The Other Side Is Evil (Moralized Disagreements)

us and them arroganceRarely do I come across something so closely aligned with my own goals in blogging that I use it in place of an original post. But this video is such a thing. In the context of the Kavanaugh hearings, Kyle Blanchette skillfully breaks down how we tend to view those who disagree with us as stupid or evil. This is NOT about which side is right, or even the reasons behind each side. It’s about how we judge those who disagree with us. Worth you time.

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.

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.’

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.

 

 

Burden of Proof

genes, microbes, evidence, burden of proofMatt, a PhD student, studies how microbes influence the immune system. Matt is also an atheist, and since he’s exceptionally smart, I thought it would be interesting to interview him about his beliefs. I wondered about the “whys” behind his atheism. During our conversation, the concept of the “burden of proof” came up. Matt believes that in the dispute over God’s existence, it is the theist who bears the burden of proof. In other words, atheism is the simpler, more natural position, and the theist has a lot of extra work to do in defending claims about gods. After all, “extraordinary” claims about supernatural entities and miracles should require extraordinary evidence.

Is this right? I pushed back a little on this claim in my interview with Matt, but I needed more time to think and research a bit. So, now after further reflection, I’m blogging my thoughts on the subject. I want to challenge, maybe even “debunk” this assumption that theists bear a burden of proof. I think that even if there is a burden of proof, theists have already satisfied it. But, in matters like theism/atheism, I don’t think there is any such thing as a burden of proof to begin with. This means that theists and atheists stand on equal footing, and both viewpoints must offer reasons to support their position.

Setting the Table

setting table, burden of proofNow, if you’re an atheist, don’t flip out here. I’m not trying to “shift the burden of proof,” as they say. We all want our beliefs to be rational, and we all want the same standards of rationality to apply to everyone—that’s fairness. So, to set the table for this discussion, bear with me for two quick bits of epistemic silverware:

  1. A proposition is a claim about reality, expressed by a declarative sentence.
  2. There are three (doxastic) attitudes one can take in considering a proposition: belief, withholding (undecided), and disbelief.

Here are some examples of propositions and my attitude toward each:

PROPOSITION MY (DOXASTIC) ATTITUDE
The earth has two moons. Disbelief
The universe contains an even number of stars. Withhold
All triangles have three sides. Belief

children, teacher, burden of proof, beliefsFor any given proposition that you’ve thought about, you “take” one of these three attitudes, sometimes without even realizing it. If someone asks you why you take that position, you ought to be able to say something in response if you want to be considered rational. Even if everyone in the world holds the same attitude as you, you still ought to be able to offer some reason (unless, perhaps, the belief is “basic”—see below). I think we can all agree that saying, “Well, that’s what everyone believes,” or “that’s what my teacher told me,” is no good unless you can explain why those are reliable sources of knowledge on the matter. Easy answers like those are fine for children, but once you begin an adult inquiry about the rationality of your belief, they will no longer do.

So let’s agree to endorse this principle of epistemic fairness:

Whatever attitude you take toward a proposition, you ought to have some good reasons for taking that attitude.

(Exception: some beliefs may be “basic,” which is to say that they are special in not needing the support of reasons to be rational, such as my belief that I exist. I may have reasons for this belief, but even if I didn’t, I’d be rational in believing that I exist.) This isn’t a trick, or some kind of apologetic sleight-of-hand. And I’m going to set aside the possibility that belief in God is basic, just for argument’s sake.

Applying the Principle

reasons, atheist, burden of proofSo, according to our principle, theists ought to have some good reasons for their belief in God, right? Fair enough. What about atheists? Do they need some good reasons for their atheism? Some argue that atheism is not a “belief,” but merely the “lack of belief” in gods. Well, that could be true, but atheists do take some attitude on the proposition “God exists.” They disbelieve it. So, in all epistemic fairness, they should possess some reasons for their position. This means that theists, atheists, and “agnostics” (those who withhold–neither believe nor disbelieve*) are all on even epistemic ground.

In my next post, I’ll address several questions and objections.

  • Is “not enough evidence” a good reason for disbelief?
  • Is atheism the “default” position?
  • Should we consider theism an “extraordinary” claim?
  • Is atheism simply “lack of belief” in gods?

*I know this use of the term ‘agnostic’ is controversial. But this is inconsequential.

Evidence Is Relative

legos, evidenceI love Legos. My wife says I only wanted kids so that I could buy Legos “for the kids” and play with them. That’s false, of course. I also wanted to buy video games. But Legos were truly my favorite childhood toy.  Nowadays, one fun game I play with the kids is when we each grab a handful of Legos from the box and see what we can build. We may end up with some of the same pieces–a 2×4 brick, a 6×10 plate–but our “sets” will be unique. Thus, our creations turn out unique. There’s an interesting parallel when it comes to forming beliefs. Evidence, and the conclusions we build from them, resemble Lego creations.

