Effective Altruism is an Ideology, not (just) a Question

Introduction

In a widely-cited article on the EA forum, Helen Toner argues that effective altruism is a question, not an ideology. Here is her core argument:

What is the definition of Effective Altruism? What claims does it make? What do you have to believe or do, to be an Effective Altruist?

I don’t think that any of these questions make sense.

It’s not surprising that we ask them: if you asked those questions about feminism or secularism, Islamism or libertarianism, the answers you would get would be relevant and illuminating. Different proponents of the same movement might give you slightly different answers, but synthesising the answers of several people would give you a pretty good feeling for the core of the movement.

But each of these movements is answering a question. Should men and women be equal? (Yes.) What role should the church play in governance? (None.) What kind of government should we have? (One based on Islamic law.) How big a role should government play in people’s private lives? (A small one.)

Effective Altruism isn’t like this. Effective Altruism is asking a question, something like:

“How can I do the most good, with the resources available to me?”

In this essay I will argue that his view of effective altruism being a question and not an ideology is incorrect. In particular, I will argue that effective altruism is an ideology, meaning that it has particular (if somewhat vaguely defined) set of core principles and beliefs, and associated ways of viewing the world and interpreting evidence. After first explaining what I mean by ideology, I proceed to discuss the ways in which effective altruists typically express their ideology, including by privileging certain questions over others, applying particular theoretical frameworks to answer these questions, and privileging particular answers and viewpoints over others. I should emphasise at the outset that my purpose in this article is not to disparage effective altruism, but to try to strengthen the movement by helping EAs to better understand the intellectual actual intellectual underpinnings of the movement.

What is an ideology?

The first point I want to explain is what I mean when I talk about an ‘ideology’. Basically, an ideology is a constellation of beliefs and perspectives that shape the way adherents of that ideology view the world. To flesh this out a bit, I will present two examples of ideologies: feminism and libertarianism. Obviously these will be simplified since there is considerable heterogeneity within any ideology, and there are always disputes about who counts as a ‘true’ adherent of any ideology. Nevertheless, I think these quick sketches are broadly accurate and helpful for illustrating what I am talking about when I use the word ‘ideology’.

First consider feminism. Feminists typically begin with the premise that the social world is structured in such a manner that men as a group systematically oppress women as a group. There is a richly structured theory about how this works and how this interacts with different social institutions, including the family, the economy, the justice system, education, health care, and so on. In investigating any area, feminists typically focus on gendered power structures and how they shape social outcomes. When something happens, feminists ask ‘what affect does this have on the status and place of women in society?’ Given these perspectives, feminists typically are uninterested in and highly sceptical of any accounts of social differences between men and women based on biological differences, or attempts to rationalist differences on the basis of social stability or cohesion. This way of looking at things, focus on particular issues at the expense of others, and set of underlying assumptions constitutes the ideology of feminism.

Second consider libertarianism. Libertarians typically begin with the idea that individuals are fundamentally free and equal, but that governments throughout the world systematically step beyond their legitimate role of protecting individual freedoms by restricting those freedoms and violating individual rights. In analysing any situation, libertarians focus on how the actions of governments limit the free choices of individuals. Libertarians have extensive accounts as to how this occurs through taxation, government welfare programs, monetary and fiscal policy, the criminal justice system, state-sponsored education, the military industrial complex, and so on. When something happens, libertarians ask ‘what affect does this have on individual rights and freedoms?’ Given these perspectives, libertarians typically are uninterested in and highly sceptical of any attempts to justify state intervention on the basis of increases in efficiency, increasing equality, or improving social cohesion. This way of looking at things, focus on particular issues at the expense of others, and set of underlying assumptions constitutes the ideology of libertarianism.

Given the foregoing, here I summarise some of the key aspects of an ideology:

  1. Some questions are privileged over others.
  2. There are particular theoretical frameworks for answering questions and analysing situations.
  3. As a result of 1 and 2, certain viewpoints and answers to questions are privileged, while others are neglected as being uninteresting or implausible.

