Most of us like to think we are reasonable people. Most of us think we have good reasons why we believe in God, or disbelieve.
But we all probably know people who think quite differently to us, and yet they think their reasons are reasonable and ours are not.
How can we understand what’s going on?
Atheists and falsification
Atheists often accuse christians of believing on faith alone, which they sometimes define as being contrary to evidence, or at least evidence-free. Some invoke ‘Clifford’s Principle‘:
It is wrong always, everywhere, and for anyone to believe anything on insufficient evidence.
We’ll leave aside for now the interesting question of whether we can therefore believe Clifford’s Principle (what would constitute sufficient evidence for it?), and move on.
The defeasibility test?
Philosopher Matt McCormick has proposed a ‘defeasibility test‘. Believers, and non-believers too, he says, should ask themselves if there is any evidence that could lead them to “come to think that [their] current view about God is mistaken”? (It appears that McCormick has misused the word ‘defeasible’ – see note 1 below – but let’s ignore the word but consider the argument.)
Ways we make decisions
I have previously discussed that rational thinking isn’t what we might think it is. For example, researchers have found that:
Analytic vs intuitive
Thinking intuitively (jumping quickly to conclusions) is often more efficient than thinking analytically (working methodically to a conclusion) because the latter requires more time and effort – which we may not always have. You might think analytical thinking is ‘best’, but sometimes where you’d expect analytical thinking to be best, intuitive thinking actually led to more accurate results.
Intuitive thinking is especially advantageous when we lack sufficient information to “know” the right answer – which surely applies to the question of the existence of God.
Which comes first, the reason or the decision?
Psychologist Jonathon Haidt believes we make most political, ethical and religious judgments intuitively (by “gut feeling”), and then rationalise our reasons afterwards – and this applies as much to atheists as believers.
Decision theory and efficiency
Professor Lara Buchak uses decision theory to argue that it may not make sense to re-examine our beliefs if:
- we have reasonable confidence in our present beliefs
- the challenge to our beliefs seems likely to be inconclusive, and
- the costs of re-examining our beliefs (in terms of time, emotional energy or distraction) outweigh the likely benefits of changing.
All this may seem a little ‘mechanical’, but it surely shows that we cannot and should not re-examine beliefs every time they are challenged.
So is McCormick right or wrong about his test?
Doubtless there are religious believers (and non-believers for that matter) who have never really considered whether their beliefs are well-based or not. But what about the rest of us?
What about me?
McCormick asks: “Are there any considerations, arguments, evidence, or reasons, even hypothetically that could possibly lead me to change my mind about God?”
I’d have to say that I find it very difficult to think of any. My reasons to believe (see, for example, Why believe?) are based on basic facts of the universe – its creation and design, and the realities we experience as human beings. Granted the universe we live in, these things generally cannot change.
And I cannot see how, granted what we now know, the gospels could be shown to be fakes, or all apparent healing miracles could be proved fakes also. All this presents (to me) a strong cumulative case.
I suppose if most of these reasons to believe could be shown to be wrong, I would have to reconsider, but I simply can’t imagine how that could occur.
What about Richard Dawkins?
It seems Richard Dawkins also fails McCormick’s test.
In this video (about 12:30 mins) Richard is asked what evidence it would take for him to believe in God, and he more or less says there isn’t any – his reason being that there is always a more probable natural explanation of any supposed evidence for God, for example, that he was hallucinating.
In this he seems to be following Lara Buchak’s principles – he is confident enough of the truth of his present thinking that it isn’t sensible to invest any time in examining new evidence.
The bottom line?
There are many different reasons to believe or disbelieve in God, many different ways to approach the question, and many different factors involved.
It is doubtful if any of us, even famous atheists, are as totally ‘rational’ as Clifford’s Principle or McCormick’s test might want us to be, but we may be more sensible than that.
What do you think?
According to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, a defeasible argument or belief is not one for which there is no evidence to support it, or no evidence that could show it to be wrong, as McCormick uses the word, but rather a belief which is reasonable but may not in fact always be true. Thus a defeasible belief isn’t ‘bad’, as McCormick suggests, but actually practically justified.