Reflections on ‘Why I am not an Atheist’

Introduction

Recently I went along to an event entitled ‘Why I am not an atheist’, in which Scottish pastor and Christian apologist David Robertson answered questions outlining his answer to this question. Here I just want to respond to some of his remarks and record my reflections on the event. Overall I thought the evening was pleasant. It is always interesting to hear other people’s ‘worldview stories’, and I appreciated that Robertson emphasised at some points that he wasn’t making an assertion about what everyone should believe, but just outlining his reasons and thought processes about the various issues raised. I found this approach refreshing, and glad he did not pursue the approach that some apologists take of throwing out dozens of reasons which are supposed to be convincing to all those who hear and properly understand them. That being said, there were a number of things that grated at me about his remarks over the course of the evening. Here I want to discuss a few of them in turn. Since most of the words of this essay focus on criticisms, it is easy to infer that I disliked the evening or thought all Robertson’s remarks were rubbish. That isn’t the case – I am glad to have attended and glad these events can take place. However, since I value discourse and interchange of perspectives, I think its appropriate for me to focus on discussing the points of disagreement.

Critiques of Focus and Tone

Let me first begin by expressing my frustration at Robertson’s almost obsessive focus on New Atheism. This was manifested in his continual referencing of the works and sayings of various New Atheist writers, predominantly Richard Dawkins, but also people like Laurence Krauss and Steven Hawking. Granted there was some discussion of Bertrand Russell, largely in response to a few questions from the moderator, but overall the focus was overwhelmingly on the New Atheists. To some extent this is understandable, as these figures have certainly been the highest profile atheists of recent years and still attract a great deal of public attention. However, as many other prominent atheist scholars themselves have noted, New Atheism is also an extremely intellectually shaky version of atheism, at least when it comes to actually engaging with tricky philosophical issues. I think New Atheism has some valid political/social points to make, but beyond that it has little of value to add to the discussion. In particular, as I have said many times before, New Atheist arguments as to why one should not believe in God or why all religions are false, are almost universally crap. They just aren’t well thought-out, carefully developed arguments. If one is going to seriously consider atheism, I think its important to consider and respond to the writings of respected, contemporary atheist philosophers who write on relevant subjects, such as Graham Oppy, Quentin Smith, Michael Ruse, Jordan Sobel, and J.L Mackie (the latter two being deceased but much more recent than Russell). Such people basically never get a mention by Christian apologists in these sorts of talks, and this event was no exception. It is for this reason that I expressed to Rob Martin afterwards, perhaps 70% seriously, that we should think about doing an event on atheism in which all discussion of New Atheism and the works of New Atheists was banned. I think this would actually do a lot to advance the discussion.

Another thing that I found detracted from the evening was Robertson’s occasional tendency to be quite dismissive towards atheists, and to disregard their arguments or views with little serious thought. This is probably directly related to the first point, that most of his interaction has probably been with New Atheist thinkers or ‘fans’ (he did explicitly mention spending a lot of time on the Richard Dawkins forums so I think this is a safe assumption). In my experience, the arguments presented by such people to defend their atheism philosophically are quite weak, and often show profound lack of ignorance of pertinent philosophy, history, or science. As such, a degree of frustration and annoyance on Robertson’s part is understandable. Nevertheless, particularly in the context of the topic of the evening, I felt that some of his remarks were in very poor taste. With regard to the problem of evil, an issue that has been debated for centuries and continues to be the subject of much serious philosophical discussion, Robertson said “I think the problem of evil turns middle class liberals away from God because its a nice excuse”. To me, a flippant remark like this is up there with ‘people just believe in God because they like the idea of an afterlife’, as a mean-spirited just-so story by which one avoids having to seriously think or engage with disagreeable viewpoints. Is it really plausible that the problem of evil is not at all a serious intellectual/spiritual/emotional problem? I know Robertson didn’t exactly say that, but it sure sounds like that’s what he meant. When I hear a Christian apologist say something like that, I’m basically ready to end the discussion, because it seems clear they are not the slightest bit interested in what I actually think or why I think it, but will just dismiss anything I say as me making ‘an excuse’. I do hope this isn’t actually the case for Robertson, but this remark in particular (as well as a few other more minor ones) rather put me on the defensive for the rest of the event.

Critiques of Arguments

There were times in the evening when I felt that Robertson was not doing justice to the atheist arguments or positions he responded to. One particularly bizarre example which (to be honest) still confuses me, I will relate below. Robertson was responding to Russell’s claim that the theist cannot give any sensible answer to the question ‘who created God?’ He said that this is an “intellectually vacuous question”, and remarked (apparently only half joking) that if his twelve year old daughter could not have easily come up with a response to this, then he would have disowned her. Robertson’s own response was that theists have never claimed that God is a created being, and so asking who created him is a completely irrelevant and moot question. Now I don’t know if Robertson is being fair to Russell’s argument here, and honestly I don’t really care, as this argument itself is not what interests me. Rather my purpose is to compare Robertson’s response to this argument to a different argument that he presented a bit later in the evening. With respect to ethics, human rights, and equality, Robertson claimed that “you cannot argue that all human beings are equal if your whole basis is naturalistic materialism because obviously we are not”. He then gave an example of what he meant, saying: “I’m not equal to Brad Pitt in looks, or Usain Bolt in speed, or Steven Hawking in intelligence, etc.” It seems perfectly obvious, however, that when we are talking about all people being equal in this context, we do not mean that they are equal in every ability, or in every type of ranking we could devise. The idea is rather something like that every person is deserving of equal basic respect, or has equal human rights, or is of equal moral value, or something along these lines. Obviously there is a discussion to be had about what exactly we do mean by this sort of claim, but Robertson’s comparisons are clearly irrelevant, since no one is claiming the sorts of equalities that he mentions. I really find it hard to fathom how Robertson can be so dismissive of the ‘who created God’ argument on the one hand, while a few minutes later himself making such an absurdly weak and misconstrued argument.

