Why Arguments are (almost) Never Convincing: A Dynamical Systems Approach to Belief Change

Introduction

What I want to do in this piece is outline a perspective for thinking about belief systems and how people change (or don’t change) their beliefs in response to new arguments and evidence. The key observation that motivates this analysis is that in general, when people have a particular entrenched perspective with respect to an issue or subject, it is very rare that they find any new evidence or arguments sufficiently persuasive to significantly change their beliefs. I have been thinking about a model that would have to explain why this is the case, a model which incorporates concepts from physics and dynamical systems theory. That might sound very complicated, but I think the key idea is relatively simple. I am not claiming that this approach is exhaustive or completely accurate, but rather that it may be a useful way of thinking about when and why people change their beliefs, and why they seldom do. My focus here will be on disputes surrounding complicated and controversial matters such as politics, religion, and philosophy, though the model my be applicable elsewhere as well.

Background

Imagine a bowl with a marble in the middle, lying stationary at the bottom of the curve of the bowl. If we jiggle the bowl around, or push the marble up one side or another, it will roll back down towards the centre. It may jiggle around for a while, rolling up one side and down the other, but eventually it will return to rest at the centre of the bowl. This behaviour corresponds to that of a potential energy well in physics, whereby a system has a state in which its energy is lowest, to which the system tends towards as a result of the overarching tendency to reach its lowest energy state. Perturbations away from this minimal energy state will generally only be temporary, and eventually the system will return towards its ‘preferred’ state. In the language of dynamical systems, this state is described as a stable equilibrium, because if the system (in our example the system consists of the bowl and the marble) is perturbed slightly one way or the other, it will eventually return to its initial resting equilibrium state.

Now imagine that we placed two bowls next to each other, and joined together their edges so that they were connected by a smooth, curved edge, sort of like two sinks nested next to each other in the same bench. If we placed our marble exactly halfway in between the two sinks, we could get it to rest there without moving. However this equilibrium state, unlike the one where the marble is in the middle of one of the bowls, is unstable, since a small nudge in either direction will send the marble rolling into one of the bowls, never to return. This illustrates the key point that in contrast to stable equilibria, unstable equilibria are not robust to small perturbations.

Now imagine that we place a third, much smaller and shallower bowl in between our larger bowls (again with the edges smoothly joined), but placed on a platform so that its top is level to the top of the other bowls. This may be slightly more difficult to imagine, but essentially it would correspond to a shallow sink placed in the same bench in between two deeper sinks. A marble placed in the centre of this smaller will remain there and will return when subject to small shocks. However if we push the marble with enough force, it will have sufficient energy to exit the central bowl, travel over the curve connecting it to one of the larger bowls, and fall down to the centre of this bowl. From this location, it will obviously not be able to return to its original position in the shallower, central bowl. In the language of dynamical systems theory, this central bowl is called a locally stable equilibrium – it is robust to small perturbations, but not to larger ones. Note that it is also possible in theory to knock the marble out of the larger bowl all the way over the lip and back into the shallower central bowl, however this would take a very large push indeed. Thus we say that the larger bowl is a more stable, ‘lower energy state’ (in physics terminology) than the central bowl.

A final concept that I need to introduce is that of a dynamical system. The precise technical definition of a dynamical system is not of interest to me here, and would detract from the key logic of the argument. What I mean by ‘dynamical system’ is in particular a system which changes over time in a manner which is (in some sense) ‘recursive’, such that changes of the system depend upon the current state of the system. A simple example would be differential equations, which are equations whereby the value of one variable (say x) depends on the rate at which that variable is changing with time (dx/dt), which itself depends upon the current value of x. The key property is that many such dynamical systems can evolve in quite complicated ways, leading to some solutions which are stable (corresponding to equilbria discussed above), and others that are not. Dynamical systems evolve over time in what is called the state space, which corresponds to the set of possible values that all the variables could take. A simple example of a dynamical system is a pendulum. The system is dynamic because the velocity of the pendulum depends on the height of the pendulum, which in turn obviously depends on past velocity values, producing a potentially complicated temporal trajectory. The state space consists of the possible values of the height of the pendulum and the rate at which that height is changing. As the pendulum moves from side to side, speeding up and slowing down under the force of gravity, the pendulum moves through the state space, constantly changing its velocity and position values.

The Model

Having outlined some key concepts, I will now apply these ideas in understanding belief formation and change. The key idea is to consider the process of belief formation as a dynamical system seeking to find the ‘lowest energy’ state. Imagine viewing our set of bowls from above. Our marble corresponds to a particular person, and the marbles position in and around the bowls represents that person’s current set of opinions and beliefs about a specific subject; ‘where they are at’ intellectually. We can describe movement in three dimensions: north and south (the ‘y axis’), east and west (the ‘x axis’), and up and down (which corresponds to the depth below the top of the bowl). The position along the x-axis represents one’s opinion on one particular specific question, while the position on the y-axis represents one’s opinion on a different particular question. The depth below the top of the bowl represents one’s degree of confidence in one’s overall set of positions. It should be noted that for any sufficiently complicated issue there will be far more than two particular questions of relevance – they may be dozens or even hundreds. Mathematically there is no limit to how many dimensions a dynamical system can have, however for simplicity of visualisation we will stick with only two for this example, always bearing in mind that for real world examples we would always wish to extrapolate out the analysis to many more dimensions.

The system is said to be dynamical because each individual evaluates the x- and y-axis positions interdependently. That is, it is not the case that they arrive at a position on the issue corresponding to the y-axis and then independently decide upon the issue corresponding to the x-axis. Rather, they consider both issues simultaneously, so that the plausibility of a particular position along x is judged in relation to the position along y, which in turn is judged with respect to the position along x, and so on. The overall degree of confidence (depth) then depends upon how well one’s views on the two issues cohere or fit together, and so will also vary in accordance with the positions along the x- and y-axes.

Sometimes it may seem to us that with respect to a particular issue, different people have opinions that are spread ‘all over the map’, with each person being similarly confident in their individual set of beliefs. In the context of our model, this would correspond to a situation where hundreds of marbles were thrown into a flat-bottomed swimming pool, each at the same depth (degree of confidence), spanning the entire range of views along the x- and y-axes. In practise, however, I think this is a relatively rare outcome. More typically there are a few particularly deep wells that seem to serve as attractors for opinions, with only a few people residing outside of these deeper wells. Each of these wells, or deep bowls to use our previous language, corresponds to a particularly common set of positions on the subject in question. The reason these wells are so common is because they are self-sustaining, or in the language of dynamical systems, they are stable equilibria. Small changes in beliefs along either the x- or y-axes will not have any significant long-term effect on the system (the individual’s set of beliefs), which eventually will return to its initial state at the bottom of the well. The reason few people reside in between the major wells is because these positions, being much ‘higher up’ (corresponding to the connections between bowls discussed above) are unstable equilibria, where small perturbations in beliefs will lead to that individual ‘rolling down’ into one or other of the surrounding wells, arriving at a new stable equilibrium.

Applying the Model

To provide an example for this rather abstract model, consider the issue of the truth of Christianity. In this broad issue, two (among many other) specific questions would be that of whether the cosmological argument for the existence of God is found to be persuasive, and whether the historical evidence for the resurrection is found to be compelling. In theory, any possible combination of positions on these two issues is possible. In practise, however, probably only three main subsets of beliefs will be found: those who find neither argument very compelling (atheists and agnostics), those who found both compelling (Christians), and those who find only the cosmological argument compelling (some Muslims, Jews, and generic theists). Of course other combinations and intermediate positions are possible, but in general views will tend to cluster around these three positions. The reason for this, I think, is that these positions constitute attractor ‘wells’, such that people whose views are nudged in the direction of one of the wells are likely to fall into that well, seeking the lowest ‘energy state’ (i.e. a position with a high self-sustaining degree of confidence).

