Is the Kalam Cosmological Argument Persuasive? (Hot Seat, Part 2)

hot seat, persuasive, argument

An atheist (or maybe agnostic?) posed this question to me in the video below. Honestly, I do find the Kalam argument (KCA) powerful, but of course I first encountered it from the perspective of a believer. My response in the video includes more detail. If you aren’t familiar with the KCA, here is a version of it:

  1. Everything that begins to exist has a transcendent cause of its existence.
  2. The universe began to exist at some point in the finite past.
  3. So, the universe has a transcendent cause of its existence.

The video is about 8.5 minutes and features me answering questions at a meeting of atheists and skeptics at the University of Missouri.

Persuasiveness Is Relative?

Here’s a point worth making, I think: the persuasiveness of an argument is relative to the individual. Each of us holds a collection of beliefs and desires inside us. How a new idea appears to us will depend, in large part, on the make-up of that collection. None of us can have exactly the same collection, and thus new ideas appear differently to each of us.

horse, dogFor example, I remember when my daughter Phoebe saw a horse for the first time. At that point, she only had categories for ‘cat’ and ‘dog.’ So, she pointed to the horse and said, “Doggy!” It wasn’t that she needed glasses–she was perceiving the horse according to the collection of beliefs and desires she possessed. In a much more complex way, we perceive and evaluate new ideas according to our collection. Another example: if I approached first a stranger and then my wife with photos of me dunking a basketball, the stranger might respond very differently than my wife. Based on what she knows, she might laugh harder than the stranger.

Be Kind

slow, patienceI appreciate the saying: “Be kind, because everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.” I propose an epistemic corollary: “Be kind, because everyone you meet is working with a different set of evidence.” This principle encourages me not to get upset with those who disagree with me. Even those who just “can’t see reason,” deserve my patience and charity, since I generally don’t know where they’re coming from. Moreover, when I am slow to understand or accept an argument, I give grace to myself as well.

Here’s a takeaway: don’t be frustrated when others don’t see things the way you do. 

The person you speak with may be believing as well as he or she can, given the information, background, and psychology they have.

But Is It Persuasive?

Ultimately, you’ll have to answer that question for yourself. But I do think that some arguments are better than others, and probably should be persuasive to most reasonable, well-informed people. The KCA falls into that category. That doesn’t mean that a reasonable atheist will immediately become a theist. But it should make the idea of God’s existence a little more plausible.

big bang, evidence, persuasive, KalamThe biggest reason I hear for outright rejection of the KCA is a commitment to Stephen Hawking’s cosmology, or perhaps a denial of Big Bang cosmology. If Hawking is right, then perhaps the universe does not need a transcendent cause. And if the Big Bang model proves incorrect, then maybe the universe had no beginning. Unfortunately, I admit I’m in no position to evaluate these claims scientifically. I’ll let the experts duke it out. But regardless of the science, which changes from decade to decade, there are excellent philosophical reasons to accept both premises of the KCA. Given that, and the expert testimony I am familiar with, I find the KCA powerful.

(For an in-depth discussion of Hawking’s cosmology, listen to my podcast with Dr. Kenny Boyce. For more serious discussion of the KCA, I recommend William Lane Craig’s website, Reasonable Faith. Dr. Craig does an excellent job of responding to critics of the KCA. Here, for example, and here.)

Why Isn’t God More Obvious?

TRUTH, obvious, God, evidence

Why isn’t God more obvious? This is a fair question. Large parts of the Bible evade our understanding. Many people lack any recognizable experience of God. If God wants everyone to believe in him, why doesn’t he have better marketing? This line of questioning attacks the coherence of the Christian worldview. God should provide more/better evidence, but God doesn’t . As a Christian, I have to acknowledge that this seems problematic. Here’s how I might represent the problem: (skeptics, tell me if you think I’m getting this wrong)

  1. If God simply wants more people to believe that he exists, then he should provide better evidence.
  2. God simply wants more people to believe that he exists.
  3. So, God should provide better evidence.

I’ve formulated it as a valid argument. So the only thing I can quibble with is whether the first 2 statements are, in fact, consistent with the Christian worldview. If #1 and #2 are part of the Christian worldview, then this argument succeeds in casting serious doubt on Christian coherence. (Which indirectly casts doubt on the truth of Christianity.) But if either of them is not consistent with Christianity, then the argument fails. (See footnote 1)

program, logic, God, obvious, evidenceNow, let me just admit up front that asking “Is such-and-such a statement consistent with Christianity?” is an extremely difficult matter. People will ask, “which version of Christianity?” or “on whose interpretation of the Bible?” Fair questions. Do I need to defend the coherence of all possible versions of Christianity?