There were a few times during the evening when Robertson made assertions that I thought were very dubious and should not have been stated in the bold, confident way there were without at least providing some further explanation, evidence, or qualifications. I will cite a few key examples. In response to some of the claims of New Atheists he stated ‘‘there’s lots of things that science can never explain because science by definition is not able to explain them”. Now I don’t know whether I agree with this statement or not, primarily because I have no idea what ‘definition’ of science he is talking about. He didn’t provide one, nor refer to any of the many competing theories and accounts of what constitutes ‘science’ that have been discussed in the literature. There is simply no such thing  as ‘the definition of science’, and thus no way to make any sense of what he’s talking about here. In a second example, Robertson claimed that “there has never been a human society ever where people did not believe in some sort of God.” Once again, I don’t know whether I agree with him or not because I don’t know what he means by ‘some sort of God’. If he means ‘any sort of supernatural being’, then I would probably agree with this statement, though defining it so broadly blunts the force of this claim rather a lot. If instead we interpret ‘God’ to be something at least moderately close to an all-powerful personal creator being that Christianity believes in, then I think his statement is clearly false. Two obvious counterexamples are Buddhist societies, and the many animistic religious traditions which worship nature-spirits, without necessarily having any concept of a supreme being over and beyond nature. There’s obviously much to examine here concerning conceptions of God and comparative anthropology of religion, and that may well go beyond what he wanted to convey, but I don’t think that justifies such a careless sweeping statement. I expect that somebody who spends much of their time writing and speaking about such things to be more precise in their statements and not make such bold, dubious, unqualified claims as this.

I now turn to a couple of the two major substantive reasons that Robertson gave for why he isn’t an atheist. He first mentioned that he didn’t think atheism could make any sense because “there’s no way that all this (nature/the world) is an accident”. I would have liked him to expand a bit more on exactly what he meant by this statement. At other times over the course of the evening he mentioned the origin of life, the origin of the universe itself, and cosmic fine-tuning, but none of these were ever really expanded upon or fleshed out, so it’s difficult to really evaluate what sort of argument he would want to advance. One thing that I did want to mention is that he appealed to the idea that nature/life/the universe clearly looks as if it were designed by an intelligence, and that therefore it is reasonable to infer that (more probably than not) it actually was. I actually think that in essence this is a perfectly valid argument – I just disagree with the crucial premise that the world looks as if it were designed by an intelligence. Robertson mentioned Dawkins and Hawking as saying something along the lines that they agree the world looks as if it were designed, however I’m not sure what this is supposed to demonstrate. So what if they do think that – does that mean that it must be right? The issue is what reasons we have for thinking that the world/the universe look designed. I don’t think one can simply side-step the issue by asserting that some of the staunchest advocates of atheism concede the point.

Before leaving this issue there’s one further clarification I’d like to make, which may perhaps relate to the Dawkins et al quotes about design. This is to say that just because human minds are such that we have a strong tendency to make certain judgements or ascriptions doesn’t mean that such judgments are actually the most justified when all the evidence is properly considered. To give an example, to many people the famous ‘face on Mars’ really does look like a face that some agency constructed there. We are so well adapted to seeing faces that we make this ascription so readily, even of a blotch of blurry shadows on rocks. Of course, there is ample evidence, including multiple high-resolution images of the site in question, that there is no face there. And yet, to many people (including myself!) it still looks like there is a face on Mars! My point here is that something can ‘look like’ it is the case without it following that, when all evidence is properly considered, that is actually the best explanation for the phenomenon. Thus when people like Dawkins say that nature ‘looks designed’, I believe what they are saying is that we see design in nature because of the way our minds work (e.g. tendency to ascribe agency to inanimate objections, find patterns in noise, etc). They aren’t saying that ‘all considered, the evidence seems to indicate that nature is the product of design’. Its just our sort of naive, intuitive reaction that leads us to see design, but this is overcome by more careful consideration of all the evidence (like the face on Mars case). Now perhaps you think that there aren’t the sort of powerful countervailing reasons in the case of ascribing design to the universe as there is to rejecting the face on Mars, or perhaps you think that these naive ‘intuitive’ ascriptions of design are more reliable than Dawkins et al give credit. I’m not attempting here to adjudicate those issues. Rather, what I’m saying is that there is a plausible way to understand what Dawkins et al say about the appearance of design without them granting the premise that design actually is the best explanation for the state of the world.