Evidence is Relative

In a previous post, I mentioned 5 sources of evidence. 3 based on experience: perception, testimony, and introspection. And two that aren’t (directly) based on experience: memory and inference. These 5 kinds of evidence provide the stranger things, evidence“building blocks” of belief. Testimony is when you get second-hand information from another person, like when your insensitive friend blurts out a spoiler about a Stranger Things episode you have yet to watch. Perception is first-hand experience of the world, physical or otherwise. Memories are just mental records of past experiences. Introspection is when you notice things going on in your own mind, like when you find yourself longing for chocolate donuts. Inference is when you put “2 and 2 together.” You see the torn up pillow, you see the fuzz in your dog’s mouth, and you infer that your dog ate your pillow.

The building blocks we have in our set differ for obvious reasons. I’m looking at the glass of juice on my desk, and you aren’t. You remember what you ate for dinner last night, and I don’t. The ones that differ most among people are the experiential ones. Our experiences are unique and hard to share. 

  • apple, evidenceseeing a green tree in my yard
  • tasting an apple at the cafeteria
  • feeling depressed
  • “seeing” something as morally wrong
  • sensing God’s presence on a mountain top
  • feeling a pain in my knee

I can tell you about my experience of the apple (testimony), but it’s impossible for me to exactly duplicate the experience in your mind. Especially if you’ve never tasted an apple yourself! But it’s no argument against the reality of color that I may struggle unsuccessfully to explain color vision to someone with only black-and-white vision.

Evidence and Religious Experience

religious experience, prayer, evidenceThis means that you and I necessarily possess different sets of total evidence, and thus the conclusions we draw and are justified in making will also be different. I’ve spoken to more than one skeptic who says, “Well, I can see why you believe in God, but I’ve never had an experience like that.” Exactly. And I don’t (epistemically) blame the skeptic who lacks some vital bit of evidence that would enable her to finally form a belief in God. My testimony should count somewhat, but it doesn’t come close to the weight of first-hand experience.

Sometimes you and I possess the same sub-set of evidence on some subject, and  so we ought to arrive at roughly the same conclusions, unless the evidence is ambiguous. If we both watched season two of Stranger Things, [MILD SPOILER ALERT] then we ought to both believe that “Steve” is still alive. Some disputes about evidence are purely public (and thus easy), but many aren’t, like religious belief. There is public evidence for religious belief, but private experience often constitutes a critical building block in the support system.

Bogus or Question-Begging?

Elvis, evidenceSome may object, “But religious experiences are bogus! So they can’t count as good evidence for belief in God.” There is a potential problem with this objection. Suppose we argued about whether Elvis is still alive. I believe he is, but you ask me for my evidence. I say, “I saw him yesterday.” You may doubt my seeing-claim for a host of reasons, but it would be rotten logic to reply, “Well, that isn’t good evidence because Elvis is dead!” That’s begging the question in philosophical parlance. Similarly, if Peter believes in God, and part of his evidence is that he’s had an experience of God, it won’t do to say, “Well, that doesn’t count, because there is no God!” You would have to offer other reasons (“defeaters“) to doubt the veracity of his experience, without assuming God’s non-existence. I.e., something like “even if God exists, you should doubt the veracity of your experience because you were tripping on acid at the time,” or “because you were having an epileptic seizure,” or something like that. Alternatively, you could offer arguments against God’s existence, such as the problem of evil, but simple denial of God’s existence won’t do. So, in the absence of a good “defeater,” experiences are rightly taken to be legit and a healthy part of a complete set of evidence.

The Upshot

lego sets, evidenceThe upshot of all this is simple: don’t be surprised or upset when a friend who is, by all accounts, reasonable and intelligent, just doesn’t see things your way. The disagreement doesn’t mean one or both of you wrenched yourselves off the rails of logic. It probably means you’re working with different sets of evidence (like Lego sets), and some of it may be incommunicable. Evidence is relative. Your set may logically support one conclusion, and theirs another. This doesn’t mean you both believe something true, of course, it only means that you may rationally disagree.

 

The Rationality of a Flu Shot

flu shot, vaccine, doctor, reason, rational, epistemologyI don’t like shots, in fact, I avoid them. Ironically, I visited my doctor yesterday, and left with a band-aid on my arm. I didn’t plan to get a flu shot, in fact I’ve never had one and never wanted one, but he talked me into it. I thought the whole dialectic was interesting, so I’ll share it with you. I think it illustrates some valuable principles of rationality and good belief formation. (The doctor actually said some of these things, and some of them I said to myself during the conversation.)

