Is There Evidence for God?

skeptic, evidence

Summer, 1998. I traveled to Europe (Hungary, to be precise) and sat down in a little restaurant one day for a bite. I ordered the “Greek salad.” I love Greek salad! I’ve eaten many Greek salads growing up in Florida: shredded lettuce with cucumber slices, beets, feta and shrimp. To my horror, what emerged from the kitchen was a bowl full of chopped cucumber and tomato, with feta, onion and Kalamata olives. No lettuce at all! This was most definitely not a Greek salad.

Greek salad, evidence

But I was wrong! 20 years later, I found myself in Athens, Greece. To my surprise, I discovered that my salad in Hungary was authentic. Succulent chunks of cucumber and tomato, mixed with onion, feta and olives. It turned out that I needed to adjust my definition of ‘Greek salad.’

I often hear skeptics say things like, “there’s no evidence for God.” But I think this view arises from some confusion about what evidence is. The search for evidence resembles my blunder with Greek salad. When we look for evidence, most of us don’t know what we’re looking for. We follow a mistaken notion of evidence, and finding none, we proclaim its absence. So what is evidence, exactly?

What Is Evidence?

smoke, evidence

“Smoke is evidence of fire.”1  I think this makes sense to most of us. When we say this, I think we mean something like this: “Well, fire causes smoke, and I’ve always seen smoke with fire, so I think it’s pretty likely that we’ll find fire where that smoke is.” The reason this kind of logic works is because evidence raises the (epistemic) probability of what it supports (e.g., a hypothesis). In this case, the presence of smoke raises the probability that there is a fire. Does it guarantee the presence of fire? No. It is possible to have smoke without fire. But nevertheless, when we see smoke, we are quite rational in thinking, “there’s a fire over there.” So evidence is something that raises the probability that a hypothesis is true.

Kinds of Evidence

What are these “somethings?” Evidence comes in a variety of kinds. Philosophers typically recognize five sources: perception, testimony, memory, inference, and introspection. The smoke example is a combination of perception (seeing the smoke) and inference (making a logical or causal connection between smoke and fire). Many of our beliefs rest almost solely on the support of evidence from our five senses, like my belief that the coffee I’m drinking is hot. Others, like mathematical and geometrical beliefs, are backed up by pure reason.

restaurant, evidence

Another illustration: The other day, I thought I remembered visiting a certain restaurant with my kids. But one of my kids said he’d never been there. So, I asked two of my other kids, and they both agreed with kid #1. So, what do I do? I have conflicting evidence. My memory of visiting the restaurant raises the probability that we went there, but the testimony of three other people lowers the probability! My total evidence suggests that it is unlikely that I took my kids to the restaurant. 

Introspection comes into play when we think about the contents of our own mind, or of various bodily states. When I feel a sensation of pain, or have a feeling of sadness, that evidence makes it 100% likely that I am in pain or sad. If someone were to tell me, “You’re not in pain,” my introspective evidence would override them. I have special, private access to the states of my own body and mind.

All of these come to us via some kind of experience. Perceptual experiences (hearing, seeing, etc.), introspective experiences (self-awareness), inferential (cognitive) experiences, and perhaps religious experiences. And all of these are subject to error, so some caution (but not paranoia) is important. The rule of thumb is: trust your faculties unless you have clear reason to doubt them, e.g., you just took an hallucinogenic drug.

Evidence and God

court room, testimony

So how does all this apply to God? Well, our evidence for God can come in all five of these forms. I can hear or read testimony from someone else who has experienced God in some way. It’s like court testimony. I’ve served on one jury, and the jury’s eventual belief in the defendant’s guilt was based largely on the word of several witnesses, including the victim. Hearing a credible witness testify that “X happened” raises the (epistemic) probability that X happened. It works the same way with testimony about God (including written sources, like the Bible).