The second major, substantive reason that Robertson advanced as to why he is not an atheist was the familiar one that if atheism were true, then there would be no free will, no good or evil, and no morality. I must confess at this point that I’m not entirely sure if Robertson would accept this characterisation of his position, but I did the best I could to note down his remarks and follow his reasoning – I just found this segment of the evening particularly disjointed. For instance, Robertson clearly expressed his view that determinism and free will are incompatible, but its unclear how this is relevant to atheism because the two (atheism and determinism) are completely independent positions. He did mention this in the context of responding to the problem of evil, however, so perhaps he had not intended that as an actual argument against atheism. Similarly, he clearly seemed to think that without God there would be no good or evil and no morality, but he never explained why. He didn’t mention anything about the various metaethical theories that attempt to account for the nature and origin of morality (most of which make no appeal to God), so its unclear to me what the basis of his objection is. Again, however, perhaps he never intended to offer this as an argument so much as a personal view of his – as I noted before, I found this part hard to follow. Later on in the evening he returned to the issue of morality when he discussed the idea that ‘all humans are equal’, as I discussed above. He argued that according to Christianity, all humans are created in the image of God, and thus are all fundamentally equal, whereas ‘naturalistic materialism’ cannot make any such appeal. Aside from the issues I discussed previously regarding this question, I also just fail to see the logic behind this argument. Suppose Robertson is right and all humans are created ‘in the image of God’. How does it follow that all humans are equal? Some humans could be created more ‘Godlike’ than others, thus negating any equality. I know this isn’t what traditional Christian doctrine says, but if the claim is really ‘Christian doctrine says all humans are equal because they are made in God’s image’, its hard to see how this is actually a compelling argument to anyone who doesn’t already accept such a doctrine. It doesn’t seem to follow from being a theist that all humans are equal, but rather seems to depend on particular theological assumptions that Robertson didn’t really discuss or defend. I also note that ‘naturalistic materialism’ is but a small subset of atheism – Buddhists are atheists but often not naturalistic materialists. As such it would have been good to know more about why Robertson rejects atheism as a whole, and not simply one particular subset of it.

Conclusions

Concluding, I was refreshed and encouraged by some aspects of Robertson’s presentation, in particular his willingness to engage, to share views, to take a more personal approach than ‘here’s a list of twenty reasons to believe’, and to acknowledge that he isn’t in the business of telling people what to believe. At the same time, I was disappointed and frustrated by the undue focus on New Atheism at the expense of engaging with more robust arguments from other atheist or non-religious philosophers, as well as the occasional unsubstantiated claims and poorly-structured arguments. I think these issues are important and typically far too little attention is paid to them in the popular discourse. As such I think its important that, when we do have these opportunities, we should seek to carefully articulate our own views with appropriate nuance, be charitable to opposing views to present them in their strongest form, and in general  stay respectful of those with whom we disagree. Unfortunately I didn’t feel like these virtues were exemplified as well as they could have been in this event.

Note: my quotations from Robertson at the event are based on notes that I took at the time. I believe they accurately reflect the views he presented at the event, however I cannot guarantee they are word-for-word perfect renditions, as I do not have access to a transcript.

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.

Everyone is Right – Why Debating Religion is a Fool’s Game

I am increasingly coming to the view that religious debate, philosophy, and apologetics are little more than an elaborate game, and a tiresome one at that.

In my view, there are obviously both good arguments for, and good arguments against, the existence of God (and likewise for other similar issues). I fail to see how a great many ridiculously clever, thoughtful people can spend centuries going back and forth on an issue such as this unless there is some real controversy there – unless there are genuinely compelling reasons, and a plausible case to make, on both sides.

I challenge anyone to visit (for example) the Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy, pull up the page on any of the key philosophical theistic/atheistic arguments (cosmological, teleological, problem of evil – though not ontological, that one’s sort of a special case), read it, think about it, and then tell me with a straight face that there are is not a real issue here, that one side should clearly and decisively defeat the other upon consideration by any fair-minded, rational person. I make a similar challenge regarding my document concerning the resurrection appearances of Jesus: I challenge anyone to read it, think about it, and then tell me in all sincerity that I have not at least made a sufficiently plausible case such that it could be rationally believed by an informed, fair-minded person.

The trouble is that all of these arguments and questions are so complicated, so multi-faceted, and so interwoven with other related philosophical, scientific, psychological, and historical issues, that it is essentially impossible for any sufficiently well-read, clever person to be placed in a position where they feel compelled to significantly change their views. Such persons can almost always rationalise anything away by constructing some plausible-sounding justification, or by appealing to yet another aspect of the issue that their interlocutor (in their mind at least) just doesn’t understand or hasn’t thought about properly, or by delving yet deeper into the fractal subtlety of one particular point or argument. There can never be an end to the byzantine labyrinth of these discussions – there is always one more step to take, one more clarification or retort to make, one more line of rebuttal to give.

Speaking personally, I actually think I’m quite good at doing that: at arguing at such length with such persistence, making ever-finer logical and conceptual distinctions and clarifications with mind-numbing analytic pedantry, and employing a dose of pseudo-profound rhetoric and intellectualised sophistry, such that in the end my interlocutors, though seldom convinced, run out of things to say, or just decide that they have better things to do with their lives then continue talking to me about this (especially when to them I am quite clearly, if sometimes elusively, mistaken). Either that, or the debate is stopped in its tracks by an apparently unbridgeable chasm of some fundamental difference of underlying assumptions or values, for which no rational analysis seems possible. In both cases, it is not reason or evidence that wins the day, but rhetorical power, stubbornness, eloquence, and the sheer dogged tenacity to continually best one’s interlocutor by writing yet another blog post, facebook comment, or journal article.

