Tuesday, November 16, 2010

The Outsider Test, Onions, and Inconvenient Truths

The outsider test is kind of like an onion. On the outer layer, there is a legitimate appeal to be fair to opposing views, to counteract bias, etc. At that level it operates as a kind of golden rule for beliefs. So it is sometimes helpful to imagine yourself as an outsider to your religion, treating it with the same kind of skepticism with which you treat other religion.

But if it is restricted to religions, then people who are not within a religion get an automatic pass, since it isn't hard for an atheist to say he is just as skeptical of Christianity as of Islam, since he believes both to be false and delusional. Should atheism get a free pass here? I know a lot of Christians who work very hard at coming to terms with the "inconvenient truths" for the Christian belief system. If you go to a Society of Christian Philosophers meeting, the best-attended session is always the session on the problem of evil. And then I see atheists treating their own view like a slam-dunk, as if there are no inconvenient truths for their world-view. You get the argument that their position is different because it is a non-belief, rather like not collecting stamps. You get the argument that allegiance to science somehow gives them a free pass. It is like pulling teeth to get some people to realize that confirmation bias doesn't stop once you go out the church door and shake the dust off your feet.

And, you get the argument that we can judge who has "really" taken the outsider test, based on whether the one claiming to take the test has reached the same conclusions about religion that the atheist has reached. They say, "This is the conclusion I have reached, I consider it to be true, so if someone comes to an opposing position, it MUST be because of insider bias, of a failure to REALLY take the outsider test." This in the area of biblical scholarship, where there is little consensus, and a lot of presuppositional issues to deal with as well as evidential issues. Here Tim McGrew's distinction between the heuristic and diagnostic uses of the outsider test is important. It isn't the test I object to as the way it ends up being construed, and the idea that atheists can look at their own answer key to test whether someone has really taken the test or not.

I have never seen an overall superiority of atheists to theists in the area of maintaining that constant struggle to come to terms with the inconvenient truths for their own philosophies. If anything, it has always looked to be to be the other way around.

I realize this is not really an answer to the specifics of Arizona Atheists's response to me. I will get to that, I hope, in the next day or two.


Eric said...

"You get the argument that their position is different because it is a non-belief, rather like not collecting stamps."

This has always seemed silly to me. When an atheist claims that all atheism is is a lack of belief in god, and that therefore he makes no claims whatsoever and has no burden of proof in a discussion about atheism and theism, I ask him if he lacks belief for a reason. If not, then his position is non-rational, and not worth discussing. If so, then he does, it seems to me, make at least one claim, viz. his reason(s) justifies his lack of belief. If this is so, why is he not obligated to defend *that* claim?

The response I usually hear is, "well I lack belief because there's no evidence," to which I respond, "fine, but you must now tell me what you mean by evidence, what counts as evidence, and so on, and then defend the claim that there is no evidence for god's existence against some claims that such and such counts as evidence for god's existence, so you *still* have an obligation to defend your claim; oh, and you must use the term evidence consistently, so you cannot say that X isn't evidence for god because it fails to meet requirement R, but Y is evidence for this or that scientific theory (or whatever), if it too fails to satisfy requirement R."

Not only that, but if atheism is merely a lack of belief, then it's just a description of one's psychology: search all of S's beliefs, and you won't find the belief, "god exists." But then to say that Jones is an atheist is akin to saying that Jones has red hair. Notice, though, that while we can say it's true *that* Jones has red hair, it's meaningless to say, Jones's red hair is true (or rational, or probable, or warranted, etc.; but if this is the case, then it's just as meaningless to say that Jones's atheism is true (or rational, probable, warranted, etc.). But atheists tell us all the time that atheism is rational, etc. Hence, atheism cannot be merely descriptive, i.e. refer to a lack of belief merely.

Tory said...

Thanks Eric, this comment was enlightening.

Mike Erich the Mad Theologian said...

It seems to me that naturalism in one form or another is the general opinion of our culture in which we are indoctrinated constantly. Therefore to be really objective we have to be able to see it from the outside, which from my experience starting out as an agnostic is a difficult thing to do. Therefore to say that the bias is all one direction and only religious people need to learn to look at their views from the outside is highly simplistic.

Gregory said...

But wasn't John Loftus an "insider"? How is it that an "insider" should now be in the privileged position as an "outsider"? What difference does it make whether someone is "inside" or "outside"?

Maybe if he started as a true "outsider", then we could take his point more seriously...or something. After all, his argument is completely premised on "insider" knowledge, right?!?

