Posts Tagged ‘Examining Sophisticated Theology’

Jonathan MS Pearce’s Critical Examinations: Possibiliter ergo probabiliter

November 19, 2021

So at the end of the last post I commented that it looked to me like Pearce is making a knowledge claim, and is basing that knowledge claim to a great degree on an argument that there are contradictions that cannot be reasonably resolved between the stories — either with themselves or with the historical record — and so the stories aren’t accurate and so aren’t true.  I noted there that if they base their argument on statements that these things cannot be resolved then all I need to do is show one possible way that they can be reasonably resolved to blunt their claim and so defeat their knowledge claim (at least to the point where it relies on that argument).  I can do this because if they are making a knowledge claim it has to be the case that, well, we really know that their argument is true, and if they are making a knowledge claim and I can introduce doubt into their arguments then they can’t be making a knowledge claim anymore.  If, on the other hand, they were just making a “I believe this” or “This is one credible option” argument then that argument wouldn’t be available.

I also noted there that they wouldn’t like this reply, and the reason is that this is something that Pearce and Carrier constantly call a possibiliter ergo probabiliter fallacy, where they argue that this is arguing “Possibly, therefore probably” and you can’t get from the fact that something is possibly the case to the fact that something is probably the case.  But where this goes awry — at least in the arguments that I will be using that sort of argument against — is that the argument is not being used to argue that something is possible so therefore it is probable so therefore we should believe that and, by extension, believe in the original proposition (usually, for them, the existence of God).  No, instead it’s being used strictly to challenge their arguments, which are presented as “There is no reasonable way this can happen/make sense”.  In that case, if I can show that there is a reasonable way that can happen then their argument falters.  This holds even if they could argue that their take on it is the more probable by whatever standard they are using, because what the argument would do is shift the debate from the one that more favours them of “This doesn’t and can’t make sense” to the one that favours their opponents more of “Which of these is actually the more probable, and if one is more probable than the other are we rationally required to take that option than the other one?”, which involves a lot more epistemology and the like.  And, again, as already noted the former can support a knowledge claim but the latter, in general, cannot (at least not without being able to demonstrate that the have evidence for their alternative that rises to the level of knowledge).

So if I am right that they are making knowledge claims or that their strong stances require them to make a knowledge claim, then all I need to do is introduce doubt, and doubt sufficient enough to mean that they can’t know their position is correct.  So for any argument they make that says that there is no reasonable way to reconcile the stories and events, all I need to do is show that there is a reasonable way to do that to blunt their argument.  As long as I am never stupid enough to make a knowledge claim, I can blunt their argument even if after all of this they still believe that their interpretation is more probable.  On the other hand, they must be careful never to use an argument that their interpretation is possible when they aren’t being challenged by a knowledge claim (Pearce actually does this at the end of his book on the Resurrection, so I hope to look at that when I get here).

Let me finish off this analysis of the typical fallacy claims involved in these arguments by looking at the theistic response of “Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence”.  I think that Pearce is right to point out that that is not true if that absence of evidence is in a case where you would reasonably expect that evidence to exist, and so it is conspicuous by its absence.  Pearce, I think, in general uses this correctly, as he tends to use it against the strong supernatural claims of Matthew — the dead walking through the streets of Jerusalem, for example — by pointing out that if something that strange had actually happened, other contemporary writers certainly would have noted it.  He has to be careful, though, to make sure that the examples really are that strong, because again this argument is vulnerable to a counter that says that we can find a reasonable explanation for why they wouldn’t, and some of Pearce’s examples do seem to fall into that category.

To summarize, because I see Pearce and others as making a strong knowledge claim, I can oppose their claims by raising doubts and so in a number of cases simply raising a reasonably possible alternative as being the case.  It’s important to note this before I get into the specific claims because there I will be arguing for reasonably possible resolutions to the contradictions Pearce sees and I don’t want to have to deal with charges of the fallacy of possibiliter ergo probabiliter.

Jonathan MS Pearce’s Critical Examinations: Introduction

November 12, 2021

So, I’ve read a number of Jonathan MS Pearce’s books examining various aspects of Christianity, because I was conveniently ordering things from Amazon at the time and had heard about them from his blog, and it fit in with the “Examining Sophisticated Theology” thing I did in the past, being an Atheology aspect of that.  I’m going to talk about them off and on for the next while (I can’t promise it will be every week because there might be things that I want to talk about that I don’t want to wait to talk about).  Here, I’m going to start with the part that seems to most interest Pearce at the moment — he has written two recent books on it and is writing a third, although he has another book coming out that’s on more general topics — but interests me the least:  the historicity and accuracy of the Gospels and Bible in relating the Jesus story.

The reason this doesn’t interest me all that much comes from what seems to be the most common way skeptics go about challenging the Gospels or the Bible, which seems to me to be a Shotgun Approach:  fire off a great many arguments about contradictions with history and with each other and hope that by the sheer number their opponents will be overwhelmed and so their case will be made.  Why this doesn’t interest me much is because most of them end up being trivial and unimportant, most properly answered with a “I don’t care” than a “Yeah, that’s a tough one”.  I have long held that to make such arguments work you really need to find the critical components of the story and go after them, as it’s not crucial to the story how many angels or women were at the tomb, but is critical that Jesus was resurrected, for example.  As already noted, I think their hope is that with so many arguments they will overwhelm those who think the stories true and force them to come to the conclusion that they aren’t true, but I don’t think people work that way.  I think what happens instead is that people see all of these small arguments but in general don’t think them important, and so start to think that all of the arguments are just nitpicking, and so start ignoring them, especially if they were able to find reasonable — to them, at least — resolutions to the early ones.  It’s only people who are neutral or especially those who already have doubts that will eventually be overwhelmed by those arguments, concluding that their commitment to the belief isn’t strong enough to bother putting in the effort to resolve all of these arguments.  For any believer, however, for the most part they will be able to easily resolve these small arguments and will be motivated to do so, and so will be underwhelmed by the arguments (if that’s a word).

Pearce, I will say, is not as bad at this as others (I have read his book on the Nativity and his book on the Resurrection).  While he often does add up and reference a lot of really small arguments, he tends to focus on a couple of big cases at least that he then tries to shotgun, arguing that if this main component goes down then the whole thing goes down, and lists lots of reasons why that main component doesn’t seem to be correct.  However, that doesn’t mean that the ones he picks are actually important components or that he isn’t too quick to declare them impossible to resolve, which is something that I will probably go into in other posts.

The main approach that Pearce takes, particularly in this book on the Resurrection, is this:  he starts from the idea that the claims in the Gospels are extraordinary, and thus require extraordinary evidence to believe.  Then he wants to argue that the Gospels, for various reasons, are not reliable enough to be able to provide that sort of evidence.  He does this by pointing out contradictions between the Gospels themselves and between the Gospels and history, but also by showing that the Gospels are in general the sorts of historical documents that cannot provide that sort of evidence.  He does the latter by talking about how accounts that were not written down generally get corrupted easily, and also notes that ancient stories and histories tended to be unreliable unless they were done by dedicated historians, which none of the purported Gospel writers were (even Luke never claims to be and is never claimed to be a full historian, and only claims to be doing a more historical investigation).  So if they aren’t really reliable accounts, they could never provide the sort of evidence needed to justify that extraordinary claim.