It is my view that most people, atheists and theists alike, have very poor justification for their beliefs. But what difference does that really make when, even if we engage with the very best scholarship and literature on the issues and construct the very tightest, most plausible arguments possible, we are still left at a position of stalemate, where the rational belief is not uniquely determined by the reason or evidence? That’s not to say that theism/atheism are exactly equiprobable, or that the uniquely most rational position is agnosticism. Rather, what I’m saying is that there are wide range of rationally supportable positions ranging from atheism to strong theism, and including ‘strong agnosticism’ in the middle. Given that, what’s the point of all these fancy arguments? Why bother? Who really cares?

That’s what I mean about philosophy/apologetics being mostly a game: it is played in accordance with certain rules, it serves no real purpose other than to stay fit (mentally in this case) and have fun (though mostly people just get upset), and at the end of the day everyone goes home and forgets about it, coming back the next week rooting for the same team and going through all the same motions over again. Sometimes your team wins, and sometimes your team loses. Both teams get better over time: more prepared, more sophisticated, with better honed arguments. But at the end of the day, reason can’t tell you which team to support – you just pick one and stick by it.

The funny thing is that I can envision atheist and theist friends alike agreeing with my contention, though naturally drawing very different conclusions. The former may be inclined to say things like ‘I’ve been telling you all this religious stuff is a waste of time’ or ‘why don’t you spend your energies on something more useful or worthwhile’? The latter may be inclined to speak of the importance of personal experience/relationship with God/faith/etc over merely an intellectual engagement with these matters. Really, though, these sorts of responses exactly underscore my point: at the end of the day the decision to be religious or not is not primarily a rational one, as there are a wide diversity of rational positions. Rather, what it comes down to is our decision (which of course may be mostly or entirely unconscious) as to whether or not we desire to believe, or what we desire to believe in (I am strongly influenced by William James on this point).

So what is my takeaway after all this rambling? What do I think ought be done? Honestly, I really do not know. Disillusioned as I have become about the entire enterprise of religious philosophy/apologetics/etc, it is still nonetheless a game I feel compelled to play. It is one of the few things I actually seem to have an aptitude for, and it is something I feel drawn to do (feel free to interpret this through theistic, evolutionary, or Freudian perspectives in accordance with your preference). I still like to think it is a game worth playing, even though I see few good reasons for thinking so. Perhaps, in the end, it is all vanity, and vexation of spirit.

Is Conciliationism Self-defeating?

Synopsis

In this piece I argue that conciliationism, the position that in cases of peer disagreement we ought to moderate our beliefs between the extreme positions, is not self-defeating, or at least is not self-defeating in any way which undermines the argument for conciliationism. I provide three related arguments in support of this contention. First, I argue that the ‘self-defeating objection’ can be applied to the ‘self-defeating objection’ itself, such that if conciliation is self-defeating, then so is this critique of it. Second, I argue that many apparently very reasonable epistemic standards also can be potentially self-undermining in some circumstances, thus illustrating that this problem is a general one not specific to conciliationism. Third, I will argue that there are good reasons to think that difficulties arise generally from the attempt to recursively apply epistemic principles to themselves, and therefore treating such self-referential cases as special is not arbitrary, but perfectly justified.

Introduction to the Positions

Conciliationism is the position that, when faced with disagreement between two epistemic peers (persons of roughly equal knowledge, intelligence, free of bias, etc), the most rational response is to conciliate: that is, either suspend judgement, or otherwise adopt some sort of compromise position between the two extremes. The idea is that when there exists disagreement between epistemic peers, there exists no rational reason to prefer one position over the other, and hence the most justifiable response is to conciliate.

This position has been attacked has being self-undermining. The idea is that there exists peer disagreement about the topic of peer disagreement itself – some philosophers advocate conciliationism, whilst others advocate steadfastness. It would seem, therefore, that the conciliationist position would in this instance advocate suspension of judgement, or some sort of compromise between these two extremes. Thus the conciliationist’s own position leads them to adopt a less conciliatory position. In this way, so the argument goes, conciliationism is self-undermining.

The ‘Self-defeating Objection’ is Self-defeating

Let us suppose that we accept the critique as outlined above, and conclude that conciliationism is self-defeating. How should someone who was antecedently convinced of the superiority of the conciliationist view respond? On the one hand, it seems that since this critique undermines conciliationism, existing conciliationists should abandon the view, or at least substantially reduce the credence they place in it – that is, they should adopt or move toward steadfastness (or something similar). On the other hand, what would it mean for such persons to adopt steadfastness? In this context, it would mean nothing other than sticking with their original position, namely conciliationism.

We thus arrive at a contradiction: it seems that if we accept the ‘self-defeating’ argument, it follows that existing conciliationists should abandon conciliationism, and simultaneously continue to uphold it. By applying the ‘self-defeating’ refutation to itself, we thus find that the ‘self-defeating rebuttal’ is, by its own logic, self-defeating.

As I will argue later, I do not actually think this is a problem, because a great many epistemic positions encounter difficulties when applied to themselves. As such, I am not arguing that the refutation fails because it is self-defeating, since I do not think being self-defeating in this manner is necessarily a problem. Rather, I am arguing that because it is not necessarily a problem for an epistemic principle to be self-defeating, the ‘self-defeating refutation’ simply has no purchase in the first place – the fact that conciliationism is (in this sense) self-defeating does not, by itself, constitute a good argument against it.