I say that this whole "OTF" is a rotten Red Herring that has the peculiar smell of dishonesty or poor reasoning...and probably both.

And it's not really a test, but a temptation. It's asking this:

"Don't believe what you already believe. Think like an unbeliever."

That's not so much a "test" as it is a "dare".

Here's my test for Loftus:

"Disbelieve what you now believe and begin believing what you used to believe."

Can he take my "Former Insider turned Outsider Now Asked to Reclaim His/Her Insider--Test For Faith?" I don't know. We'll see.

Stephen R said...

First off... I'm an atheist. Hi.

Second: I am NOT what I term an "anti-theist", which are those atheists who actively oppose religious faith (Dawkins et al).

Atheism is not a lack of belief. That is, perhaps, agnosticism -- the philosophical equivalent of saying "I don't know."

Atheism is a specific belief: There is no God. (Or in my case, there is no God, gods, spirits, ghosts, pixie fairies, or any other supernatural entity or power.)

Probably the best logical discussion of the issue you bring up in your post was written in 2003 by Steven Den Beste. He's an extremely smart guy and incredibly articulate. I would go so far as to claim that even though he is an atheist, and you clearly are not, you would probably agree with pretty much his entire (long) post. He passes the "Outsider Test" :-)

Go get a cup of coffee and give this a read: http://www.denbeste.nu/cd_log_entries/2003/05/Beliefinatheism.shtml

unkleE said...

Hi Stephen R, I'm a theist, but hopefully as friendly a theist as you are a friendly atheist. : )

1. I'm interested in your definitions of atheist and agnostic. They are as I would define them, but increasingly I find atheists who define themselves as lacking belief, and get offended if I say otherwise. I think this diversity in definition is unhelpful, but I can't see a way around it.

2. Your link doesn't work for me - it seems some of the URL is cut off, and when I guess what it might be, I get an error.

John W. Loftus said...

As I have said before the liberals debunk the evangelicals and they in turn debunk their faith. The Catholics debunk the Protestants and they in turn debunk their faith. And religions in general do the same thing to Christianity while Christians debunk their faiths.

You truly are ignorant if you think the alternative to your brand of Christianity is atheism. In Hindu countries they might do the same, as they might do in Muslim ones, by arguing against atheism.

But it makes for a huge sleight of hand. Either accept our culturally inherited religion or, well, accept atheism. It's a false dichotomy based on special pleading and black of white thinking that therefore given these two options ours is the true faith.

It almost idiotic. You know there are a myriad number of religions and sects. You know this. And yet you continue portraying this debate as one between atheism and your own particular religion.

Now why is this important?

It's because there really is no outsider perspective for the atheist. Can you comprehend as a philosopher that we're the people who are utterly different from those who believe in supernatural beings and forces? Attention. We don't.

Or, you can propose for me what the outsider position is for the atheist who doesn't believe in supernatural beings, if it isn't agnosticism the default position.

Is the outsider position that of Catholicism, a snake handler, mindless Pentecostalism, Jehovah's Witnesses, Scientology, or the Mormon faith? There can be no outsider position to atheism until or unless one faith rises to the top of the heap defeating all other culturally adopted religions as the outsider perspective for the atheist.

We're outsiders because we've tested the claims of religion and found they all rely on the same sorts of fallacious reasoning and lame scientific evidence.

Portray it as you wish though. Don't let this sidetrack you from what you believe. Carry on.

Victor Reppert said...

I never said this was simply a debate between Christianity and atheism. These are probably the leading options in our culture, and so sometimes you have to debate one issue at a time.

The website that I have been discussing with respect to the Outsider Test was a site in which Christianity and Islam were compared. To give the short answer to Arizona Atheist, the site may not itself be completely even-handed between those two religions, but the evidence it provides in the area of documentary evidence and of archaeological evidence, shows that the evidential situation with respect to each religion is different, and that Christianity has some advantages that Islam lacks. So an "outsider" would clearly, I think, rate the evidential situation for Christianity better than Islam. Someone coming in with the same level of skepticism for each religion could pick Christianity. And since I don't think any other books can match the Bible or the Qu'ran on those criteria, the case could be made for Christianity as opposed to all other faiths. With some religions I'm not sure they even have apologetics.

As I said, the OTF is an onion. On one layer there is what we might call the Basic Fairness Doctrine, that says we shouldn't try to give other religions as fair a treatment as we give our own. We should attempt to compare, as fairly as we can, the believability of religions. To use McGrew's terms, this is the heuristic use of the OTF, and I don't object. However, such fairness isn't easy, but we all have to work on it. It means making sure that we are looking at the inconvenient truths for whatever view we adopt, and it applies generally to Christians, Muslims, atheists, Buddhists, etc.