I can infer from various experiences of my own (“religious experiences,” perception of order and design in the universe, etc.), or from other facts (everything that begins to exist must have a cause) that God exists. The logic of the Kalam Cosmological argument or the Fine-tuning argument raise the probability that God exists. Religious experiences, when the best available explanation is the presence of God, also raise this probability. Such experiences may even come to us via  introspection; perhaps it seems that God is “speaking” to me in my mind. This is defeasible, of course, but until it is shown to be faulty in some way, it provides a probabilistic lift to the God hypothesis.

Skeptics, Don’t Worry!

This accumulating evidence by no means settles the issue or “proves” there is a God. Several other factors come into play which may “cancel out” the sorts of evidence I’ve described. First, there’s plenty of evidence against God as well. Two examples: the apparent existence of unnecessary suffering in the world, and perhaps the confusion about God that persists in the world. These may counter evidence in favor of God. (Whether they are enough to outweigh the evidence in God’s favor, is debatable.) Second, our cognitive faculties can make mistakes. We can “perceive” things that aren’t there and “infer” things that don’t follow logically. Surely some of what we think supports our belief in God will turn out to be faulty. (Note: this also applies to any support I might have for atheism.)

Skeptics may also worry about really weird cases where people claim to have evidence. UFO sightings (and abductions), ghost encounters, and other bizarre phenomena also involve alleged evidence. Must we also concede that their beliefs are evidence-based? Well, perhaps. If I’m concerned about a claim of this sort, or about a Christian who claims to witness a miracle, I will investigate. I’ll use the same general approach as Prof. Kirke in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, when he was presented with Lucy’s fantastic tale about visiting Narnia.

“How do you know?” he asked, “that your sister’s story is not true?”
“Oh, but –” began Susan, and then stopped. . . “But Edmund said they had only been pretending.”
“That is a point,” said the Professor, “which certainly deserves consideration; very careful consideration. For instance–if you will excuse me for asking the question–does your experience lead you to regard your brother or your sister as the more reliable? I mean, which is the more truthful?”
“That is a point,” said the Professor, “which certainly deserves consideration; very careful consideration. For instance–if you will excuse me for asking the question–does your experience lead you to regard your brother or your sister as the more reliable? I mean, which is the more truthful?”
“That’s the funny thing about it, Sir,” said Peter. “Up till now, I’d have said Lucy every time.” 
“And what do you think, my dear?” said the Professor, turning to Susan.
“Well,” said Susan, “in general, Id’ say the same as Peter, but this couldn’t be true–all this about the wood and the Faun.”
“That is more than I know,” said the Professor, “and a charge of lying against someone whom you have always found truthful is a very serious thing; a very serious thing indeed.”
“We were afraid it mightn’t even be lying,” said Susan. “We thought there might be something wrong with Lucy.”
“Madness, you mean?” said the Professor quite coolly. “Oh, you can make your minds easy about that. One has only to look at her and talk to her to see that she is not mad.” [The children don’t know what to think at this point!]
“Logic!” said the Professor half to himself. “Why don’t they teach logic at these schools?”

Now, before you dismiss this example as fanciful fiction and irrelevant, consider what is going on. The Professor simply asks the children to examine how they formed their beliefs, and urges them to apply logic, no matter where it leads.  As I will explain below, there is no rational, unprejudiced way to rule out supernatural explanations prior to unbiased examination.

Misleading Evidence

As I have said, having evidence doesn’t settle the issue. Sometimes, even when we follow the evidence, this rational method fails us. How can this happen? Evidence can mislead us. According to Princeton philosopher Thomas Kelly,

 E is misleading evidence for p just in case (i) E is evidence for p and (ii) p is false. Thus, misleading evidence is genuine evidence in that it satisfies the conditions for being evidence (whatever those conditions turn out to be). In this respect, it contrasts with apparent evidence or fake evidence, which seem to satisfy the conditions for being evidence but do not. The fact that misleading evidence is genuine evidence is why beliefs based on misleading evidence can be reasonable, given that what it is reasonable to believe depends on one’s evidence.3


So if it turns out there are no gods, then all the theist’s evidence was misleading, like evidence used for a false conviction in a court. But before the skeptic proclaims our evidence misleading, she should consider a couple of thoughts.