Suppose we have 10 versions of a computer program, and we suspect some or all of the versions contain bugs. If I find a bug in one, that doesn’t mean I should throw out the other 9. I have to check them all. By analogy, if 10 different versions of Christianity exist and we don’t know which of them is the “correct” version, then proving one of them to be incoherent won’t prove that Christianity itself is incoherent. (I apologize if skeptics feel I’m saddling them with too large a burden, but when a worldview hangs around for 2,000 years, it’s bound to spawn lots of variations.) On the other hand, all the Christian needs is for one of the versions to come out coherent to refute the charge that Christianity is coherent.

So how do we select a target? Well, as I play the role of the critic here, I’ll focus on what seems to be the most pared-down and basic version of Christianity. And I’ll try to appeal to beliefs that are common to nearly all major versions. I’ll also try to take an interpretive approach to the Bible that is common to scholars representing the major denominational groups–Main-line protestant, Roman Catholic, Orthodox, Evangelical, etc. (I’m also going to assume evidentialism.)

What Is the Christian God After?

demons believeI’m going to skip discussion of premise #1 and so straight to the real crux of the matter: #2. Is it true, according to standard, orthodox Christian doctrine, that “God simply wants more people to believe that he exists?” I don’t think so. The apostle James reminds us in his letter that mere belief isn’t all that great. “You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that–and shudder” (James 2:19). So, the implication here is clear. God is interested in more than simple belief, that is, more than mere assent to a proposition.

In fact, very rarely does the Bible say anything like, “believe that God exists!” However, Hebrews 11:6 does say, “And without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him.” So, it seems that belief in God is a necessary condition for “pleasing God,” which means that God certainly wants people to believe in his reality. But is belief in God’s existence a sufficient condition for pleasing him? Well, if the demons believe, then I guess not. What this means is that God is after more than mere belief in his existence. So premise #2 above is false.

A Better Skeptical Argument?

Maybe the argument I gave fails, but is there a better version? Well, we do have a lot of talk in the New Testament about believing in Jesus. Belief in Jesus does seem to be a really important part of what God is after. So consider this argument:

  1. If God simply wants more people to believe in Jesus, then he should provide better evidence.
  2. God simply wants more people to believe in Jesus.
  3. So, God should provide better evidence.

J. S. Mill, utilitarianismThis, to me, seems a much stronger argument. For a response strategy, I’ll borrow a page out of J.S. Mill’s Utilitarianism. Mill claimed that what makes an action morally right is that it tends to promote pleasure and/or the absence of pain. His critics replied, “You make us out to be mere swine by saying that pleasure is all that matters to us!” Mill’s response: ‘pleasure’ has more than one meaning. There are lower and higher pleasures.

My response to the argument above parallels Mill’s: ‘believe’ has more than one meaning. If believe means ‘assent to the existence of Jesus’ or ‘accept that Jesus is the Son of God,’ then premise #2 is false, according to standard Christian theology. Even demons achieve such ‘belief’ in Luke 4:34 (“you are the Holy One of God!”). But if we mean something richer, like, ‘trust that Jesus, as God’s Son, will give you eternal life in God’s Kingdom,’ then #2 is probably true, according to standard Christian theology. And lest you think I’m reading this definition into the text, consider what St. John says: “these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.” (Jn. 20:31) Many other passages corroborate this (very standard) view. Let’s call this sort of belief, “BELIEF.”

 

Better Evidence Required?

open, evidence, ground beliefSo now what? To avoid the fallacy of equivocation, we must use the same meaning of ‘believe’ in premise #1. But this makes premise #1 rather ill-fitted for the standard Christian view. God’s desire for more BELIEF doesn’t guarantee that he should change the current available evidence in some way. BELIEF, according to most Christian theologies, is a function of evidence and receptivity. Think of receptivity as not merely being willing to BELIEVE, but someone who’s heart is ready to obey God (Jn. 7: 17) and enter into a love-relationship with God (Jn. 15:1-11), should the right evidential opportunity arise. More or better evidence (whatever that might be) simply won’t help someone who is not receptive. And since receptivity could explain why so many people do not BELIEVE, we shouldn’t automatically think that God needs to provide better evidence.

Jesus seems to corroborate this in multiple teachings. In his parable about the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31), he suggests that more evidence won’t help some people. Lazarus dies and finds himself with Father Abraham in the hereafter. The “rich man” dies and is tormented in Hades, but he pleads with Abraham to get a message to his brothers so they can escape his condition.

‘Then I beg you, father, send Lazarus to my family, for I have five brothers. Let him warn them, so that they will not also come to this place of torment.’ Abraham replied, ‘They have Moses and the Prophets; let them listen to them.’ ‘No, father Abraham,’ he said, ‘but if someone from the dead goes to them, they will repent.’ He said to him, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.’

Too Skeptical?