With this framework in mind of what an ideology is, I now want to apply this to the case of effective altruism. In doing so, I will consider each of these three aspects of an ideology in turn, and see how they relate to effective altruism.

Some questions are privileged over others

Effective altruism, according to Toner (and many others), asks a question something like ‘How can I do the most good, with the resources available to me?’. I agree that EA does indeed ask this question. However it doesn’t follow that EA isn’t an ideology, since as we have just seen, ideologies privilege some questions over others. In this case we can ask – what other similar questions could effective altruism ask? Here are a few that come to mind:

  • What moral duties do we have towards people in absolute poverty, animals in factory farms, or future generations?
  • What would a virtuous person do to help those in absolute poverty, animals in factory farms, or future generations?
  • What oppressive social systems are responsible for the most suffering in the world, and what can be done to dismantle them?
  • How should our social and political institutions be structured so as to properly represent the interests of all persons, or all sentient creatures?

I’ve written each with a different ethical theory in mind. In order these are: deontology, virtue ethics, Marxist/postcolonial/other critical theories, and contractarian ethics. While some readers may phrase these questions somewhat differently, my point is simply to emphasise that the question you ask depends upon your ideology.

Some EAs may be tempted to respond that all my examples are just different ways, or more specific ways, of asking the EA question ‘how can we do the most good’, but I think this is simply wrong. The EA question is the sort of question that a utilitarian would ask, and presupposes certain assumptions that are not shared by other ethical perspectives. These assumptions include things like: there is (in principle) some way of comparing the value of different causes, that it is of central importance to consider maximising the positive consequences of our actions, and that historical connections between us and those we might try to help are not of critical moral relevance in determining how to act. EAs asking this question need not necessarily explicitly believe all these assumptions, but I argue that in asking the EA question instead of other questions they could ask, they are implicitly relying upon tacit acceptance of these assumptions. To assert that these are beliefs shared by all other ideological frameworks is to simply ignore the differences between different ethical theories and the worldviews associated with them.

Particular theoretical frameworks are applied

In addition to the questions they ask, effective altruists tend to have a very particular approach to answering these questions. In particular, they tend to rely almost exclusively on experimental evidence, mathematical modelling, or highly abstract philosophical arguments. Other theoretical frameworks are generally not taken very seriously or simply ignored. Theoretical approaches that EAs tend to ignore include:

  • Sociological theory: potentially relevant to understanding causes of global poverty, how group dynamics operates and how social change occurs.
  • Ethnography: potentially highly useful in understanding causes of poverty, efficacy of interventions, how people make dietary choices regarding meat eating, the development of cultural norms in government or research organisations surrounding safety of new technologies, and other such questions, yet I have never heard of an EA organisation conducting this sort of analysis.
  • Phenomenology and existentialism: potentially relevant to determining the value of different types of life and what sort of society we should focus on creating.
  • Historical case studies: there is some use of these in the study of existential risk, mostly relating to nuclear war, but mostly this method is ignored as a potential source of information about social movements, improving society, and assessing the risk of catastrophic risks.
  • Regression analysis: potentially highly useful for analysing effective causes in global development, methods of political reform, or even the ability to influence AI or nuclear policy formation, but largely neglected in favour of either experiments or abstract theorising.

If readers disagree with my analysis, I would invite them to investigate the work published on EA websites, particularly research organisations like the Future of Humanity Institute and the Global Priorities Institute (among many others), and see what sorts of methodologies they utilise. Regression analysis and historical case studies are relatively rare, and the other three techniques I mention are virtually unheard of. This represents a very particular set of methodological choices about how to best go about answering the core EA question of how to do the most good.

Note that I am not taking a position on whether it is correct to privilege the types of evidence or methodologies that EA typically does. Rather, my point is simply that effective altruists seem to have very strong norms about what sorts of analysis is worthwhile doing, despite the fact that relatively little time is spent in the community discussing these issues. GiveWell does have a short discussion of their principles for assessing evidence, and there is a short section in the appendix of the GPI research agenda about harnessing and combining evidence, but overall the amount of time spent discussing these issues in the EA community is very small. I therefore content that these methodological choices are primarily the result of ideological preconceptions about how to go about answering questions, and not an extensive analysis of the pros and cons of different techniques.