I think there are two processes key at work that lead to this outcome. The first is the interdependent way in which people analyse different specific arguments: those who are compelled by the cosmological argument are likely to find the evidence for the resurrection more persuasive, which in turn can feed back and increase one’s confidence in the cosmological argument. Conversely, a skeptical attitude towards one of these is likely to contribute to a skeptical attitude towards the other, thereby in turn reinforcing the original skeptical belief. In this way particular clusters of beliefs corresponding to ‘potential wells’ are likely to be far more stable than other possible clusters of beliefs, and thus result in these clusters being far more populated. The second process is that people tend to seek greater confidence and certainty, and this is likely to be found when their set of opinions on particular issues is mutually coherent and reinforcing. Again, this leads to certain particular clusters of beliefs, corresponding to the self-sustaining potential wells, to be more highly populated than other possible positions.

The combined effect of these two processes explains why people with intermediate or conflicting views on many particular questions are relatively rare. These people are not highly confident because their views are not mutually reinforcing. As such they seek out new arguments and evidence and are much more likely to change their views in the direction of greater coherence. Intermediate positions are thus unstable or only locally stable, so small perturbations (consisting of exposure to new arguments and evidence) are much more likely to push them into more stable potential wells. Once in one of these wells, however, opinions are much more stable. Even when confronted with potentially powerful counter-evidence on one particular question, the combined force of all one’s other positions (forming the coherent, mutually-reinforcing position) serves to pull one back to the original, stable position near the bottom of the well.

The only time when most people will move out of their wells is when they are subject to very large shocks, or enough moderate shocks in a relatively short span of time. Large enough shocks, or enough additive smaller shocks, may be enough to push someone out of their potential well and into the unstable area that lies between opposing wells. From there they may eventually return to their original well, or find themselves in an opposing well. Either way, it is unlikely that they will remain in the intermediate position for long, since this corresponds to an unstable or only locally stable equilibrium, where beliefs are not mutually reinforcing to a large degree and hence overall levels of confidence (corresponding to the depth of the potential well) remain low.

Virtues of the Model

This model can allow us to understand not only why people tend to cluster around a few particular positions (sets of beliefs about particular questions), and why people seldom change their belief when exposed to new evidence, but also why people sitting in opposing ‘wells’ (stable sets of beliefs) tend to react in exasperation at the ‘irrationality’ of each other. Consider the example of an atheist providing one argument in favour of their position. A christian evaluates the argument not in the context of the atheist’s set of beliefs (where the argument is persuasive), but from the context of their own set of beliefs. Because their set of beliefs is very different, and also because it is mutually coherent and stabilizing, the christian will either not consider the argument to support atheism at all, or they will not regard it as sufficient evidence to move from their current position (again, because their current position is a stable equilbrium, robust to even moderate shocks). The atheist seeing this intransigence to (from their perspective) such an obviously reasonable argument, regards the Christian as unreasonable and irrational. Exactly the same process occurs in reverse when the Christian presents arguments in favour of their viewpoint. As such both sides become polarised, viewing the other as unreasonable or irrational.

This model can also explain another puzzling phenomena: when the same evidence is claimed by different people as supporting their own, mutually incompatible positions. In the context of our model, this corresponds to a push in the same ‘direction’ leads to very different subsequent movements in the state space of possible positions. The explanation for this behaviour is that the way people respond to evidence and arguments (‘pushes’ or ‘perturbations’) in a dynamical system does not depend only on the size and direction of the push, but also on one’s current position in state space (i.e. one’s current set of beliefs). As such, the very same evidence (push in the same direction) can be interpreted by both the atheist and the christian as supporting their existing set of views. This renders the idea that ‘evidence speaks for itself’ as essentially impossible, since the manner in which evidence is interpreted depends upon one’s current set of beliefs.

Conclusion

I think it sheds quite a bit of light onto the process of belief formation and change, including explaining why people tend to congregate into groups with particular sets of beliefs, why once arriving at such a stable equilibrium in a ‘potential well’ people are unlikely to change their beliefs, how different people can react so differently to the same evidence, and why people on both sides of an issue can plausibly see each other as being intransigent and irrational. I think the model can also account for why substantial belief change is rare but possible, since it requires sufficiently large or sufficiently many shocks to one’s beliefs, and these shocks are (plausibly, in many cases) randomly distributed across people, substantial belief changes will occur but only relatively infrequently. Supposing we take this model as useful and informative (though certainly not complete), how should we respond? What effect, if any, should this have on our discourse and belief forming process? My honest answer is that I don’t really know, I’m still thinking this through. I think that overall the model paints a pessimistic picture of prolonged and resilient disagreement, where each side regards itself as rational by its own lights. I suspect more can be said here, but at the moment I’m still uncertain as to where to go with this analysis. Nevertheless, I think it does highlight the importance of intellectual humility and of respectfully considering opposing positions from a sympathetic viewpoint.

Weighing up the Arguments For and Against Christianity

Synopsis

In this piece I outline an approach to weighing up the degree of evidence in favour of Christianity with the degree of evidence against it. I discuss this approach in analogical terms as similar considering how much load (arguments against) can be borne by the legs of a table (arguments for), in order to support justified belief in a proposition (the table, or in this case belief in Christianity). Having outlined this framework, I then proceed to list the fourteen key pieces of evidence which I think are relevant, and whether I think they provide evidence for or against Christianity. I conclude by offering some personal reflections on my subjective sense as to how these different evidences balance out against each other.

Specifying the Question

Suppose that we agree to the following set of propositions:

  1. A creator God exists
  2. This God is omnipotent and omniscient
  3. This God desires to communicate his divine will to all mankind and aid everyone in entering into a willing relationship with him

Subject to minor rewording of 3 to rectify various possible quibbles, when I use the word ‘God’ henceforth in this piece, I mean a God that satisfies 1-3.

These three propositions, as I take it, represent approximately the limits of what the many philosophical arguments for the existence of God can establish (e.g. the cosmological argument, the moral argument, the teleological argument, the ontological argument, the transcendental argument, etc). What I aim to do here is presuppose the success of such arguments in establishing 1-3, and then consider the question as to which of the world’s revealed religions are genuine instances of divine communication with humanity which preserve (to a reasonable level of accuracy) divine teachings and intentions. In particular, I wish to consider (multi-part) proposition:

4. The life of Jesus of Nazareth (and the events surrounding it) was the supreme method by which God has revealed himself to humanity, and the teachings of Christianity accurately indicate God’s will for mankind.

Although not its strict logical negation, for our purposes here I wish to consider its counterpart as:

4′. Christianity is not uniquely divinely inspired (either not at all, or at least no more than many other religions), but instead developed over historical time as a result of the shifting and often   conflicting ideas, motivations, and opinions of many different individuals (i.e. like Christians would believe other religions developed).

Henceforth, when I talk about ‘Christianity being true’ (or similar), I am referring to the truth of 4. Rather than speaking of Christianity being false, I shall instead refer to the truth of 4′. I acknowledge that 4 and 4′ are not strictly speaking negations of one another, but for our purposes here I think they serve as the most useful propositions to juxtapose.

An Analogy: Supporting Legs and Heavy Bricks

The following analogy may help readers to understand the approach I take here. Being an analogy, it is of course imperfect, but hopefully it will nonetheless still be of use.

