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.
I’ve never really doubted my position and don’t think it is emotionally based as it has never been an emotional issue – ‘gut feel’ .
Or common -sense?
My own feelings are generally vindicated whenever I read a story of a religious deconvertee.
That theism is based primarily on faith, not fact, and is not universal and requires proselyting is enough proof that it is man-made and is as much of an indictment against an all knowing single god as any I can think of.
May I ask, please, unkleE, how you react to this statement?
Doctrinal statement at The Talbot School of Theology:
“The Bible, consisting of all the books of the Old and New Testaments, is the Word of God, a supernaturally given revelation from God Himself, concerning Himself, His being, nature, character, will and purposes; and concerning man, his nature, need and duty and destiny. The Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments are without error or misstatement in their moral and spiritual teaching and record of historical facts. They are without error or defect of any kind.” http://www.talbot.edu/about/biblical-inerrancy/
1. A cogent argument from evil.
2. A demonstration of how stasis may lead to a dynamic universe.
Yes, that is putting the bar rather high, but it would cause me to reconsider my views.
@One Skeptic, interesting that you comment that you don’t think your conclusions are emotionally based, but that your ‘feelings’ are vindicated 🙂
I’ve found it unwise to tell others what they believe, which is why I personally don’t take too much notice of Doctrinal statements. But I suspect everyone has their own views on that too.
@UnkleE – as you know from my book, I think that almost everything that anyone believes is by faith. It has to be that way, but few are willing to recognise it. There is also a lot of confusion about what we mean by God. John Lennox often comments that he too doesn’t believe in the sort of God that Richard Dawkins doesn’t believe in.
Smile…yes poor choice of word. Force of habit.
I should perhaps have used the phrase, ‘Beliefs are vindicated’
And yet you are a Christian. Did you make up your own doctrine then, Phil?
I think you’ve made a category error here. Whether some claim about reality is true is not a matter of the type of thinking one applies to the assessment. It’s a matter of evidence. Where sufficient evidence is lacking it’s OK to say I don’t know.
Intuitive thinking comes into its own where you have to make a decision leading to action. It’s fast and may still produce a good result compared to a decision made analytically on insufficient or incorrect information.
Not all assessments of what is real require significant hard evidence. Where the consequences of making a wrong assessment are trivial the requirement for evidence doesn’t really exist. For instance if you tell me your favourite colour is blue, I’m inclined to take your word for it without further ado.
Where an assessment of what is real is important intuition is a dangerous ally because it is by its nature subjective. For a good assessment of what’s real you ideally want objective evidence and unbiased assessment. Failing these you should withhold judgement.
I think I agree with this. But since we already know the argument from evil very well, and know it is powerful, I can’t see how it can get any stronger than it is. The creation from true nothing would certainly be a serious reduction in the strength of arguments for God’s existence, but it would have to be true science, not the dodgy attempts by Krauss – and I can’t see how true science can address issues outside the physical world without accepting the possibility that there might be something outside the physical world.
Hi Gordon, Thanks for your comments.
I don’t think I was discussing so much what is true but how we ‘know’, believe or decide something is true.
Your response regarding intuitive thinking is what many would say, but the people I quoted say sometimes withholding judgment is not the best approach, because it may lead to less utility (as they call it) – probably a little like your suggestion that intuition may be best when we need action.
Hi One Sceptic. I don’t agree with it. I think it claims more than the Bible does itself and it isn’t in accordance with the evidence.
And yet, this is what millions of Christians adhere to and those such as William Lane Craig are obliged to sign a document similar to this before commencing employment.
May I ask why you consider they are ‘wrong’ and you believe you are ‘right’?
Well, you know my thoughts about the problem of evil. I agree it is negative evidence for the case for theism, but I think the formulated versions are insufficient, especially because they are nowadays generally stated emotionally rather than logically. In the fifties, logical versions were popular, but these have been discarded since because of flaws. Something similar but correct would make a difference however.
We agree on the physical arguments, though I didn’t exactly have anything as specific as “nothing” in mind. Even a static thermodynamic state would suffice for me, but that has rather big problems (a change from stasis to dynamism would imply an external intervention and buttress theism instead).
Like I said before – I don’t know of anywhere that the Bible claims inerrancy and there is plenty of evidence that it’s not factually inerrant.
With all due respect, unklee, I am not discussing what the bible says, but rather what many seminaries across the states, and probably in other countries as well, state in their credos and require their staff and pupils( ?) to acknowledge and sign.
William Lane Craig is one, and Habermas teaches at Liberty.
Mike Licona is another evangelical apologist; and you are aware he was fired for failing to print a retraction regarding the ”Zombie Apocalypse” (excuse the colloquialism)?
Now, I realise this inerrancy question is nonsense too, the Catholic Church even say so.
But you reference Habermas for example and he is an apologist that is a Professor at a school that teaches Creationism.
However, this is by the by.
Why do think that your version of Christianity is correct and someone who teaches at a theological seminary such as Liberty for example is not correct?
There are 9 resurrection stories in the Bible besides the one attributed to Jesus. I have asked apologists to explain to me why Jesus’ Resurrection was any different or more special than the other 9. They all tell me roughly the same thing. The other stories were about “resuscitations” not “resurrections”. Only Jesus was resurrected.
I read the other 9 over and over again. They were all once dead. Can you tell me why Jesus’ resurrection story is any more different or special than the others ?
1 Kgs 17:17-24 , 2 Kgs 4:17 , 2 Kgs 13:31 , Mt 9:18 , Mt 27:50-53 , Mt 28:1-20 , Luke 7:11-15 , John 11:1-44 , Acts 9:36-40 , Acts 20:9 ,
Hi Ken, I have never studied this, so I don’t have much of an opinion. But I can tell you what christians generally say (and I think it sounds reasonable).
They say that all other events were recoveries or resuscitations – they came back to this life, and they eventually died (again). But Jesus didn’t come “back”, but he went “forward” into a new kind of existence – as the Bible says, as a “first fruits” of all the rest of us who will rise – and he will not need to die again.
Thank you unkleE . I have had other people pose this question and I thought of going to you for an answer. Even though I don’t agree with you most of the time, I do value your opinion coming from a Christian perspective.
Another perspective is that in this case the resurrection of a Messianic claimant. The argument is that it isn’t strange to interpret something like that as a vindication of the Messianic claim. Otherwise it’d be a bit odd for God to give false pretenders credibility. Of course we’ll (directed at Ken) disagree on the truth value of the Resurrection, but I think the logic can be seen.
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