Certain viewpoints and answers are privileged

Ostensibly, effective altruism seeks to answer the question ‘how to do the most good’ in a rigorous but open-minded way, without making ruling out any possibilities at the outset or making assumptions about what is effective without proper investigation. It seems to me, however, that this is simply not an accurate description of how the movement actually investigates causes. In practise, the movement seems heavily focused on the development and impacts of emerging technologies. Though not so pertinent in the case of global poverty, this is somewhat applicable in the case of animal welfare, given the increasing focus on the development of in vitro meat and plant-based meat substitutes. This technological focus is most evident in the focus on far future causes, since all of the main far future cause areas focused on by 80,000 hours and other key organisations (nuclear weapons, artificial intelligence, biosecurity, and nanotechnology) relate to new and emerging technologies. EA discussions also commonly feature discussion and speculation about the effects that anti-aging treatments, artificial intelligence, space travel, nanotechnology, and other speculative technologies are likely to have on human society in the long term future.

By itself the fact that EAs are highly focused on new technologies doesn’t prove that they privilege certain viewpoints and answers over others – maybe a wide range of potential cause areas have been considered, and many of the most promising causes just happen to relate to emerging technologies. However, from my perspective this does not appear to be the case. As evidence for this view, I will present as an illustration the common EA argument for focusing on AI safety, and then show that much the same argument could also be used to justify work on several other cause areas that have attracted essentially no attention from the EA community.

We can summarise the EA case for working on AI safety as follows, based on articles such as those from 80,000 hours and CEA (note this is an argument sketch and not a fully-fledged syllogism):

  • Most AI experts believe that AI with superhuman intelligence is certainly possible, and has nontrivial probability of arriving within the next few decades.
  • Many experts who have considered the problem have advanced plausible arguments for thinking that superhuman AI has the potential for highly negative outcomes (potentially even human extinction), but there are current actions we can take to reduce these risks.
  • Work on reducing the risks associated with superhuman AI is highly neglected.
  • Therefore, the expected impact of working on reducing AI risks is very high.

The three key aspects of this argument are expert belief in plausibility of the problem, very large impact of the problem if it does occur, and the problem being substantively neglected. My argument is that we can adapt this argument to make parallel arguments for other cause areas. I shall present three: overthrowing global capitalism, philosophy of religion, and resource depletion.

Overthrowing global capitalism

  • Many experts on politics and sociology believe that the institutions of global capitalism are responsible for extremely large amounts of suffering, oppression, and exploitation throughout the world.
  • Although there is much work criticising capitalism, work on devising and implementing practical alternatives to global capitalism is highly neglected.
  • Therefore, the expected impact of working on devising and implementing alternatives to global capitalism is very high.

Philosophy of religion

  • A sizeable minority of philosophers believe in the existence of God, and there are at least some very intelligent and educated philosophers are adherents of a wide range of different religions.
  • According to many religions, humans who do not adopt the correct beliefs and/or practices will be destined to an eternity (or at least a very long period) of suffering in this life or the next.
  • Although religious institutions have extensive resources, the amount of time and money dedicated to systematically analysing the evidence and arguments for and against different religious traditions is extremely small.
  • Therefore, the expected impact of working on investigating the evidence and arguments for the various religious is very high.

Resource depletion

  • Many scientists have expressed serious concern about the likely disastrous effects of population growth, ecological degradation, and resource depletion on the wellbeing of future generations and even the sustainability of human civilization as a whole.
  • Very little work has been conducted to determine how best to respond to resource depletion or degradation of the ecosystem so as to ensure that Earth remains inhabitable and human civilization is sustainable over the very long term.
  • Therefore, the expected impact of working on investigating long-term responses to resource depletion and ecological collapse is very high.