Now, my first objection to this is that Pearce tends to consider anything supernatural “extraordinary” in that way, but the people he’s claiming should be convinced by this actually don’t consider the claims extraordinary in that way.  So this should result in an argument over that first, but Pearce tends to sidestep the arguments and maintain a naturalistic focus in the work, except to take small shots at anyone who is not a naturalist.  As most people reading this blog will know, I reject naturalism and all its works, mostly because I find the stance incoherent and ultimately meaningless.  So that the claims are supernatural don’t make the claims extraordinary to me, and a supernatural being that is claimed to have resurrected is actually less extraordinary than a being that wasn’t claimed to be supernatural.  So it is more reasonable to believe that Jesus qua Jesus was resurrected than any random person, and a lot of the arguments try to tie back to what ordinary people are expected to do, which is another flaw in naturalism.  The other, and perhaps larger, problem I have here is that let’s imagine that this really did happen, and this is the evidence we had.  Why couldn’t someone reasonably come to simply believe this based on this evidence?  Because if it is reasonable to think that this is the sort of evidence we could have, and the events really happened, then Pearce would have to be saying that it would be unreasonable to believe that what actually happened actually happened.  And that does not seem like a good epistemology.

Ultimately, this leads me to the major issue I’m having here:  Pearce — along with other people like Richard Carrier — seem to want believers, after they had read their works, to be compelled to give up their belief that these things happened on pain of being considered completely unreasonable and only acting on faith.  But the only way to be sure to get to that point is to be able to say that they know that these things didn’t happen, which means showing that key components of the story never happened.  You can’t do that by simply showing that the works are not necessarily accurate and are not necessarily reliable.  All that can do is cast doubt on the claims, and you cannot claim to know that something has not occurred by showing that we are reasonable to doubt that it occurred.  You need more than that.  To be fair, they do try to do this by showing that evidence that we should have is missing, but again that needs to be about important points and again they do tend to focus on a lot of points instead of on a few important ones.  While they tend to follow Bayesian epistemologies that rely on probabilities, I do not and do not agree that even under their model you can get to a reasonable definition of knowledge if you can merely claim that a claim is doubtful enough that the probability is low enough so that you can then claim to properly know that the claim is false.  That just seems weird, for the reasons I gave above:  true claims with unreliable evidence actually can’t result in a knowledge claim, so how could we ever know that a claim was false if all we have is that the evidence we have for it does not seem reliable enough to give a high enough probability?

So, for me, the important thing is the positive arguments against the claims, and that means given the evidence given in the books means looking at the cases where Pearce simply says that contradictions cannot be reasonably resolved in those cases where the story is critical to the belief.  Those are the cases that would justify a knowledge claim.  And so all I feel I need to do is show how they could be resolved, even if I can’t demonstrate that that’s what really happened.  Pearce and others really dislike that sort of response, but they need to establish that they can’t be reasonably resolved to make a knowledge claim and if I can show that they can be then they can’t make a knowledge claim.  And they can’t turn that around on me because I’m not making a knowledge claim here, but merely a belief claim.  And for a belief claim, I only need to claim what I personally think and don’t need to hold anyone else to what I believe, which again is not the case for them.

But I’ll get into more details on this when I get into the specific claims.  Here, I just want to outline what I think their project is — at least given their rhetoric — and what I feel they have to provide to succeed at their project. given that I don’t have the same philosophical foundations and starting points as them.  So, for me, they are not going to be able to use their preconditions in the way they normally do.

Summary of Sophisticated Atheology …

January 19, 2018

So, after finishing Philipse’s book, I have now read all of the books that Jerry Coyne challenged theists to read, as well as his own book and a few others. What is my overall impression, then, of the atheist arguments and positions, as expressed in the works that Jerry Coyne believes make the most convincing and strongest arguments?

All of them depend greatly on accepting a specific worldview. If you don’t accept that worldview, you’ll find the argument weak at best and ridiculous at worst.

Note that the worldview here isn’t specifically atheistic. This isn’t a clash between theistic and atheistic worldviews. But in general the atheists accept strong naturalistic/materialistic worldviews, and the consequences of those worldviews mean that there is no room for any kind of supernatural or immaterial entity to exist, and that includes gods. So, then, the consequences is that gods cannot exist. But if anyone even accepts the possibility that supernatural or immaterial entities could exist then this presumption is broken, and most of the arguments evaporate. This necessitates attempts to restore that foundation, most of which rely on some way on inductive arguments … which can’t be used to establish that something simply cannot exist. Thus, they appeal to the success of naturalistic approaches — for example — to argue for methodological naturalism, and from there to establish that foundation. But methodological naturalism does not justify ontological naturalism, and ontological naturalism is required to establish that one ought not consider the possibility that supernatural or immaterial exist, and again as soon as one does their arguments no longer have support. In the end, unless you accept their axioms you will not accept their conclusions, and it is far too easy to point out the lack of support their axioms have.

Also, it is indeed the case that in general they are philosophically uninformed. The one who is actually a philosopher — Philipse — makes critical mistakes in understanding philosophical fields, and while one cannot expect a philosopher to be equally well-versed in all of the various fields of philosophy one would expect him to do the work in understanding fields he explicitly references, like he does when he dismisses functionalism without thought despite it being well-developed, popular, and yet contradicting his own position. One would also not expect him to dismiss the common tools of conceptual analysis as he does with thought experiments. Kaufmann misunderstands analytic vs post-modern philosophy, Coyne refuses to use philosophical concepts and definitions and instead prefers the dictionary, and Rosenberg, in my view, greatly misunderstands most of the philosophical debates he wanders into. Not understanding philosophy is fine, but wandering into philosophical debates and misunderstanding them while, in general, smugly declaring science superior to philosophy is not. Moreover, by ignoring them they end up with arguments that are weak and easy to dismiss if one does not accept their worldview underpinnings, resulting in issues like the one outlined above.

In summary, the works ought not convince anyone that God does not exist who isn’t already convinced of that or predisposed to be convinced of that. As that’s not their intention, nor was that the intention of Coyne’s challenge, I think it safe to say that they have failed.

God in the Age of Science: Conclusion

January 12, 2018

Most of the conclusion to the book is Philipse summarizing all of the chapters and what it said, and so isn’t all that interesting to examine. However, at the very end, he sets out the three things he thinks he has shown, so let me go through them to see if he has, indeed, really done that:

1. Theism is not a meaningful theory. So we should become particular semantic atheists.

Since theists can point to, in general, the thing that they are talking about when they talk about a god, that we can’t make a sufficiently specific or meaningful full testable-by-science theory out of it doesn’t justify any kind of atheism. All that means is that we need to do more work to make some kind of scientific theory out of it or concede that maybe a scientific approach isn’t the right one here. This conclusion is only strengthened by the fact that those things are important to many people, and have a great impact on how they live. Given that, it’s not reasonable to declare that those things that they can clearly reference in a way that we can understand what they are talking about can’t exist or, at least, that we ought act as if they don’t exist because the theory is deemed insufficient. There are a number of things and phenomena — quantum mechanics being a good example — that we don’t have strong theories for and yet we have no trouble saying that they exist and that our job is to create proper and meaningful, testable and test theories for them. Philipse might counter that we know that quantum entities exist and don’t know that for gods, but he would still run afoul of the fact that we can’t dismiss their existence until we have a sufficient theory to be able to claim that we know they don’t exist. So either we know they don’t exist or we need to work out a better theory to allow us to know whether or not they exist.

In summary, theists can always reference gods in such a way that we can know what they are talking about when they talk about their god, and so if we don’t have a sufficient theory to assess the existence of their gods then the problem is that we need to create a better theory. And if we can claim to know that their gods don’t exist, then we have a sufficiently meaningful theory to make the semantic argument moot. Thus, we should never adopt a particular semantic atheist position.

2. If we assume for the sake of argument that theism is a meaningful theory, it has no predictive power with regard to any existing evidence. Because the truth of theism is improbable given the scientific background knowledge concerning the dependence of mental life on brain processes, we should become strong particular atheists with regard to theism.