Consider a circular table. The table is supported by many legs, each bearing some portion of its weight. The table is old and somewhat lopsided, so each leg does not necessarily support the same amount of weight as every other. On top of the table are a number of bricks, each of varying mass. The larger the combined mass of the bricks, the more likely it is that the legs will be unable to support total weight, and table the will come crashing to the floor. Conversely, the larger the combined weight the legs are able to bear, the higher will be the total mass of bricks the table will be able to support.

In this analogy, the table represents our (potential) justified belief in the truth of Christianity. Each brick represents a piece of evidence/argument/observation/fact/etc (henceforth simply ‘evidence’) which makes it more difficult to retain justified belief in Christianity; that is, the bricks are evidences against the truth of Christianity. Each leg represents a piece of evidence which supports our justified belief in Christianity. No single leg alone need bear all the weight of ‘justifying’ Christianity, but the combined weight they bear must be at least equal to the total weight of the bricks. (I don’t think it much matters if the tabletop itself is thought of as having weight or not.) The number of bricks is not important, because a single very heavy brick could be enough to bring down the table. Likewise the number of legs is not important, for a single sufficiently sturdy leg could be enough to support a very large weight.

Our first task is to examine what are the key legs supporting the table, and what are the key bricks pushing down on it. The next step is then to estimate the total weight of the bricks, and compare it to the total weight bearing capacity of the legs. The purpose in approaching the problem this way is that everyone seems to have their own intuitive sense of whether the table stands or falls, but without some way of more carefully identifying which legs support how much weight, it is very difficult (perhaps impossible) to adjudicate disagreements about the table as a whole. My aim here is to try to break the question down into smaller parts, and see whether those parts represent bricks or legs. I will not, in this piece, attempt the second step of weighing up the weight supported to the total weight of bricks.

The Technical Version: Taking Partial Derivatives

The following is a more formal account of the approach outlined in the analogy above. If you find it confusing, skip this section.

Consider a differentiable function f(e), which maps a vector of evidences e onto a real number in the interval (0,1), which number represents our degree of justification or support for 4 given 1-3. The partial derivative of f with respect to each ei represents the bearing that evidence i has on our degree of justified belief in 4. If the partial derivative is zero, the evidence is irrelevant and can be ignored. If the partial derivative is positive, the piece of evidence provides support for 4, while if it is negative it provides evidence against it.

The taking of partial derivatives is important, because in practise we do not know the functional form of f, but we may be able to determine the sign of each partial derivative, and hence the relevance of each piece of evidence considered individually. We may then attempt to heuristically estimate the plausible magnitudes of these partial derivatives, and hence arrive at a judgement concerning the overall strength of the arguments for compared to the arguments against, even in the absence of exact knowledge of the form of f.

In the following section, when I speak of a piece of evidence e1 being ‘more consistent’ with state of affairs A than state ~A, I mean something like ‘P(A|e1) > P(~A|e1)’, where P is understood to be the marginal distribution over all other evidences ei (that is, we are considering the partial effect of e1 alone on our belief).

The Evidences

The reader will note that there are eight ‘against’ arguments and only six ‘for’. No doubt that this reflects, in part, my own personal bias and limited perspective. It is important to note, however, that as I stated previously, the number of arguments is irrelevant, not least of all because whether a given ‘argument’ is split up into sub-parts or combined into a single whole is arbitrary. The important question is the relative combined ‘weight’ of the ‘bricks’ (arguments against) compared to the combined ‘weight-bearing capacity’ of the ‘legs’ (arguments for). I make no claims to answer that question in this piece – here I attempt only to outline the key arguments, and indicate which ‘direction’ I believe they point in, that is in favour of 4 or in favour of 4′.

Against (‘Bricks’)

For (‘Legs’)

SufferingGiven 1-3, then ceteris paribus the amount and degree of suffering in the world is more consistent with 4′ than 4, given that 4 entails that God is all good and loving.
Resurrection AppearancesGiven 1-3, then ceteris paribus the reports of Jesus appearing to many groups of people following his death is evidence in favour of 4.
Conversion of PaulGiven 1-3, then ceteris paribus the sudden and unexpected conversion of Paul is evidence in favour of 4.
The Empty TombGiven 1-3, then ceteris paribus the early accounts of Jesus’ tomb being found empty by women is evidence in favour of 4 over 4′.
Cognitive Biases and Social InfluencesGiven 1-3, then ceteris paribus the sorts of cognitive biases, memory failings, and social influences that I document in my HBS model are evidence against 4 and in favour of 4′, since by such processes beliefs in miracles and divine revelation can (at least to some degree) develop in the absence of any actual divine intervention.
Immoral CommandmentsGiven 1-3, then ceteris paribus the numerous immoral commandments in the bible (very harsh penalties in Law of Moses, genocidal orders, treatment of women, condoning slavery, etc) are evidence in favour of 4′ over 4, given we would expect God to reveal a fair, just moral law, but would not necessarily expect this given 4′.
Cultural BoundednessGiven 1-3, then ceteris paribus the fact that Judaism and later Christianity were for most of history only accessible and known to a small fraction of the world’s population is evidence against 4.
Size and Staying PowerGiven 1-3, then ceteris paribus the fact that Christianity is the world’s largest religion, with a significant presence across large parts of the world today, and having survived many centuries of change and disruption, is evidence in favour of 4 over 4′.
Doctrinal ConfusionsGiven 1-3, then ceteris paribus the significant disagreement between Christians, both historically and at present, about many important questions concerning the nature of God and of his word is more consistent with 4′ than with 4.
Subjective Religious ExperienceGiven 1-3, then ceteris paribus the very powerful feelings of peace, guidance, love, etc that many Christians feel with respect to God are evidence in favour of 4 over 4′.
Conflicting Religious ExperienceGiven 1-3, then ceteris paribus the very powerful feelings of peace, guidance, love, etc that many non-Christians feel with respect to beliefs they hold are evidence against 4.
Biblical ConfirmationsGiven 1-3, then ceteris paribus the archaeological and historical support for the accuracy of many aspects of the new and old testaments is evidence for 4 over 4′.
Biblical DisconfirmationsGiven 1-3, then ceteris paribus the conflict of certain events of the bible with archaeological and historical evidence (such as the nativity accounts and the exodus) are evidence in favour of 4′ over 4. Note: I would also include creation, the flood, the tower of babel, and numerous other events here as well, but only if they are interpreted as literal historical events. I do not think that 4 entails such beliefs, but some Christians do.
Changing DoctrinesGiven 1-3, then ceteris paribus the significant doctrinal changes introduced by Jesus and Paul over traditional Jewish teachings (e.g. superseding much of the Law of Moses, new ideas about hell, the atonement, altered interpretation of Messianic prophecies, etc) are more consistent with 4′ than with 4, given that 4 includes notions of God being unchangeable and consistent.

 

Irrelevant Considerations

Here I will simply list, without explanation, a number of considerations which are often raised as being potentially relevant to the question of the truth of Christianity, but which I do not believe offer particularly strong support either for 4 over 4′, or for 4′ over 4.

  • Christians doing good at present or historically
  • Christians doing evil at present or historically
  • Similarities of Christian beliefs to other religious mythology
  • The doctrine of the trinity
  • Personifications of God in the bible (e.g. speaking as if God had a physical body)
  • The religious beliefs (or absence thereof) of Hitler, Stalin, or Darwin
  • The existence or findings of science (aside from certain findings of psychology and archaeology, as outlined above)
  • The coherence or compellingness of Christian doctrinal teachings

Some Personal Reflections

I will conclude with a few brief thoughts about where I personally stand currently on weighing up the evidences. Very loosely, I tend to think that the biblical confirmations and disconfirmations roughly ‘cancel out’ (i.e. the weight added by the brick of disconfirmations is roughly the same as that supported by the confirmations). I think likewise that subjective experience is roughly cancelled out by conflicting experiences, and that cultural boundedness is roughly cancelled out by size and staying power, though in these cases I might lean towards saying that the bricks are somewhat heavier than the corresponding legs support. I think that the cognitive biases brick noticeably outweighs the resurrection appearances, empty tomb, and conversion of Paul all combined. I tend to think that suffering, immoral commandments, and doctrinal changes are problematic bricks without any sufficiently compensating load-bearing legs, though I am not especially confident about this. I also suspect that (given my bias) this list is more likely to omit some important ‘legs’ than it is likely to omit some important ‘bricks’.