They already have sufficient evidence, Jesus says. Other places, Jesus chides his listeners for demanding a sign, presumably for the same reason (Mk. 8:11-12; Jn. 4:48). There is such a thing as being too skeptical. We can be so “closed” to an idea that no amount of evidence will persuade us. If you’re a skeptic of religion, then you’ve witnessed this in people who deny various scientific discoveries. But it can happen to non-religious people just as easily.

empty, tomb, rising from the dead, JesusAnd how much better could the evidence get than someone rising from the dead? Even that, Jesus says, won’t be enough for some. So it doesn’t seem to be “better evidence” that is needed, according to the Christian view, but improved receptivity. So premise #1 is not a tenet of Christian theology, meaning that the argument fails and Christian coherence is preserved. (This is all a bit quicker than I’d like, but space prevents more detail.)

The Truth Is Out There

truth, obvious, GodIn sum, Christianity claims that God has provided plenty of good evidence. Written and spoken testimony, inferential arguments, religious experience, the indirect evidence of nature, etc. Of course, that doesn’t mean you HAVE the evidence, any more than the fact that there are plenty of fish in the sea means that you have one on your plate. You may need to go out and seek it. But it’s out there. God is obvious enough for seekers to arrive at the right sort of belief.


1  Defending coherence is different than defending truth. Imagine assembling a collection of puzzle pieces that all fit nicely together, but don’t actually form the picture on the box. That would be coherence without truth. All the defender of coherence must show is that a particular puzzle piece fits nicely with the others in the collection.

Responsible Religious Belief Q&A

responsible belief, SASHAThis video records the Q&A after talk I gave to the University of Missouri SASHA club (Skeptics, Atheists, Secular Humanists, and Agnostics). The title was “Responsible Belief,” and I shared with them a model of how beliefs are formed and evaluated responsibly. That went about 30 min. Then, we had Q&A and everyone stayed. It was a wonderful conversation and one of the highlights of 2015 for me. At some point, I may post the original presentation.

I’ve broken the 30 min of Q&A into 3 separate videos, and this is Part 1. If you’re interested in how a Christian might respond to being put on the hot seat in front of a lot of smart people, you’ll enjoy this!

 

The Special Significance of Testimony in Christianity

doubting thomas, evidence, belief, testimonyImagine the scene: you’re standing around at party with your friends, and out of nowhere, Jesus appears! And this isn’t the first time, either. But Tom missed all the parties where Jesus showed up, and he thinks you’re all having alcohol-induced hallucinations. This time, however, Tom sees Jesus himself. He reaches out and touches him to be sure. Then Jesus says, “Blessed are they who did not see, and yet believed.” (Cf. John 20:29)

People puzzle over this strange statement. Critics quickly take it to mean that Christian faith means believing without evidence. Even some Christians interpret Jesus as saying that people should “just believe” and stop asking questions. Take the proverbial “leap of faith,” even if it makes no sense whatsoever. They pair Jesus’ words with Paul’s frequently abused assertion, “for we walk by faith, not by sight.” Is this “blind faith?” Is that what Jesus and Paul meant? (1) If so, this strikes a blow against the view that Christianity is a rational worldview! Thankfully, we can make sense of these statements in a way that doesn’t require abandoning coherence. 

Seeing vs. Evidence

kermit, testimony, evidenceThe main mistake we make here is in thinking that “seeing” and “evidence” are the same thing. But evidence comes to us in several forms, only one of which is sight. Epistemologists, who study how beliefs relate to evidence (among other things), agree that there are five primary sources of belief and justification (this includes evidence): perception, testimony, inference, memory, and introspection.(2) For our purposes, we can roughly equate sight with perception–that is, gathering data through the five senses. So, what Jesus and Paul might be saying is this, “It is better not to limit your yourself to the evidence of (physical) perception,” or even, “You should prioritize non-perceptual sources of evidence.” If I’m right, this supports the coherence of Christianity as a rational worldview. 

One question we might ask in testing this hypothesis is, “Why would Christianity favor the other four sources (esp. testimony) over perception? I mean, isn’t perception the best and most reliable way to gather information and evidence?” Well, let me offer two reasons in favor of this favoritism, and one response to the claim that perception is the best of the five sources.

Is (Physical) Perception the Best Source of Evidence?

forensic evidence, testimonyIn some contexts, I think we would say “yes.” Physical or forensic evidence can be more reliable in a murder case, for example, than testimonial evidence. (I’m no legal scholar, but this seems a safe assumption.) But what about outside the courtroom, in everyday life? Is there any reason to favor the evidence of my five senses over the evidence of testimony, inference, etc.? All five sources are vulnerable to error, and no single source can be set as judge above the rest. They must work in cooperation.

