, not even probability wise. You have not proven what matter and electricity and quantum mechanics are capable of or not capable of. I am not saying that I know either. And it certaintly appears to me that consciousness itself lay along a spectrum in nature, as well as reasoning abilities. Whether or not a singular personal creator God exists or not does not appear capable of being proved. Your argument only considered atoms moving as atoms do, but you never considered all the ways atoms moved in relation to all the ways nature moves, for instance atoms and electons in the brain move in relation to the senses in contact with nature, it's a feedback loop system and quite a necessary one as well since total sensory deprivation for extended produces hallucinations and insanity. So how can you say the cosmos of nature that scientists study with its "matter-energy" is unable to account for reasoning? You have no proof except your definitions of the natural cosmos of matter-energy which you define in the beginning as EXCLUDING the evolution of any conscious beings. Reasoning, it's evolution and practice, requires the connectivity system in nature that I mentioned, rather than reason existing in some supernatural realm that's outside of nature.

No, I'm not attempting to prove atheism, just attempting to help you recognize, if possible, that the AFR is not proof of anything. There are even, as we both know, Christian philosophers who disagree with you concerning the AFR and who accept the brain-mind as a self-contained natural entity.

Ilíon said...

VR: "... What I fear is that there is an outcome-based criteria for whether someone has really applied the Outsider Test, and that is if they leave the fold. Otherwise, they couldn't possibly have applied the test, now could they?"

Translation: I fear that someone is being intellectually dishonest ... I just refuse to use the term.

Eric said...

I think I've just realized what the 'real' problem is with the OTF.

Assume, for the sake of argument, that all of my previous concerns with the OTF have been addressed to my satisfaction. Now suppose that a Christian undertakes the OTF and comes out the other side of this experience with his faith intact. It's now that we get to the 'real' problem, which isn't 'The Outsider Test,' but 'The Outsider Test-Test' (OTF-T). In other words, the problem is with the 'test' that follows the OTF and which determines whether a Christian (or any theist) has properly undertaken the OTF. What is that test? Well, it's not simply the question of whether the Christian's faith is still intact (though, oddly enough, it would seem sufficient to pass the OTF-T if he rejected his faith). The test seems to be something like this: The Christian who claims to have undertaken the OTF and come through as a Christian must be able to persuade those among his epistemic peers who are not Christians either that (1) His Christian faith is true, or (2) His Christian faith is reasonable (i.e. something along the lines of 'probably true'). If the Christian's reasons fail to persuade the atheist of (1) or (2), the atheist will claim that the Christian has failed the OTF-T, and thus hasn't properly undertaken the OTF. Now, this standard is obviously ridiculous (well, I hope the reasons are obvious), so my question for all those who advocate the OTF is this: What are the criteria of the Outsider Test-Test, if not (1) or (2)?

Victor Reppert said...

Ed: I am satisfied that I have pointed out a range of problems that I think have not been adequately dealt with my naturalists. I think that I have shown that, given the physical, there can't be determinate mental states. Others, obviously disagree. I think that even someone that I disagree with as much as I disagree with Richard Carrier has really put the effort into trying to make sense of my arguments, but I have never thought you have.

The phrase "doesn't prove anything" hides a multitude of problems. What kind of proof are you looking for? Name one metaphysical argument that you think has any merit.

I think that you can't go from a set of states that must perforce be nonmental (that is how physical is ordinarily defined), and you say that these non-mental, physical-level facts determine all the facts, so that, given the physical, the mental cannot be otherwise from what it is, then it seems to me that you can't have determinate mental states like beliefs and desires. This is a logical problem, and I don't think loads and loads of brain science is going to solve it without fudging categories. I think the most sophisticated attempts to do this, like Dretske's, are attempts that bury the bodies the deepest.

With some people, even ones I disagree with deeply, I can sense that there is a real clash of ideas. We are talking to one another. With you, I fear we shall always be condemned to talk past one another, and I will keep shaking my head and saying "You just don't get it."