Many Epistemic Standards are Potentially Self-defeating

It is relatively easy to construct examples of highly plausible epistemic principles which are nevertheless self-undermining in at least some circumstances. For example, consider the principle “don’t place too much confidence in any new idea that you come up with at 4am in the morning after having drunk six beers”. This principle, subject perhaps to minor caveats or rewording, surely seems quite reasonable. However, as the astute reader will immediately notice, it is also potentially self-undermining – what if someone came up with this very idea at 4am in the morning after having drunk six beers? It seems that under these circumstances, the principle says not to place much confidence in itself, and so is self-undermining.

Consider another (I think) very plausible epistemic principle: “don’t believe anything important said by a pathological liar and known con-artist”. But what if a pathological liar and con-artist were to tell you this? Again, it seems that in this case the principle would assert disbelief in itself, and would therefore be self-undermining. These cases (and many more like them which can easily be constructed), I think allow us to see that merely because an epistemic principle is sometimes self-undermining, it does not follow that the principle is invalid.

Treating Self-Reference Differently is not Special Pleading

Is it not arbitrary special-pleading to say that “we should conciliate about all beliefs except for conciliationism”? Is this a sensible position to take? Though it may seem so at first, I do not think this position is arbitrary special-pleading. Rather, as I have mentioned previously, I believe there is something intrinsically difficult about applying epistemic (or semantic) principles to themselves, and as such applying conciliationism to itself is marked out as being ‘special’, and hence treating it differently to other cases of disagreement is justified.

To see why this is the case, imagine a consumer reports magazine, which conducts product reviews of a wide range of consumer goods and makes recommendations to potential buyers. Imagine that our hypothetical magazine has developed over many years a strong reputation for impartiality and delivering careful, critical reviews of the consumer goods they examine. Now suppose that our magazine wanted to undertake a comparison and review of consumer reports magazines themselves. Suppose further that our magazine already knows a great deal about its competitor magazines and the sort of product reviews they write, so there is no chance of our magazine uncovering new information in the course of its review or of realizing that it had been ‘wrong’ about any of its past product recommendations.

In such a situation where our magazine wishes to stand by all their past product recommendations, the only reasonable outcome is for them to rank themselves as the top consumer reports magazine. To do otherwise would be to contradict themselves by asserting that they stand by all the particular recommendations and rankings they had made in the past, and simultaneously asserting that they think the rankings and recommendations of some other magazine are superior to their own.

The point to be made here, is that it does not make any sense for us, as loyal readers, to angrily demand that our magazine provide a more neutral, unbiased analysis of the best consumer affairs magazine, just as they do for all other products. For if they wish to stand by their own previous decisions (which we presume they do, for they believe they are justified), there is only one possible consistent magazine recommendation for them to make. This is not a case of special pleading on behalf of the magazine; the decision stems from the very nature and logic of applying criteria such as this to themselves.

Though the magazine case is only an analogy, I think it helps to illustrate the point that self-reference is an intrinsically tricky problem. It is not arbitrary or special-pleading to declare that certain philosophical principles or ideas may work differently when applied recursively to themselves. We can see another example of this broad point in the form of Tarski’s undefinability theorem, which (loosely speaking) says that arithmetic truth cannot be defined within the language of arithmetic, precisely because of this problem of the ability to formulate recursive self-contradictory statements such as “this statement is false” in the language of arithmetic.

I am not arguing that Tarski or the magazine case are exactly the same as what is happening in the case of conciliationism. Rather, I am using these cases as illustrative of the broader point, which is that strange things can easily happen when we apply certain epistemic or semantic ideas recursively to themselves, and that as such it is not arbitrary or special-pleading for a conciliationist to say something like “we should conciliate about every position except for conciliationism”.

Conclusion and Caveats

In this piece I have argued that conciliationism survives the ‘self-defeating’ critique. The key reason why this critique does not hold is because applying epistemic or semantic theories to themselves quite often leads to problematic or potentially self-undermining consequences. I illustrated this broad problem by a number of examples, including the very ‘self-defeating critique’ itself. The problem lies not with conciliationism as a position; the problem lies with self-reference much more broadly. As a result of these considerations, the self-defeating critique of conciliationism fails.

Notwithstanding my arguments here, I do actually think that the presence of peer disagreement about the question of peer disagreement should make both conciliationists and steadfasters less confident in their respective positions – peer disagreement does still matter when applied to itself. I do not, however, think the degree of conciliation need or ought be as great as I would ordinarily advocate for other questions, because as I have argued, things get ‘tricky’ when applying such concepts to themselves. Since this principle applies broadly across many epistemic theories, I do not think it is arbitrary or special pleading for a conciliationist not to conciliate about conciliationism as much as they would ordinarily conciliate on other questions.

What Christians Disagree About

Synopsis

Some claim that all Christians agree on the ‘important matters’, or something similar. I think this position is only defensible if one is willing to admit that none of the matters outlined below, and a good deal more that are not included here, are deemed to be not ‘important’. Alternatively, one may wish to dub all those who hold contradictory views on some or all of these matters as not being Christians, in which cause it seems that one must be willing to judge a very large fraction of Protestants and Catholics alike, not to mention the various branches of Orthodoxy, to to be non-Christian. I find both of these alternatives to be implausible and very hard to cogently defend. I also think the large degree of disagreement on so many fundamental matters constitutes a serious objection to the notion that Christianity provides a clear and coherent ‘explanation’ for life, the universe, the human condition, etc. For instance, Christians might agree that “mankind is saved from sin through the grace of Christ”, but if there is little agreement what is actually meant by “saved”, “sin”, “grace”, and even what exactly is the nature of “Christ”, then it seems to me that very little explanation of any substance has been provided.