Why can’t I endorse one source as preeminent? The minute I try to set one source above the others, I run into problems. First, by what process did I determine that my preferred source is more reliable than the others? Whatever process I employ, it must, by necessity, involve the use of inference (one of my sources). And if it is inference (reason) that I set up as judge, then who evaluates the process I used to decide that? Reason? Ha! Circularity ensues. If some other source, then inference is no longer King. They must all be taken as a team, serving as checks and balances.

Why Would Christianity Favor the Other Four Sources?

So why would someone be “blessed” by relying on non-perceptual sources of evidence? Simply put, the fundamental beliefs of Christianity traffic in non-physical or abstract entities. Perception just isn’t very helpful in coming to know about such things. And this isn’t just true in religion. It’s true in mathematics, philosophy, ethics, cosmology, human value, and other areas. 

trinity, testimony, evidenceConsider some of Christianity’s most basic claims. God exists, God is a trinity, Jesus is God-incarnate, there is life after death, there are objective moral values and duties. Physical perception won’t (directly) tell you any of these things. So it’s no wonder that St. Paul, in the context of discussing life after death (“walk by faith” 2 Cor. 5:7), says that we can’t rely on our five senses to provide evidence of such things. This doesn’t mean that physical perception doesn’t play a role in faith–it can. Hundreds of people confirmed the physical resurrection of Jesus by empirical observation: sight, touch, sound, maybe even smell! Nature itself indirectly points to God’s invisible attributes. But non-perceptual sources, especially testimony, open to door to so much more. 

Blessed Testimony

family, relational, testimony, loveThe Christian faith favors testimony as a mean of transmitting belief and knowledge because, unlike other sources, testimony usually requires human interaction and is thus a relational means of knowledge transmission. The Christian God seeks to create a community of believers, not merely a mass of isolated individuals. By working through human relationships and conversation, God can establish bonds of trust and love between people, forming the basis of community. People can and do come to believe without relationships, but those who already have a connection to another person in the church will experience the benefits of belonging to a community of love. By analogy, imagine if babies just appeared in the world via magic, rather than through human reproduction! The sense of belonging and obligation created through reproduction in the human family provides far superior conditions for new humans. “Spiritual reproduction” via testimony also creates more “blessed” conditions for new believers. (Testimony also confers benefits on the messengers, but I’ll save that for another time.)

Back to Thomas

So I hope I’ve made some sense of Jesus’ words to Thomas here. By opening ourselves to other sources of knowledge, we increase the potential for a deeper experience of God and human community. We can experience the comprehensive revelation of God: written word, philosophical argument, inner awareness of moral conviction, indirect evidence through nature, etc. Testimonial conversations usher us into the Kingdom both spiritually and communally. Jesus’ words (“blessed are they . . .”) speak to all those who ponder the truth of Christianity, but who simply don’t have the benefit of Thomas’ proximity to the physical Jesus. Even Thomas might have been more “blessed” had he believed based on the testimony of his friends.


(1) For a careful look at the biblical context, see this excellent blog post.

(2) For more, see Robert Audi’s Epistemology: A Contemporary Introduction to the Theory of Knowledge, Routledge, 2000.

Is There Scientific Evidence for God?

evidence, scientific evidence for God, science

I thought this would be a nice follow up on my recent podcast, where Dr. Kenny Boyce and I discuss this very same question about scientific evidence for theism. This video captures a message I gave at First Baptist Church of Holton, KS two years ago. In the talk, I aim mostly to encourage and equip Christians, but there are certainly great principles of persuasion applicable to anyone! Some will detect the influence of William Lane Craig on my presentation. I studied with Dr. Craig at Talbot School of Theology and he continues to be an intellectual and spiritual role model. Feedback is welcome. Do you think these arguments constitute scientific evidence for God? Why or why not? If not, what is your definition of ‘evidence?’

Do Motives Cloud Judgment?

clouded judgment, bias, logic, skepticism

Can our motives cloud our judgment? Yes. Without a doubt. (See this post and this post.) But does this mean we should always suspect our judgments and the judgments of others? That seems unreasonable. When I say that motives or psychological states can “cloud our judgment,” what I mean is (roughly) this–if we want something to be true, we tend to see the reasons for that view more favorably, and when we don’t want something to be true, we tend to see the reasons for that view less favorably. “More/less favorably” just means that the reasons appear to have more/less force to us than they would to someone with similar intellectual abilities and no desire either way (no horse in the race).

preformationism, bias, perceptionFor example, some early scientists believed in “preformationism,” which is the view that a tiny embryo exists in every sperm cell. So, when these scientists looked through primitive microscopes, they were inclined to see the outline of such an embryo in sperm cells. Others who did not hold this view did not see the embryos. Even the most ardent truth-seekers sometimes allow their biases and desires to affect their perception and judgment.