Victor Reppert said...

In fairness to John, he put this in his response to me:

If you'll look at my original essay I applied the OTF and suggested what it means to actually take the test. Re-read that essay and tell me if you can look yourself in the mirror and say you have actually taken the test. That's all that's required of you even if many of us won't believe you. Who cares what we believe at that point?

Or, you can (and must) dispute how I applied it.

Eric said...

"Re-read that essay and tell me if you can look yourself in the mirror and say you have actually taken the test. That's all that's required of you even if many of us won't believe you. Who cares what we believe at that point?"

Victor, John certainly said this, but much of what he says contradicts it. For example,

"Still the fact that we could all be wrong about that which we believe does not grant you permission to turn around using that kind of skepticism and embrace the Christian faith, since this faith cannot survive the OTF."

If the Outsider Test-Test is, "Can you look yourself in the mirror after having taken it," then it's not a question of justification, but of persuasion. However, by framing the OTF in terms of skepticism, it seems to me that it must ultimately concern justification, and not persuasion. Therefore, how can the Outsider Test-Test be a look in the mirror?

Kyle said...

"If you'll look at my original essay I applied the OTF and suggested what it means to actually take the test. Re-read that essay and tell me if you can look yourself in the mirror and say you have actually taken the test. That's all that's required of you even if many of us won't believe you."

This just proves the failures of the OTF, and shows that Eric is correct. The test isn't about whether you've taken the test at all, it's about whether you end up siding with John after taking it.

It's simply impossible for John to comprehend that some of us who read/comment here and at his site, have read the book, taken the OTF as best as is reasonably possible (as has been pointed out, you can't make yourself an outsider) and come out unscathed. He doesn't understand that we can see his arguments, and find our arguments more compelling. Therefore, one in John's situation usually resorts to calling those one doesn't understand as intellectually dishonest, not skeptical enough, or the like. It's all too common from both sides in these discussions as we all know.

Ilíon said...

VR: "... I think that even someone that I disagree with as much as I disagree with Richard Carrier has really put the effort into trying to make sense of my arguments, but I have never thought you have."

Translation: ... you know what the translation is.

unkle e said...

Victor

I think this is one of your most useful posts (for me). I also appreciated the courteous way you dealt with someone you disagree with profoundly, and I think it is a great pity and detrimental to the faith that all christians cannot be so courteous (including me sometimes!).

If you were ever looking for a topic to give us your extended thoughts on, may I suggest more detail on foundationalism and subjectivist Bayesian epistemology please.

Thanks.

Matt McCormick said...

Sure, you're a Bayesian. Everyone is. The Outsider Test for Faith should be folded into to your ongoing revisions of information that are relevant to the various things you believe are true. And one should, as you point out, revise your beliefs accordingly as new ideas are presented. But sometimes the incorporation of those new considerations should invoke a pretty radical upheaval of a raft of held views. The Christian worldview just can't be sustained in a Bayesian framework if you're really paying attention to what's going on in physics, biology, philosophy, theology, etc. The OTF along with a bunch of other considerations ought to force the Bayesian to revise their theism right out of the system.

Matt McCormick said...

Here's another way to think about it.

I think in the end, the retreat to a Bayesian defense--"I haven't heard anything that leads me to revise my basic or prior beliefs and assumptions"--won't work and for many Christians, it is becoming a way to put a theoretical gloss on what amounts to just being stubborn and refusing to acknowledge the force of some powerful arguments.

Presumably you don't believe in the Flying Spaghetti Monster. So imagine someone who believes in the Flying Spaghetti Monster invoking the same defense: I'm a subjectivist Bayesian. I start with the presumption that the FSM is real, and nothing I've heard has led me to revise that. This view is deeply and emotionally entwined into my belief structure. We all must start with a prior set of beliefs. What exactly is the perspective from which you would have me take the OTF about the FSM? I can't conceive of a perspective from which the FSM isn't true.

You wouldn't accept this defense of the continuing sustainability of monster-ism for a moment, right?