Thursday, June 17, 2010

Reply to Loftus on faith and evidence

John Loftus wrote: What would proof look like to an outsider?



I have already said what would convince me Christianity is true.


Now YOU be reasonable. What would proof look like for you to reject your adopted faith due to the accidents of birth? I was reasonable in that link. Be reasonable with us.

I don't think accident of birth carries a whole lot of weight here. I'm a Bayesian subjectivist: we come into our thinking lives with a set of antecedent probabilities, and we adjust them as the evidence allows.


It is an accident of birth that I grew up in a Methodist family, but it is equally an accident of history (unless God was in on it), that I encountered good, strong, defenders of Christianity who took the relation of faith and intellect seriously, who took my questions with the utmost seriousness, and showed a kind of intellectual integrity that I thought was often lacking in the sort of glib unbelief I encountered in the academic community.

If my reading of Bertrand Russell had not convinced me of the value of free thought (though maybe not quite as he defined it), how would my thoughts be different today? If Russell had made more of an effort to understand the Christian beliefs he attacked, how would my beliefs be different today? If Craig Bustrin from my home church in Phoenix had not introduced me to the writings of C. S. Lewis, how would my beliefs be different today? If Bob Prokop (an occasional commentator here) and the late Joe Sheffer had not talked me through my period of disaffection as an undergraduate with Campus-Crusade style literalism while remaining a profoundly orthodox Christian, how would my beliefs be different today? If Keith Parsons had not moved in to the same house with me when I was in seminary and challenged me from a skeptical standpoint, how would by beliefs be different today? I don't know, and neither do you.

Your own experience with Christianity and with Christian thinkers was different from mine, but it is just as laden with historical accident as mine was.

I am trying to counter a simplistic picture in which believers all believe "on faith" (even if they have apologetic pretensions) and unbelievers, quite rationally, are waiting for PROOF which is not forthcoming. I would like to substitute a different picture for this one, one in which we enter with intellectual predispositions which we cannot fully avoid, but which we can and must modify in response to the evidence. It's called critical rationalism, and it is to be contrasted with fideism and strong rationalism.

In the original post I was responding to people who make heavy weather out of the fact that religious believers don't have PROOF for their position, by asking what proof would look like if we had it.

At the same time, changes in belief are cumulative, and big paradigm shifts need big evidential shifts in a various areas of thought. That is just how life is when we think. If you read the life of serious converts and de-converts, you don't find ONE BIG THING that PROVES Christianity, or atheism, or what have you. It's always a lot of things.

Chesterton wrote:

But this involved accuracy of the thing makes it very difficult to do what I now have to do, to describe this accumulation of truth. It is very hard for a man to defend anything of which he is entirely convinced. It is comparatively easy when he is only partially convinced. He is partially convinced because he has found this or that proof of the thing, and he can expound it. But a man is not really convinced of a philosophic theory when he finds that something proves it. He is only really convinced when he finds that everything proves it. And the more converging reasons he finds pointing to this conviction, the more bewildered he is if asked suddenly to sum them up. Thus, if one asked an ordinary intelligent man, on the spur of the moment, "Why do you prefer civilization to savagery?" he would look wildly round at object after object, and would only be able to answer vaguely, "Why, there is that bookcase . . . and the coals in the coal-scuttle . . . and pianos . . . and policemen." The whole case for civilization is that the case for it is complex. It has done so many things. But that very multiplicity of proof which ought to make reply overwhelming makes reply impossible.






15 comments:

unkleE said...

Vic, this is a comment on the John Loftus quote you link to rather than your post. (Hope that's OK.)

Looking at John's comments reinforced two things in me.

1. Many ex-christian unbelievers are still fundamentalists. For example, this comment by John: "if Jesus arose from the dead then the whole Bible is probably true as well".

Now I'm sure there are still many christians, especially in some parts of the US, who think that way, but I feel sure, depending on one's definition of "truth", that there are many, many thoughtful christians who would not agree with John. Because we believe the resurrection literally and physically occurred doesn't mean we all believe that Genesis 1-3 is literal and historical, any more than we believe that of the story of the good Samaritan. But that is a key point in John's argument (and others I have met). It makes his argument much easier, but largely irrelevant to me and most believers I know.

2. I think John is probably right when he suggests that what we believers want probably drives our belief more than rationality. But I think exactly the same is true of unbelievers. Yes, I suppose it is true that I instinctively want Jesus to be true and trustworthy, and so I look for an apologetic that supports that. But his post seemed exactly the same in the opposite direction. This conclusion doesn't disturb me as much as it once did - I don't think God wants to give the intelligent and well educated an advantage but gives us enough evidence to believe if we want to but not enough to force us if we don't want to (as John freely admits is the case with him).

Thanks for the link.

Crude said...