But to leap into the swamp of skepticism is a mistake. Here’s a common line of reasoning I observe.

  1. Psychological states, such as desires, often cloud human reasoning.
  2. Peter is expressing reasons for a view that he desires to be true.
  3. Therefore, I should mistrust Peter’s reasoning.

The most common example of this is when a religious skeptic dismisses the reasons presented by a Christian for her belief (which she wants to be true). Almost as common: a Christian assumes that the skeptic is only a skeptic (thus dismissing his arguments) because they don’t want there to be a God! Call this the “bad motives” attack. Several things strike me as wrong-headed about this kind of thinking.

Problems with the “Bad Motives” Attack

First, the reasoning presented by a person for their belief must stand or fall on it’s own merits. The motivations, desires, fears, etc. of that person are completely irrelevant when asking, “Is the reasoning they present any good?” (i.e., is the argument valid). To critique or question a person’s motives instead of critiquing their actual argument is evasion. We resort to this red-herring tactic only when we lack the intellectual skills to logically evaluate the argument being presented. (I should also add that you can admire the logic of an argument without agreeing with it! Being wrong is not the same as being irrational. Several very rational theories exist to explain the extinction of the dinosaurs, but most of them are wrong!)

spotlight, reasonSecond, this view is a two-edged sword. If all judgment is suspect because of hidden psychological interference, then the critic must turn this spotlight on her own reasoning as well. Could it be that (speaking as the critic) my own skepticism about Peter’s reasoning (in the example above) is actually the flawed product of my own motives–I don’t want him to be right! We should doubt the skeptic’s reasoning on exactly the same grounds that the skeptic doubts ours.

Third, wanting something to be true does not automatically cripple our judgment and reasoning. In fact, I don’t think anyone really believes it does. I know this because we apply this critique inconsistently. We pick and choose when to apply the “bad motives” attack, typically applying it to arguments for views we personally don’t like. And certainly we shouldn’t refrain from arguing in favor of things we care deeply about. For instance, I care deeply about the evils of human trafficking. Does this mean I am disqualified from making judgments or arguments against human trafficking? That seems absurd. Let me make my arguments, and then evaluate their soundness on their own merit! This is one reason why good academic journals and conferences don’t want the author’s name on a paper submission. The author’s motives and desires should be irrelevant in evaluating the quality of the arguments presented. 

Last Words

dead end, judgment, reasoning, bias, skepticTrue, there is such a thing as confirmation bias. Our wishful thinking can mislead our reasoning at times if we are not vigilant. But hyper-skepticism about everyone’s beliefs and reasoning is unjustified. So, I want to discourage you from using this “bad motives” attack as an easy response to arguments you don’t like. Deconstructing everyone’s judgment this way, including your own critiques, leads us to a dead end.

*I’m indebted to Josh Rasmussen for his insightful comments on his own recent Facebook post.

Stephen Hawking, Philosophy, and Theism, Part 2

hawking, authority, testimony, science, physicsMy second “official” podcast  (on Stephen Hawking) is now available on iTunes! Here’s the iTunes link. If you don’t have iTunes, you can listen on Sound Cloud. Feedback on the podcast, including production features, is welcome.

I continue my interview with Dr. Kenny Boyce, Asst. Prof. of Philosophy at the University of Missouri. This episode focuses on the work of Stephen Hawking, who passed away on March 14, and the implications of his work for philosophy and theology.

In part 2, we focus on three main topics, all centered around the epistemology of science. First, we discuss the difference between realism and anti-realism in science and how this affects arguments for or against God. Second, we explore whether science can say anything about the evidence for God. Third, we talk about the “god of the gaps” objection to theism that is commonly raised by skeptics.

This one is a bit longer than the first, and I still have enough material left over for another podcast! We’ll see if it ends up becoming Part 3.

Thank you Dr. Kenny Boyce!!!!

Kenny Boyce

Dr. Boyce (the one on the right.)

Kenny’s website.

 

Should I Change What I Believe?

Magdalen College, Oxford, C.S. LewisIn the summer of 2017, I visited the University of Oxford and walked the flower-covered grounds of Magdalen (oddly pronounced “Maudlin”) College. I imagined myself retracing the steps of C. S. Lewis as he first wrestled with the idea of faith in God. He describes his conversion this way:

“You must picture me alone in that room in Magdalen, night after night, feeling, whenever my mind lifted even for a second from my work, the steady, unrelenting approach of Him whom I so earnestly desired not to meet. That which I greatly feared had at last come upon me. In the Trinity Term of 1929 I gave in, and admitted that God was God, and knelt and prayed: perhaps, that night, the most dejected and reluctant convert in all England.” (emphasis mine)

Lewis experienced a process that everyone goes through at one time or another. We start with a belief, we encounter something that unsettles that belief, and then we either find a way to retain our belief, or we change to a different belief. Personally, I don’t think we can directly control what we believe, but we can often indirectly influence the process. But how do we decide what to do when we feel that unsettling?