Overall, I am left with a conviction that even given 1-3, Christianity is noticeably, but not overwhelmingly, more likely to be false than true. Maybe I’d put my subjective degree of belief (again, conditional on 1-3) at around 0.2, which large margins of error. Though strictly speaking outside the scope of this piece, I would accord a similar, though perhaps slightly higher, degree of belief in 1-3 themselves, for which reason I call myself an atheist. The truth of the matter is, of course, not in any way affected by my degree of belief. Nevertheless, I want to hold true beliefs and avoid falsehoods, and this article represents a summary of my recent manner of thinking about how to best achieve this goal. I hope it will be of use to others and simulate further discussion and profitable exploration of these important ideas.

What is Atheism? What is Agnosticism? And who has the Burden of Proof?

Synopsis

In this piece I wish to consider the question: “does atheism need to be justified?” That is, does an atheist need to provide arguments and reasons to support their atheism, or is it sufficient for them to merely say that the evidence and arguments provided in favour of theism are insufficient? I first consider at length the meaning of the term ‘atheism’, distinguishing it from more specific appellations such as ‘strong atheism’, ‘weak atheism’, and ‘agnosticism’. In doing so I present a tripartite typology of nontheistic views about God, based on differing attitudes taken to the proposition “God exists” and its negation “God does not exist”. I also defend my characterisation of the definitions of atheism and agnosticism based on historical and conceptual considerations. Finally, I apply my definitions of atheism and agnosticism to answer the question originally posed about justification and burden of proof, arguing that, in fact, agnosticism bears a greater burden of proof than does atheism simpliciter, which being (in my usage) a mere lack of belief, does not bear any burden of proof.

Defining Atheism

The first and most obvious thing to do is establish a working definition as to what is meant by the term ‘atheism’, and its close relative ‘agnosticism’. This represents a problem, because atheism is used in different ways by different people. As the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy says:

“The task is made more difficult because each of these words are what Wittgenstein called ‘family resemblance’ words. That is, we cannot expect to find a set of necessary and sufficient conditions  for their use. Their use is appropriate if a fair number of the conditions are satisfied. Moreover even particular members of the families are often imprecise, and sometimes almost completely obscure”

Much ink has been spilled attempting to categorise and define the differences and similarities between atheism and agnosticism. As a result of such efforts there is now a positive cornucopia of differing terms and labels, including agnostic atheism, agnostic theism, weak agnosticism, strong agnosticism, explicit atheism, implicit atheism, weak atheism, strong atheism, apatheism, naturalistic pantheism, antitheism, ignosticism, and many more.

In this article I cannot possibly attempt to satisfactorily address each of these terms. Instead, I shall present my own preferred typology, drawing a distinction between three broad classes of positions: strong atheism, weak atheism, and agnosticism. For clarity, henceforth when I use the term ‘God’, it should be understood that I am referring to something akin to the traditional God of monotheism.

Belief and Reasons

Before proceeding, I think it may be helpful to say a few preliminary words about the nature of belief. I consider belief to be a particular sort of cognitive attitude that one holds toward a proposition. To any proposition, it is my view that there are essentially two possible cognitive attitudes which are relevant to our concerns here: that of accepting the truth of the proposition, and that of refusing to accept the truth of the proposition. These, of course, can come in degrees of enthusiasm or confidence in accepting or refusing to accept, but I consider the two to represent extremes along a single spectrum.

Note that under this typology, refusing to accept a proposition is not equivalent to assenting to its negation. This may strike some as counterintuitive, but I do not think there is anything especially new or unusual here. For example, suppose someone were to ask me “would you accede to the statement ‘it will rain on this day one year from now’?”, I would respond “no I would not”. But that does not mean that I would affirm the negation of the statement, namely “it will not rain on this day one year from now”.

My Tripartite Typology

Consider the following two propositions:

  • “God exists”
  • “God does not exist”

In my view, it is possible to hold separate cognitive attitudes concerning each of these propositions, though not all combinations of attitudes will be logically consistent. I foresee the following possibilities:

  • Accept the proposition “God exists” and refuse to accept “God does not exist”: a person who hold this view would typically be called a theist
  • Accept the proposition “God does not exist” and refuse to accept “God exists”: this constellation of views is typically described as strong atheism
  • Accept both propositions: belief that it “God exists” and also that “God does not exist”. Aside from some unusual equivocation in the definition of ‘God’ between these two propositions, it seems difficult for this view to be coherent
  • Refuse to accept either proposition: this person refuses to assent to the truth of the proposition “God exists”, but also similarly refuses to assent to the truth of the proposition “God does not exist”. In my view, both the weak atheist and the agnostic fit into this category

Given this understanding, let me now outline my preferred tripartite topology:

  1. Strong Atheism: explicit endorsement of the truth of the proposition “God does not exist”
  2. Weak Atheism: rejection of acceding to the truth of the proposition “God exists”, but without explicit endorsement of the truth of its negation (namely “God does not exist”)
  3. Agnosticism: rejection of acceding to the truth of the proposition “God exists” and also the proposition “God does not exist”, motivated by a belief that such claims concern matters which are simply unknown, and perhaps unknowable

Strong Atheism, Weak Atheism, and Agnosticism

There seems to be a certain class of people (in my experience typically theists, but some atheists as well) who seem adverse to the entire concept of ‘weak atheism’. Such people seem to believe that ‘weak atheism’ is not a real position, that it is either another name for agnosticism, or another name for strong atheism, and that there is no meaningful ‘middle ground’ between the two. I believe that this view is mistaken, and that if we tried to do away with the concept of ‘weak atheism’, there would be sufficient demand for a ‘third position’ distinct from agnosticism and strong atheism such that a new label would emerge to take its place.

That being said, given that I have categorised both weak atheism and agnosticism in 4) above, what is my basis for distinguishing them in my tripartite typology? I think that the meaning of ‘weak atheism’ and ‘agnosticism’ is very similar and overlaps a great deal, which is precisely why there is so much conflict and confusion concerning their meanings. Nevertheless, I also believe that there are meaningful (if subtle) distinctions between these two positions. I would put these differences into two categories, which I will discuss in turn.

First, while united in their rejection of belief in the proposition “God exists”, weak atheists and agnostics differ slightly in exactly what cognitive attitude they hold with respect to the proposition “God does not exist”. Agnostics refuse to grant assent to this proposition either – they view both beliefs as essentially equally unsupportable. Weak atheists, on the other hand, while refusing to explicitly endorse the proposition “God does not exist” (if they did, they would be strong atheists), typically are reticent to be so explicit in their refusal to assent to the proposition “God does not exist”, in general because while they lean towards the truth of this proposition, they are not quite confident enough to categorically endorse it without qualification or caveat (strong atheists, by contrast, are typically much more confident about this belief).

Second, agnosticism is, at least in my view, and contrary to how it is often perceived, a more substantive position than weak atheism. Agnosticism, as originally outlined by Thomas Huxley and generally explicated by its proponents since, incorporates not only a rejection of assent to either proposition about God’s existence, but also includes certain epistemological views about the limits of what can be known, and what sort of attitudes are appropriate in the face of such limits and uncertainties. Agnosticism is, in this sense, a profoundly skeptical position, in the traditional sense meaning ‘belief that firm knowledge either way is difficult or impossible’. Weak atheism, in my view, lacks any of these connotations, and as such it is a less substantive position, having less to say.