However, as the OTF is typically presented, it attempts to give a kind of special default status to the denial of religion, and in doing so it starts to engage in anti-religious special pleading. Then we start getting the diagnostic use of the OTF, where we look at what we think is true in the area of, say, Biblical studies, and then we conclude that anyone who comes out a believer somehow isn't performing the duties prescribed in the "heuristic" side of the OTF.

When I give my more detailed response to Arizona Atheist, I am going to look at an argument by Robert Price, and ask whether anybody could possibly take that argument seriously who was not infected with what I would call a hostility bias toward the New Testament.

You like to bring up psychological and sociological evidence suggesting that, epistemologically, we're all sinners. Fine. But then you presume that you can become a saint just by rejecting religion, as if confirmation bias comes to an end once you get out the church door and leave the fold. Not fine.

Eric said...

"However, as the OTF is typically presented, it attempts to give a kind of special default status to the denial of religion, and in doing so it starts to engage in anti-religious special pleading."

Well put, Victor.

"There can be no outsider position to atheism until or unless one faith rises to the top of the heap defeating all other culturally adopted religions as the outsider perspective for the atheist."

John, but doesn't this presuppose that atheism is not culturally adopted? Atheism certainly hasn't "risen to the top of the heap" in any sense, and the atheism of many of the atheists I encounter is obviously as much a cultural product as the theism of many of the theists I encounter. I mean, if an outsider position to a claim C just is skepticism toward C (in your book you identify the OTF with skepticism), and if atheism involves making a claim (I argued in my first post on this thread that the only atheism worth discussing must involve at least one claim), they why can we not be skeptical of atheism?

I think this is what gives most theists fits about the Outsider Test: We have no problem admitting that, in some sense, it's a good guide for us to use in considering the epistemic merits of our religious belief, but balk at the notion that it doesn't apply in any sense to the atheist/skeptic as well. It seems to me as if *every* philosophically informed theist (and more than a few philosophically informed atheists) you've discussed the OTF with comes to this conclusion; doesn't that count for something? (I concede that it may mean that we've all missed something, but then even that suggests what I've always said about the OTF: It's an idea with some great potential, but it hasn't been developed clearly or rigorously enough yet, which would explain this widespread conclusion -- apparently premised on a misunderstanding that frustrates you a bit -- that it's difficult to find a non-arbitrary or non-biased reason for refusing to concede that there's an outsider test for atheists and skeptics as well.)

John W. Loftus said...

Once again Vic I apologize for my tone. I've been thinking about the OTF for a long time and it seems to me I've answered all of your objections, so it seems like you're merely repeating things I've already answered and that frustrates me. But on other days I realize this is a worldview clash.

John W. Loftus said...

In my new book I'll claim that Christianity is more improbable than Islam, by far. It has to do with the number of extraordinary claims being made. The more of them and/or the more miracle workers that must be believed then the more improbable the whole religion is.

John W. Loftus said...

Eric, again thanks for your thoughtful response.

The definition of atheism is that it denies supernatural beings and forces exist. Among atheists who have considered the alternative religious hypothesis then that is a claim they make. There are people who merely lack a belief in god(s)s becaue it has never occurred to them to consider that hypothesis.

Now you want to say that the atheist claim is but one among many claims and deserves no special preference and I understand that. Atheism is the conclusion of the skeptic or the agnostic. Agnosticism is the default position which represents a skepticism of all metaphysical positions. That kind of skepticism relies on the sciences for there is no other alternative. Even is a god exists the sciences based upon experience is the only way anyone could know if the god-hypothesis is true.

Skepticism then is a virtue given the number of religious faiths and so we must apply it equally to all religious hypotheses. When we do atheism is sometimes what we conclude. We're already halfway there once we consistently apply our skepticism based in the sciences.

I see nothing controversial about this at all.

Atheism then is no more culturally adopted than science and skepticism is. But let's say it is in some countries and families. Then the atheist should consider the religious hypothesis as an outsider to what he was raised to think. But then a problem arises. Which religious hypothesis should he subject his views to? There are so many he cannot research them all. Which one of them rises to the heap? The only one he might know is the one he knows best in his respective culture. But since he cannot subject skepticism to belief (that is not reasonable) he must be skeptical of this cultural religion too, especially since other cultures have their own dominant religions. My claim is that skepticism is a virtue and that when consistently applied to all religions they all fail the test. Faith is disallowed. What religion could possibly pass the an equally applied skepticism?