  1. We can’t know that our evidence for God is misleading without first knowing whether God exists! This means that a skeptic cannot rationally say that a theist has no evidence, nor can she say that the theists’ evidence is misleading, unless the skeptic has first proven that God does not exist. And even if the theist turns out to be wrong, she may still be quite rational. You might have a worry like this: “But does this also imply that I don’t know if my evidence is legitimate unless I can prove God’s existence?” The rational approach, it seems to me, is this: as long as the evidence points toward a hypothesis, and there are no live defeaters (see below), then we should consider it legitimate. Without this assumption, science, law, etc. would be impossible. 
  2. The skeptic certainly can work to show that the theists’ evidence is fake or apparent evidence (rather than misleading). The best way to do this is by introducing defeaters, either by showing that the means of acquiring the evidence was flawed or unreliable, or that the evidential belief is itself false. But one must be careful to avoid circular reasoning here. For example, one cannot argue that (A) religious experience is fake/unreliable because (B) there is no God, since God’s existence is the very claim under dispute. Arguing this way would be like the following exchange. Sally: The earth is flat. Harry: But photographs from space show a spherical earth. Sally: No, those are fakes. Harry: Why do you think they’re fakes? Sally: Because the earth is flat! That is circular reasoning. What Sally ought to do is give an independent reason to think that Harry’s perception is unreliable or that his evidence is “fake.”
flat earth, evidence


Skeptics and believers both should recognize that evidence for God abounds. The task of the careful thinker is to evaluate the quality of the evidence and weigh it against counter evidence. If a person’s total evidence significantly raises the probability that God exists, isn’t defeated, and isn’t swamped by counter evidence, then belief in God can be quite rational.

Reason, Evidence, and Politics

In the interest of well-formed and grounded political beliefs, I’m presenting a challenge.

Give me your opinion of how President Trump is doing. 

spectrum, evidenceI’m hoping to hear a variety of perspectives, since I have friends all along the political spectrum and from a variety of backgrounds. But I have two conditions: (1) it cannot be a moral criticism, and (2) you must provide empirical evidence. Why the two conditions? Well, most people I know on both sides will agree that Trump is morally embarrassing as a president (e.g., Trump’s vulgar comments about women to Billy Bush). But those who like Trump and those who dislike him speak often about either his accomplishments or errors in office. That’s what I where I want to focus. One may still reasonably argue that a man of his moral failings should not be President, but for now, that is beside the point.

Evidence Required

The second condition prevents us from merely shouting out assertions, like:

“His foreign policy is terrible,” or

“His economic policies are good for the country.”

evidenceYou’ll have to give evidence for your claim, and I want the source–give me enough information so that I can look it up myself. Saying, “His economic policy is making the stock market go up,” isn’t enough. You’ll have to give some evidence showing how his policies have directly affected the market. Saying, “His Supreme Court nominations are hurting our country,” isn’t enough either. You have to provide some reason why you think this. And it can’t simply be the fact that the nomination is a conservative or Republican. You’ll have to be more specific. Also, if you think one single policy decision outweighs anything else he might do, you’ll have to say why you think that is a reasonable view.

Let’s Avoid Partisan Reasoning

politics, evidenceImagine you are talking to someone on the other side of the political spectrum. The only way we can communicate with those who disagree is to find common ground. For instance, we all want peace, security, quality health care and education, etc. We want to avoid policies that hurt more people than they help. So instead of saying, “That’s bad because it’s liberal,” describe exactly what sort of harm the policy ultimately causes, and it ought to (ideally) be harm we can all agree on. The reverse is true as well. Also, if a policy provides a benefit to some group, does it also have costs to other groups? And do the benefits outweigh the costs? Does a policy degrade or demean human beings? Does a policy violate the Constitution in some way?