To summarise, therefore, we might say that agnostics and weak atheists are united in their refusal to accept the proposition “God exists” (which distinguishes them from theists), and are also united in their refusal to explicitly and clearly endorse the proposition “God does not exist” (which distinguishes them from strong atheists). They differ, however, in the credence or probability they tend to assign to the proposition “God does not exist”, as weak atheists generally lean towards accepting this proposition, while agnostics refuse it with a fervour equal to that with which they refuse to assent to its negation. These two positions also differ in that agnosticism entails certain highly skeptical beliefs about the limits of human knowledge concerning matters of the divine, while weak atheism makes no claims either way about such epistemological issues.

My definition of ‘Atheism’

On the basis of the above analysis, my personal preferred usage of the term ‘atheism’ simpliciter, is to refer to the lack of a belief in God, irrespective of what beliefs may be held about the plausibility of the claim “God does not exist”, or broader philosophical questions about knowability. Therefore, so say that someone is an atheist, in my preferred usage of the term, is merely to assert that they refuse to assent to the proposition “God exists”, without saying anything else whatever about them or their views.

I acknowledge, of course, that this is not the only way the term ‘atheism’ is used. Many people, including many atheists, use it to refer to people who explicitly endorse the proposition “God does not exist”. I think this is a valid usage of the term, however it is not my preferred usage because I believe it can contribute to conceptual confusion. I also acknowledge that agnostics will probably not agree with my preferred usage of ‘atheism’, as it means that essentially all agnostics are atheists. I would say, however, that whenever possible it is best to clarify with the more specific terms ‘strong atheism’, ‘weak atheism’, and ‘agnostic’, all of which (in my conception) fall under the broad umbrella of ‘atheism’, as making these distinctions can alleviate much of the confusion that otherwise tends to beset these sorts of discussions. I think this is also a helpful classification, since many non-believers (myself included) are often happy to refer to themselves either as agnostics or as atheists. My preferred usage thus allows for a single generic term to refer to all such people (‘atheists’), along with more specific terms to differentiate with some greater precision what precisely they believe.

Defending ‘Weak Atheism’

As I noted above, there is a certain class of people who believe that ‘atheism’ can correctly only refer to those who explicitly endorse the claim “God does not exist”. They may argue that any alternative conceptions of atheism are invalid ‘redefinitions’ and not what atheism ‘really means’. Let me say first and foremost that I do not believe there is any fact of the matter concerning what the ‘real meaning’ or ‘true definition’ of a word is. All we can talk about, in my view, are the following: 1) the origins of a term and how it was originally used, 2) how it is commonly used today, and 3) how we think it ought to be used so as to promote conceptual clarity and ease of communication.

I have already outlined my argument as to why I believe conceptual clarity is best achieved by my preferred usage of the term ‘atheist’, as this allows for a clear generic term as well as more specific labels of more subtle positions. As to common usage, I refer readers first to essentially any online discussion about the meaning of atheism, where the usage of atheism in both ‘strong’ and ‘weak’ senses will be readily apparent, and secondly to the excellent wikipedia page on the subject, which links to a number of quotes from various authorities exhibiting both forms of usage.

Regarding the historical usage of the term, the word ‘atheist’ was originally used as essentially an insult – it did not have any particularly clear meaning other than being a term of derision. Karen Armstrong writes that:

“During the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the word ‘atheist’ was still reserved exclusively for polemic … The term ‘atheist’ was an insult. Nobody would have dreamed of calling himself an atheist.”

One of the very first such self-professed atheists, a French philosopher by the name of Baron d’Holbach, famously stated “all children are born Atheists; they have no idea of God”. This is, to me, a very clear endorsement of a form of weak atheism, as clearly children, having no idea of God, cannot form the belief that he does not exist. I believe that this clearly demonstrates that my ‘weak’ understanding of atheism is an old view that traces back to the very first modern professed atheists. It is not a ‘redefinition’.

It is interesting to note that, while the first publicly declared, self-professed atheists in the modern period appeared during the 18th century, agnosticism is a much more recent concept. Although there are antecedents to the idea (as there always are to any idea), the term itself was coined by English biologist Thomas Huxley in 1869. He said:

“Agnosticism, in fact, is not a creed, but a method, the essence of which lies in the rigorous application of a single principle … Positively the principle may be expressed: In matters of the intellect, follow your reason as far as it will take you, without regard to any other consideration. And negatively: In matters of the intellect do not pretend that conclusions are certain which are not demonstrated or demonstrable.”

This, I believe, supports my contention that agnosticism is actually a more ‘substantive’ position than atheism understood in the ‘weaker’ sense that d’Holbach uses, which refers merely to a lack of belief in God.

Default Positions

A brief note on the idea of a ‘default position’. To be blunt, I have very little interest in this notion. If ‘default position’ is taken to mean something like ‘the position held in the absence of knowing anything about the question’, then I agree with d’Holbach: young children are not ‘agnostic’ by Huxley’s understanding; they are atheists (simpliciter) by my understanding of the term. That said, some theists believe that all children are born with some knowledge or understanding of God’s existence and goodness, and so if God does exist, it may be the case that theism is actually the ‘default’ position in this sense. Personally, I care very little about what is the ‘default position’, since literlaly no one comes to discussions of religion from any sort of ‘default position’. What I am interested in is the question of who bears a burden of proof and for what sort of claims, and I do not think that the notion of ‘default position’ is necessary in order to answer this question.

Burdens of Proof

Having outlined at some length my preferred understanding of the term ‘atheism’, I will now briefly return to the original question I posed, which was whether or not atheism needs to be justified or supported as a position. Some argue that atheism is just as much an affirmative position as theism, and that therefore both bear essentially equal burdens of proof. The ‘default position’, on this view, and the only one to avoid any burden of proof, is agnosticism, which makes no claims either way.

In accordance with my typology given above, I disagree with this analysis. In my view, ‘strong atheism’ does bear an equal burden of proof to ‘theism’, as both make ontological claims of essentially equal strength with respect to God. Perhaps surprisingly, agnosticism too also bears some (though arguably less) burden of proof – not with respect to disbelief in the existence of God, but with respect to the positive claims agnostics tend to make concerning the inability of human reason or evidence to arrive at justified beliefs on the matter either way. Even weak atheism, I think, can bear a burden of proof, although only insomuch as weak atheists ‘lean towards’ accepting the claim “God does not exist” do they bear a burden of proof for demonstrating the basis of the greater credence given to this position (the burden is, of course, greater as their stated degree of confidence, or ‘leaning’, is increased).

As I have defined it, however, ‘atheism’ simpliciter, the generic term referring to mere refusal to accede to the proposition that “God exists”, does not bear any burden of proof, for it makes no positive claims about anything. In fact, often I do not think it greatly matters if a person calls themselves an atheist or an agnostic – if all they are asserting is that they lack belief in the existence of God, and are saying nothing about God’s non-existence, or relative likelihood thereof, or about the unknowability of the answer to this question, then they are not making any substantive claim, and so bear no burden of proof.

Conclusion

Given my analysis, I do not believe that an atheist, in the sense that I have defined the term, need give any positive justification for their mere refusal to assent to the proposition “God exists”. They need only provide responses to whatever reasons or evidences are advanced in favour of this proposition (as this is necessary in order to justify rejecting the claim), but they need not provide any arguments of their own in favour of the proposition “God does not exist”, as being an atheist (in my usage of the word) does not entail holding any particular belief concerning this proposition. Of course, many atheists do advance particular beliefs concerning the non-existence of God, either concerning its impossibility, or improbability, or even its unknowability. In my view, whenever atheists step beyond the very narrow bounds of merely denying belief in God, and make further claims concerning his non-existence, then they also bear a burden of proof for such claims.