Demanding predictive power requires us to hold theistic propositions being very strongly scientific, which most theists won’t accept and which Philipse does not sufficient justify. On top of that, that scientific background knowledge is no such thing, as we have no reason to think that any possible mental life must depend on there being a physical brain, and it is trivial to posit concepts of mental lives without brains like ours or physical brains at all. This reduces Philipse’s argument to, at best, a prime example of the inductive fallacy: I’ve never seen something with a mental life that didn’t have a brain. That is not sufficient evidence to justify, in any way, a claim that we ought not think that something without a brain could not have a mental life, and without that the improbability argument fails.

In summary, Philipse would need to give a reason why a mental life requires a physical brain — or physicality — based on more than that the examples we have observed all involve brains, and he fails to do so in this book. Since it is trivial to conceive of things that have mental lives without a physical body, that the concept itself does not require dependence on a brain provides good reason to reject an unsubstantiated claim of knowledge that mental lives require a physical brain.

3. If we assume for the sake of argument that theism not only is meaningful but also has predictive power, we should become strong particular atheists, because the empirical arguments against theism outweigh the arguments that support it, and theism is improbable on our background knowledge.

If this conclusion is true, then not only is the first one meaningless — why be particular semantic atheists when we have sufficient evidence to just be strong particular atheists — but it is also false, since we’d have to be able to provide a sufficiently meaningful theory of that theism to be able to provide empirical arguments for or against it. Moreover, this one depends on us accepting 2) — that the background knowledge makes it improbable — which means that we can’t be accepting it for the sake of argument, as he implies here. And, of course, a lot of his empirical evidence isn’t sufficient to demonstrate that case anyway, at least in my view.

In summary, this one eliminates the first conclusion and assumes the second one works, and in my view he hasn’t provide sufficient empirical arguments to justify the conclusion that he wants us to accept anyway.

This book was disappointing. Other than some small sections and the constant reference to background knowledge, he didn’t really make any Bayesian arguments, which is what the book promised. He also relies far too much on the presumption of materialism, and does a poor job of addressing objections to that view. This also holds for his insistence that we need to have an empirical/scientific theory or argument in the first place, as without that principle much of his book is overturned and there are good reasons to think that a scientific approach isn’t appropriate here, or at least isn’t the only option.

At the end of the day, Philipse sets out assumptions that he agrees with and bases his arguments on them, but those assumptions or not as safe, accepted or justified as he needs them to be. If you accept his scientific, naturalistic and materialistic worldview, then you’ll agree with him, but if you even merely doubt one of those assumptions, the entire book crumbles and Philipse does an inadequate job of buttressing those assumptions to remove any reasonable doubt. That he then proceeds as if his foundations are completely secure only makes the book worse, as any doubt carries forward and undermines every argument that depends on it. For a book aimed at or touted to be more philosophical, it makes a number of philosophical mistakes and provides a poor philosophical basis for the scientific approach he insists we need to take. This book, ultimately, cannot convince anyone who knows the philosophical background to the debates, because the assumptions he makes have specific counters that he fails to adequately address.

Jerry Coyne Proves Science and Religion Are Not Incompatible …

January 5, 2018

So, for the longest time, Jerry Coyne has been trying to demonstrate that science and religion are incompatible in a strong sense, where if a thing is scientific and a thing is religious then those things are incompatible by definition. He’s not trying to argue that some religions are factually incorrect, or that those religions were proven incorrect by advances in science. He’s unwilling to accept that any religion worth calling such could be compatible with science and scientific facts, and ultimately that no one can build a worldview that respects both science and religion without building in that incompatibility, and so no one who accepts science can be religious without cognitive dissonance. My constant criticism of his view is that he constantly tries to establish that science and religion are incompatible by proving specific religions incorrect, which is not enough to demonstrate any kind of interesting philosophical incompatibility; if a religion is proven factually incorrect, then the members of that religion perhaps should abandon it, but that doesn’t mean that they must give up the idea of a god or accept naturalism.

In a recent post, Coyne again argues for incompatibility, while examining a post defending the Templeton Foundation. I’ll pretty much ignore all of that discussion, and focus in on how Coyne inadvertently proves that there can be no inherent incompatibility between science and religion.

The big point wants to go after is Gould’s idea that science and religion deal with separate areas of inquiry and so cannot interestingly conflict. As usual, Coyne insists that religions make factual claims, and so science and religion cannot be completely distinct. He lists a few of the factual claims that he thinks science has proven incorrect, and then says this:

So while we can’t have a constructive dialogue, we can have a “destructive monologue”: science can tell religionists that what they believe is wrong, but the other side has no such ability.

But, presumably, science can also tell religion that those factual claims that they believe are correct, no? Thus, science could also help to justify religions, and verify that their facts are true and correct, thus improving our confidence in that religion and, possibly, even spawning converts. Coyne doesn’t think this is true for any religion — or at least any current one — but if this is possible — and it is — then science will not necessarily be destructive of religion, and might even help build it. Coyne doesn’t think that any religion is true, but this counter would, in fact, be him saying that he thinks all religions are false. He may even be right. He may even be right that science has proven that. But that wouldn’t make science and religion incompatible, but would merely make all religions wrong.

So in attempting to demonstrate the factual inaccuracies of religion as proven by science, Coyne inadvertently allows us to see that science need not be inherently destructive of religion, and clearly wouldn’t be destructive of any religion that happened to be true. Thus, the conversation might end up being one way — as Coyne is attempting to demonstrate — but that doesn’t mean that it has to be based around science disproving religion. And if science can prove a religion’s factual claims, that’s a conversation that is by definition the opposite of destructive. And if science and religion can have a dialogue that isn’t destructive, but could in fact be called constructive, then science and religion cannot be interestingly incompatible.

This leads us to discussions of what religions can be seen as, and if we could have not only a science that supports the facts of a religion — and potentially even proves that God exists — but also a religion that is supported by and respects science. The thing is, while I disagree with the idea that religion doesn’t involve any factual claims at all, religion is better understood as a worldview, and worldviews have a different approach to facts than science — as a way of knowing — does. While science and all ways of knowing try to establish factual claims, worldviews don’t. They are based on some factual claims, and they often have factual implications, but for the most part they are less concerned about establishing facts and more concerned about establishing normative claims, and primarily the one about how one ought to live one’s life. So while most worldviews will have a position on how someone ought to go about finding out factual claims, the number of factual claims that really matter to a worldview are decidedly small: only the critical ones that the worldview is based on, and the ones that follow as implications of it that, if they weren’t true, would mean the worldview could not be true.

So, then, imagine that I create a religious worldview. Let me call it VS-Catholicism. It holds basically all the same views as Catholicism, except that it insists that it must accept any scientific fact, and adjust theologically accordingly. To be fair, this is pretty much in line with actual Catholicism, as there is no ex cathedra claim that can be made about something that is a matter of fact. Thus, no article of faith can depend on the truth of a factual belief that science could have refuted, as that factual belief itself cannot be an ex cathedra statement. So, Coyne’s attempt to argue that the Pope has said that Adam and Eve have to literally be our direct and sole ancestors doesn’t even seem to work for Catholicism, as if that is really a factual claim then if science has refuted it then Catholicism itself would have to adjust that factual belief. However, Coyne could use that to claim that the belief is, in fact, a core Catholic belief, and so if science refutes it then Catholicism is, itself, refuted.

