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.

Feelings, Beliefs, and Evidence

In the iconic scene, Darth Vader tells Luke that his feelings will lead him to the truth. Is this true? My feelings aren’t helping here.

If you rely on feelings to tell you what is true, are your beliefs less stable? Are they less likely to be true? (This is a post about a post about a post about a podcast about beliefs and evidence. I’ll thank the relevant people as I go.)

Experience v. Evidence

In a recent Unbelievable podcast, hosted by Justin Brierley, this question jumps onto the table. Brierley interviews two sons-of-famous-Christian-fathers, Bart Campolo and Sean McDowell. Both grew up in the shadow of their father’s world-wide influence, charismatic speaking, and prolific publishing. Both followed their father’s trail into Christian ministry, but their paths diverge at that point. Somewhere along the way, Bart Campolo lost his belief in God, while Sean’s faith became even stronger. What made the difference?

house built on rock, faith, evidenceSome hay has been made on the blogosphere about this. I found out about the story from Jeremy Smith at Faith Ascent , and he read about it on Alisa Childers excellent blog. So thanks to both of them! The narrative being suggested is roughly this: one man built his faith on the sand of experience (feelings), and the other on the solid rock of evidence, so to speak. The former’s crumbled in the storm, and the latter’s held firm.

More To the Story

This narrative may capture one aspect of the stories involved, but surely we can (and should) say more. I’ll share two thoughts. The first is this: “feelings” or “experience” aren’t opposed to evidence, they are evidence. More precisely, I take them to be a kind of evidence, much in the way that chicken is a kind of poultry. I outline several kinds of evidence in this post (see #15-19).

investment, diversify, evidenceThis means that Campolo’s shift from theism to humanism may not be due to a simple lack of evidence. Instead, I think it may have been due to a lack of diversity in his evidence. Investors always advise their clients to “diversify.” I.e., they should invest in many companies so that if one company tanks, they will still have a stable portfolio. It’s the “don’t carry all your eggs in one basket” maxim. My hunch is that McDowell possessed a wider variety of evidence, including experience, philosophical arguments, testimony of reliable sources, and historical evidence. It’s certainly possible that Campolo had plentiful amounts (comparable to McDowell’s) of all these types as well, but I’m guessing this wasn’t the case.

Here’s the second thought: whether or not Campolo enjoyed a copious and variable evidence base, there is another factor that hasn’t been highlighted. Campolo experienced a decades-long struggle with the problem of evil. This experience holds significant evidential power, and can tip the scales against just about any collection of pro-theism evidence, perhaps with a few exceptions. Campolo mentions in the podcast that while ministering in the inner city, he saw horrible things happening to people, including children. He prayed and prayed, with no noticeable results. I can understand how his faith eroded over time in such a milieu. And I don’t know that McDowell ever experienced a “storm” of comparable magnitude. So, that’s a difference that should factor into the explanation.

Conclusion

storm, evidenceIn sum, stories are complex. Everyone’s evidence base is different, necessarily. Different evidence supports different beliefs. Still, I think the contrast between Campolo and McDowell illustrates the importance of a diversified evidential portfolio, if you’re wanting a stable belief set.

Stephen Hawking, Physics, and Theism

hawking, authority, testimony, science, physicsMy first “official” podcast  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 interview 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.

We start with a discussion of Hawking and his contributions to science, and then delve into how his work on the origins of the universe affects two important arguments for theism. These two arguments, the “cosmological argument” and the “fine-tuning” argument” both face challenges from Hawking. If you aren’t familiar with these two arguments, you can see an excellent explanation for each in these videos:

Hawking’s ideas about how the universe may have started pose a problem for the Kalam version of the Cosmological argument, and his work on the possibility of a multi-verse can undermine the strength of the fine-tuning argument. In the podcast, Dr. Boyce and I explore these challenges and offer some possible responses in defense of theism.

Next Episode

My next episode will be Part 2 of the interview with Dr. Boyce and will take us a little deeper into the philosophical implications of Hawking’s theories.

Kenny Boyce

Dr. Boyce (the one on the right.)

Kenny’s website.

 

Criticism, Knowledge, and Authority

Learning about informal logical fallacies turns young philosophy students into gun-slinging logic vigilantes. I love how this comic (courtesy of Existential Comics) portrays the phenomenon.

fallacy man, authority, belief fallacy man, authority, belief

But, as Alexander Pope wrote, “a little learning is a dangerous thing.” In his Essay on Criticism, Pope critiques the critics, warning them of trying to evaluate beyond their skill. The essay (written in verse) holds great wisdom, well-worth the hour it might take to read through. One takeaway is this: if you plan to engage in criticism of a view, be sure you know what you’re talking about. Otherwise your photo may end up on Wikipedia’s Dunning-Kruger Effect  page. “Drink deep, or taste not the Peirian spring.”