The Goal

This post aims to assemble reasons for and against the claim, Trump is doing a good job as President. In the end, I hope to have a more well-formed belief about this claim–as to its truth or falsity. And I hope all of my readers will be challenged to step out of the echo chambers of social media and backup their views. When no one ever pushes back on our opinions, we become evidentially lazy. Let’s push one another toward evidential excellence.

So, in the comments, give me one or two reasons, with evidence, for your belief about Trump’s performance in office so far. It will be interesting to see what happens!

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.

That Is Not Logical, Part 1

Spock, logical

Star Trek, logicalI loved Star Trek from the time I was five years old. The show inspired my early artistic skills, here displayed in the marker sketch made by my 5 year old self.   Star Wars hadn’t come out yet, so there was no competition, other than Lost In Space, perhaps. I always had a soft spot in my heart for Mr. Spock.  He unfailingly let Captain Kirk or Dr. McCoy know when they strayed from the logical path. Now, more than four decades later, I appreciate Mr. Spock even more. And I’m not alone. Some fellow Trekkie nerd made the early animated series into a collection of short logic primers.

You can find numerous other websites floating around the interwebs, giving lists of logical fallacies. But I recently was asked by a colleague to present a list of logical mistakes particularly common among Christian communicators. So, in no particular order, I’ve assembled them here. Most are common fare, available in logic textbooks. But a few of these are my own observations. (Also see this post and this post.)

Eleven Logical Mistakes, #1-6

#1 Hasty Generalization 

Taking one example and assuming all other cases are the same. 

puppet, logicalWhen I tell people I’m from Florida, they sometimes look at me and think, “But you’re so pale!” As if all Floridians are tan! Sheesh. But that’s a generalization or stereotype people have. This fallacy arises in Christian circles quite often in the form of anecdotal evidence. We base an entire philosophy of ministry on one story. “Well, Johnny’s life was changed when we did that puppet show!” So, we will now do puppet shows forever. But one story is hardly enough evidence to show that a particular outreach is really effective. Christians also love to generalize about men and women. “Well, my wife is shy and I’m assertive, so really that’s just the way all men and women are!” But that’s a double blunder! Not only is it a small sample size, but even if every one in the church was that way, the sample is biased. Walk outside the church walls and you’ll find much more variety among male and female behavior. Bottom line: all generalizations are bad logic! (Just kidding!) But really, be careful that your conclusion or belief stands on a significant foundation of evidence or “unbiased samples” before you shout it from the roof tops.

#2 Slippery Slope

Assuming that A is bad because it will lead to B (which is bad), but there is no clear causal or logical connection. 

dog, marriage, logical, fallacyThe DirecTV commercial from a few years ago illustrates this beautifully. “Don’t end up in a roadside ditch . . . get rid of cable.” This error occurs, in part, because of a confusion between possibility and probability. Sure, it’s possible that if you have cable, you’ll end up in a ditch. But it’s also possible that you’ll end up a millionaire! The important thing is: what is probable. Christians needlessly use this fallacious kind of reasoning in arguments against gay marriage. “If the state endorses gay marriages, pretty soon we’ll have people marrying dogs and cats — mass hysteria!” Sure, that’s possible. But there’s no clear causal or logical link that leads us to expect that such a thing will happen. So use a better argument! On the other hand, smoking five packs of cigarettes a day will probably lead to lung cancer, which will lead to hospitalization and death. That’st NOT slippery slope reasoning. 

#3 Perception Fallacy

It seems this way to me, so it is this way.

elephant, logical, fallacyIf you’ve never heard of no-see-ums, they’re tiny biting bugs nearly invisible to the eye. Suppose you asked me, “Are there any no-see-ums in here?” After casually looking around the room, if I said, “I don’t see any, so I guess not,” that would be bad reasoning. No-see-ums aren’t the sort of thing you would expect to see, even if they were in the room. So just because you don’t see any, you shouldn’t conclude that there aren’t any around. By contrast, if I claimed there was an elephant in the room, and you didn’t see one, you’d be justified in thinking I was crazy. That’s because elephants are the kind of thing you would expect to see if they were in the room. So it all depends on how reliable your perceptual faculties are in spotting that particular thing.