Nice reply, Victor. Sometimes you at your most casual and frank is you at your most insightful.

DL said...

Indeed. The thing is, I always find these claims of what would convince someone of God's existence to be a bit suspicious. Now, I'm not saying that people like Loftus are lying when they claim that a certain bit of evidence would make believers out of them, but I am pretty skeptical. Sure, they say "if X happened, I'd believe", but how do we know?

It's entirely possible that if, say, God produced a rigorous philosophical proof of his own existence, they would dismiss it as readily as they dismiss the same proofs from any other philosopher. Or if God arranged the planets more randomly, they might say, "If God existed he would have arranged the planets more harmoniously". And so on. I mean, if anyone can come up with good evidence that these folks would indeed be convinced as they claim, hey, I'm prepared to accept it. But frankly, there's just no good reason to believe them at this point.

John W. Loftus said...

What a great quote from Chesterton, especially this:

But a man is not really convinced of a philosophic theory when he finds that something proves it. He is only really convinced when he finds that everything proves it. And the more converging reasons he finds pointing to this conviction, the more bewildered he is if asked suddenly to sum them up.

He's describing a cumulative case, right? Where is this to be found?

I think I can demonstrate Christianity is false. I'm in the process of doing so right here. Click on the extra link there. You have no cumulative case, no probability to your background beliefs, and therefore nothing but a mere possibility for your faith.

As to whether or not I prefer to live in an intellectual universe that is cold, and uncaring, having only blind indifference to me as a human being in which I can count on no help from outside of it and no hope of an eternal life; not a chance in hell.

Blue Devil Knight said...

I usually don't like Loftus' stuff on the outsider test, but let me play devil's advocate for a sec.

Just about everyone, believer and atheist alike, thinks there is a natural world out there whose general structure is discovered by science (e.g., we all believe that humans have kidneys, that the Earth is spherical, etc)..

This is a kind of cognitive least common denominator among educated humans. People who are Christians believe that, plus a bunch more that directly contradicts the scientific worldview that everyone already believes (this shouldn't be controversial: it is pretty much definitional of miracle that be something that defy natural law).

The problem is that outside of the least common denominator, the other stuff (e.g., what religion you are, whether you believe in Santa Claus) is initially so strongly and patently driven by psycho-historical forces rather than evidence.

This asymmetry is what drives the "outsider test" argument. Victor rightly points out that epistemic naivete of this test, as we don't come to any topic with a blank slate but with an entire raft of beliefs built up our entire life. It is psychologically speaking nearly impossible to "jump ship". We evaluate everything in terms provided by this raft, and growth of knowledge tends to involve hammering away at a plank here and there, patching something up.

On the other hand, one danger is to use this natural inertia as an excuse for intellectual laziness. Given the historical and accidental nature of the installation of many of these beliefs, those interested in truth should be extra-suspicious of those beliefs obviously subject to such psychological and historical forces.

And when push comes to shove, is your evidence for belief in Christ's resurrection better than the evidence you have that the Earth is a sphere? Is it even better than evidence that acupuncture or chiropractice?

On the third hand, part of the Christian belief system is a crazy-ass weighting of the costs and benefits of error versus being right (the kind of weighting that allows the rather silly Pascal's wager argument to convince those that already have a high prior). This, I believe, is a major factor in Christianity's success. If there is a big enough cost (or benefit) to a belief, then you can make a case that you should reject or buy it because "what's the big deal if you believe and you are wrong"?

John W. Loftus said...

BDK, the devil can advocate for himself, don't you think? When we already disagree on so many issues why concoct another one? I never waste my time defending something I don't agree with for that very reason. But if you want to get in bed with that bad boy, he's all yours. ;-)

Anyone who engages me on the OTF quickly learns I know what I'm arguing and can defend it very well. I take it you have not read much about it, right, especially in the book, The Christian Delusion?

BDK: "...we don't come to any topic with a blank slate but with an entire raft of beliefs built up our entire life. It is psychologically speaking nearly impossible to "jump ship"."

Hmmmm, what you've described are cultures. We inherit them. People who are educated know this is what cultures do, they indoctrinate us. People who are oblivious to what cultures do to us don't see a problem with what they have been taught to believe.

But people who do know what cultures do to us should be skeptical of what they were raised to believe unless they can confirm it for themselves even if they don't see any reason to be skeptical about them. This skepticism is not Cartesian in scope, nor is it possible to examine everything we think is true. They say 95% of what we believe is based on authority. That being said, when we do turn our eye on our inherited religious faith we should be skeptical of what we were led to believe and seek independent confirmation as objectively as possible. That's what the OTF is meant to help us do.

Moreover, many people are jumping ship. Have your looked at many ex-Christian and former believer sites? They are, Mr. Devil, Legion.

I'll comment further below.

John W. Loftus said...