Winds of Change

weather vane, changeOnly in the last few years have I come to appreciate the expression “winds of change.” When there is a change in air pressure in one place, you feel that change in the form of air moving quickly in or out of your location. That moving air brings a change in weather. (Apologies to any meteorologists out there for my crude description.) Sometimes we feel the “winds of change” in our mental life. Something is unsettled and moving. We encounter new evidence (either in the form of an experience or a set of reasons presented to us) against our view of something and our belief becomes unstable.

The question is, what should we do when we feel that unsettledness? It seems there are several possibilities:

  1. Do nothing. I can take a passive stance and just let the winds of belief blow me wherever they will. Change? Sure! Anytime, any belief.
  2. Stick my head in the sand. I can ignore the new evidence and distract myself from thinking about it further, until I can hopefully just forget about it. Then I will avoid anything that reminds me of that evidence.
  3. Investigate. I can check out the new evidence and test it’s quality or seek corroboration. I can also seek counter-evidence (reasons to doubt the new evidence) and additional evidence for the position I currently hold. Once this is done, I can move toward a new position or affirm my current one.

Something about the first approach appeals to us. It takes no effort, for one. It also sounds so flexible and open-minded. But while flexibility and open-mindedness can be virtues, you can have too much of a good thing. One danger with this approach is that some evidence is misleading evidence.

evidence, knifeEver read a good murder mystery where someone tries to frame another person for the murder? Jenna plants a bloody knife in Jake’s house, she transfers money into his bank account, etc. The average person sees these “clues” and believes Jake must be guilty. But a good detective doesn’t form conclusions quite so quickly or easily. They hold out, they investigate and test the evidence. This sort of reactionary believing happens on social media all too often. We swallow “fake news” or posts that turn out to be hoaxes or just mistakes. So, it seems better to form beliefs more carefully, but without losing flexibility and open-mindedness.

Believe it or not, approach #2 also has a virtue. If all your current beliefs are true, then the head-in-sand technique can help you avoid ever forming a false belief! But it will be at the cost of ever learning any new truths. And besides, I know that my current stock of beliefs isn’t perfect. #2 isn’t as safe as it seems.

Investigation

Of the three options, #3 provides the best way to ensure you are moving toward the truth, or at least toward the most reasonable belief. If you care deeply about having true and reasonable beliefs, then it is wise to invest some time in investigation when you experience an “unsettling” in your worldview.

san francisco, beliefsMy senior year in college, I flew west for a summer mission initiative in San Francisco. My room mate in the dorms, Jasper, didn’t at all fit into the box of what I thought an evangelical college student should be. He had long, crazy hair, dressed in a sort of “grunge” style, and (gasp) listened to secular music! So I thought I was more “mature” than Jasper in my Christian faith, since I wasn’t as “worldly.”

By the end of the summer, however, it became clear that not only was Jasper more mature in his faith than I was, but he emerged as the spiritual leader of the entire mission. Over those 6 weeks, I watched Jasper carefully, and I saw enough evidence in his life to “shift” my belief about secular music. When I returned home from California, I had changed my view and finally felt the freedom to re-embrace my favorite band, U2. (I know how ironic that sounds, given that U2 are very Christian in their message.)

I’ve also experienced times where my view has been challenged, and after investigation, I’ve held my ground. I’ve even moved to a position of “I don’t know” on a few topics. It’s not about which position you take, it’s about responsibility. I want to be responsible with my mind and my beliefs, the same way I try to be careful what I eat and assimilate into my body. (I wrote about another time I changed beliefs here.)

Flexible, but Discerning

earthquake, beliefsI actually went back to live in California for a few years, about a decade after that summer mission. Loved it. Except for the earthquakes. When you feel that rumbling, and your picture frames start rattling off the shelves, it’s quite unsettling.

Sometimes we feel that rumble in our worldview when we have new experiences and talk to people with different perspectives. But we don’t have to respond in panic and fear. Quality buildings are strong, but also flexible, to better withstand quakes. We need that, too. Stay flexible and ready to adjust as needed when the quake comes. We can stop and decide to take some time to investigate. “It is the mark of a mature mind,” Aristotle says, “to be able to entertain an idea without accepting it.” Hold that idea (and the evidence) in your hand and give it a good hard look. Then you can rationally, responsibly discern whether to toss it, table it, or move toward it.

Is Faith Irrational?

