Wednesday, August 24, 2005

Dialogue with Ahab on motivation

would argue that there potential motives of all kinds on all sides in this matter, than no one is immune from the influence of their passions when it comes to the decision as to whether to believe in God or not, and I am not inclined to disbelieve someone when they tell me they don't believe in God in virtue of their best efforts to evaluate the evidence pro and con. I do get somewhat offended when people like Russell imply that Christians are really engaged in wishful thinking when they claim that their beliefs are based on reasons.

Even for someone who is an atheist, who believes in a practices a moral code which is based on human considerations, there is probably something appealing about the idea that this moral code did not come from some supreme being.

Another factor that kind of works on all sides of this is that both believers and unbelievers come to be at home in their universes; they get used to thinking of things in theistic or non-theistic terms, and to change that, especially late in life, is emotionally taxing.

I think it is not unusual or strange for someone to not want there to be a God. The desire for humans to be autonomous, even if they are no constantly engaging in what Christians would call sin, is very powerful. "Better to reign in hell than to serve in heaven," says Milton's Satan.

Do you think that a special burden of proof falls upon theists because they believe what most people really want to believe, whether they admit it or not, while atheists have less in the way of non-rational motivation preventing them from discovering the truth?


Blue Devil Knight said...

I think the burden is on theists, not because it would (arguably) be cool if they were right, but because they are trying to get me to believe that something exists for which I do not have good evidence or reasons to believe exists. The standard example we atheists use is the claim that there is an invisible unicorn on your shoulder that is judging you and deciding if you deserve to go to nirvanna when you die. Who has the burden of proof for this claim?

This reminds me of a funny story. I actually became a non Christian in college as a Freshman when some hard-core fundys were talking to us at our dorm, and asked us to look deep into our hearts and see if we really believed that Jesus Christ rose from the dead. Well, I did it, and realized I just didn't believe it! In fact, I realized that in my heart I thought it seemed like one of the stupidest things I'd ever heard, and was surprised I hadn't been more critical before. I didn't have the heart to tell them they helped make me a nonChristian. It wasn't long before I was a full blown atheist.

Maybe I should thank them.

Victor Reppert said...

So I take it neither of you would accept Alvin Plantinga's famous argument that belief in God can be properly basic?

Anonymous said...

(Sorry, botched the link the first time.)

You're right; I don't accept it. But I don't usually say that theists are irrational, either.

1. Plantinga says, in his article Intellectual Sophistication and Basic Belief in God -- "In arguing that belief in God is properly basic, I meant to rebut the claim made by the evidentialist objector: the claim that the theist who has no evidence for theism is in some way irrational."

Back in the Pliocene when I first got online, modems routinely dumped transmission errors into the visible data stream, so that all kinds of nonsense characters would appear in the text in bursts -- stuff like @#t&(^p*^n2[?% cropping up in the middle of sentences. One of my online acquaintances believed that such line noise was messages from the spirit world. The evidence for this position was not easy to discern. :drily:

I can't prove that line noise isn't messages from the spirit world, of course. But in the absence of a good reason to think that it is, I decline to believe it.

-- Some Christians reading the above example are probably irked: they'll think I am mocking them by comparing their deeply held beliefs to a manifest absurdity, and that the comparison is inapt. Well, it [i]is[/i] inapt. That's the point.

My old acquaintance's belief is preposterous because there is nothing whatsoever to support it. If theists really did believe in God the same way, their belief would be similarly absurd. But I am not sure that I have ever seen any otherwise-rational theist hold to theism with no evidence whatsoever. I know Christians who, in argument about the existence of God, will hold to a fideist or presuppositionalist position in theory. But in practice, the minute the argument is over and they're talking to other Christians, they'll turn up with a collection of stories as long as giraffe's neck about how God has worked in their lives. Whether I think any of these stories are good evidence is nugatory: what's important is that they do think so.

That's my first problem with Plantinga's argument: I don't know that the situation he's describing ever obtains. I know some theists whose apparent motive for adopting an epistemology that denies their need to defend is that they don't think that they can defend, and can't bear to be defenseless. But that they don't have any evidence at all seems to me to be questionable.

2. I'll note that there's a potential red herring in the discussion. Needing to justify a belief to oneself and bearing the burden of proof in an argument are related without being the same thing, and it looks like Plantinga's talking about the former.

If sensory evidence is strong, then I hold beliefs for which I have strong evidence, but which, nevertheless, I cannot prove. For instance, I have sensory evidence that across the room from me there is a lit torchiere. Since I can't show it to you, your justification for believing that it's there is much weaker: you have my testimony to the fact, which is (I imagine) weakly supported by three things:

1) You have no particular reason to think I'm hallucinating;
2) The sight of a lamp is not data of a sort readily misinterpreted; and
3) There's probably no reason why I should want to deceive you about it.