Elsewhere I wrote:

I have argued for a way to objectively examine your faith as best as possible in the OTF. Consider that my hypothetical telescope. Look through it or else 1) defend your double standard since you DO look through it when examining other religions, or 2) provide me a better telescope.

Today an anchor man for our local news show was back anchoring the news after a failed bid for the Republican seat that former congressman Mark Souder who resigned from for sexual infidelity. He said he was no longer allowed to cover the political beat. Why? Because we all know he is a Republican partisan, that's why. Just as judges recuse themselves when there is a conflict of interest so also this anchor man recused himself when it comes to reporting on political stories.

The test itself does not say in advance what you will conclude. So while I conclude that no revealed religion passes the test that is MY judgment. What's yours?

I do think a religion could pass this test but if no religion can pass the test it is not a fault with the test itself. Its a fault with religious faiths.

John W. Loftus said...

Oh, I forgot to add the part where the OTF is asking us to consider what the anchor man did or the judge does when there is a conflict of interest. We know when there is a conflict of interest people are not fair with their news reporting or in judging cases. So the best place to stand when judging one's own inherited religious faith is from the outside as a disinterested person.

If not, then why do we demand people to recuse themselves in times of a conflict of interest? Why should judging our religious faith be done fairly by its adherents if judges don't judge cases fairly if they have a conflict of interest?

Blue Devil Knight said...

Loftus: I'm not sure what you are responding to in what I wrote. I think I pretty much said the same thing you did when I said:
"On the other hand, one danger is to use this natural inertia as an excuse for intellectual laziness. Given the historical and accidental nature of the installation of many of these beliefs, those interested in truth should be extra-suspicious of those beliefs obviously subject to such psychological and historical forces."

While I don't think the outsider test is quite as impressive as you do, I do think it can be one useful plank in the skeptic's intellectual platform.

Ultimately, of course, it isn't all that strong an argument (to the extent that it is an argument). The believer just has to say: what you are saying is obvious. There is a reason I believe in Christ but not Santa. I find the evidence for Christ's resurrection compelling.

Add to this the ideology-insulating cost-benefit analysis rather unique to the Christian philosophy of the afterlife, things get even more complicated when evaluating what is rational or not. What is rational to believe is not solely a matter of binary truth values like in propositional logic, but involves weighing evidence probabilistically as well as the consequences of being right or wrong. For those with higher priors about Christianity, they will tend to believe Pascal's wager. They effectively have a lower evidence threshold because of the costs of being wrong.

At any rate, like most stuff on the skeptic sites, I find the outsider test cool and useful, but like the argument from evil not a knock-down argument. There will never be a single knock-down argument, but a cumulative case as Victor said.

Blue Devil Knight said...

One question it would be interesting to see the Christians answer that Loftus posed is:
"What would proof look like for you to reject your adopted faith due to the accidents of birth"

I agree. I've told what would make me a believer. What would make the Christians here an unbeliever? Anything? If everything you think needs a Godly explanation could be explained using science, would that persuade you? Or perhaps would you have to undergo a radical change in your psychology, because your belief is so deep in your heart that only a transformation at that level would work?

John W. Loftus said...

BDK, I read what you wrote. I was responding to your endorsement of Vic's criticisms. Do you now say his criticisms are not valid, that this is the part where you were playing the devil's advocate? You see, playing the Devil's advocate is messy if you have something to say, for the reader may not know what you actually think is the case.

BDK said: "Ultimately, of course, it isn't all that strong an argument (to the extent that it is an argument)."

What? It isn't an argument? I know you have not read much of anything I've written about it at all.

I think it is a really great argument myself, and most skeptics have said so. Sure, many Christians will take a glib approach to it and say their faith passes the test. So? Other more honest Christians will not do this. What's wrong with reaching people who can be reached with a great tool?

BDK: "At any rate...I find the outsider test cool and useful, but like the argument from evil not a knock-down argument. There will never be a single knock-down argument, but a cumulative case as Victor said."

So? I have run into several skeptics who said the problem of evil isn't that big of a problem and convinced them otherwise. I'm doing the same thing repeatedly with skeptics when it comes to the OTF too.

I never said anything was a knock down argument. Where did you ever see me saying this? I have repeatedly said there is no silver bullet. So is your criticism to be taken seriously that the OTF isn't a silver bullet?

I did like some of what you said, yes, so thanks for that. But I suspect you have not read my defenses of the OTF. I'm engaging them right now in several posts at DC.

Cheers.

Victor Reppert said...

I'm not going to make confident assertions about what would change my mind. There are two many factors. But I can tell you something that would, in my eyes, decrease the probability that Christianity is true.

