Our long-ago episode 43 on arguments for the existence of God left us with a question: If believers aren't swayed or even much interested in the failure of these classical arguments, then what does motivate them? Does being "reasonable" epistemically always mean that you look at the available evidence (like these arguments), and believe in accordance with that? If Kant is right that religious claims (at least some of them) don't lie within the empirical realm and so can't be evaluated by reference to scientific evidence, then what justification could one have for being religious? We previously explored William James's pragmatic response to this question (if we can't know either way, then hold whatever belief most improves life) but wanted to get some different perspectives.
On 11/22/15, Mark and Wes held what was planned as a bonus episode, i.e., a purposeful vacation for Seth and Dylan, and instead brought on two representatives from other podcasts:
- Nathan Gilmour is an English (and philosophy and history) professor who hosts the Christian Humanist podcast, which is a three-way discussion like PEL, sometimes covering things they all read (try ep. 152 on Kant's "What Is Enlightenment?,") sometimes just pulling out their scholarly knowledge to address some general topic (I brought up during our discussion their ep. 70 on epistemology), and sometimes discussing a movie or something else (I enjoyed ep. 158 on Monty Python and the Holy Grail). Nathan's accent and denomination may scream southern evangelical, but his scholarly chops and good-natured humor belie any stereotype you may have in mind.
- Rob Dyer is senior pastor at a liberal Protestant church and is producer/engineer for the God Complex Radio podcast (where I was a guest a while back). God Complex is a talk show mainly aimed at clergy where two hosts interview authors of various books (at one point in the current episode Rob refers to Diana Butler Bass who was on their show). Rob's a cheery, gregarious guy with the no-nonsense mind (and past profession) of an engineer.
So that makes two (fairly liberal) theists and two agnostic/atheist types, and to prepare we read the final chapter of the 1999 collection Faith and Reason (Oxford Readers), edited by Paul Helm, which provided a variety of concise arguments from different perspectives about reason and belief in God in the form of a dozen short (2–9 page) essays or excerpts:
- Antony Flew, "The Presumption of Atheism" (1976). Read it online. Flew was a famous atheist, author of the widely read essay “Theology and Falsification” (1950), who late in his life (he died in 2010) actually converted to deism and remains a disputed propaganda item. The essay we read claimed that just as in a court of law the burden of proof is on the accuser, in any attempt to determine the existence of something, that burden is on the one arguing for the existence of that thing. So just because we can't know whether the flying spaghetti monster is real, we don't need to be agnostics: we assume something doesn't exist unless we have warrant to do otherwise.
- Norwood Russell Hanson, “The Agnostic’s Dilemma” (1971). (You can read the first two pages online here and the last ones here, which is enough to get the idea.) Hanson can be read as elaborating on Flew's picture. Hanson describes scientific explanation and logical investigation as different regarding negative existentials: In science, to prove something (like an egg-laying bat) exists, you need only produce one instance of it; to prove that no egg-laying bats exist, you just look as far and wide as you can and by induction, if you don't find it, you say there isn't one, just as in science, to prove a law, i.e., a positive universal claim, you look at all instances you can where the law should apply, and if no violations are found, then you affirm the law... provisionally, always open to a disconfirming case, but this is far from agnosticism. The agnostic starts from a scientific position where he thinks that some proof COULD establish God (His appearance before us publicly), yet when no such proof arises, he inconsistently slips to thinking like a logician and says "well, you can't 100% prove the lack of existence of something, so I must forever remain perfectly neutral."
- Steven Cahn, "The Irrelevance of Proof to Religion" (1969). Read the essay online here, starting on p. 2. Cahn argues that believers have no interest in proofs for the existence of God because they afford no means of distinguishing good from evil, i.e., God's Will (see our episode on the Euthyphro for a variation on this: IS does not imply OUGHT). Believers either have a "self-validating" experience that convinces them of something about God's will for them, or they may accept someone else's self-validating experience, e.g., by buying into a religious tradition. Cahn's position had deep resonance for both of our guests.
- Alvin Plantinga, “Is Belief in God Properly Basic?” (1981 article in Nous). Read the essay online. Plantinga has been highly influential, and this was probably the most complex of the papers we read. He claims that there are plenty of propositions such as "other minds exist" and "material objects exist" that we don't have evidence for, exactly, but rather we take these as basic. Strictly speaking (think back to Descartes), we only have these sensations, and yet we assume as basic the belief that these appearances in general correspond to things in the world. Comparably, Plantinga thinks that it is natural for people to have the reaction, for example, when seeing an eye designed to see or the vast night sky to express these as actions of God. Maybe you don't interpret those phenomena that way, but we only have to pay attention to our own phenomenology in establishing what we take to be basic.