Hence, VS-Catholicism. VS-Catholicism denies that Adam and Eve need to literally be our ancestors, or that the story must be literally true and not a metaphor. Thus, given that, VS-Catholicism would simply adjust its theology, either to make the story true in another sense — like them being the first to gain souls, for example, which was also done by Catholicism — or arguing that the story is a metaphor, which I’ve defended before. Coyne can argue that this would destroy the need for Jesus to sacrifice himself for our sins, but there are two problems with that. The first is that in the post I linked I actually defend that, meaning that I already have an answer for that. The second — and more important one — is that Coyne could not be using science to make that argument. He’d have to be doing philosophy/theology … and pretty sophisticated theology at that. If Coyne has to move from the realm of science to the realm of theology to claim that my attempt to reconcile VS-Catholicism to science won’t work, then the issue will be with the theology, not the science. And so there is no reason to claim that science and religion are inherently incompatible. I might be wrong that my VS-Catholicism worldview can be made compatible with science in that way, but it is possible that it could work … and the problem would be with my specific theology, not with the scientific facts, or with anything that science, in and of itself, is telling me.

Now, Coyne could counter that if I build a religious worldview that is infinitely malleable, then yes, I could remain consistent with science. But in order for it to be a distinct worldview, surely there have to be some things that it thinks true and that cannot be changed. For example, for it to count as a religious worldview surely it has to think that some kind of god exists as some point, surely. And all of those could be — and Coyne tends to think already has been — refuted by science.

So I’ll give him one: the Resurrection. If Jesus was never killed and resurrected, then VS-Catholicism is false. This is convenient, because Coyne talks about that in his post:

If you don’t like those, how about the Bible?

If Christ be not risen, then is our preaching vain, and your Faith is also vain. —1 Corinthians 15:14

You can hardly call yourself a Christian if you don’t think Jesus was the son of God, part man and part divine, and died and was resurrected to expiate our sins.

But … this is one that Coyne never actually says that science has disproved. So while Coyne lists it as a factual belief for Christians, he never demonstrates that science has yet proven it false. And while a number of atheists have argued on a number of occasions that science has — arguing, for example, that science has shown that no one can rise from the dead — science hasn’t actually done that because its claims don’t allow for that kind of justification. In short, science has yet to prove that to be the case.

Which leads to Coyne’s move against proof:

First of all, “proof” is not required for a theory to have credibility; the concept of “proof” is alien to science.

This is a common atheist move: arguing that science does not provide “proof”. In my experience, the initial thrust from this came from theistic arguments that demanded that atheists prove their claims, and then insisting that any doubt at all meant that their “proofs” were insufficient, and so the atheists couldn’t really “know” that their claim is true. Thus, there was a pushback against the idea that knowledge required logical certainty, and so we could “know” things that were absolutely certain. This, in and of itself, isn’t an unreasonable position — and epistemology came to that conclusion quite a while ago — but it often gets used against demands for proof that are clearly nothing than the standard colloquial “Give me sufficient evidence to show that your theory is true”, which means give me enough justification so that I can claim to know — by the “justified true belief” definition — that it is true. Since Coyne claims that science is a “way of knowing”, science definitely has to be able to provide that sort of “proof” for its theories to have credibility. If he can’t and wants to claim that science doesn’t do that, then there are no scientific facts that any worldview, religious or otherwise, needs to consider.

And worldviews, for their fundamental beliefs, might want a stronger level of proof than is commonly accepted for scientific facts. As I talked about recently, science actually gets a lot of individual scientific facts wrong, at least at first. Sure, we can argue that it eventually gets to the facts, but it does a lot of readjusting along the way. Changing fundamental beliefs for a worldview, however, at a minimum requires a massive reworking of the worldview and might even force people to abandon the worldview. So for those sorts of factual beliefs, the worldview is going to want to have really, really strong evidence that the factual belief is wrong before it accepts it. Given that, it’s perfectly reasonable for religious worldviews to, at a minimum, be skeptical of what are the current scientific beliefs until they are established to the point where the likelihood of them changing is exceptionally low. This is particularly true is accepting that scientific belief would cause the collapse of the worldview. Thus, it is certainly reasonable for worldviews to not accept the scientific consensus if all we have is, in fact, the scientific consensus. The empirical observations themselves must be sufficiently strong and free from potential confounds before the worldview need accept it. In short, worldviews should not accept scientific challenges to their fundamental beliefs until they are forced to by the evidence; scientists simply saying that this is currently the best theory should not be sufficient to overturn the fundamental beliefs of a worldview.

Given all of this, not only are science and religion not inherently incompatible, much of the time religion and science actually interact in the right ways. Sure, there are religions can are probably at the “forced to accept that a fundamental belief is false” stage who aren’t acknowledging it, but then there are scientific claims that are not strong enough to justify abandoning those fundamental beliefs that some claim religions should just accept. The science vs religion debate should be seen as the debate between a worldview and a way of knowing, and while the two are not entirely distinct they aren’t the same either. I think that understanding this would do a great deal to help settle the question of whether or not science and religion are incompatible.

Philipse on Religious Experience

December 29, 2017

So, Chapter 15 examines religious experiences. Or, as it turns out, it doesn’t, because Swinburne, according to Philipse, uses the argument from religious experiences in a specific way for a specific purpose, and Philipse follows along with him here, and the result is that both of them are going to try very, very hard to avoid talking about specific religious experiences or their properties and instead focus on generalities. Suffice it to say that that isn’t going to work out very well for either of them.

Swinburne, according to Philipse, is attempting to use religious experiences to shift the burden of proof from theists to atheists. He does so by trying to appeal to two fundamental principles of rationality: the Principle of Credulity that says that we should trust that our sense experiences are giving us an accurate perception if we don’t have a defeater for that, and the Principle of Testimony that says that we should trust the reports of other people unless we have a defeater for that notion. Swinburne, then, will use that to argue that religious experiences — even rather vague ones — are experiences of the same sort and so should get the benefit of that trust unless the atheist can come up with a defeater, while Philipse will counter with the argument that religious experiences — particularly due to the nature of God — are too dissimilar from normal sense experiences for the principle to apply to them.

The problem is that both, in my view, miss what those fundamental principles do. The reason we hold these — as Philipse himself notes that Swinburne notes — is that without them we can’t have any basis for any knowledge at all. All of our possible knowledge is filtered through sense perception, and any possible way to have that verified independently relies on the testimony of others claiming to have had the same experiences as we had. So we cannot doubt in general our sense experiences or others reports, because if we do that we give up the very means we could use to verify them. Thus, we must start from a default of trusting them and only challenge them when we have a reason not to trust them.

The problem is that while we don’t distrust them in general, that doesn’t mean that we can’t or ought not distrust them in specific cases, or even that we don’t need to justify the beliefs and knowledge we claim given them. We can only extend this trust to things that follow uncontroversially from the sense experience itself. Swinburne attempts to put the experience and the interpretations of that experience into the experience itself — using the example of seeing a ship and having the interpretation that it is a Russian ship — but Philipse is right to point out that without some sort of defined traits that we could appeal to that interpretation won’t work; it has to be the case that someone could justify that that was a Russian ship by appealing to the qualities of the experience before we would accept that the experience really, in and of itself, is sufficient justification for it being a Russian ship. And yet, Philipse spends very little time in the chapter discussing what kind of experience or experiences might be considered experiences that would indicate a God. Instead, he spends most of his time trying to argue that religious experiences are so different from regular experiences that the Principle of Credulity simply cannot apply to them, and thus shift the burden of proof back to the theist. This is consistent with his general strategy throughout the entire book: shift the burden of proof to the theist, while at the same time arguing that no such proof is possible. Given his characterization of their necessary properties, it is difficult to see how we could have an experience of God that would count for him, and since he earlier eliminates logical arguments for the existence of God there doesn’t seem to be anything left. But it’s not a good argument to say that we should not believe that God exists because there is no way for us to know whether or not God exists.