The Appeal To Authority

hawking, authority, testimony, scienceOne of the fallacies mentioned above that gets frequent abuse is the “appeal to authority.” Those who have only sipped at the Peirian Spring misunderstand this concept, and so make two common errors: 1) they accuse others of it falsely, and 2) they become oblivious to their own appeals to authority. Let me illustrate a little.

Fallacious appeal to authority:  Brett claims that beer causes Alzheimer’s Disease. Conrad replies, “That’s silly.” Brett says, “My friend, Dr. Swanson, said it. Therefore, it’s true.”

Legitimate appeal to authority: Mark claims that black holes emit radiation. Kenny says, “But nothing can escape from a black hole.” Mark retorts, “Stephen Hawking has argued powerfully for this and talks about it in his book, A Brief History of Time.” 

What’s the difference? For one, Stephan Hawking clearly satisfies any reasonable criteria for being a legitimate expert on black holes. It is not at all clear that Dr. Swanson is an expert on Alzheimer’s. Conrad may not even know who Dr. Swanson is.  Second, Brett bases his argument solely on the word (hearsay) of Dr. Swanson, while Mark offers at least one checkable resource. Third, Brett fashions his argument in deductive form. But an argument from authority should take inductive form, i.e., the evidence from authority does not guarantee the conclusion–it only makes it more likely to be true.   A fourth mistake sometimes made in appeals to authority, though not in this case, is when someone misquotes or misrepresents an expert.

We All Do It

court room, testimonyThe bottom line is: we all rely on legitimate appeals to authority, and rightly so. Testimony (information transmitted to us from other persons, as in court) acts as one of at least five sources of knowledge (inference, memory, perception, and consciousness being the others). I simply cannot help but rely on the words of other people to help me form my beliefs about the world, like when my daughter tells me she is at a friend’s house. And I especially rely on those who have expertise in various areas: scientists, philosophers, doctors, lawyers, musicians, etc.

But I still need to treat authority carefully. When I decide whether to believe something I read or hear, I should make sure I know the source. Not all sources — people, publications, websites–are created equal. I would check to see whether the writer/speaker is an expert or is quoting an expert. And I still use reason and background knowledge to filter the expert’s claims. I address some of these ideas in this 2 minute clip from a talk at the University of Missouri Skeptics Club:

(You can see this video, “Responsible Believing,” in it’s entirety here.)

 A Final Paraklesis

pipe, health, authority, testimony(I like the Greek word ‘paraklesis’ because it can mean both “encouragement” and “exhortation.”) Sometimes extra caution is required. I may take risks, at times, with my own health–like when I indulge in pipe-smoking. But I should think twice about the health risks when recommending such things to others. Similarly, I am sometimes negligent with my epistemic health–like believing something without sufficient consideration. But I try to exercise extra caution and care when conveying ideas (teaching, writing, speaking, using social media), based on authority, to others. Take an extra moment to ask, before you post or assert something based on authority,

  • Is the authority legitimate? (not always an easy question)
  • If the issue is controversial, have I portrayed it as one-sided by only quoting one expert?
  • Is the authority an expert in the relevant field?
  • Did I accept this expert’s word uncritically, or have I checked it out?
  • Have I represented the authority accurately?

And before you draw your fallacy six-gun and dispense epistemic justice on someone, ask whether they might be making an appropriate appeal to authority.

Are There Good Reasons To Be An Atheist?

disagreement, rational, atheistI debated whether to even write this post. Here’s why: many people think that ANY concession to the “other side” amounts to total defeat. For many, to admit that atheist beliefs are reasonable amounts to admitting they are correct. But this is just plain wrong, and I’ll explain why below. Nevertheless, this post may disturb some theists.

Setting the Intellectual Stage

I’m going to set the stage here with a few concepts. Then I’ll tell you whether there are good reasons for atheism and what they might be (if there are any).

Castaway, island, belief, atheistThe first idea that needs stating is this: you aren’t obligated (epistemically) to believe X simply because there are some good reasons to think X is true. The equation is more complex than that. Imagine you are Tom Hanks’ character in the film Castaway. You hear on a radio that there were no survivors from your plane crash, and they even claim to have found your body! You now have two excellent reasons to believe you are dead. But you have one HUGE, overruling reason to believe the opposite: your own (physical) self-awareness. So, having good reasons for X doesn’t settle the matter.