I consider it entirely possible for a belief to be rational without it being demonstrable, therefore. In this case, it's undemonstrable because, while the sensory evidence would be available to you if you were here, you're not; in other cases my evidence is introspective, and while I might be able to describe it to you, I can never show it to you. My evidence that I once dreamed about the moon breaking apart is memory and nothing more, for instance. If you had some reason for doubting my account, there would be nothing I could do to convince you.

This has some bearing on the reason I don't think I bear the burden of proof in an argument about whether God exists. The essence of my position is "I don't know that deity exists." It's reactive by its very nature. Say "deity exists" and support it, and then you can make me defend my attempts to undercut. But negate my position directly, and there's no ground for discussion: there is no way I can show that I don't know.

3. There is a collection of propositions I accept as first truths, as axioms, without inferring them from anything else. All of them involve what I'll describe as first principles of reason, or primary perceptions. I can't prove that deduction works, for obvious reasons; I can't prove that induction works; I can't prove that the external universe exists; I can't prove that my senses are generally reliable; I can't prove that good and evil are real; I can't prove that I have libertarian free will. But I cannot, in practice, consistently behave as if I disbelieve any of these things; and if in theory I accept their negations, I'll have said that at least one of my fundamental perceptions is such as to be systematically misleading. And there stands self-defeat.

I admit that there exists something that I will call the sense of the sacred, or the sense of the elusive Other. It is possible that it corresponds to something real -- I don't know. There's a reason I haven't included it in my list of things I accept as axioms: it doesn't force itself into my daily existence the way conscience and the sense of free deliberation do. I can deny that it points to anything real without thereby engaging in some implicit self-contradiction in the next hour through some moral judgment I make, or through some explanation I entertain for why I did one thing and not another. However, I can understand someone deciding that it does correspond to something real, and considering it prima facie evidence for the existence of some sort of mystical or spiritual reality.

What I don't see is how to go from this sense of the sacred and of the elusive Other to any particular concept of deity, in such a fashion that the theological concept itself also rates the status of a bedrock assumption. The sense of the sacred is ubiquitous; the interpretations that humans have given to it are myriad, and I don't know why I should privilege one over another. Or: deciding that that something spiritual or mystical exists on this basis doesn't impress me as intrinsically unreasonable, but deciding that the particular spiritual thing that exists is the Christian God looks like a leap. With no evidence at all, one choice of deity is as unfounded as the next. That is to say -- as far as I can tell, Plantinga just argued that I can have a properly basic belief in the Flying Sphaghetti Monster.

4. People decide what to believe and what to do based on some combination of these principles:

"This is true, so I should follow it."
"This works, so I should follow it."

Everyone uses both to some extent, but with different degrees of emphasis. A lot of people who can't defend the intellectual truth of their positions base their belief on the (frequently undemonstrable) ways in which they find their lives improved by the practice of their religion or philosophy. Since people with all sorts of conflicting religious and philosophical views say "This works," I think that attempts to show that a particular religion is true from the fact that its practicitioners believe it has a practical effect are likely to fail. But having said that, I don't see any reason to apply the label 'irrational' to someone who continues to do what works for them in practice.

Blue Devil Knight said...

Whether God-beliefs can be properly basic seems an interesting psychological question. I think they probably are not, but that is an empirical claim (I think it is more likely that kids are taught about gods, using something like 'invisible [generally, nonperceptible] human beings who control the universe', and the god beliefs figure prominently in so many explanations, are so central in their web of belief, that the beliefs take on a halo of 'basicness' because of this contingently central role).

When I was a youngster, after my initial indoctrination period at home and church, I spontaneously and effortlessly used god beliefs to fill in many gaps in my knowledge, to comfort myself when sad, to justify moral claims, etc.. Nowadays, I sometimes force myself to try to believe in a god for an hour or so, and to use that belief to explain and understand the world It is a very difficult exercise given that my philosphical naturalism is now so engrained in my 'web' of belief. Just like I find the ID folk are stunted at thinking about things naturalistically, I am now stunted in my thinking about things godly.

However, even it god-beliefs are basic, that doesn't give them any epistemic leeway one way or another. We know that the scent of a rose is not really in the world (I could mess with your olfactory cortex and change the smell of a rose, for instance), though our brains are constructed to paint the world with smells, colors, and the like, about which we form "basic" beliefs. Basic beliefs, as part of the manifest image, are a starting point of science, but they often turn out to be wrong once we put them under the microscope.