Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Testing the Outsider Test

This is John Loftus' most recent defense of the outsider test for faith. I think I have some problems I would like to see him solve if he is going to defend it.

First, it would be good if the argument could be formulated with premises and a conclusion. Exactly what is he arguing for, and what is the basis for his argument.

Second, it would be cheating to have a test and just mark our religious beliefs as the beliefs to be tested. Keith Parsons once asked, "Tell me, do you really think that, had you been born Vijay instead of Victor, and if you were from Bangalore rather than Phoenix, AZ, that you would not now be as devoted to Brahma as you are to God?" And the answer is I don't know. If Keith had grown up in the United Methodist church that I did, and had he discovered Plantinga or Lewis before leaving the fold, as opposed to converting briefly to West Rome Baptist Church and hearing weekly hellfire threats as an undergraduate, would he now be a Christian philosopher instead of an atheist? The "what if" game is far harder than it looks to play.

But I happen to know something about Vijay. Keith and I agree that there is an independently existing physical world. Vijay does not. If either of us had been born Vijay, we would think of the world of experience as maya, or illusion, and we would not see it as ultimately real. So it looks as if external world realism fails the outsider test. Yet I see no reason to be accept external world skepticism because if I had been born in India, I might have been brought up to reject external world realism.

What about moral beliefs? I think that rape is wrong. If I had been brought up in a certain culture, I'm told, I would believe that rape is OK if you do it in the evening, because a woman's place is at home under her husband's protection, and if she is gone she's asking for it. So my belief that rape is wrong flunks the outsider test. This gives me no basis whatsoever for doubting that rape is wrong.

What about political beliefs? I think that representative democracy is a better form of government than monarchy. If I lived in 16th Century Europe, or in other parts of the globe, I probably would not believe that. So my belief in democratic government flunks the outsider test. However, this gives me no reason to have the least doubt that democracy is better than monarchy.

What about scientific beliefs? If I had been born in the Islamic world, or in some Christian churches, I would have been taught to reject the theory of evolution in its entirety. So it looks like the theory of evolution fails the outsider test. Nevertheless, this in itself is insufficient grounds for the slightest doubt about evolution.

Finally, a certain natural conservatism with respect to changing our minds about matters of world-view, or any other issue for that matter, is both natural and rational. I thought the lesson of things like Cartesian foundationalism is that if you throw out all sort of beliefs as unjustified and load the burden of proof onto those beliefs, it's hard to stop and have anything left. Most people thought that Descartes had to cheat to get his world back. If we have to be skeptics about all of our sociologically conditioned beliefs, I am afraid we are going to be skeptics about a lot more than just religion.


Anonymous said...

"If we have to be skeptics about all of our sociologically conditioned beliefs, I am afraid we are going to be skeptics about a lot more than just religion."

Reminds me of Woody Allen's joking description of a speed reading course he once took: "First you learn how to read faster by eliminating all the words except prepositions. Soon the prepositions are removed."

Anonymous said...

The linked to essay is an edited version of my chapter. In that chapter I distinguished between religious faiths and other kinds of beliefs.

In the essay I also wrote:

The amount of skepticism warranted depends on the number of rational people who disagree, whether the people who disagree are separated into distinct geographical locations, the nature of those beliefs, how they originated, how they were personally adopted in the first place, and the kinds of evidence that can possibly be used to decide between them. My claim is that when it comes to religious beliefs a high degree of skepticism is warranted because of these factors.

We would need to explore in greater detail the above factors. And I do think we should have a healthy amount of skepticism toward most all of our beliefs. Skepticism is on a continuum, and it's a virtue. What's wrong with that?

Anonymous said...

Good Evening Mr. Loftus,

Just a quick question for you: Is not your very claim, as stated, self-defeating due to its first premise? Let me explain.

You state that: "The amount of skepticism warranted depends on the number of rational people who disagree..."

The problem here is who can objectively claim to determine which people are "rational" and which are not. Furthermore, if skepticism is a virtue and I should be skeptical of various claims, then should I not be skeptical of the very people that claim that they are rational in addition to being skeptical of the very people that claim that they have determined which people are rational or not? For example, I am sure that the people you would qualify as rational would differ (at least in part) from the people that I would qualify as rational and therefore, you must be skeptical of my "rational group" and I must be skeptical of yours. But then are these people rational or not, or does it just depend on our subjective belief of who we see as rational...which, of course--because it is a belief--must be subject to skepticism, as per your statement. And around and around the circle goes.

Thus, if the above points are valid, then how does your claim ever get off the ground, as it seems that I must be continuously skeptical of the very first premise on which it rests.

Take care.

Anonymous said...

"First, it would be good if the argument could be formulated with premises and a conclusion. Exactly what is he arguing for, and what is the basis for his argument."

I agree. The Outsider Test needs to be formulated more rigorously if we are going to assess it. One can see how certain arguments for and from it *might* be formulated, but until John actually provides a rigorous explication of the arguments (as Victor says, with 'premises and conclusions'), it's hard to know what to make of it. I know that you say, John, that you didn't write your book with philosophers in mind, but it would be a tremendous help if you could formulate the exact argument as clearly as possible.