I came across this wonderful post by Liz Jackson, a Notre Dame PhD candidate in philosophy. She argues for the rationality of faith by taking an argument against her view and showing that it fails. Of course, this doesn’t “prove” anything, but it does undermine several common attacks made against the rationality of faith. I’d be interested to hear from skeptical readers whether they think Jackson succeeds, or if they have an alternative way to argue for faith’s irrationality.

One point that stands out to me is that skeptics shouldn’t just define faith as irrational. She explains why in the post.

Read her post here.

I discovered this blog (The Open Table) just today, but it seems like a good one.

An Atheist, an Agnostic, and A Theist Walk Into A Bar

(That literally happened to me one time.) Ok, this joke still needs writing, and that’s not my thing. But I do want to try and tease out a related conversational knot that’s been giving me trouble. In short, the knot involves the answers to the following questions:

  • What does it mean to be an atheist?
  • What does it mean to be a theist?
  • What does it mean to be an agnostic?

Why does this matter? Because labels matter to us. If someone called me a “feminist,” my reaction might depend on what they mean by the term. If it just means “someone who advocates for the complete social, economic, and political equality of the sexes,” then I’m happy to carry the label. But if they mean it pejoratively to mean “someone who hates men and wants women to take over the world,” then I’m going have a problem with that. So which is the correct definition of feminist?

Similarly, if someone calls you an atheist, what exactly does that mean? You might accept the term when defined a certain way, but not when defined in another way. Also, if I say something like, “atheism is irrational,” the reasonableness (or truth) of that claim depends on the definition being used. If it means, “someone who knows with certainty that no gods exist,” then few people will accept the label, and rightly so.

What I want to do here is compare two approaches to defining these terms, and explain why I recommend one over the other. I’ll start with what I call the “four quadrants” model.

The Four Quadrants Model

Some people propose we renovate these terms (atheist, agnostic, theist) a bit to make things clearer and avoid foisting burdensome views upon others. Here is the renovation proposal:

atheism, agnosticism, belief grid

There is a certain elegance and symmetry to this model. You have ‘theism’ and ‘a-theism’ juxtaposed with ‘gnostic’ and ‘a-gnostic.’ Very nice.

This “quadrant model” carries other advantages as well. First, it takes some pressure off of atheists who don’t want to claim that they “know” there are no gods. Second, it also takes pressure off of theists in exactly the same way. Third, it uses the term ‘agnostic’ in a way more true to the original meaning of the Greek word. In ancient Greek, ‘gnosis’ means ‘knowledge’ and the prefix ‘a’ mean ‘without’ or negation. So, to say that I am “agnostic” literally means “I don’t know.”

Cons of the Quadrant Model

Unfortunately, there are some drawbacks to this model. For one, the unconventional use of ‘gnostic’ and ‘agnostic.’ While I do love etymologies (word origins), most people find them rather pedantic. The simple truth about language is that meanings change over time. A word gets it’s meaning from usage. If we were arguing about what technical term philosophers should use, that might be a different story. But if we want an ordinary term for common usage, it is simpler to use the word conventionally. So, when it come to ‘agnostic,’ most people understand this to describe someone who is undecided about God’s existence. And when it comes to ‘gnostic,’ this term gnostic, mysticalrefers to followers of an religion that revolves around the possession of esoteric, mystical knowledge (Gnosticism). For Christians, this is especially important, because ‘gnostic’ carries a heavy negative connotation, and has for thousands of years. To be a “gnostic theist” is to be a heretic, for most Christians. So, shifting meanings in this way muddies the waters.

Secondly, this model suggests that knowledge and belief are like height and width–two separate dimensions of thought. But belief and knowledge relate more like acceleration and force. Belief is a component of knowledge, just as acceleration is a component of force (F = ma). So it is misleading to represent them on two perpendicular axes.

This quadrant model also fails to provide a safe conceptual space for the truly undecided. True undecidedness is a real position on many important questions, including scientific ones. In numerous cases (e.g., the multiverse), the most rational thing to say is “I neither believe there is an X, nor do I believe there is not an X.” But the diagram above tells me that I must pick a quadrant.  I must either believe (the space below the ‘x’ axis) or not believe (the space above the ‘x’ axis). If we revised it to allow people to be on the axis, perhaps right at (0,0), then what do we call them? There is no in-between because the model is binary in principle.

confused, atheist, agnosticFinally, the fellow in the upper-left quadrant confuses a few things. He wants to say “I don’t believe any god exists,” but he also wants to say “I’m not CLAIMING that–I might be wrong.” I understand the discomfort here. He doesn’t want to make a strong claim, because that would require a strong defense, which is a burden he doesn’t want. Fair enough. But he isn’t like a helicopter that has yet to land. He has landed, even if tentatively. He thinks there are no gods. He’s not saying he is certain, or that he can prove anything, he is simply describing where he has landed. And he admits that he may have landed on the wrong spot. That’s fine. But even a tentative landing represents a claim about what you think is true about the universe. I’ll say a bit more beloe about the the difference between “having no belief about p” and “not believing p.”