That’s the real issue here. Both Swinburne and Philipse are required to come up with a way for us to know whether or not a religious experience would count as evidence and sufficient evidence for the existence of God. If we had a definition of what that sort of experience would be, then if someone had it or had someone else claim to have it then that experience would count under the principles of Credulity and Testimony just like any other experience would, and so Philipse’s attempt to rule out religious experiences a priori fails. However, those principles do not render Swinburne immune to the question “How do you know that your experience was an experience of God rather than an experience of something else?”. Just “feeling” that is insufficient for existence claims unless Swinburne wants to liken it to something like love … except that even then we know that we can be mistaken, and since we know that we can be mistaken Swinburne would still have to have an answer to someone who asks if he could be mistaken about that interpretation, even if it seems to be happening at the same time. So, in fact, both of them need to have a criteria for what sort of experiences would count as here. The theist needs it in order to present an experience as that sort of experience. The atheist needs it in order to be able to dismiss experiences that don’t meet that standard without falling into the trap of assuming that if it is an experience that purports to be of a God then it isn’t sufficient by definition.

I don’t think we’ve had all that many religious experiences that would count as that sort of experience, and think that the ones that we might have had often occur in circumstances that might make us doubt their accuracy. But we can’t rule out that we ourselves might have an experience that would count and thus provide sufficient reason for us, at least, to believe that God exists. Swinburne tries to argue that we already have enough of them, while Philipse tries to argue that we can’t ever have one of those. Both of them are incorrect.

Philipse on Arguments from Order to Design

August 18, 2017

Chapters 13 and 14 focus on the Argument from Design and other inductive arguments respectively. But it is definitely the case that by this point Philipse isn’t really providing anything new, neither a new and fresh examination of the arguments nor a strong and specific refutation of Swinburne. As such, there’s not that much to say here. The stuff that’s new is Swinburne’s, which won’t be that impressive to anyone who isn’t already a fan of his, and the stuff that isn’t specific to Swinburne isn’t new.

So what I want to talk about briefly is, again, Philipse’s attempt to claim that global arguments from design are more promising than local arguments from design. Again, he appeals to this on the basis of avoiding the “God of the Gaps”, and thus the risk that later science will, in fact, find an explanation for the phenomena. But, again, this is ridiculous. If I could demonstrate that, say, by the best evidence we have the eye is irreducibly complex and so had to be produced deliberately by an intentional agent, it’s in no way a response to say “Well, science might find a way to explain that … sometime. In the future. So you can’t make that claim!”. In the previous chapter, Philipse insists that cosmological arguments need to be inductive arguments to the best explanation, while here he insists that for design inductive arguments to the best explanation aren’t promising because they run the risk of science refuting them at later date. One suspects that if Philipse found any inductive arguments for the cosmological argument that he couldn’t refute he’d be insisting that they fail because science might refute them later, a criteria that he pushes in Chapter 13 for a temporal design argument of Swinburne’s.

At this point, it seems clear that Philipse’s main focus — perhaps unconsciously — is to at all times place the burden of proof on the theistic argument, and thus insist that we must take any scientific explanation before we accept a theistic one. Thus, if we follow Philipse’s idea of “God in the Age of Science” we end up ceding all discussion on the matter to science. Which might not be a problem unless science is, in fact, explicitly naturalistic, as in that case science would accept any explanation — no matter how improbable — over a theistic or supernatural one. In fact, it might even accept “We don’t know yet” over a theistic or supernatural one. Philipse himself directly accepts both of these arguments at various times. Thus, to accept Philipse’s view of “the Age of Science” is to, essentially, concede that atheism and naturalism are true, not because they are specifically better evidenced, but merely because science implicitly and perhaps explicitly assumes them.

Fortunately, we don’t have to accept Philipse’s view. There are a number of philosophical, epistemological and even empirical and scientific issues with his views. And if we don’t accept them, then we don’t accept most of his arguments against the specific theistic arguments that he addresses either. Thus, without us accepting his starting points, we won’t accept where he ends here, and so all of this is just standard replies to the standard arguments.

Next time, Philipse, at the end, talks about religious experiences. It would seem like that would be something he would have addressed much earlier …

Philipse on Cosmological Arguments

August 11, 2017

So, in Chapter 12 Philipse examines Cosmological Arguments in an attempt to show that they aren’t going to work. He differentiates between two main types of cosmological arguments: deductive ones like the classic “First Cause” arguments, or inductive ones to the best explanation. As it turns out, Swinburne also prefers the latter sorts of arguments, so Philipse is going to start by attempting to show that deductive arguments aren’t as promising as inductive ones so that he can spend the bulk of the chapter focusing on inductive arguments and thus also on Swinburne’s arguments and explanations. This will work as long as you end up agreeing with him that deductive arguments aren’t promising avenues to take. If you don’t accept that, then the complicated arguments Swinburne advances will seem like nothing more than a waste of time when simpler and as if not more promising arguments are available.

The problem is that the meat of Philipse’s arguments against deductive arguments are nothing more than taking the two most popular deductive arguments and attempting to show that they don’t work. Sure, he brings in Swinburne’s argument that deductive cosmological arguments aren’t sound, but he — rightly — points out that it’s not easy to argue that without examining the specific arguments themselves. But Philipse then goes on to insist that the literature has done that for pretty much all of those specific cases and decides to demonstrate that by picking two examples and showing that they are not sound and so can be dismissed. Of course, this would in no way demonstrate that all possible deductive arguments are not sound, so it doesn’t even defend against the specific counter that Philipse himself raised. He could have made a decent argument if he had tried to show that having a universal premise would risk them not being sound or would at least lead us to think that establishing universal premises was too difficult a task to be considered reasonable, but he doesn’t even do that. So even if we accept that he’s right about the two arguments he addresses, we have no reason to think that deductive cosmological arguments are just a dead end.

And when it comes to the two arguments that Philipse tries to address, I find that I have to express my deepest gratitude to him, because his attempts to refute them have led me to come to the realization of why they, in fact, actually seem to work. Whether or not I can get to God from those two arguments, when it comes to establishing some kind of First Cause or First Element the arguments seem conclusive. Thus, instead of making me doubt their validity, he’s only made me even more certain that the arguments are right. That’s … probably not what he was going for.

Let me start with the first argument, which is essentially the argument from contingent causes, and I’ll quote his presentation of it here:

1. A contingent entity exists (that is, and entity of which we can suppose without contradiction that it does not exist), or a contingent event occurs.
2. Each contingent entity or event has a sufficient cause.
3. Contingent entities or events alone cannot constitute, ultimately, a sufficient cause for the existence of a contingent entity or the occurrence of a contingent event.
4. Therefore, at least one necessary entity or event exists (that is, an entity or event of which we cannot suppose without contradiction that it does not exist or occur). And because it exists necessarily, it does not stand in need of an explanation.[pg 223]

While I wouldn’t normally quote the counter argument when quoting from a book — as it’s usually not worth the effort to do so when a summary will do just as well and usually be clearer — here I have to quote what he’s saying so that everyone can check to see if my interpretation of it is correct:

What one should repudiate is premise (3), since causal explanations cannot but refer to causes that exist or occur contingently. If one explains causally an event E with reference to a cause C, what one means is that, ceteris paribus, if C had not occurred, E would not have occurred either, assuming there is no causal redundancy. Hence, it is essential to the very meaning of the word ’cause’ that we can always suppose without contradiction that a cause C did not occur.[ibid]