This mistake became especially apparent to me during the protests here at the University of Missouri in 2015. While black students came out in droves to protest racism on campus, white students were baffled. “What’s the big deal?” they said. “Aren’t they blowing this out of proportion?” Most white students just didn’t see the racism that was being talked about. But the truth is that white students’ “racism perception” isn’t very reliable. Most racism occurs when they aren’t around, and even when they are around, they are often oblivious to it. Minority students, however, are very practiced, from much experience, at noticing racism. So, it’s a mistake to go from “I don’t see it” to “it just doesn’t exist.”

#4 Deconstruction Fallacy

“She only believes X for emotional reasons/bad motives, so X is false (or can be dismissed).”

This error sometimes goes by the name “genetic fallacy,” but I’ve never cared for that label. I like the term ‘deconstruction’ because I often hear people speak of “deconstructing” someone’s views by analyzing their cultural and psychological influences. In the religious realm, both believers and nonbelievers fall into this type of poor reasoning.

crutch, religion, logicalChristians will say of atheists, “they’re only atheists because of a bad relationship with their fathers,” or “they just want freedom from moral restraint.” Thus any intellectual arguments against God are dismissed. But the irreligious commit this classic blunder as well. “Christians only believe because they need an emotional crutch,” or “they only believe because they were raised that way.” And the arguments for faith are dismissed out of hand. But sound reason recognizes that how a person came to acquire their beliefs is irrelevant to the truth of those beliefs. All truth claims must stand or fall independently of the motives or history of those who assert them.

#5 Tribalism Fallacy

“My ‘tribe’ is against X, so X is bad/wrong.”

Trump, tribe, tribalism, fallacy, logical Tribalism becomes, for many, a substitute for thinking. Violators come in all flavors: Christian, atheist, liberal, conservative, etc. Take the debates about Trump. If you’re a liberal, then you know that liberals hate Trump, so that means Trump is bad. No logical argument required. If you’re a conservative, the same procedure applies. And when you find your Tribe holds a certain position, there’s no need to examine evidence or reasons. You instantly defend that position to the death! Conversations about the recent Supreme Court nomination of Brett Kanavaugh offer a consummate example. Don’t look at the evidence–just defend your Tribe at all costs!

Now lest I be guilty of mistake #4 (Deconstruction), let me clarify. I’m not saying that Tribalists’ views can be dismissed out of hand as false or bad, simply because they are Tribalists. I’m encouraging people inclined toward Tribalism to stop and examine their reasoning, and to be sure they are believing according to their evidence. And “my tribe believes X,” is probably not evidence for the truth of X.

#6 Circular Reasoning

X is true because of Y, and Y is true because of X. 

car, logical, fallacyLarry arrives home with his new (used) car. His wife, Lisa, asks, “was the car salesman honest?” Larry answers, “Yup.” “How can you be sure?” inquires Lisa. “Because he told me so.”

This sounds laughable, but it’s easier to fall into this kind of logical error than many realize. Christians frequently and famously commit this mistake when they defend the Bible.

Christian: The Bible is the Word of God.
Skeptic: How do you know?
Christian: Because it says so in the Bible.
Skeptic: But how do you know what it says is true?
Christian: God’s Word is always true!

This is a bad argument. There are many other logical ways of arguing for the truth of the Bible, so Christians need not resort to circularity. But it happens in other venues as well. “Abortion is murder!” “Why do you think that?” “Because it is the wrongful killing of a person!” (But that’s simply another way to assert “Abortion is murder.”) The bottom line is, be sure that when you state reasons for your conclusion, you aren’t merely rephrasing your conclusion.

Tune in next time for Part 2 of “That Is Not Logical!” Mistakes #7-11

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.)

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.

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.


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.


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.


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.