Some things that many intelligent, informed, and apparently faithful Christians disagree about:

The Bible

Which books are the word of God

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Biblical_canon#Canons_of_various_Christian_traditions

The degree to which the bible is completely correct or trustworthy

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Biblical_inerrancy

The degree to which the meaning of scripture is clear

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Clarity_of_scripture

Salvation

The manner by which the atonement of Christ reconciles man to God

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Atonement_in_Christianity

Whether the atonement is limited or unlimited in scope

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Limited_atonement

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Unlimited_atonement

Whether salvation by God is conditional on any act of human will

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Conditional_election

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Unconditional_election

Whether salvation is by faith alone or grace alone, and how these two concepts are related

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sola_gratia

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sola_fide

Other Doctrinal Issues

The necessity, purpose, and proper mode of baptism

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Baptism#Comparative_summary

The nature of Christ

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Christology#Post-Apostolic_controversies

The possibility and nature of Christian apostasy

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Perseverance_of_the_saints

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Conditional_preservation_of_the_saints

Whether all events are predestined by God and how this fits with human free will

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Predestination

What will happen at the ‘end times’

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Summary_of_Christian_eschatological_differences

The nature of hell

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Christian_views_on_Hell

Whether all souls are immortal or the wicked will cease to exist

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Conditional_immortality

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Annihilationism

Creation and the Fall

The meaning of the Creation account in Genesis

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Creationism#Types_of_creationism

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Framework_interpretation_%28Genesis%29

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Allegorical_interpretations_of_Genesis

The degree to which and manner by which humanity inherits the guilt of Adam’s sin

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Original_sin#Denominational_views

Church and Worshiop

The nature, functions, and proper governance of the Christian church

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ecclesiology

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Invisible_church

The appropriate modes of worship

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Regulative_principle_of_worship

The relationship between the ‘Old’ and ‘New’ Covenants

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Christian_views_on_the_old_covenant

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Supersessionism

Ethical Matters

Whether the bible supports or opposes slavery

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Slavery_and_Christianity#Christianity.27s_changing_view

God’s position on the morality of homosexuality

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Christian_views_on_homosexuality

God’s position the morality of abortion

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Christianity_and_abortion#Protestant_denominations

 

The Probability that God Exists is 10%

Synopsis

Consider the proposition “some sort of deistic or theistic God exists”, where “God” need not necessarily be a personal God, but is understood to be more than a transcendent spirit or panentheistic notion of ‘God as nature’. What is my level of confidence that this proposition is true? My best estimate is on the order of 10%. In this piece I will explain how I arrived at this figure, and why I think it is the most reasonable rough indication of humanity’s current state of knowledge on the matter.

Framework

When I say that “the probability that God exists is about 10%”, this should be understood within a (loosely) Bayesian framework. In other words, the probability figure is an expression of one’s confidence in the proposition; a statement about how much we know and how much we don’t know. I am not saying God exists in 1 in 10 possible universes, or that the existence of God is literally a random event that would occur one time out of every ten. Many people think that God’s existence is necessary, meaning that if God exists, he necessarily exists – there is no possible way he could have failed to exist. Perhaps that is true, but the question is, how confident can we be that it is true? Unless we assume that all our thoughts and reasoning regarding necessary beings (or similar entities) is infallible, it seems at least possible (perhaps likely) that we could falsely come to believe that something necessarily exists. My probability estimate is thus designed to capture these effects of uncertainty. As such, I do not think it is inconsistent with arguments about the necessary existence of God.

Why 10%?

The particular figure of 10% is fundamentally derived from an excellent survey on philpapers (http://philpapers.org/surveys/), which shows that about 15% of philosophers believe in God, while 73% are atheists. These results are broadly comparable to surveys of scientists, which indicate that something like 30% of scientists believe in God (http://www.pewforum.org/2009/11/05/scientists-and-belief/, http://epiphenom.fieldofscience.com/2009/05/psychologists-are-least-religious-of.html). I have adjusted these percentages down slightly for several reasons. Firstly, these surveys (in particular the Philpapers survey) are disproportionately of American and British philosophers and scientists. Levels of religious belief are substantially higher in the US than in many continental European and Asian countries, for which we do not have comparable data (scroll down to the bottom of this page http://philpapers.org/surveys/linear_most_with.pl?A=main%3AGod%3Atheism for some interesting data though – American philosophers are much more religious than their continental counterparts). I think that ideally we should consult a representative survey of thinkers and scientists from across the globe, and that if we had these figures, we would find (for example) significantly lower levels of belief among intellectuals in continental Europe and China. Absent such figures, I have made a downward adjustment from 30% or 15% to about 10%. Secondly, levels of religious belief are lower for more prestigious scientists (http://www.stephenjaygould.org/ctrl/news/file002.html), which it seems reasonable to believe correlates at least somewhat with intelligence and careful thinking. Certainly the correlation would be far from perfect, but it seems very plausible that there is at least some positive relationship between knowledge and ability, and the likelihood of holding a carefully considered, informed opinion on this matter.

Why Trust Experts?

