Correspondence with a Theologian

In many of my posts, I casually mention the phrases "reason, argument, and evidence" along with "reasons for belief," "justification," and "warrant." I don't believe that I have dedicated a post explicitly discussing what I mean by these terms nor have I explained what it means in relation to supernatural claims or God. I have mainly discussed why arguments for supernatural claims fail and have provided defeaters -- reasons to not believe a certain claim -- but have not explicitly discussed what I think would be sufficient for belief in God.

A reader of my work who happens to be a theist has graciously taken the time to respond to some of my posts via e-mail. He said that he has no problem with me using this information that I sent to him as a blog post. I wish to comment on some of the points brought up in the communication in order to share my thoughts on some matters with my audience. While this may be lengthy, I haven't gone into too much deep discussion on every point, so if you feel that there is need for further clarification or I didn't properly address an issue, please comment.

The commenter notes that belief in God not need follow a scientific model and that not all beliefs need to take the form of factual assertions. I partially agree with this and agree with Massimo Pigliucci's criticism of Dawkins and others of treating God as a "scientific hypothesis" is an improper way to approach things. This, though, doesn't get 'theists off the hook' nor does it allow God to be placed at a 'low level' not needing a large deal of justification or allowing belief in God to be reached via a leap of faith or because it simply seems that God exists a la Alvin Plantinga.

Carl Sagan famously said "extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence." Theodore Shick took this one step further, as he should have, and added "and exemplary explanations." In my "Defense of Reason" philosophy capstone paper, I explained what Shick calls "criterion of adequacy" to evaluate competing explanations: testability, scope, fruitfulness, simplicity, and conservatism. While it might not be the case that God be be subjected to measurement such that scientific claims can be, we can still evaluate god claims in comparison with others: mainly in the framing of naturalism (the idea that all that exists is the natural world) vs. supernaturalism (the idea that a supernatural world exists in addition to the natural world).

As far as naturalism is concerned, we see that, as we evaluate claims given in the past, nautralistic explanations for that which we previously found to be supernatural have panned out; lightning, for example, turned out to be explainable without asserting anything supernatural, for instance. When we find supernatural claims that are testable, we find that supernatural claims do not hold up. We find that supernatural claims do not have much explanatory power because they raise more questions than they answer that turn out to be unanswered while, in comparison, naturalistic claims (although one can posit a regress of sorts that does not terminate) do not raise unanswered questions. Supernatural claims fail in the criterion of simplicity because they require less 'stuff' while naturalistic claims don't assume extra entities. Regarding the criterion of conservatism, supernatural claims fail because they do not cohere with the way we know the world works. Regarding the criterion of fruitfulness, supernatural claims can not possibly assert novel predictions because the supernatural claims are initially contestable and do not demonstrate anything new.

Even if one may consider supernatural claims to not require the same level of justification as other claims, why this would ever be the case I do not know, supernatural claims have many objections that they must overcome such as, in the case of God, the problem of evil. As I mentioned, the inductive argument for naturalism is also a huge issue. The problem of thousands of different religions throughout the world and history also poses a problem to belief in a specific god in addition to 'divine hiddenness.' Even if one believes that belief in God is warranted through whatever means one may have, 'defeaters' pose serious problems to belief in God.

Some atheists, one might say, put too much of a spotlight on science/the scientific method and do not consider philosophy (mainly epistemology). The commenter, in a communication, mentions that he believes in the value of friendship and his marriage and does not need to base such a belief on strict evidential grounds. Questions of value can not be answered by science although scientific findings can inform our beliefs. For example, if we assume that well-being is a good benchmark for what we should value, we can look at what does not benefit society (namely splashing battery acid in the faces of women as Sam Harris mentions), but one does not need to look to scientific findings to establish such things.

Philosophers recognize which is called the "is-ought gap" which, boiled down, is the problem from going from a statement of what is to a statement about what one should do. We can find evidence about how the world is, but we can not go from such evidence to give us a way to act without first positing a value judgment (that mainly is informed by rational reflection). As far as friendship is concerned, we can posit reasons for why we should value friendship (mutual benefit, increase of happiness, bonding, ability to confide in someone...) and perhaps can not find solid evidence for stating why we should value friendship. This, though, doesn't suddenly justify belief in God if, like friendship (or not), we are going to say that God is some abstract entity.

The belief "friendship is beneficial" is quite uncontroversial, is not taken for granted, can be demonstrated to be true (although we perhaps cannot provide 'hard evidence' because it is a value judgment) and is not met by significant counter-arguments. The belief "God exists" is very controversial, is typically based on is or augmented by faith, can not be demonstrated, and is met by significant counter-arguments.