The second idea we need to get straight is what counts as a “good reason.” We can say more than just “whatever reasons I like/agree with.” Good reasons should be those that give some rational support to your position. Put another way, good reasons (if true) should be things that increase the probability that your position is correct. Example: I believe that Dylan will win this tennis match against Austin because Dylan has never lost a tennis match against Austin. (Even though these are independent events, the inference comes from Dylan’s apparent superior skill.) Believing that Dylan will win because he wears orange shorts would not be a good reason because the color of his shorts, presumably, has no bearing on his probability of winning.

Rationality and Reasons

dreams, rational, atheistThirdly, rationality.* The problem people have with understanding rationality is this: they assume that if Joe’s belief is false, then it can’t be rational. (People also assume the contrapositive: if it is rational, it is true. Sort of the logical Field of Dreams.)  This misses the mark completely. Rationality and truth come apart all the time. We aim to be rational or reasonable because it increases our chances of believing what is true. But being rational cannot guarantee we are right.

Throughout history, and even today, people have rationally and reasonably believed false things. Many intelligent people rationally believed the earth was the center of the universe. Heck, I read an encyclopedia from the 1950s that claimed space travel to be impossible. Bottom line: it’s OK to concede that people can be rationally wrong.

Think of it another way. There can be good reasons to believe something, even when it’s false. Think of a murder trial. Juries sometimes convict a person of a crime because there is a good case against them, only to be proven wrong by new evidence later. The jury may have been completely rational in their decision, given that they did not yet have the new evidence.

Pro-atheist?

cancer, child, evil, faith, atheistSo are there good reasons for atheism? I think so.  First, if God exists, then you’d think he would prevent small children from getting cancer, or from being sexually abused. But these things still happen. This counts as prima facie evidence against God’s existence, I think. Second, much of what we attribute to God can be explained other ways. Religious experience, alleged miracles, changed lives. Alternate explanations for these things give us reason to doubt the reality of God. Third, if one already has strong reasons to accept an atoms-only view of the universe (i.e., physicalism), then one has a reason to deny God’s existence. These three brief, good reasons fall short of a total survey of arguments for atheism, but it’s a start. Suggestions welcome.

There are also many awful reasons to be an atheist. In my research for this post, I found several websites about “reasons to be an atheist,” and they were, to be honest, mostly atrocious. People routinely conflate theism with Christianity, and mistakenly think that an argument against the Bible or the church is ipso facto an argument against God. Some claim that there’s “no evidence,” which is obviously false, since billions of people would line up to give testimony of their experience of God (some have even written it down). You may discount this evidence, but it is evidence nevertheless. Some even go so far as to say that since we don’t “need” God, then we shouldn’t believe in God! That argument fails in exactly the same way that the “we need to believe in God or else we won’t have meaning/morality/happiness” argument fails.

Conclusion

respect, disagree, belief, atheistIn conclusion, many theists ought to reevaluate their attitude toward their atheist acquaintances. Some atheists may believe irrationally (as many theists do), but many of them actually have good reasons behind their disbelief. In fact, I’d wager a small amount that the percentage of (evidentially) irrational atheists out of all atheists is smaller than the percentage of (evidentially) irrational theists! So, approach your conversations with respect, and assume the best, until proven otherwise. (The same goes for you atheists!)

*I’m using the term ‘rationality’ quite loosely here. I’m taking ‘rational belief’ to be roughly synonymous with ‘reasonable belief’ or ‘justified belief.’

Fear and Reason

subconscious, fear, politicsDo your subconscious fears influence your political beliefs? As much as we might all like to think that our political positions are the result of careful, rational investigation, they aren’t. A fascinating article published in the Washington Post last November has been making the rounds on social media, claiming (roughly) that feelings of safety will cause more liberal political leanings. Before you dismiss this as nonsense or fake news, hear me out and then take a few minutes to read the article. It should take about 6 minutes. Here’s the link.

First of all, this kind of research is inductive, which means that it does not prove the conclusions — it only gives us good reasons to accept the conclusions as true. Second, this research only identifies one potential factor in how our political inclinations are formed. Many other causal factors go into explaining why people vote or believe the way they do. Third, this study uses statistical reasoning to conclude things about the general population, which does not automatically mean these things are true of you, personally. And fourth, I don’t see anything wrong with admitting that my emotions and fears sometimes influence my beliefs. I’m human, after all. And this doesn’t mean that all my thinking falls short of being ideally rational, just that some of it may. In other words, don’t freak out.