One thing that would hurt the probability of Christianity for me would be if skeptics could come up with a halfway convincing story about how Christianity arose. Swoon theory? Come on. Hallucination theory? Lots of problems. The disciples stole the body? Why? So they could get martyred for something they knew was false. Legendary development? Why does Luke know so much about all the city governments in the Mediterranean world. Jesus never even existed? How come nobody has come up with the theory that Socrates never existed? Jesus' evil twin took over after he was crucified? Getting desperate aren't we?

Of course, I know all about the Humean argument that anything's better than accepting a resurrection. Yes, rationally, one could be a skeptic about the supernatural origin of Christianity while admitting that there isn't much out there in the way of naturalistic explanations of the founding of Christianity. But why do all those theories have such ghastly problems?

Shackleman said...

""What would proof look like for you to reject your adopted faith due to the accidents of birth""

Funny. I was raised to be a strict agnostic, bordering on atheist, with the strongest emphasis placed on science and empiricism. Besides the teachings of my atheist Mother, and my agnostic father, I was also, beginning from a very young age, substantially influenced by a literal rocket scientist who worked for NASA and who was an atheist. Not of the Dawkins, sabre rattling variety, but of the intellectually pure, and open-hearted, kind and loving variety. I love that man, wherever he is.

I was also touched, at a very young age, by a horrific evil---an evil that even the most painful and heartfelt prayers to God didn't stop.

So I had E.v.e.r.y. reason and inheritance to be an atheist. And I was.

And yet, I eventually found my way out of my slumber.

Some expect the explanation to my conversion to be describable in short enough words and phrases as to be expressible on a blog. It isn't. A process which takes decades to unfold cannot be easily expressed, and I dare say cannot be accurately expressed at all. It just has to be experienced.

I can say though, that for me, my conversion would not have been possible without first having my heart and mind open to the possibility---and praying an honest prayer to a God I didn't believe in to tell Him that if He was there, my heart would be open to Him. Second, the pillars which held up my atheistic walls had to then become eroded. Once enough of them eroded, the castle of my atheism crumbled but it took many MANY more years before a new castle---one built upon a foundation of God could be built.

I'm still building----it isn't done yet, and there are still times where the new pillars take their lumps and bruises and erode. Yet it continues to grow, as does my relationship with God, as does my understanding of my self and my place in the cosmos.

For any agnostic with an open heart and mind, I sincerely recommend taking a break from the literature and blogs and influences from all of your old and familiar atheistic/skeptical resources. Put them down for a few months. Then obtain the very best and brightest sources from your opposition, and begin to study them. If the *sole* source you use to understand theism is the atheists' and skeptics' literature, you are only ever allowing yourself to view half the story and you are simply continuing to bias yourself.

Read the good stuff---the best stuff---from the "other" side.

Oh, and if you feel so moved, it's okay to pray too.

For the agnostic who has already peered into the best the "other" side has to offer and still did not find God---then ask yourself if you *want* to find him. If you don't, then you don't. That's your choice. Then live the best life you can and continue to seek out truth wherever you can and let come what may.

If however you genuinely *want* to find God, but just haven't found him yet, I suggest you pray. Even if you don't believe He's there to listen, pray. Pray not that you find Him, but pray that He finds you.

Blue Devil Knight said...

The reason I put (half jokingly) 'whether it is an argument' is that the conclusion is open-ended. You could be raised an atheist and use the outsider test and come to be a fundamentalist Muslim. Or vice versa. So in some ways it can be used as a methodology more than an argument for a particular conclusion.

This skeptical strategy toward what we have been raised with is something we explicitly see in Hume, Descartes, TH Huxely, etc. I was merely giving my general impression of the general approach, not anything in particular that Loftus has written. So yes, John is right I haven't pored over his writings. I've read enough to see it is a bit too heavy-handed for my tastes (especially a tendency to equate Christianity with fundamentalist literalist Christianity, something that drives me bonkers).

J said...

On the third hand, part of the Christian belief system is a crazy-ass weighting of the costs and benefits of error versus being right (the kind of weighting that allows the rather silly Pascal's wager argument to convince those that already have a high prior). This, I believe, is a major factor in Christianity's success. If there is a big enough cost (or benefit) to a belief, then you can make a case that you should reject or buy it because "what's the big deal if you believe and you are wrong"?

BDK hints at one reason for belief--people become christians because it's in their best interest to do so: the "bang for the buck" thesis, if you will . Of course many thinkers have pointed that out (Nietzsche perhaps the most eloquent), but it's a point some...over-analytical atheists overlook (as do many sunday schoolers).

So in that sense, the outsider test while interesting might be inadequate, unless something like a ...utilitarian provision were added (not only "is it true", but...is this in my best interest....and that could relate to a "modified" Pascal's wager ).

Certainly many religious humans do attend church, cough up shekels on the plate, sing in the choir, etc for ...personal reasons, whether keeping a family together, business connections, or perhaps in hope of meeting some hot churchly ladies.