- Merold Westphal, "Sin and Reason" (1990, from his essay "On Taking St. Paul Seriously: Sin as an Epistemological Category") throws down the Calvinist gauntlet that expresses a common post-modern tack among arguers for religion: original sin warps our ability to reason, to see truth in religious matters, and so far from everyone having an underlying intuition of God, we are prone to error until (and even when) we accept God as our guide. The upshot for argumentation is that everyone is biased, that there's nothing in human instinct or raw reasoning power that we can all refer to to resolve theological disputes.
- Basil Mitchell “Faith and Criticism” (1994). Mitchell considers W.K. Clifford's principle “It is wrong, always, everywhere and for everyone to believe anything upon insufficient evidence” and, like Plantinga, considers how our other everyday judgments would fare against that strict criterion. Drawing on inspiration from John Henry Newman, Mitchell instead tries to give some observations about how reasoning actually works: Much of reasoning is tacit and informal, the accumulation of probabilities. Estimating the force of evidence is always influenced by antecedent assumptions (this is the hermeneutic circle, which you can hear us talk about in discussing Gadamer and then in a specifically religious context about Ricoeur). Finally, we need stability in these assumptions over time, and don't just change our whole world-view in light of new evidence. He compares this to paradigms in science that persist and just consider such new evidence one of the problems that the paradigm has to deal with (listen to us talk about Thomas Kuhn on scientific paradigms).
- Peter van Inwagen, "Clifford's Principle" (1994). This is part of his longer essay "Quam Dilecta" that you can read online here). Continuing to bash Clifford, van Inwagen says that "evidence" that could make religious belief rational can include "'insight' or some other incommunicable event." In other words, scientific evidence must be public, but aren't there many things we believe (that someone loves us, for instance) that rely at least in part on insights that can't be confirmed in this way?
- William Alston "Experience in Religious Belief" (1991). Read a summary online here. Alston explicitly considers mystical experience, which sounds like one of the kinds of things that van Inwagen and Cahn might be referring to by "insight" and "self-validating experience." Skeptics easily dismiss these by pointing out that nearly all the time, a mystic has his own current beliefs confirmed: Christians see Jesus in such experiences, while Hindus see Krishna or what have you. Alston defends mysticism against such attacks on hermeneutic grounds. Yes, he admits, by itself, such an indescribable experience couldn't serve to found a religion or otherwise fix religious belief, and in fact, we need prior beliefs to interpret such experiences. In a move similar to Plantinga's, Alston claims that the various experiences and prior beliefs support each other, combining to create certainty and justification (as opposed to being just a vicious circle, steeped in fundamental error).
- Robert M. Adams, "The Sin of Unbelief" (1987) hit on another key element of this self-reinforcing circle of belief, which is that once you believe, then you believe that God has spoken to you. If you then subsequently doubt, you're not just changing your mind about an alleged matter of fact, but you're personally betraying God, and betraying that little voice in your head that will always remain once you've "hear the call." This "sin" isn't something that Adams can accuse non-believers of (he wouldn't presume to get in their heads), but for the believer, "faith" doesn't primarily mean unquestioningly assenting to a proposition of alleged fact, but it means having faith in someone, a personal God, much as you'd have faith in your spouse, in which case (as Nathan expressed it) Flew's directive (in his 1950 paper) that you be able to produce some evidence that, if it showed, would prove that there is no God (or that God is not good), is positively obscene: You don't, for instance, in entering into a marriage, contemplate exactly what would subsequently constitute grounds for divorce. As with Westphal's article, this defensive move by religion can really be an impediment to thinking that any rational discourse between believers and unbelievers can be possible: The best we seemingly can do is agree to disagree.
- We read two articles by Richard Swinburne, "The Voluntariness of Faith" (1981) and “The World and Its Order” (1996). The former discussed pragmatic religiosity, where we start by doing religious deeds, i.e., acting as if we believed, and then tend to slip over time into actual belief, thus making this kind of faith start with voluntary action, whereas you can't just straightforwardly will that you believe something in most cases. The latter was from the book Is There a God?, which I read some of and enjoyed for our New Atheists episode, but was rather beside the point for our discussion, as it pretty much just asserted how well some of the classic arguments (like that from design) actually work... in which case, being religious would of course be rational without the need for all of this further discussion.
- Finally, Paul Helm, the editor, chimed in with a new, short piece, "Faith and Merit," seemingly to point out the contradiction between Swinburne's two pieces just mentioned: If faith is more impressive because you have to trick yourself into it through voluntarily willing some action from which belief with then tend to follow, then arguing as Swinburne does that belief in God is reasonable on ordinary, evidential grounds amounts to denying the reader the ability to exert faith in this more difficult but more virtuous way. None of us were much impressed by this argument, as it seemed to twist what we'd read by Swinburne.
Other sources that we reviewed before the discussion were the Stanford Encyclopedia article on the epistemology of religion (by Peter Forrest), and the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy article on religious epistemology (by Kelly James Clark), which cover much of the same ground as the above in pitting evidentialism (the claim that justified belief requires evidence) and fideism (the position that faith is justified without evidence, or alternately that faith doesn't need to be reasonable).