You would think that someone who was in fact a philosopher would do two things here. First, one would assume that in examining this they would take the concept of a necessary object, put it in the place of C, and see if the statement “If C had not occurred, E would not have occurred” still makes sense or itself produces a contradiction. Philipse doesn’t seem to have done that, because it seems pretty obvious that, yes, saying that still makes sense. What it really means to be a necessary entity or event is that it is not possible for it to not have occurred. So what we would say is that C occurred and C had to occur. And because C occurred, E occurred. Now, if C hadn’t occurred, then E wouldn’t have occurred. But, of course, C did occur, because it had to occur. Why is that case that much different from the case where we observe that a contingent C happened in the past that produced an event E? Isn’t it just as contradictory to assert that if C hadn’t happened then E wouldn’t have happened? After all, C did happen, and we can’t change that now. Once C happens or exists, then E will happen. Why C happens or exists doesn’t impact that. It seems to me that Philipse has fallen into a “If humans evolved from apes, then why are there still apes?” argument. His entire argument relies on interpreting the first part of the if as being an actual statement about C, which then implies that to make the conditional work we’d have to actually assert that C might not have occurred. But we don’t need to and don’t do that. The conditional, then, does not in any way imply that it is actually physically or conceptually possible for C to not exist or have occurred, which would be the contradiction. The statement is talking about the dependency of E on C, and not making any actual conceptual statement about C itself. So this argument fails.

The second thing a philosopher ought to do here is actually attack the logic itself, and not simply look to provide a counter-argument, which is what Philipse’s argument actually does here while in the guise of refuting premise (3). The reason to do this is that we don’t want to end up in an Antinomy, where we have two sound logical arguments that lead to the opposite conclusions. Again, Philipse claims to be attacking premise (3), but what he’s really doing — by his own words — is making an argument that the concept of cause makes necessary events — at least ones that have any causal power — incoherent. But that doesn’t attack the original logic that says that you can’t stop at a contingent event, and that by definition every contingent event must have a sufficient cause explaining it. And this argument would go as follows: for an event to be contingent, it means that its existence depends on some event or cause that causes it to happen as opposed to the alternatives. This means that for any contingent event we can ask for an explanation of it, meaning that we can ask what made it so that it happened as opposed to something else (which might be nothing). Let’s call that C. Now, C can either be contingent or non-contingent. If it is contingent, then we would say that its existence depends on another event, C’. Which we could then go and examine to see if C’ is contingent or non-contingent. And so on and so forth. Thus, for any contingent event C we could never stop there, because there would always be something left that we would need to explain, which is why C itself happened, which we can only explain by appealing to another event C’. If, however, that C is non-contingent, then it needs no further explanation for its existence and so we can stop there.

You can argue that my argument depends a lot on us needing an explanation or still having something to explain, which might not be necessary (this might be an epistemological as opposed to a conceptual argument). Fair enough, but remember that Philipse wants us to do theology like science, and science can never say that if there is still something there to be explained that we can simply stop there and claim that we’ve explained enough. Science can argue that we can’t find out that explanation, but that’s definitely an epistemological as opposed to a conceptual argument, and so can’t refute the idea that what we have is a necessary entity or event C out there that stopped our chain of explanation. So Philipse would still need a conceptual argument to refute the idea that there’d still be something out there that can’t be contingent to be the explanation for the contingent entity or event we are considering.

Let me quote the second argument:

1. This event in the universe is fully or partially caused by earlier events. The same holds for other events. They are caused by causal chains going backwards in time.
2. Infinite causal regresses are impossible.
3. Therefore, there must have been a first cause of each causal chain.[ibid]

Philipse uses the standard reply of appealing to Cantorian Set Theory to demonstrate that we can, indeed, have an infinite causal regress. The problem is that the classic examples use there are things like the set of all integers, the set of all positive integers, and so on and so forth. The problem is that these causal sets are not like those, but are more like the Fibonacci sequence, where the existence of any element in the set is determined by earlier elements in the set, except for the initial terms, which have to be stipulated by definition. So, to weaken Philipse’s logic, what he’d have to show is that dependent sets can be infinite in the same way as, say, the set of all integers. If they can’t, then you can’t use Cantorian Set Theory against the argument.

So, having weakened the argument, let me again provide a positive argument for why that isn’t the case. In generating the set of all integers, I can generate a number at random and see if it belongs to the set and add it if it ought to be in the set (and isn’t already there). So I could generate the set, then, by randomly generating 100, 350, 2, 19 and so on and doing so until I have the entire set. Sure, it’s not physically possible for me to do that, but it’s conceptually possible for me to do that. Thus, I can generate any element of the set at any time and be able to determine if that element should be in the set and, in fact, even add it to the set.

Can I do that for a simple dependent set, where, say nm is determined by nm-1 + 1, where n is a positive integer? So I generate 56. Is 56 in the set? Well, in order to determine that, I’d have to know what its m would be if it was in the set, so that I can determine if nm-1+1 = 56. So that means that there needs to be at least one other element in the set before I can determine if this element is in the set. And since that applies to every element in the set, I can’t add any element to the set until I know that another element is in the set. Except for n0, the initial term. If I stipulate that n0 is 55, then 56 is clearly in the set. But if I stipulate that n0 is 233, then it clearly isn’t in the set. Thus, no element can be added to the set until I add an element that is not dependent on any other elements in the set to the set.

And it turns out that for any dependent sets that we come across, we always specify by definition some elements that exist in the set but that aren’t dependent on any other elements in the set. And as soon as we do that, we can then generate the rest of the elements that exist in that set, by proceeding from those initial elements to the next elements down the line. So we cannot proceed infinitely past that starting point and maintain a sensible set that actually contains elements.

Since causal regressions, by (1) are dependent sets, the same thing applies to them. No element can be said to be in that causal regression unless we can specify an initial term that kicks this all off. Sure, if we see a dependent causal regression we can identify it as such and trace it backwards in time, but mathematically we’d have to expect there to be an initial term that is not dependent on any other elements in the set. Thus, mathematically it really does look like the argument holds.

There might be places where I go wrong with these arguments, but the important point is that Philipse has certainly not established that even these two deductive arguments are not fruitful, let alone that no deductive arguments are not fruitful. And since he hasn’t established that, I see no reason to follow him and Swinburne down the complicated rabbit hole of inductive arguments to the best explanation. Which makes the rest of the chapter irrelevant, and so I’m not going to bother addressing it.

Next up: Design arguments.

Philipse on the Probability of Theism

July 21, 2017

So, in Chapter 11, Philipse starts talking about whether or not theism is probable, and what it might mean to determine that. However, what we see here — and have already been seeing in previous chapters — is an odd sort of issue based on the fact that Philipse himself both seems to want to go after theism in general but focus on Swinburne specifically. Thus, Philipse ends up focusing very much on Swinburne’s specific views while still talking about what theists would do or problems they would have in general. It seems that Philipse wants to focus on Swinburne at least in part because Swinburne accepts some of the issues Philipse has with theism and so at least in general more directly addresses those concerns. In fact, we see on a number of occasions Philipse using Swinburne to argue for Philipse’s main points. The problem with this approach is that Swinburne’s view isn’t that of all or potentially even most theists, and so if someone isn’t convinced by Philipse’s arguments they aren’t likely to be convinced by Swinburne’s either, and also won’t find the discussions of the specific solutions Swinburne advances and the problems Philipse has with them all that interesting. Yes, there are solutions and issues with them, but those solutions are addressing problems that many theists think are only issues if you buy somewhat dubious premises and propose a rather odd solution to those problems. This makes chapters that claim to make general points but that focus on Swinburne specifically seem somewhat irrelevant.