The Conversation

“Have you considered getting a flu shot?”
“No, not really. I never get them.”
“Would you be open to the idea?”
“Isn’t the flu a whole range of viruses rather than only one virus?”
“Yes.”
“But aren’t flu vaccines just aimed at one strain of the flu? That means that it protects you (imperfectly) against one strain out of many, which doesn’t seem very helpful. It would be like having an air bag that only inflates when I hit a red car.”
“Actually, the vaccine is aimed at multiple flu viruses, based on the most common ones from last year.”
“Ok, that’s good to know. But still, I hardly ever get sick or get the flu.”
“Well, even if you have a very low risk of getting the flu, the shot will lower the risk even more.” (The CDC website says that, “flu vaccination reduces the risk of flu illness by between 40% and 60% among the overall population.”)
“Yeah, that seems right. But I’m still not sure it lowers the risk enough to make it worth it.”
“What’s the downside of getting one, especially if it’s free?”
flu shot, vaccine, doctor, reason, rational, epistemology“I don’t like shots. Yeah, that’s not a great argument, I suppose.”
“Consider this: Lowering your own risk also benefits family health and public health. If your chance is lower, that lowers the risk of your kids getting sick or anyone around you getting sick, like in your church. That’s just good for everyone in Columbia.”
“Ok, I’m starting to realize that I don’t have any good reason, or enough good reasons to justify not getting a shot.” (He did address the concerns many people have about the vaccine causing various side-effects or illness, though I wasn’t worried about it. The chances are negligible. He also explained that the vaccine they use is protein-based, which means it doesn’t contain the actual virus, so it can’t give you the flu.)

So, next thing I know, the nurse comes in with the syringe. I tried to relax and remember that this is a very fleeting pain. Happily, the nurse was quite skilled and I hardly felt it. The arm is a bit sore today, but that’s the only negative effect.

The Takeaway 

What’s the takeaway here? 1) Be open to dialogue. You might learn something. You also might discover that your reasons, once they are out on the table, turn out not to be very strong. 2) Irrational fears shouldn’t guide our actions. The fear of a shot, for us needlephobes, is generally way over-blown and not realistic. I.e., it isn’t as bad as you think. 3) Public health may not have occurred to you as a relevant factor, but it should. It isn’t just about *you*.

For the Flu Shot Skeptics

skeptic faith thinkingNow, I know people worry about certain dangers of vaccines or flu shots. But I researched it a little (perhaps inadequately), and I couldn’t find any documented sources citing scientific evidence about the dangers of today’s flu shots. Flu shots have been modified over the years to eliminate anything that was discovered to be harmful.

“But what about the dangers we have yet to discover?” True, we must always admit the possibility that we’ll discover a dangerous chemical  later, after the damage is done. But it simply isn’t reasonable or practical to live your life dodging mere possible dangers. There would be no way to avoid everything that could harm you. We should try to avoid probable harms — things that we have good evidence for. That’s the only feasible way to live. Right now, the research says that flu shots are safe. Also, if you avoid flu shots based on a few bad stories you’ve heard, you’re probably falling prey to the availability bias (I might be doing this as well) or the fallacy of probability neglect.

“But given that we’ve repeatedly found new dangers in some medicines and treatments, shouldn’t we expect that there are lots of undiscovered dangers lurking in these drugs?” That’s an inductive argument, and I think it’s weak. Here’s why: medicine isn’t progressing slowly, like repeatedly adding 1 to a number and watching it grow. It progresses more like multiplying. So not only do we detect and solve new problems every year, but our methods for detecting, solving and preventing problems gets better every year, multiplying the effectiveness of medicine. That’s my perception, but I could be wrong.

Feedback

Persuaded? Let me know what you think. I’m open to hearing the arguments on the other side, provided you have documented evidence from reliable sources.

The Past Is Irrelevant

beliefs, support, past, historyI frequently engage in conversations about beliefs. It’s kinda my thing. People often ask about the history of my beliefs or of someone else’s beliefs, especially religious beliefs. Everyone likes to construct a coherent story that will help them make sense of another person’s views. “That’s how they were raised,” or “they’re just reacting against such-and-such,” or “they went though some trauma that caused them to change their beliefs.” While I do find all this psychologically interesting, when it comes to evaluating a person’s beliefs, it is irrelevant.

In the video, I don’t explain why the past is irrelevant. The past doesn’t matter because of the nature of epistemic justification. Put simply, the quality of your beliefs depends on how well your reasons support them. And the only reasons that count now are the reasons you have now. You may have had different reasons in the past, and maybe you’ll change your reasons in the future, but none of that matters now.

An Analogy of Support

bridge, column, support, beliefs, reasons Imagine a bridge being supported by stone columns. The integrity and strength of that bridge depends on the quality of the support now. The columns may be crumbling now, even if they were strong in the past. Conversely, a bridge that was decrepit last year but has been completely rebuilt is strong now, even though it was weak in the recent past. When you drive over the bridge, all you care about is the condition of the supports now. So it is with beliefs and their supports. And we can evaluate this objectively with standards of logic.