The Takeaway

open hands humilityWhat I takeaway from research like this is the importance of intellectual humility. We are finite, fallible creatures who possess many biases and mental shortcomings. Thus, we ought to hold more lightly to many of our beliefs, remaining open to new evidence and amendment. Secondly, research like this moves me to reflect on my own reasons and fears, and to honestly ask myself if this rings true. It’s ok to be wrong. It’s not ok to let my hubris get in the way of correction and growth.

Are They Crazy?

saxophone, talent, rationalMy junior year of college (I was studying to be a band director), I met Steve. Steve was, by all accounts, a talented, intelligent, rational person. Like me, he played the saxophone, but unlike me, he *played* the saxophone. I mean, he flew up and down the scales unconsciously, as if he were playing with 14 fingers instead of the standard 10. Oddly, despite his intelligence and talent, he was a conservative Christian. I thought that was crazy. At the time, I viewed religion and God as ridiculous, only for the weak-minded. Despite this, we became fast friends.

I still recall a conversation (we often got into religious and political debates) in which I said to him, “I don’t know how any intelligent person could believe in God.” To which he replied, without flinching, “I don’t know how any intelligent person could NOT believe in God!” Most of the Christians I had talked to would have been reduced to a puddle of religious sentiment at this point, but Steve held his ground.

Conditional Craziness

horses, crazy, rationalFast forward 25 years. I no longer consider Steve to be crazy.  But I look back on my 20 year old self and I understand why I saw it that way. I also understand the view from the “other side.” For a couple years in my 20s, after crossing over to faith in God, I flipped. That is, I thought atheists, my former brethren, were the crazy ones. I no longer believe that, either. But why do we usually look at our counterparts across the “aisle of faith” and wag our heads, thinking, “Those poor fools”?

I think I can explain this phenomenon. It comes down to conditional probability. You see, when you consider whether to believe something, you often weigh the probability that it is true. For example, suppose Julie tells you that she’s been a bridesmaid in over 100 weddings. You’re skeptical. The probability of this is quite low, say 5%, and the reasonable response is disbelief. But what if you learn that Julie is a professional bridesmaid? Now you weigh the probability that she is telling the truth, conditional on this new information. This conditional probability would be quite high, say 80%, which is high enough to warrant acceptance.

bridesmaid, conditional probability, rationalNotice that we ignore, for the moment, the possibility that the information about Julie’s unusual occupation is false. We simply form the belief that, assuming she is a professional bridesmaid, the likelihood of her having been a bridesmaid 100 times is quite high. We stand well within our epistemic or rational rights to believe her. But another person who lacks this extra bit of information would not be rational to uncritically accept Julie’s “100 weddings” boast.

That “Extra Bit”

So what does this have to do with rational theism or atheism? The reason that theists or atheists appear so crazy to us is that we are often judging them without that extra bit of information. Without that “extra bit,” we simply estimate the subjective probability for the “bare” version of their position. For example, if you’re an atheist, the subjective probability of theism is quite low. Which means that theism shouldn’t be believed by rational persons! Thus, from the atheist perspective, theism appears quite irrational, and vice versa.

believe, belief, think, rationalBut if we could explore the minds of each person, we would find that we aren’t believing simple, bare propositions. (Let’s say that ‘A’ = “atheism is true,” and ‘T’ = “theism is true.”) We are usually believing A or T conditional on a certain set of reasons–reasons that, presumably, increase the likelihood of A or T. These reasons may include a whole host of things: scientific discoveries, experiences, beliefs about the coherence or incoherence of divine revelation and action, testimony, etc. So, for any theist or atheist, given the set of reasons they have, their belief may very well be rational.

Resist the temptation to perform a summary execution on another person’s rationality.

Keep in mind that while you enjoy access to your own set of reasons, you lack access to the reasons of others. You don’t really know whether the set of reasons they’re working with justifies their belief or not. So, like the American legal system, I think it better to presume rational innocence. Resist the temptation to perform a summary execution on another person’s rationality.

Conclusion

Mr. T, pity, rationalNow some of you are thinking, “How can their reasons make their belief rational if their reasons are all wrong or crazy?!” That’s the funny thing about rationality–it doesn’t guarantee truth. It only increases our chances of getting truth (usually). For hundreds of years, people rationally believed that the Sun revolved around the Earth. So the truth of our beliefs is not what I’m talking about. I just want to show that people can be rational even if they’re wrong. So, you may still pity the fool who believes (theism/atheism), but you shouldn’t automatically peg them as irrational. And you absolutely shouldn’t peg them as “beneath you” on the intelligence or ethical scale.