The Sliding-Scale Model

Instead of a binary-based model, and the restrictions that entails, I prefer a sliding-scale approach.  This non-binary model allows for a wide range of possibilities, grouped into three natural categories. Rather than being forced to choose from only four possible positions, people can personalize their position based on their beliefs and confidence level.

I didn’t have a cute graphic for mine, so I made this:

belief scale, agnostic

On this view, you can be anywhere between 0-100% confidence about a certain idea or claim. (“p” refers to any claim, or proposition, like “God exists.”) If you find yourself hovering around the 50% mark, we’ll say you neither believe it nor disbelieve it. This is where we should fall on claims like “this fair coin will land on heads when flipped.” Sometimes we say things, loosely, like “I don’t know.” But this conversationally implies that we simply don’t have a belief one way or the other.

pool jump, confidence, beliefIf you land roughly between 65-100% confident that p, then you clearly believe it is true.  At 100% confidence, you have no doubts and think there is no chance that p is false. (Notice that we’re saying nothing about knowledge here. This is only about beliefs, just to keep things simple and clear.)  If you fall anywhere in between 0-35%, you think that p is false, though the closer you get to 50%, the more you lean toward thinking there’s some chance it could be true. For example, suppose I’m looking over a balcony, wondering if I could jump safely into the pool. I give myself about a 15% chance of plunging safely into the water. So, if you ask me, “Do you believe you can make it?” I’d say, “no.”  If you have 0% confidence that p, then you have no doubt it is false–you disbelieve it with maximum confidence of its falsehood.

The Sliding-scale & God

Now, if we apply this to our debate about definitions, here’s how I think it works in terms of belief about God. If you have ~65% or more confidence that God exists, then you believe that God exists and we call you a theist.  (I think most of us agree with that.) But theists, like atheists, can possess little or much confidence. If you are ~35% or less confident that God exists, then you disbelieve that God exists and we call you an atheist. (Nothing about knowledge here!)

Both segments (red and green) of the scale represent a “belief state,” two sides of the same coin.

coin flip, tails, beliefBut that’s ok because merely believing or disbelieving that p doesn’t saddle you with an undue burden. I call them both belief states because disbelieving that p is roughly synonymous with believing that p is false. I.e., “I disbelieve that God exists” is the same as “I believe there is no God.” It’s like someone saying, “I don’t think the coin will be heads”– you wouldn’t need to ask whether they believe it will be tails. It’s just a belief! No big deal. Whether it is rational or whether you know is a different ball game and will require more justification. But the atheist need not attain certainty or prove there is no God in order to be a rational atheist.

Questions & Concerns

Some atheists prefer the quadrant model because they are more comfortable saying “I don’t have a belief about God–I lack belief in God.” But saying you lack a belief about God’s existence is not accurate. Atheists lack an affirmation of God’s existence, but they have a belief state (doxastic attitude), and that belief state is disbelief. They take the claim “God exists” to be false. If you don’t take it to be false, then you are either undecided or a theist. The only people who truly lack a belief about God are those who have never considered God’s existence, like my dog Duke or my friend’s baby. They just have no belief state about God whatsoever.

Huxley, agnostic, agnosticismWhat about agnostics? Now, I admit that the term ‘agnostic’ as a label for the undecided is somewhat regrettable, given the literal Greek meaning. Coined by Thomas Huxley in the late 19th century, the term served to contrast his position against those who felt they had attained “gnosis” or knowledge of answers to the big questions. Huxley used the term to express either skepticism or humility or both. But regardless of Huxley’s intentions, the term now refers to someone who is undecided on a matter, religious or otherwise. For now, it works. Launch a campaign to shift the usage if you dislike it, but it isn’t quite right to tell people that they’re using it wrong now.

To avoid mixing up atheism and agnosticism, note that the claim “I don’t believe that any gods exist” (as in the four quadrant graphic above) can mean several different things. Consider the claim E: “the number of stars in the universe is even.” If I say that “I don’t believe E,” that could mean: (1) I think E is false, which implies that I hold the odd-number-stars view; or (2) I don’t believe E, but I don’t think it’s false either. I’m just undecided, or agnostic on the matter. So when you want to express atheism and NOT agnosticism, it is better to say something like, “I believe there are no gods,” or more simply “I disbelieve theism.”

If you discover that the belief-state you are in is difficult to defend, welcome to the club! Each position has its unique challenges and weaknesses. There’s no problem with redefining your position in order to make it more defensible, as long as the changes are not “Ad hoc” and the new definition is coherent and unconfusing.