If none do then it isn't the fault of the test. It's the fault of the religion hypothesis.

John W. Loftus said...

You know sometimes I wonder if people object to the OTF because it substitutes the word "outsider" for "skepticism." It could equally be called the "Skeptical Test for Faith." Treat all religious faith with an equal amount of skepticism. Would that gain any traction here?

No, I have no plans now on changing what I call it. I like the term "outsider" just fine. But the arguments I use are skeptical in orientation.

Mr Veale said...

"the liberals debunk the evangelicals and they in turn debunk their faith. The Catholics debunk the Protestants..."
and scientism debunks the existentialists, and they debunk the Marxists, who debunk the deconstructionists... people disagree John, but nothing of consequence follows.

"Either accept our culturally inherited religion or, well, accept atheism."

but as Uncle points out, atheism is only a live (plausible) option in some cultures. It would just seem fantastic to an intellectual in Tehran or Islamabad. Some of those folk are quite bright, you know.

The idea that atheism is not perpetuated by social forces and institutions is frankly absurd. Any serious study of secularism tries to uncover the conditions that made atheism a live option in the West. Your attitude here is astonishingly myopic.

"we're the people who are utterly different from those who believe in supernatural beings and forces? Attention. We don't."

Whoa, Neddy! Does Platonism about numbers count as supernaturalism? What about dualism about consciousness? Sam Harris has some quasi-Buddhist ideas - so is he in or out of your club?


Mr Veale said...

A sceptical approach to faith? It depends. How sceptical? Can I only prove that I've been sceptical enough by rejecting the religion that I've been raised in?

Mr Veale said...

Don'tcha just love Saturdays?

Al Moritz said...

Great post, Victor.

Eric, I fully agree with your first post here.

Experience shows that the vast majority of atheists (though not all) are convinced naturalists, or choose naturalism as their default position –- while atheism is often defined as simply just "lack of belief", mostly it results in worldviews that do make positive claims, just like theism does. So the whole "lack of belief" stance is in most cases just a lame excuse to avoid the burden of proof.


Agnosticism is the default position which represents a skepticism of all metaphysical positions. That kind of skepticism relies on the sciences for there is no other alternative.

But this is carries a fallacious assumption, which is that the "scientific worldview" is just based on science. It is not. It is a *philosophical* extrapolation from science, and thus no less metaphysical a position than theism. Thus this "skeptical" worldview is susceptible to similar skepticism as is theism.

Al Moritz said...

Also, I notice over and over in discussions that atheists are just as stubborn as some theists when it comes to the consideration of inconvenient truths.

For example, I have seen atheists time and again trying to argue their way out the cosmological fine-tuning argument with the most absurd contortionist mental acrobatics. Sometimes it gets to the point of being incredibly comical while they honestly believe to have rationality on their side, e..g. in the most recent threads on the issue at commonsenseatheism.com -- I do not participate anymore in these discussions because of the outright futility.

Many atheists even refuse to admit that the apparent fine-tuning of the laws of nature is real and requires an explanation (metaphysical conclusions from the scientific findings are a different matter). With this they go against the leading cosmologists, most of which are atheists or agnostics (BTW, Hawking in his most recent book that was hailed by atheists stresses the reality of fine-tuning once more). It is interesting that these atheists are only willing to consider mainstream science when it bolsters their worldview, but are blind to the findings of science when it reveals inconvenient truths. In this they are no better than creationists who deny evolution.

Most atheists seem unwilling to take seriously the OTF regarding their own position. So how serious should I then take their claims about the merits of the OTF?

John W. Loftus said...

Al Moritz, we should be skeptics of extraordinary claims of miracles in the ancient past. Tell me why we shouldn't? There are too many of them in every culture, too many mythical stories.

Science must assume a natural explanation. Historians must do likewise. When someone wrote that Jesus took clay and made it into birds and let them fly (as is the case) how should a historian proceed? He cannot take that claim seriously.

My claim is that even if Jesus did miracles there is no way given the tools at our disposal to say that he did. Doing so against the tools available can only come by way of faith. Faith claims more than the evidence allows. But then why should anyone embrace faith? If faith is a legitimate way of accessing what happened in the past then even though a historian must deny Jesus created birds out of clay anyone can simply say that he did. And then with faith anyone can say anything that was reported in the ancient past happened as reported. But we know better.

This is science.