 

 

Hearing from Jesus?

Jesus Christ, hearing GodIn the wake of recent noise about Mike Pence and his alleged conversations with the Son of God, I though I’d offer an epistemological perspective. How do we evaluate claims like “God spoke to me?”

Some Guidelines

First, these claims can only be evaluated inductively. That is, we can’t “prove” them true or false. We can only gather reasons and evidence for or against the claim, and then see where these reasons point us. The evidence may point so strongly in one direction as to virtually settle the matter, or it may be closer to 50/50. I’ll discuss what reasons for or against might look like below.

Second, claims about hearing from God can’t be evaluated without first assuming either that God exists or that God does not exist. So which assumption should we make? The far more interesting discussion arises from assuming God exists. If we assume the opposite, then the debate is over — Pence is kidding himself. Given that neither assumption is proven fact, and the vast majority of people in the world affirm some sort of god, it seems better to start with theism. (If you’re an atheist, this may annoy you. Your time might be better spent debating the existence of gods, rather than the veracity of heavenly messages.)

Jesus, hearing Jesus speak, Mike PenceThird, even religious people will disagree about how to evaluate “God spoke to me” claims. Since the Pence discussion revolves around the Christian faith, we should start there. (Again, assuming Christianity is true, what should we make of Pence’s chats with Jesus?) At minimum, Christians should admit that divine communication is clearly possible. Multiple precedents exist in the Bible and in church tradition, after all. The details get sketchy, though. (Also see this web comic: Coffee with Jesus.)

I can’t evaluate Pence’s personal experiences, because I don’t have nearly enough details. All we have is a second-hand account that Pence said that “Jesus tells him to say things.” Such testimonial evidence wouldn’t even be admissible in court. So instead I offer some criteria for evaluating such claims, from a Christian perspective.

Criteria that Increase Likelihood of Veridicality

  1. Coherence: Is the content of the message consistent with itself and with the consensus* of Christian teaching? (*”Mere Christianity” as C. S. Lewis might say.) If the voice says, “Iggily biggily, gollygoops,” or “Hate thy neighbor,” I don’t think it was Jesus.
  2. listening, intellectual virtue, corroboration Corroboration: Do other Christians, after discussion and prayer, agree that this was God’s voice? Pence should seek out several wise and knowledgeable believers and share the details with them for evaluation.
  3. Clarity: Is the message clear or vague? Historically, quintessential instances of God speaking to humans occur in unmistakable fashion. Burning bushes, blinding visions, human-like manifestations, terrifying angelic messengers, etc. God also appears to speak in indirect ways, but those are harder to verify and distinguish from one’s own conscience or thoughts. The clearer the message and medium, the more confidence we can have that it is divine.
  4. Character: Is the person making the claim generally reliable and truthful? Are they prone to over-interpret their own thoughts? Have they made spurious claims of divine dialogue in the past?
  5. Better explanations: Assuming Christianity is true, is there a better way to explain the experience? Were you drunk or on drugs? Are you suffering from any diagnosed or undiagnosed mental illness? Did someone plant a radio transmitter in your braces? (Here’s a great essay by Stanford anthropologist T.M. Luhrman explaining how to distinguish religious experience from mental illness.)

The Bottom Line

Whatever the case may be, we should avoid knee-jerk reactions to claims of hearing from God. Leave room for possibility. Investigate and reflect. It never helps anyone to mock or deride others for their beliefs. “The View” host Joy Behar reacted by suggesting that Mike Pence is “mentally ill.” If you think someone’s beliefs are bad, show their error with love and logic, not ridicule. Ridicule is the weapon of those who lack the ability to wield reason.

MLK, King, hearing JesusPerhaps the best argument for taking such claims seriously is this:

If you say that everyone claiming to hear Jesus speak to them is delusional, then you must call Martin Luther King, Jr. delusional. 

In a well-known story, King claimed to hear the voice of Jesus telling him to stand up for truth and justice. His neice, Alveda King, relates this in her response to Joy Behar here. And MLK isn’t the only credible or heroic person who claimed to hear from God. Have there also been frauds and crazies? Absolutely. But it seems hasty and unreasonable to dump every sincere “hearer” into the epistemic trash heap.