Many people, especially theists, will take objection to my approach here. They will question the validity of polling experts as a method of determining the state of knowledge. Truth, so they say, is not a popularity contest. I think, however, that such objections miss the point of this sort of analysis. The fundamental problem is that the arguments and evidence for God’s existence is equivocal. Some people are convinced by them, and some are not. What then should we conclude? Should we simply assume that our subjective analysis of the evidence and arguments is definitive? Should we place ourselves in the position of being ultimate arbiters of truth? “Its compelling to me, therefore it is probably true” is not a reliable way of arriving at accurate beliefs, as we know that most people (even informed people) arrive at many false philosophical and religious beliefs through this method. What we need is some more ‘objective’, more reliable method of analyzing the strength of evidence and the quality of arguments. I propose that the best method we have for this is to take a representative sample of intelligent people who are sufficiently well informed about the evidence and arguments, and determine what proportion of these people find the arguments convincing. If only 30% of informed people find an argument (or set of arguments) compelling, then it seems that this argument is not sufficiently conclusive for one to believe with high confidence. We use this sort of reasoning all the time – if only four or five of the twelve jurors think that that evidence is sufficient to warrant a guilty verdict, then we judge that the evidence is not strong enough for conviction, even though some people think that it is. We weight across many people, in the hope that this will produce a more accurate evaluation of the evidence than would a single person alone.

My fundamental argument here, and I cannot emphasise this strongly enough, is that the mere fact that an opinion is your own does not make it more likely to be true. In other words, if only one out of on hundred informed experts believed a certain fact to be true (and let’s assume there’s no evidence of a conspiracy or the like), then we should be pretty confident that the 99 are right and the one is wrong – even if that one lone expert happens to be you! Unless that lone expert has some very, very compelling reason to think their opinion is privileged (e.g. maybe they have access to a secret document no one else does), this expert should admit that, despite how convincing the case feels to them, it is unreasonable for them to place their own judgment above that of their 99 peers.

Few people like this idea (“truth isn’t a democracy!”), but I ask how one can possibly justify giving one’s own views epistemic privilege? It is good arguments and quality evidence that are indicative of truth, and the way we attempt to track which arguments are good and which evidence is sufficient is by seeing what proportion of informed persons find them to be so. Obviously there are problems here with cultural presuppositions, biased selection, institutional barriers, etc, but I think it is hard to argue that these problems are greater when we take the average opinions of a large group of people than when we simply considering a single individual’s opinion, with all their unique biases and quirks. Crucially, this argument applies even if that individual happens to be you. Obviously we have direct, immediate access to our own opinions, something we do not have for the opinions of others (though the depth of our insight into our own reasoning processes is quite limited – see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Introspection_illusion). Nevertheless, it is not clear why this more immediate access should mean that our own opinions are more likely to be true. Accessibility does not imply truth. It simply means that the ideas and opinions feel more compelling to us, regardless of whether they are right or wrong.

Thus, I think this method of ‘averaging experts’ is the best (albeit imperfect) method we have for trying to determine how the evidence stands on complex and difficult questions like the existence of God. Theists may accuse me of constructing an elaborate justification for a method which ultimately confirms my own bias (since I am an atheist), however I would argue that this method actually yields a much higher probability for God’s existence (10%) than most atheists would generally admit to or feel comfortable with. Thus I think that the confirmation bias argument is at leas, somewhat less plausible than it may initially seem.

Philosophers of Religion

One challenge to my argument derives from the observation that, of philosophers who specialise in ‘Philosophy of Religion’, 72% are theists, compared to the 15% base rate for philosophers in general. This seems potentially to be evidence that, of philosophers who focus specifically on examining the arguments for and against theism, and various relevant philosophical problems, a considerable majority come to be believe in God. There is, however, an obvious problem of causation here. Do philosophically-minded people who are also religious tend to disproportionately specialize in philosophy of religion (so that belief leads to this specialization), or do specialists in philosophy of religion initially more-or-less resemble other philosophers, but later become theists as a result of their exposure to the strong arguments in its favour? Although it is very difficult to say, I think there are good reasons to think that the former explanation plays the dominant role here.

First, it is important to understand that philosophers can select more than one area of specialization for the survey. Most philosophers (if you browse their profiles) have more than one specialization listed, as their work spans a number of different areas. It seems very likely to me that already-religious philosophers are more likely to include ‘Philosophy of Religion’ on their list of specializations, as (regardless of whatever other work they may do), they also have an interest in these matters, precisely because they are religious. Atheistic philosophers are much less likely to do this, resulting in a significant inflation of the relative number of religious philosophers listing ‘philosophy of religion’ as a specialization.

Second, the difference between specialists and non-specialists on the question of theism is very large, far larger than any other such differences. The difference in percentage of theists between specialists and non-specialists in the philosophy of religion is 56%. The next biggest gap is 30% on a rather esoteric question in decision theory, followed by 23% for the B-theory of time. Most specialization effects are much smaller, on the order of 5%-10% or so (see http://philpapers.org/bbs/thread.pl?tId=426). If specialization allows philosophers to focus on the specific arguments surrounding a particular issue and hence arrive at a more reliable, better informed viewpoint than their non-specialist colleagues, it seems that this should apply to a broad number of questions. Perhaps not every question, but still a good number of them. Instead what we see is that the effect is generally fairly small for most questions, and for religion in particular it is dramatically larger (almost twice the size of the second-biggest effect size). I think this is most plausibly explained by the fact that much fewer people specialize in (say) philosophy of time because of a pre-committment to the B-theory of time, whereas that is a real and significant factor in the choice of philosophers to specialise in philosophy of religion.