The commenter that belief in God is not just about the existence of God, but is about some other factors - namely commitment, risk, and reward. This, unfortunately, is an argument from utility (a belief is beneficial, so I am justified in believing it or should hold it) a la the pragmatism of William James. (I've tackled William James' "The Will to Believe" in a previous post/essay, so feel free to read that.) The benefits that one reaps from holding a belief in God, though, can be had through other means without presuming that God exists. The commenter notes that Christianity is filled with moral challenge, compelling stories, excitement had during masses, etc. One can have these things, though, without asserting that the Christian god exists and that supernatural claims found within Christianity are true (not in the sense of 'truthful fiction,' 'moral truth,' or the like).

As I sometimes note, I can be a great fan of Lord of the Rings or some other well-written and compelling series and learn some great lessons, take pleasure in reading the stories, embody some of the virtues in the stories, and connect with a great community of fans. I can do all of this without believing that the events in the stories actually happened. Why then, I ask, should the Christian persist in God-belief instead of labeling him/herself as a "Cultural Christian" or a "Humanistic Christian?" Why not forfeit the supernatural beliefs and rephrase them to the point of a good story or a guide for living? While some Christians certainly do not endorse the claptrap that is often associated with fundamentalists or 'juvenile believers,' they can do much good by not lumping their God belief in with the others and arguing against the 'juvenile believers' who may spread utter falsehoods and harmful ideas (it seems that the atheists are often those loud voices, not the academic Christians, but this may be an oversight on my part...).

The commenter goes on to cite Aquinas' Five Ways can be a springboard of sorts to believe, but the Five Ways are deeply problematic. All of the Ways basically assume that there is a being that is a cause for everything else that is God. Why can't it be the case that the initial cause for everything is an uncaused cause that is not God? Why can't it be the case that another being is the cause and it is long since dead? Way 4 assumes that since some things are better or worse than others that there must be a 'maximum cause' for everything. Why must this be the case...and why, even if we are to accept this, should we call it God? The 5th way is the argument from design which assumes that intelligence can not be had without deriving from an intelligent source (and this is false). Aquinas' scientific knowledge was quite limited because of his time and it shows in his Five Ways that are in the large wastebin of dated and flawed philosophical arguments.

The commenter continues to say that while belief in God may not be completely warranted, the belief is worth the risk (and he notes that this is not a re-hash of Pascal's Wager or because of fear of Hell). Why bother even taking the risk to begin with, I ask, and not instead reap the benefits that the belief may give without endorsing supernatural claims or dressing such beliefs up as God claims?

The commenter notes, as some have had to me recently in an Eastern Philosophy meetup, that my enterprise of separating my beliefs from my emotions and wanting to look as disinterested and objectively as possible at my beliefs would cause me to cease being human or otherwise is extraordinarily difficult. I don't believe I would cease to be human if I were able to completely distance 'myself' from 'my beliefs' and I acknowledge that this enterprise is difficult, but that does not mean that we should cease to try to 'step back from our beliefs' or critically engage our own ideas (I'm not sure what the commenter is suggesting, but I'll go on anyway).

Thomas Nagel's "The View From Nowhere" deals with these concerns and notes, as the the top of my page says that "Pursuit of the truth requires more than imagination: it requires the generation and decisive elimination of alternative possibilities until, ideally, only one remains, and it requires a habitual readiness to attack one's own convictions." While we can't take a completely disinterested view of our own beliefs (or may find it very difficult to do so), this should not defeat this enterprise or give us a 'get out of jail free card' when it comes to holding beliefs that may not be justified.

The commenter goes on to note that saying "God exists" is not the same as saying something like "this computer exists." Fine, if God is more of an abstract entity or perhaps even an idea, that may be the case. Theologians and other Christian thinkers may think of God in different ways than most believers do...but the idea or abstract entity still faces the same criticisms mainly "where is the evidence, reason, or argument that gives justification for belief in God." Atheists, of course, aren't the ones defining God. Atheists might often respond to how others define God (typically as an all-powerful, all-loving, all-knowing entity that sent his son Jesus to literally die on the cross for the sins of humankind) and attack these claims. If the theist wants to provide a different type of definition, that is fine, but atheists will still ask the same sorts of questions about this claim.

While my main goal here on this blog and perhaps elsewhere is to argue for the need for justified true belief and, of course, argue against faith-based or unsubstantiated belief, I find differing levels of quarrel with those in different stations. As far as theologians are concerned, I don't have too much of a disagreement and would dramatically shift my focus in this blog and elsewhere to differing topics if every religious person were like academic theologians; while I disagree with academic theologians, I don't find them behind much of the harm associated with religion that persists throughout our current time (and, of course, the past).

I care about the truth and want society to flourish with justified true beliefs. I want to challenge my own beliefs and do my best to hold no unjustified/false beliefs. While this enterprise may be impossible and I may have 'blinders,' I can still do my best to hold as many justified true beliefs as possible through sharing my ideas with an audience who will critique my beliefs, have discussions with those who disagree with me, and generally exposing myself to opposing ideas.

As always, I am willing to have ongoing communication with those who may disagree with me and am very happy to have it...especially when the discussion is quite reasonable, substantive, and worth the time.