So the questions for you is that if a historian cannot conclude miracles occurred in the past then why you believe the Bible? And if you cannot believe the Bible then what would you believe? That is, if there was no Bible, if there was no reason to believe it. Then what would you believe? If science produced the results I just described then you would trust science to help solve other mysteries of the universe.

Science is based on reason so it doesn't exclude philosophical analysis. Science and philosophy are bedfellows. You always see an experiment coupled with reasoning.

And if the Bible is no longer authoritative as God's word then you are free to conjecture other possible gods that might exist, like a scientific one who has been creating and then re-creating one universe after another to see how the creatures in his universe behave. I see no reason why a god could not have created this one last universe from a quantum wave fluctuation with all of the fine tuning needed to produce this universe before committing deicide. There are many possibilities like this none of which would ever lead you to the Triune God who sent his son to die and rise from the grave. So at that point you jettsion these other god hypotheses as irrelevant to properly understanding why we exist and do science.

This is how it happened with me.

Mr Veale said...

Okay, John, that's just confused.

Suppose we accept a principle of methodological naturalism in history. (Now a brief survey of the literature will show you that finding demarcation criteria for history is even more problematic than finding demarcation criteria for science. But let that pass.)

That simply means that the historical method cannot detect the miraculous in history. However, that does not mean that it could not detect events consistent with, or even suggestive of, a miracle. An empty tomb, inexplicable belief in a crucified and resurrected messiah etc.

The historian may decide that the historical method has to stop at this point. He cannot say, as a historian, that the Resurrection occurred.

But as a rational human being, he can go on to assess that evidence against background beliefs drawn from philosophy. And if he has a rational belief in Theism he can go on to form a rational belief in the Resurrection.

So "this is science" makes for a nice slogan, but a terrible argument.


Mr Veale said...

I also think that you need to engage with the McGrew's articles, rather than throwing slogans at them.

They have dealt with the lower prior probability of a miracle, and with the issue of predictive power (knowing what God might do, absent beliefs from a purported revelation).
Predicting a Resurrection, or turning birds into clay, prior to the fact is one thing. Predicting that God might intervene in human affairs, and that the intervention would be detectable is another.

Although I'm not sure what you're saying in the final paragraph to...you seem to be suggesting that Theism has no predictive power, so it cannot explain any purported evidence for a miracle.
If that is what you are saying, of necessity no amount of publicly available evidence could convince you that the Resurrection happened, or that God exists.
I would have thought that evidentialists would have been more open to the evidence, but there you go (-;



John W. Loftus said...

Mr Veale said, That simply means that the historical method cannot detect the miraculous in history.

Exactly! And that's all we have to know what happened from what didn't.

You go on to talk about background beliefs which are the the "priors" you have when assessing these claims. But where do you get these priors from? Logically they must be yours prior to assessing the historical evidence. That's all we have to work with, what we've experienced to know what the probabilities are with regard to the past. Since the historical method has no such priors you cannot say they help you assess that evidence. Name one, just try. Name one prior you had prior to assessing the evidence.

It does not help you to say that God exists, for the capitalized word "God" means for you the Christian god. Whether that god exists depends on the historical evidence of the virgin birth, prophecy fulfilled, and a resurrection. You might conclude from philosophy there is a god of some kind but I can think of all kinds of possibilities about a god hypothesis that do not lead to the Christian one. I can even grant you that Yahweh exists and miracles are possible but what needs to be shown is that Yahweh did this particular miracle and even the Jews of Jesus' day and Jews today do not think the evidence leads us to that conclusion--and they believe in Yahweh! How much more so to those who don't.

Any priors we have are the ones we have experienced. And I have never seen a miracle even though logically I cannot rule them out. In fact, the Catholic Church investigates claims to sainthood on a regular basis and have only approved about .0167% of them and that's coming from a group of believers.

John W. Loftus said...


Given the millions of miracle claims alleged by Catholics in Lourdes, France the church has officially recognized 67 of them. A rough estimation of the general reliability of human miracle testimony from Lourdes comes out to be a mere .0000167.

Mr Veale said...

Call me Graham, John. Only my students call me "Mr".

"for the capitalized word "God" means for you the Christian god"

Not in this context. I'm just talking about philosophical Theism. Maximal, intentional power.
(This is where you need to engage with the McGrew's, especially Lydia's discussions about Elliott Sober)...I'm off for my Sunday snooze, now. But I'll get back to this later! Always a pleasure butting heads John. I really need to get across to your blog soon!


Mr Veale said...

The frequentist approach to Lourdes was a nice touch, though. Made me smile, and a reasonable objection underneath too!