Anonymous said...

The problem with the outsider test is that it's so darn awful!

I think you might be taking it more seriousuly than it deserves.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for your criticisms Victor. It helped me to clarify some things.

Mike Darus said...

This idea that people adopt the relgion of their culture and historical time has elements of truth but also has some problems.
1) It is not true that certain countries or even regions of countries have monolithic ties to a particular religion. There are fewer and fewer places on earth where a person has only one faith to choose from.
2) Every religion struggles to pass the faith to the next generation. It is in no way automatic. The norm seems rather that by the teen years, children test the faith they were raised with and often choose alternatives.
3) There once may have been an issue that information about other faiths would be restricted. This is not the case now. The Internet alone may undermine this premise.
4) The "rational" condition could make the whole argument irrelvent. It is likely that other factors beside rational evaluation inform decisions to commit to a particular faith.

Anonymous said...

Mike I don't think any qualifier you mentioned does anything to undermine the OTF. I wrote something to that effect about recent poll right here. But I will say, that as our planet gets more and more diversified such that a Buddhist will live next to an atheist who will live next to a Muslim who will live next to a Jew who will live next to a Catholic on the same street and work together at the same job and get online to read a diversified number of religious blogs, then it might be true that one leg supporting the OTF will be gone. But the sociological and demographical facts are only one leg. There is also psychological and anthropological data that form the other two legs in support of the OTF as well. Nonetheless, if we become a truly diversified planet the test will remain for we can study the history of these religious faiths and how they were separated at one time into distinct geographical areas, and know why they merged. Besides, if we actually become a religiously diversified planet then we will all be forced to test what we believe on a daily basis with the beliefs of our friend next door, and that will be good for us all and the execution of the OTF.

Anonymous said...

The Outsider Test will not be complete until someone attempts to define just what remains when we step 'outside' X, and until someone attempts to defend why what remains need not be subject to such a test itself. Let me clarify this.

Suppose a Christian decides to take the Outsider Test. Obviously, this would entail that he assumes an attitude of skepticism about all of the articles of his faith -- the same level of skepticism he brings to his analyses of other religious faiths or ideologies. The reason for this skepticism, according to John's arguments, is the religious dependency thesis. However, *by far*, most of what our hypothetical Christian believes, *even after we subtract his religious belief*, depends in the very same way as his religious faith on both where and when he was raised. In other words, does the Outsider Test, *if consistently applied*, leave the now skeptical believer with any significant premises to work with *that are not sociologically determined --both diachronically and synchronically -- in the same way his religious beliefs are*? There simply *must* be such a set of premises if the Outsider Test is to survive the onslaught of its own criterion, since it does no good to step 'outside' one's faith because of its sociological dependency if one is still 'inside' some other socially dependent set of beliefs, and using those beliefs as the premises with which he undertakes the test. Until these premises are clearly elucidated, justified and shown to obtain without reference to any sociological dependency (so that they are not themselves subject to the same criticisms they are supposed to be used to address), the Outsider Test remains too vague, too poorly formulated, and too uncritical to be taken seriously.

I want to distinguish here between the notion that one should 'be skeptical' on the one hand, and the Outsider Test on the other. I have no problem with the former, *but the latter cannot be reduced to the former*. The Outsider Test isn't simply the reasonable admonition of skepticism; it's an argument for a specific skeptical approach that is justified by appealing to specific sociological facts. As such, it's obviously possible to criticize it on grounds that cannot be answered with an unthinking, "What's wrong with skepticism?" response. Such a response misses the point; the issue isn't skepticism as such, but the Outsider Test. Ironically, this uncritical response demonstrates that those who criticize the Outsider Test often understand it far better than those who advocate it!

Anonymous said...

Really, isn't this a little too much attention to pay to this "argument?"

Anonymous said...

John, check out my response to your important article.

Anonymous said...

Victor, I think John might reply to your litany by saying that we can observe a sort of philosophical, moral, political, and scientific progress, such that other societies either do not permit it (and are therefore objectively worse that ours), or they are more primitive relative to our place and time. But I think that he'd like to maintain that there has been no progress with respect to religion. He keeps mentioning that our beliefs are identical to those of "ancient superstitious" people. Now this may be literally false, in that there has been tremendous progress in philosophy of religion and theology since 1 B.C. But it is also true that we still hold to the Nicene creed adopted in 325.

Anonymous said...

In other words, John might argue that it is not the case that the reason why you are a Christian here as opposed to Muslim in Saudi Arabia is that Christianity represents a genuine advance over Islam, as the belief that rape is wrong is an advance over the belief that rape is sometimes OK. But this begs the question, because it assumes that no religion is truer than any other. But if we assume that, then what becomes the point of the outsider test? The syllogism is trivial:

(1) No religion is truer than another.
(2) At most one religion is true.
(3) All religions are false.

Why bother with the test?

Edwardtbabinski 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.