Readers may dispute the precise way I have formulated each of these arguments or exactly how closely they all parallel the case for AI safety, however I hope they will see the basic point I am trying to drive at. Specifically, if effective altruists are focused on AI safety essentially because of expert belief in plausibility, large scope of the problem, and neglectedness of the issue, a similar case can be made with respect to working on overthrowing global capitalism, conducting research to determine which religious belief (if any) is most likely to be correct, and efforts to develop and implement responses to resource depletion and ecological collapse.

One response that I foresee is that none of these causes are really neglected because there are plenty of people focused on overthrowing capitalism, researching religion, and working on environmentalist causes, while very few people work on AI safety. But remember, outsiders would likely say that AI safety is not really neglected because billions of dollars are invested into AI research by academics and tech companies around the world. The point is that there is a difference between working in a general area and working on the specific subset of that area that is highest impact and most neglected. In much the same way as AI safety research is neglected even if AI research more generally is not, likewise in the parallel cases I present, I argue that serious evidence-based research into the specific questions I present is highly neglected, even if the broader areas are not.

Potential alternative causes are neglected

I suspect that at this point many of my readers will at this point be mentally marshaling additional arguments as to why AI safety research is in fact a more worthy cause than the other three I have mentioned. Doubtless there are many such arguments that one could present, and probably I could devise counterarguments to at least some of them – and so the debate would progress. My point is not that the candidate causes I have presented actually are good causes for EAs to work on, or that there aren’t any good reasons why AI safety (along with other emerging technologies) is a better cause. My point is rather that these reasons are not generally discussed by EAs. That is, the arguments generally presented for focusing on AI safety as a cause area do not uniquely pick out AI safety (and other emerging technologies like nanotechnology or bioengineered pathogens), but EAs making the case for AI safety essentially never notice this because their ideological preconceptions bias them towards focusing on new technologies, and away from the sorts of causes I mention here. Of course EAs do go into much more detail about the risks of new technologies than I have here, but the core argument for focusing in AI safety in the first place is not applied to other potential cause areas to see if (as I think it does) it could also apply to those other causes.

Furthermore, it is not as if effective altruists have carefully considered these possible cause areas and come to the reasoned conclusion that they are not the highest priorities. Rather, they have simply not been considered. They have not even been on the radar, or at best barely on the radar. For example, I searched for ‘resource depletion’ on the EA forums and found nothing. I searched for ‘religion’ and found only the EA demographics survey and an article about whether EA and religious organisations can cooperate. A search for ‘socialism’ yielded one article discussing what is meant by ‘systemic change’, and one article (with no comments and only three upvotes) explicitly outlining an effective altruist plan for socialism.

This lack of interest in other cause areas can also be found in the major EA organisations. For example, the stated objective of the global priorities institute is:

To conduct foundational research that informs the decision-making of individuals and institutions seeking to do as much good as possible. We prioritise topics which are important, neglected, and tractable, and use the tools of multiple disciplines, especially philosophy and economics, to explore the issues at stake.

On the face of it this aim is consistent with all three of the suggested alternative cause areas I outlined in the previous section. Yet the GPI research agenda focuses almost entirely on technical issues in philosophy and economics pertaining to the long-termism paradigm. While AI safety is not discussed extensively it is mentioned a number of times, and much of the research agenda appears to be developed around related questions in philosophy and economics that the long-termism paradigm gives rise to. Religion and socialism are not mentioned at all in this document, while resource depletion is only mentioned indirectly by two references in the appendix under ‘indices involving environmental capital’.

Similarly the Future of Humanity Institute focuses on AI safety, AI governance, and biotechnology. Strangely, it also pursues some work on highly obscure topics such as the aestivation solution to the Fermi paradox and on the probability of Earth being destroyed by microscopic black holes or metastable vacuum states. At the same time, nothing about any of the potential new problem areas I have mentioned.