Here, in this chapter, I want to ignore all of the points about Ultimate Explanations and Swinburne’s specific use of that and the problems of it. I’m not convinced that even empirically any of this matters, especially considering that I rejected the need for “immunization” of theistic belief last time. I’m also not convinced that the right way to determine which is the more reasonable theory is by using probability — I’m inclined towards Quine’s “Web of Belief” model and so think general fit is better — and am certainly not convinced that Bayesian approaches are the right ones. So most of the chapter is predicated on my accepting premises that I don’t accept, and so the specific arguments aren’t that interesting. Thus, I’m going to focus somewhat briefly on two specific points. The first is a discussion over how probable a belief must be before we are justified in accepting or believing it, and the second is a discussion over the empirical background, which is about as close as Philipse gets to actually arguing for the theistic belief being improbable.

So, let’s start with the first point. Philipse talks constantly about “religious belief” in that section, and talks about “justified” in that context. When he talks about how philosophers view “justified”, and particularly when he talks about it having to be “highly probable”, he ends up shifting definitions here, talking about justified as it is used in “justified true belief” … which is to say, in terms of knowledge. But all we’re talking about here is which theory is to be preferred given the evidence we currently have. That’s probably not a knowledge claim. Sure, if we want to claim that we know God exists based on that reasoning, we’d want a very high probability, but to merely say that it is the most probable given what we know at the moment should only require it to be more probable than all of the competing theories … and Swinburne wanting it to have a higher probability than 1/2 guarantees that. So unless Philipse wants to demand that before we can reasonably think that a theory is the best candidate we have to know that it is the true one, or else wants to insist that one cannot reasonably believe that the best candidate we have is true, he’s just confused here about what belief and justification for belief has to be, conflating belief and knowledge.

Now, the next issue is when Philipse discusses the “empirical background knowledge”, which is critical for a Bayesian analysis and, it seems to me, provides the best reasons to think that Bayesian analysis is less than useful. While Philipse points out that some Bayesians think that the analysis can be subjective, in order to work as an argument against anyone else the probability of a theory given the empirical background knowledge has to be objective enough that your opponent can’t just reject your probability and blunt your argument. Thus, it can’t depend on things that you believe but that others might not. So let’s look at a couple of possible arguments that might make theism improbable based on the empirical background knowledge.

I’ll start with Philipse’s. His main argument is that God, as defined, is a personal being with consciousness, but he argues that “… all empirical investigations suggest that mental phenomena cannot exist without neural substrata.”[pg 205] In short, his big argument here is that you can’t be conscious unless you have neurons and thus are physical, and God is a non-physical spirit. Philipse has ridden this rather dubious argument for the entire book, and it’s still dubious here. First, if we are talking about an “ultimate” consciousness, then if it exists it would have to be able to compute without any limits. But any physical implementation of consciousness would have limits. Thus, an ultimate consciousness would have to be non-physical to avoid physical limits. Philipse could reply, then, that this would mean that an ultimate consciousness is impossible, but then he’d need far more evidence than “So far, all the conscious things that we’ve found are physical!” to demonstrate that. Second, AI is not going to have a neural substratum and we think that it is at least possible that we could get a conscious AI, and there is no empirical evidence that it can’t and at least some empirical evidence that it might be able to from AI implementations. So we have good reasons to find this purported piece of empirical background knowledge a bit dubious.

Richard Carrier, in a recent post addressing Swinburne and another Bayesian theist, brought in another argument:

If we count up all the things in history we at some point couldn’t explain, or thought was explained by magic or ghosts, and then securely found out what the actual cause was (so that it is now approximately a universally accepted fact of science or history), how many of those things turned out to be magic or ghosts? If the answer is zero (and it is…and anyone who denies that, is literally insane), and the number of those things is in the millions (which have reached that degree of investigation, so that it is now a known fact of the world what causes them; not just a belief or speculation), then the prior probability the next thing you ask the cause of will have been caused by magic or ghosts is logically necessarily millions to one against. And if the number of such things is in the billions, it’s billions to one against; if in the billions of trillions, then billions of trillions to one against. There is no rational escape from this consequence.

Well, there is indeed one: call it what it is, the inductive fallacy. This is essentially like saying that you’ve examined millions and millions of swans and so if someone says they’ve seen a black swan the empirical background knowledge makes that radically improbable. The problem here is not so much in saying that it is reasonable to believe that there are no black swans given what we’ve empirically examined, but is instead in choosing to use that as an argument that black swans don’t exist when someone gives you a reason to think that they might. The same thing applies here: if we think that in this specific case that a supernatural explanation makes the most sense for other reasons, saying that we’ve never had one of those doesn’t impact that assessment because it doesn’t — and can’t — address the reasons we had for preferring the supernatural explanation.

But the point here is not to refute these two arguments, or even to say that it is unreasonably for them to hold them (although I think that these particular arguments are so bad that it is indeed unreasonable to hold them). What is important is that these are justifications for very important premises that will greatly impact the prior probability Philipse and Carrier assign to the theistic hypothesis … and are premises that someone might, at least, reasonably not accept. No one need accept Philipse’s idea that mental activity must have a neural substrata or Carrier’s idea that the success or failure of previous supernatural explanations are relevant to this one. And as soon as someone does that, the whole Bayesian analysis — at least, one using priors, and it seems like there is little reason to use Bayesian reasoning if you don’t include priors — goes out the window. All I have to do is say “I don’t think this piece of empirical background knowledge is true” or “I don’t think this piece of empirical background knowledge is relevant” and the whole analysis collapses. Thus, the empirical background knowledge, well, has to be knowledge for it to work here: things known to be true and known to be true by all parties. And the implications have to strongly follow. This is, in fact, a pretty difficult thing to achieve, and neither Philipse nor Carrier achieve it.

Now, the thing is that it’s reasonable — or at least, not unreasonable — for Philipse and Carrier to hold their beliefs. Philipse is a physicalist and denies the existence of immaterial things, and Carrier is a naturalist who denies the existence of the supernatural. As beliefs, they certainly have sufficient reason to believe those things. But others have sufficient reasons to believe otherwise, or at least to withhold judgement on those propositions. And as soon as they do, the priors falter and their arguments for why theism is improbable evaporate.

This result is consistent with my general view on belief, which is that we assess the “likelihood” of a proposition or theory being true based on how well it aligns with our current “Web of Belief” (which includes but is not limited to what we know). If someone is a naturalist, any supernatural explanation will seem incredibly unlikely. If someone is not, then that it is supernatural might count in its favour, or at least will be neutral. And I will argue that this is perfectly reasonable. Moreover, it’s all we can do. Any objective Bayesian reasoning will try to make the assessment give an initial assessment that is the only reasonable one to accept and then move by objective steps to new probabilities as new evidence is introduced, but to do so it can’t rely on anything that we don’t solidly know and so can’t account for differing beliefs. Either we can’t believe what we don’t know — which is wildly impractical — or it will splinter into subjective Bayesian as soon as there’s a belief that is in dispute that at least one party thinks is relevant. And subjective Bayesianism is nothing more than a mathematical complication of what we’d do naturally anyway, as the number it comes up with is meaningless without the context that spawned it.

This, then, is the issue with arguing that theism is “improbable”. You need an objective standard for that to have meaning, but that standard has to be based on subjective beliefs. In general, the insistence of probabilities strikes me as a way to claim objectivity while hiding the subjective premises that underlie the assessment … which explains why these arguments always devolve to arguing over those specific premises in the end.

Next up, cosmological arguments.