Third, I made an effort to actually discover whether particular philosophers who list themselves as specialising in philosophy of religion came from a religious background, or whether they converted later as a result of exposure to philosophical arguments. Naturally, there is no direct data on this. What I did was to browse through philosopher’s bio pages on the philpapers website, looking for those who listed ‘philosophy of religion’ under their ‘area of specialization’. I then googled their names to find any information available about their religious background. I found 15 scholars with philpapers bios who both specialised in philosophy of religion and also had a stated position (i.e. those who responded to the survey and made their responses public). This may sound low, but remember that only 47 philosophers in total described themselves as specialising in philosophy of religion (http://philpapers.org/surveys/results.pl?affil=Target+faculty&areas0=22&areas_max=1&grain=coarse). Of these 15, all were theists. I could only find background information on about half of them, but all those I could find information on seem to have been raised as Christians. My methodology here is subject to question, as no one explicitly mentions their upbringing. Instead, I used attendance at a theological seminary or religious college, or completion of a theology degree, as proxies indicating probable pre-existing religious belief. I have included a table of all the scholars I evaluated below. My conclusion from this analysis is that the data are most consistent with the hypothesis that philosophically-minded Christians selectively choose to specialise in philosophy of religion, rather than existing philosophers of religion being led to belief on the basis of the quality of the arguments.

Name Position Background
Garrett DeWeese Theist Dallas Theological Seminary before PhD
Daniel von Wachter Theist Intermediate Exam in Protestant Theology before PhD
Tyler Dalton McNabb Theist B.A. Biblical Studies before PhD
C’zar Bernstein Theist No info
Mark T. Nelson Theist No info
Ben McLean Theist RLDS member, seems for some time
John M. DePoe Theist B.A. Philosophy and Theology
Jonathan Fuqua Theist No info
Kenneth L Pearce Theist No info
Ben Arbour Theist Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary before PhD
Patrick Toner Theist BA from Franciscan University of Steubenville
Lincoln Stevens Theist BA from Asbury University, Christian liberal arts college
Christopher M. P. Tomaszewski Theist Attended S. Charles Borromeo Seminary before MA
Andrea Ciceri Theist No info
David McNaughton Theist No info

Past Experts

Some have raised the question of why only current experts should be counted. There seems no particular reason why great thinkers of the past should not also have their opinions included in the analysis, and were we to do this we would find the proportion of theists considerably higher than we do currently. I have a few things to say on this matter. First, obviously we do not have the data for past thinkers, so we cannot readily include it in our analysis. Even if we do know the likely direction such an inclusion would have on the probability, we don’t know the magnitude. Second, it must be remembered that history is long and intellectual thought diverse. Many ancient Greek thinkers, and arguably also many Buddhist and other non-western philosophers, would not count as theists in anything resembling the usual modern understanding of the term. In other words, if we are thinking of including past thinkers we cannot restrict ourselves only to medieval and enlightenment thinkers from Europe and the Middle East. Third, it must be remembered that although the proportion of thinkers who were religious in the past was higher, there were also many fewer of them than there are today, meaning that including them in the overall average would have less of an effect than one may naively imagine. Fourth, if one is to include past thinkers, it seems reasonable to include future thinkers as well. Obviously we have even less data on what they believe, but it seems at least plausible that belief in God will continue to remain at relatively low levels. Maybe I am wrong about this, but my point is that if we are to imagine what including thinkers from the next 20 or 40 years would do to the average belief in God, it seems most likely that the percentage would fall. This mitigates, to some extent perhaps, the upward affect of including figures from the past.

Conclusion

My argument here is that the degree of confidence one can place in the claim “God exists” is approximately 10%. Error bars are wide here, so I think one could quite justifiably argue for figures of 20 or maybe 30 percent, or for 5% or less. What I would say, however, is that figures that are ‘dramatically different’ from 10%, say something like 0.5% or 95%, are difficult to justify. I just do not think the degree of honest, intelligent disagreement about these matters merits such strong claims. I also think that theists should take this evidence seriously. The plain fact is that a large majority of philosophers do not believe in God. This obviously is not decisive proof of God’s non-existence (10% is hardly decisive), but it is, I think, more than enough to ‘sit up and take notice’. I think it should lead theists to seriously and critically re-evaluate the strength of their convictions, beliefs which rest ultimately on philosophical positions (even if one thinks that God reveals himself directly to people, that is actually a belief that has very particular philosophical underpinnings and implications). If a theist believes that they have a ‘killer argument’ that allows them to fairly easily and quickly dismiss the majority opinion of philosophers – people who think long and hard about these sorts of questions – I think it is very unlikely indeed that such a retort has not already been advanced (probably in a much more sophisticated form) by some past or present philosopher (for example, if you think belief is primarily a matter of faith and not reason, that is a heavily contested philosophical position called Fideism). The point is, whatever a theist may say about why they believe, their belief system rests upon certain philosophical notions or presuppositions. It is unavoidable. Given that the group of people in the best position to consider the relative merits of these sorts of ideas generally are not religious, I think that is strong reason for the theist to critically re-consider how genuinely confident they can and should be about their religious beliefs.

 

 

 

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.