How can Christians be so Certain?: Why Subjective Evidence isn’t Evidence

Synopsis

In this piece I ask the question ‘how can Christians be so confident in their beliefs’? I argue that it cannot be reasons and evidence, because the reasons and evidence available relate to matters that are too uncertain and about which we know so little that they cannot possibly justify the level of confidence that Christians have. I then turn to subjective evidence, and argue that it does not fulfill the crucial criteria of evidence, namely to distinguish true from false beliefs in some reliable way. Thus, I argue that subjective evidence cannot justify confident Christian belief. I then examine the claim that God could grant us a direct, indubitable spiritual witness if he so desired. I argue that even if God could do this, he does not, as we can see from the conflicting claims to possess such a witness from those of different faiths. I therefore conclude that, whilst Christians can adopt belief as a choice, they cannot justifiably claim high degrees of confidence in that belief.

A Motivating Anecdote

Below is a paraphrased and simplified, but accurate in essentials, outline of the final portion of an exchange I once had with a Christian:

Me: “So how do you that Christianity is true?”
Christian: “One compelling reason is all the Old Testament prophecies that Jesus fulfilled”
Me: “But Jews read the same Old Testament and they don’t accept that Jesus fulfilled those prophecies”
Christian: “Yes but that’s because they are blinded by their beliefs. Jesus threatens their preconceptions so they don’t want to believe”
Me: “But what about your preconceptions? How do you know you aren’t biased by your beliefs?”
Christian: “Well just look at all the prophecies in the Old Testament that Jesus fulfilled”
Me: “Yes but Jews don’t agree that Jesus fulfilled those prophecies, so how do you know you are right and they are wrong?”
Christian: “But the Jews are blinded by their beliefs. They don’t want to believe in Jesus so they reject the evidence”
Me: “But how do you know that you are not blinded in a similar way? Maybe your beliefs are causing you to reject evidence”
Christian: “The life of Jesus, the prophecies of the Old Testament that he fulfilled, its very compelling evidence”
Me: “Yes but Jews don’t accept that evidence. They read the same books and come to very different conclusions. How do you know you are right and they are wrong?”
Christian: “I see what you’re trying to do here…” *ends discussion*

Disagreement and Doubt

I am perpetually puzzled by the degree of confidence that (many?/most?) Christians have that their beliefs about Jesus, God, the Bible, etc, are definitely true, or almost certainly true, or very likely true. Where does this confidence and certainly come from? It surely cannot come from the evidence, for the evidence and arguments are highly equivocal. Fine-tuning arguments? We just don’t know enough about such matters. Cosmological arguments? So many disputed concepts and so little evidence either way. Moral arguments? Disputed concepts, many arguments, very little agreement. Historical evidence? Limited in what it could ever prove with high degrees of confidence, subject to many different interpretations of the same evidence, and unable to deal with the issue of comparably attested historical evidence for other religions. I could go on. My point here is not that the arguments for Christianity are all unsound or clearly refutable, but simply that there is a great deal of doubt and uncertainty surrounding all of them.

Christians even say this in discussions with me: “humans are limited and there is so much we don’t know”. I totally agree! But how on Earth can anyone in their wildest dreams think that the fact that “humans are limited, fallible, and feeble in our knowledge”, can possibly constitute a reason to believe in God, or a reason to be more confident in such belief, or a reason to reject reasonable doubts of such a belief? It truly baffles me that anyone can think that.

I don’t care if you call me an agnostic or an atheist (I think they are basically two words for the same thing), here’s what I am saying: we don’t know. And because we don’t know, I don’t believe. For I don’t make a habit of believing things that I don’t know enough about, nor do I think Christians should either – or at least, if they care about truth and believing accurate things, they ought not to believe things they don’t know enough about. The Christian, however, says that we do know, and that the truth is found in Jesus. But where does that confidence and certainty come from? The evidence is sparse, the arguments are equivocal, the experts (insomuch as there are any) are in disagreement, and the track record for people having accurate beliefs about any of these sorts of things is very bad indeed. So where whence the certainty?

Subjective Evidence

I think we all know where it comes from. It comes from what I will call ‘subjective evidence’. This means different things to different people, and is really a diverse category of experiences exhibiting some ‘family resemblance’, rather than any clearly defined or specific class of things. By ‘subjective evidence’ I mean things like: “God answers my prayers”, “I have a relationship with Jesus”, “I feel God’s love”, “God helps me though tough times in life”, “I really feel the power of Jesus in reading the Bible”, “I was healed by the power of the spirit”, and all the many other things of that sort. Christians might prefer to call them “spiritual witnesses” or some such thing. My argument in this piece is that I do not think such subjective evidence is of very much help at all in justifying Christian beliefs, because it is so very, very, very unreliable.

A Very Brief List of Things that People Believe in on the basis of Subjective Evidence

  • Homeopathy
  • Psychokinesis
  • Neopaganism
  • Acupunture
  • The Lunar effect
  • Graphology
  • Vaccination causes autism
  • Islam
  • ESP
  • Hinduism
  • Palmistry
  • Raelism
  • Mormonism
  • Phrenology
  • Laundry balls
  • Baha’i
  • Spiritualism
  • Sikhism
  • Voodoo
  • UFOs
  • Christian Science (Baker Eddy)
  • Crystal healing
  • Scientology
  • Bigfoot
  • Reincarnation
  • Iridology
  • Dowsing
  • Buddhism
  • Pyramid power
  • Astrology
  • Atheism

The Christian Response

The common response to lists of the sort that I provide above is to point to various reasons, arguments, and evidences that Christianity is in fact more rational, more reasonable, and hence superior to these other belief systems. “All miracle claims aren’t equal, you have to look at the details”. “Hindu philosophy just doesn’t make sense”. Etc. That’s all fine. That’s exactly what the Christian should do. But the catch is when I ask my question about where the confidence comes from in the face of all the sorts of uncertainties that I mentioned above. The answer, of course, is that reason and evidence is not enough. You need to have faith as well. You need to build a relationship with God.

So here is the argument as far as I can make it out. Christians can be confident in Jesus because of the subjective evidence (spiritual witness/relationship/etc) they have. They know that this subjective evidence is valid, not mistaken like most subjective evidence is, because of the objective facts, evidences, and arguments that back it up. The reason they can be confident that such reasons, evidence, and arguments actually do lend sufficient support for their beliefs, despite the disagreement and uncertainty surrounding such matters, is because of the subjective evidence that they have. This seems to be little more than a slightly more intricate version of this argument, which (in essence), I have actually heard Christians make: “Jesus is Lord, which I know because Jesus said that Jesus is Lord, which I know because Jesus said that Jesus is Lord, which I know because…”

What Evidence is For

As I see it, evidence, reasons, and arguments serve one purpose and one purpose only: they help us to distinguish (not perfectly, but with some degree of reliability) true from false beliefs. If something does not do that, then it is not a useful or relevant evidence, reason, or argument. Subjective evidence does not help us to distinguish true from false beliefs (at least not when it comes to spiritual/worldview/philosophical type questions, as opposed to “what did I have for breakfast this morning?”), which is clear given the vast number of inconsistent and false beliefs that various people believe on the basis of subjective evidence. Therefore, subjective evidence does not constitute relevant or useful or compelling evidence either for or against Christianity. That is, it does not help us to determine whether it is true or not, and hence Christians cannot justify their confidence on the basis of such evidence. Nor does it help to argue that “it is justified by the combination of objective reasons and evidence and subjective experiences”, because the whole point of my argument is that the objective reasons, evidences, and arguments are too uncertain to do the job, and subjective experiences are too unreliable to add any justification of their own. Thus arguing that ‘together they can do it’ does not address the core criticism of my argument.