Philipse on the Immunization of Theism

July 14, 2017

In Chapter 10, Philipse examines the need — at least according to him — for theologians to “immunize” their theology from science, by which he means that they have to make it so that their theories cannot be disconfirmed by future scientific discoveries. The main issue that undercuts pretty much all of this chapter is, again, that natural theologians and any theologians who are attempt to approach their theology empirically and scientifically ought to be as worried about future scientific examinations disproving them as, well, scientists are … which is to say, not one bit. Philipse seems to want to put theology in general into a bind. He wants to argue that theology can’t be respectable unless it accepts the standards and methods of science, but then should theology actually attempt to do so insists that it can’t be taken seriously in science unless it meets higher standards than general scientific theories have to. In short, if theologians promote more conceptual theories, he’ll dismiss them as not being scientific, but if they promote empirical or scientific theories, if Philipse can come up with any explanation that isn’t supernatural he will claim that those are to be preferred to even the empirical and naturalistic theological theories. At which point, if theism accepts the moves, there is no way for theism to win even if it’s true. But there’s no reason for a naturalistic theologian to accept that there is a problem if it is possible for future scientific discoveries to impact their theory, nor is there any reason for a conceptual theologian to accept that their proofs need to be empirical or scientific in order to be respectable.

Here, Philipse is trying to use the argument of “God of the Gaps” to argue that natural theologians need to immunize their theories against potential future scientific refutation of their explanations. The problem is that the “God of the Gaps”, when it’s used as an argument at all, doesn’t work that way. The basic “God of the Gaps” is simply noticing that theistic explanations were used in a lot of places, and then science came along and replaced them with actually better explanations. If this is used as an argument, it’s an inductive one that says that since scientific explanations have replaced theistic explanations so often in the past, we should presume that for any phenomena where we want to use a theistic explanation we should probably just wait for a scientific one instead of doing that. This is, of course, an invalid argument that at best only means that if you want to promote a theistic explanation for a certain phenomena you need to provide a reason other than “Science can’t explain it” … which we probably should be doing anyway. And if a natural theologian has an explanation for a phenomena that requires there be a God and has reasons for thinking that God is the best or a good explanation of that phenomena, they should not be at all concerned about the possibility that science might come up with a better theory at a later date. Yes, it might … and it might not. We can only assess what is the best explanation looking at what we know now, not by what might happen later. So the need for immunizing theism from future scientific discovery seems to not be a need after all.

However, Swinburne tries to do so, arguing that there are some phenomena that are too weird or too big to be handled by science. I’m not going to talk about the “too big” argument, because that’s essentially cosmological arguments and, well, it’s better to handle that by looking at those arguments specifically and seeing if they work than by worrying over whether science could ever find an explanation for those phenomena. I will talk a bit about the “too weird”, which is basically miracles, and Philipse focuses on the Resurrection as a specific example to look at to purportedly prove his case.

Philipse’s argument is essentially this: if we accept Swinburne’s idea that miracles are too weird to fall under science, then we have to accept that they are, well, improbable given what we know about the world. That’s rather the point of a miracle. But if they really are that “weird” and improbable, then if we are told about one or see something that might suggest that it actually happened, what we probably should do is doubt that the event happened rather than proclaiming it a miracle. Thus, the very characteristics that would cause us to classify it a miracle should also cause us to be skeptical that it actually happened.

This might sound good at first, but when we put it into the context of Hume’s argument which inspires it, we can see the problems with it. Recall that Hume’s argument was, essentially, that miracles are so improbable that no matter how trustworthy we think a witness is it is always more probable that they were lying or mistaken than that the miracle actually happened. Philipse is more generous, conceding that we might be able to have a witness or set of evidence reliable enough to establish a miracle, but that that standard has to be enormously high given that we are talking about a miracle. But the problem is that these arguments smack of denying that an event occurred only or at least primarily because they don’t like the implications of that event actually happened. Sure, they talk about probabilities so as to make it sound more reasonable, but remember that for Hume he would have argued that for someone that you think is completely reliable, has no reason to lie, and who was definitely in a position to affirm that the event happened, it would still be more probable to deny that the event occurred than to accept that a miracle actually happened. Ultimately, then, the argument seems to translate to “If this event occurred, it would be a miracle, and therefore I will deny that the event occurred”. But you can’t deny that an event happened just because you don’t like the implications if it did. You can’t argue that the reliability of someone’s testimony is determined by whether or not you want to believe that the event they’ve testified to actually happened, or that someone’s senses must have been deceived just because of what they saw. Ultimately, that really seems like an argument that you will deny all possible evidence because you don’t like the conclusion that evidence leads you to.

We can see this more fully when we look at Philipse’s analysis of the Resurrection. Philipse wants to jump through all sorts of hoops to deny that the event occurred, but all he ends up doing is showing us what we ought to already know: we don’t have enough direct evidence to accept that the Resurrection actually happened. We, at least in modern times, don’t have anything like direct testimony from a reliable witness or set of witnesses that were in an appropriate position to witness the event. Instead, we have second-hand testimony passed down primarily by word of mouth until it was written down, which allows for corruption and the introduction of false and misleading testimony and evidence into the record. So we have reasons to doubt that the event happened independently of what actually happened … or, at least, to say that the evidence we have for it isn’t sufficient to establish that the event actually happened.

Now, if Philipse could argue that it is the “oddness” of the event that drives our skepticism, then he’d have a point … but that’s not what drives our skepticism. Yes, we tend to demand stronger evidence for stranger beliefs, but as it turns out a “miracle” being ascribed to a purportedly supernatural being is less improbable than if it is being ascribed to a natural being. For example, in a series like the Elenium or the Amber series we’re not going to blink an eye if someone casts a magical spell, but we’d be dragged completely out of immersion if, say, Jack Ryan did that. Since Jesus is purportedly a supernatural being, His being involved in a miracle is consistent with what we’d expect from such a being. No, what makes us skeptical about the Resurrection is less its oddness and more its importance: it is absolutely critical to Christianity that it happened, and so those skeptical of Christianity are going to peruse it in detail before accepting it. In general, it is always at least a combination of oddness and importance that drives how easily we will accept certain claims. If someone said that Jesus ate fish on a particular day, we wouldn’t subject that to any scrutiny. But if someone argued that a certain important event depended on Jesus eating fish on a particular day, we in general would want to make sure that we had really good evidence that that did, indeed, happen on that day.

And as we saw above, “oddness” isn’t really “improbable”, but is instead more “inconsistent”. If, say, someone said that I ate fish on a particular day, that would strike at the “oddness” criteria, even though people eat fish every day. The reason is that _I_ don’t like fish, and so I don’t eat it very often. So someone being told that about me would find it puzzling and would want more evidence before accepting it. And if my eating fish that day mattered for some reason, then that inconsistency might even drive them to strongly doubt that as confirming evidence. This is why Jesus performing or being part of a miracle is less odd than, say, my doing it would be; it is consistent with our expectations for a supernatural being like Jesus and inconsistent with our expectations for a natural being like myself.

So this defense of “oddness” doesn’t work. Ascribing supernatural actions to a supernatural agent won’t trigger than criteria in our skepticism. The Resurrection triggers skepticism because it is a important event that we have little solid evidence for, not because someone being raised from the dead is just that odd. And even if it was, demanding exceedingly high standards of evidence can only be seen as an attempt to set the bar so high that the atheist need never accept that a miracle or the Resurrection ever occurred, which is not a reasonable position to take, and is a position that no theist need accept. Ultimately, the best way for a theist to approach the arguments in this chapter is to simply refuse to accept the presumptions that underlie them, and thus to deny that there is any problem at all, requiring Philipse to put forward far better arguments for them than he has.