But God can do Anything

But couldn’t God give us a firm, indubitable (or at least extremely compelling) spiritual/subjective witness if he wanted to? Why couldn’t he just ‘implant’ some sort of ‘justificatoryness’ in our minds/souls directly, so that all that person need do is introspect, and they would “just know”, with full justification in that belief. After all, he is God right? Well, I think a case can be made that this is actually logically impossible, but I’m not sure that such an argument would ultimately succeed. So let me make a more modest claim: regardless of whether God could do that, he does not. (I think there are good reasons why he doesn’t – e.g. its hard to see what scope would be left for free will or faith if God merely implanted an indubitable belief in our minds/souls).

But how do I know that he doesn’t? Well, let me ask this question: is it possible for a believer (chosen at random from any religion) to determine with confidence whether or not their religion is true, merely by introspecting to determine whether or not God (or whatever they believe in exactly) has granted them a direct spiritual witness of such truth? I say the answer is obviously ‘no’, because we have people from multiple spiritual and religious traditions claiming contradictory spiritual witnesses. Yahweh and Jesus and Allah cannot all have simultaneously granted such indubitable direct spiritual witnesses to Jews, Christians, and Muslims. They are inconsistent. But none of them can tell if they are the one who is right simply by introspecting, because the others do the same and think that they are the ones who are right!

In order to overcome this, the Christian would have to believe that they have a uniquely powerful direct, indubitable spiritual witness of the truth of Christianity, and simultaneously be willing to just dismiss and reject essentially identical claims (even at times based on the same scriptures – e.g. Jews and Mormons) from other equally honest, reasonable, pious believers of other religions. If a Christian is actually willing to do that, is actually willing to reify their own subjectivity over and above all other subjective claims, including even those that come from almost the same religious tradition, and if they think that such a witness is capable of delivering certain or near-certain belief that their faith is true; if a Christian is actually willing to say this, then I think they are not really worshiping Jesus at all – they are worshiping themselves, or as I have described it elsewhere, they “worship their own ego”.

The Value of Subjective Evidence

Christians reading this might get the impression that I am saying their subjective experiences of Jesus, etc, are not real – that they are imaginary, and that they have no value. I’m not saying that. They could be completely real. They could really be from God. My point is that you cannot tell just by looking at the subjective evidence. You need other reasons, evidence, and arguments that allow you to be confident that subjective experiences are veridical. I am also not saying that subjective experiences have no value. If Christianity were true, they would be of immense value in building faith/trust in God, in building a relationship with God, in learning to rely on God, in gaining comfort, etc. What they cannot do, however, is tell you whether or not Christianity is actually true.

Concluding Remarks

I return now to my original question: whence the high degree of confidence that Christians have? I have argued that it cannot justifiably come from the reasons and evidence, for we know too little, and there is too much doubt and uncertainty surrounding such matters. I then argued that it cannot justifiably come from subjective experiences, for they do not serve the crucial task of reasons and evidence – namely to distinguish between truth and falsity. Subjective experiences are just too unreliable to do that. I therefore conclude that Christians cannot justifiably sustain their confident belief in the truth of Christianity. At most they can justify a claim of the sort “I don’t really know that its true, but I think it might be, so I’m choosing to live my life as if it is”. But I think most Christians want more than that. They want to know. They want to be confident. And they want to say things like “James, you ought to accept Jesus as your Lord and Saviour”. To that, I say simply: show me something that allows me to be reasonably confident that accepting Jesus would not be a mistake based on a false belief. Evidence, reasons, and arguments would do the trick. Show me something like that which can avoid the problems of uncertainty and lack of knowledge that I discussed above. If it exists, I want to know.

On Evidence and Truth: Why Reason is our only Hope

Synopsis

In this piece I explain what I consider to be the purpose of evidence, namely that it is the way to distinguish truth from error. I argue that, if our objective is to hold beliefs that are most likely to be true, then evidence and reason are the only methods we should use to form our beliefs. Note: here I am addressing questions of fact, existence, etc. I am not talking about personal preferences or other purely subjective matters, for which reason and evidence are much less useful instruments.

Truth and Reason

What is the purpose of evidence/reason/rationality/etc? What is it for? Why do we bother with it? Why not just believe whatever is convenient, or whatever makes us feel nice, or whatever gives us hope, or whatever is most popular, or whatever those in power tell us to believe? Certainly one can believe on such bases, but there seems to be something very unsatisfactory about such beliefs. Let me outline some premises.

1. Our purpose here (i.e. for this analysis) is to have beliefs that are most likely to be true/accurate/reliable (let’s not quibble on exact words for now)

2. Of the many different possible ways to form beliefs, some are more prone to error than others

3. The least error prone method of forming beliefs is by using reason and evidence (broadly defined)

4. Therefore, we should only form beliefs on the basis of reason and evidence

It should be understood that I advance (3) largely as a matter of definition – that as, I define ‘reason and evidence’ as being those ways of arriving at beliefs which are most consistent with our goal of having true beliefs and avoiding false beliefs. Such ‘reasoning and evidence’ can take many forms, including scientific reasoning, philosophical reasoning, the historical method, legal evidence, naive sensory observation, etc. Needless to say, the specific forms of evidence and modes of reasoning that are applicable can differ considerably from one instance or subject matter to another, nor is it necessarily the case that everything that is claimed to constitute ‘reasons’ or ‘evidence’ is actually worthy of such an appellation, but nonetheless my core thesis stands, namely that it is reason and evidence alone of all the possible modes of belief formation which allow us to form beliefs with a minimum of error. This is not to say that reason and evidence are infallible, or that they can yield certainty. Infallibility and certainty are utterly beside the point. What is crucial, rather, is maximising the chances of finding truth and minimising those of arriving at falsehoods. Reason and evidence are, I argue, precisely those things which best enable us to cleave truth from error in the cleanest, most reliable way possible.

Christian Belief

Truth be told, I take it that everything I have said thus far, subject to some minor disagreements about methods of phrasing and precise usage of terms, should be utterly uncontroversial. Indeed, many readers will (I hope) wonder why I have bothered to make the above claims at all, given how apparently innocuous and self-evident they are. Nevertheless, it seems to me that it is necessary, far more often that one may think, to assert this basic point, that beliefs should only be formed on the basis of reason and evidence, for it is, at least to me, disturbing how often this fundamental notion is apparently forgotten, or even dismissed outright, by intelligent people who should know better.

Let me take particular issue with Christians, something I am rather want to do. Certain Christians have, on many occasions, said something similar to the following to me:
“Belief in God isn’t all about evidence or reason. That’s not the most important thing. Its about having a personal relationship with God, not knowing certain facts”

Let us consider this statement, and many others like it that I have heard (other examples would be things like “God is love” or “through faith in Jesus all can be forgiven”). First notice its form: it is a proposition. It asserts some factual claim about the way the world actually is. Being a proposition, it has a truth value. It could be true, it could be false, or maybe it could be neither (depending upon your disposition toward many-valued logics), but the point it that it has a truth value that we would like to evaluate. So how can we tell if this claim is (probably) true or (probably) false? As per my argument above, the answer is, of course, we should use reason and evidence! What type of reason and evidence? Well, that is a deep and tricky question. I’m certainly not saying that this claim needs to be experimentally tested, but it does need to be tested in some way. Some argument needs to be made, some reasoning analyzed, some evidence examined, in order to discern between the case where this proposition is true, and the case where it is false. One could simply believe this claim because it sounds nice,  because it brings hope, or because it fits with one’s subjective experiences of life in general, but none of those things will be able to tell us whether the claim is actually true or not.

So, when a Christian says to me that something other than reason or evidence is responsible for some belief that they have, what I hear them saying is something to the effect that “I first and foremost care about something else other than whether this belief is actually true or not”. To this I say: No! Never! Get thee hence, Satan, father of lies! Truth first and foremost. Truth above all. Truth may be subtle and delicate, only to be seen partially obscured or in glimpses from the corner of one’s eye, but that does not make her any less worthy in seeking. I will not settle for anything less.

When NOT to Update Your Beliefs

I have written a piece about when it is rational not to update one’s beliefs in response to new evidence, in particular with respect to anecdotal evidence. The piece contains some equations, so I have uploaded it as a pdf here:

When NOT to Update Your Beliefs (in pdf form)

Synopsis
I argue that in cases with low prior probabilities and unreliable evidence (e.g. personal anecdotes), it is rational not to update one’s posterior probabilities at all in response to additional low quality evidence (e.g. an additional anecdote). I present my basic case with reference to Bayes’ Theorem, and then consider some rebuttals. I reject that rebuttal that updates should be small but non-zero on the grounds that such small updates are within the bounds of error of one’s probabilities. I reject the rebuttal that many anecdotes provide stronger cumulative evidence on the basis that anecdotes are not independent events. I conclude with a discussion about the differences between updating in abstract theory, and updating in the real world.

Peer Disagreement

Synopsis

Many intelligent people disagree about many important questions. This means that many intelligent people are wrong about many important questions, and it is not possible to tell if you are one of these people simply based on how confident you are. Looking at the arguments on both sides doesn’t address the problem, because everyone claims to do that, and reaches different conclusions. Nor does attempting to explain how disagreement is consistent with your worldview address the problem, as it begs the question of how you know that your worldview is correct. I therefore conclude that in the absence of expert consensus on a given question, we should suspend any firm judgement on the matter.

Introduction

Is abortion morally wrong? Is fiscal stimulus effective at reviving an economy? Is there a God? What is the best type of diet to lose weight? Is the brain a computer? Are men and women hardwired to be different? Is it wrong to eat meat? Is intelligent life common in the universe? Is gun control effective at reducing violence? Will mankind will face extinction in the near future?

These questions span many different topics. Some are scientific, some are political, and others are philosophical. Nonetheless, they do have one important property in common: many (perhaps most) of those who have a strong opinions about these questions are wrong. Regardless of what the actual answer is, there is so much disagreement about these sorts of questions and so many mutually-incompatible views that, whichever position is actually the correct one, most people’s views are false. This means that right now, many ethicists are wrong about abortion. Many economists are wrong about fiscal stimuluses. Many philosophers are wrong about whether there is a God.

Main Argument

Everything I have said thus far is really quite obvious and (aside from minor quibbles about specific choice of examples, etc), fairly uncontroversial. What, then, is the big deal? The big deal, in my view, comes the from conclusion that, I think, we should draw from these facts. Allow me present my main argument in the form of a syllogism.

  1. If two or more people hold incompatible views on any matter that is not purely subjective (e.g. favourite dessert), then at least some of those people must be wrong
  2. Many intelligent people hold incompatible views on many important questions, despite being well informed and strongly convinced they are right
  3. Therefore, many intelligent people hold incorrect beliefs despite being well informed on the subject, and being convinced that they are right
  4. Therefore, it is perfectly possible for intelligent, thoughtful, intellectually honest, well-informed people, to be strongly convinced about the correctness of their position, whilst nonetheless being completely wrong
  5. Therefore, it is possible (and given the enormous extent of disagreement, I would say likely) that you, as an intelligent and informed person, are mistaken about at least some of the core beliefs that you consider to be very important and (likely) hold with a high degree of confidence

Looking at the Evidence won’t Help

Perhaps you might imagine that you could not possibly be one such person, because the answer seems to clear and logical in your head. After all, you have looked at the arguments and evidence on both sides, and come to a reasoned, rational conclusion. What, then, is the problem with feeling confident in your opinion, when clearly the facts and evidence support it? The problem lies in the fact that we can never, as finite, fallible human beings, have access to the actual facts, evidence, and arguments in their pure, objective, unadulterated form. All we ever can access are our perceptions and interpretations of the evidence and arguments – how persuasive they seem to us. And we know, from the fact of widespread disagreement, that our sense of the persuasiveness or reasonableness of such evidence and arguments is, in general, quite unreliable.

Whatever argument you have heard about abortion, whatever evidence you have seen about fiscal stimuluses, whatever religious experiences you may have had, you can be essentially assured that there exist many other equally intelligent people as yourself who have heard the same arguments, seen the same evidence, and had similar experiences, but who do not find them to be a persuasive reason to believe in your position. This is a fact that we all need to be able to deal with.

Interchanging Perspectives with Another

Of course, our own beliefs will always feel more ‘real’ to us than those of others, because as finite human beings were are limited by our own nature as embodied, subjective beings. We have direct access to our own beliefs and reasons for those beliefs in a way we can never have for those of others. But how does that justify us in thinking that our beliefs are actually, objectively, more likely to be true? It might sound like I am arguing for some form of relativism, but I am not. In fact, I think it is by ignoring the problem of disagreement that we head towards relativism, as doing so leads to the situation in which whether a particular proposition should be believed or not is relative to which person’s methods of reasoning one chooses to use in analysing the arguments. Everyone thinks they are right and those who disagree with them are wrong, but if it were possible to switch perspectives and use one’s opponents methods of thinking and analysing arguments,  then you would conclude the exact opposite. A model of knowledge that makes justificatory claims so variable and mind-dependent is, in my view, far more deserving of the name ‘relativism’ than the position I am advocating.

Explaining Disagreement from your Worldview

It might be tempting to introspect about one’s worldview, and attempt to find reasons as to why, given your worldview, many other intelligent people could be wrong about such important questions. For example, the atheist dismisses intelligent Christians, Jews, and Muslims on the grounds that humans have evolved a sense of spirituality, and tend to attribute anthropomorphic characteristics to inanimate objects in an attempt to derive a sense of comfort and meaning in an otherwise uncaring universe. The Christian, on the other hand, dismisses intelligent atheists on the grounds that, whatever evidence is presented for God’s existence, many will still choose not to believe because of the stubbornness of their hearts and their refusal to submit their will to God.

The problem with arguments like this is that they do not allow us to distinguish which state of the world actually prevails. Both the Atheist and the Christian expect, given their worldviews, to see religious disagreement among intelligent people, so whoever is right we expect to see the same thing (at least in this respect). We then arrive back at the same question we started with: given such disagreement, who is more likely to be correct? Arguments that attempt merely to explain disagreement within the framework of a particular belief system thus do not actually address the problem of disagreement at all. Unless a particular viewpoint is actually inconsistent with the existence of peer disagreement (I know of none that are), then all worldviews are capable of constructing such justifications. None of them, however, can address the real question: given the extent of peer disagreement, how do you know that you are not one of the many who are mistaken?

Conclusion

To be clear, I am not arguing that there is no such thing as truth, or that we can never know what it is. There are plenty of issues on which there does exist a considerable degree of expert agreement. Many questions in science are of this sort, as are at least some questions in ethics, politics, and economics. What I am trying to argue is that, if there exists widespread disagreement among equally informed and rational people, then, in general, this means that there exists insufficient evidence to answer the question, and thus we should withhold judgement, or at the very least, substantially lower our confidence that we are correct. Doubt is not a pleasant condition, but certainty is absurd.