Under their problem profiles, 80,000 hours does not mention having investigated anything relating to religion or overthrowing global capitalism (or even substantially reforming global economic institutions). They do link to an article by Robert Wiblin discussing why EAs do not work on resource scarcity, however this is not a careful analysis or investigation, just his general views on the topic. Although I agree with some of the arguments he makes, the depth of analysis is very shallow relative to the potential risks and concern raised about this issue by many scientists and writers over the decades. Indeed, I would argue that there is about as much substance in this article as a rebuttal of resource depletion as a cause area as one finds in the typical article dismissing AI fears as exaggerated and hysterical.

In yet another example, the Foundational Research Institute states that:

Our mission is to identify cooperative and effective strategies to reduce involuntary suffering. We believe that in a complex world where the long-run consequences of our actions are highly uncertain, such an undertaking requires foundational research. Currently, our research focuses on reducing risks of dystopian futures in the context of emerging technologies. Together with others in the effective altruism community, we want careful ethical reflection to guide the future of our civilization to the greatest extent possible.

Hence, even though it seems that in principle socialists, Buddhists, and ecological activists (among others) are highly concerned about reducing the suffering of humans and animals, FRI ignores the topics that these groups would tend to focus on, and instead focuses their attention on the risks of emerging technologies. As in the case of FHI, they also seem to find room for some topics of highly dubious relevance to any of EAs goals, such as this paper about the potential for correlated actions with civilizations located elsewhere in the multiverse.

Outside of the main organisations, there has been some discussion about socialism as an EA cause, for example on r/EffectiveAltruism and by Jeff Kaufman. I was able to find little else about either of the two potential cause areas I outline.

Overall, on the basis of the foregoing examples I conclude that the amount of time and energy spent by the EA community investigating the three potential new cause areas that I have discussed is negligible compared to the time and energy spent investigating emerging technologies. This is despite the fact that most of these groups are not ostensibly established with the express purpose of reducing the harms of emerging technologies, but have simply chosen this cause area over other possibilities would that also potentially fulfill their broad objectives. I have not found any evidence that this choice is the result of early investigations demonstrating that emerging technologies are far superior to the cause areas I mention. Instead, it appears to be mostly the result of disinterest in the sorts of topics I identify, and a much greater ex ante interest in emerging technologies over other causes. I present this as evidence that the primary reason effective altruism focuses so extensively on emerging technologies over other speculative but potentially high impact causes, is because of the privileging of certain viewpoints and answers over others. This, in turn, is the result of the underlying ideological commitments of many effective altruists.

What is EA ideology?

If many effective altruists share a common ideology, then what is the content of this ideology? As with any social movement, this is difficult to specify with any precision and will obviously differ somewhat from person to person and from one organisation to another. That said, on the basis of my research and experiences in the movement, I would suggest the following core tenets of EA ideology:

  1. The natural world is all that exists, or at least all that should be of concern to us when deciding how to act. In particular, most EAs are highly dismissive of religious or other non-naturalistic worldviews, and tend to just assume without further discussion that views like dualism, reincarnation, or theism cannot be true. For example, the map of EA concepts has listed under ‘important general features of the world’ pages on ‘possibility of an infinite universe’ and ‘the simulation argument’, yet no mention of the possibility that anything could exist beyond the natural world. It requires a very particular ideological framework to regard the simulation as is more important or pressing than non-naturalism.
  2. The correct way to think about moral/ethical questions is through a utilitarian lens in which the focus is on maximising desired outcomes and minimising undesirable ones. We should focus on the effect of our actions on the margin, relative to the most likely counterfactual. There is some discussion of moral uncertainty, but outside of this deontological, virtue ethics, contractarian, and other approaches are rarely applied in philosophical discussion of EA issues. This marginalist, counterfactual, optimisation-based way of thinking is largely borrowed from neoclassical economics, and is not widely employed by many other disciplines or ideological perspectives (e.g. communitarianism).
  3. Rational behaviour is best understood through a Bayesian framework, incorporating key results from game theory, decision theory, and other formal approaches. Many of these concepts appear in the idealised decision making section of the map of EA concepts, and are widely applied in other EA writings.
  4. The best way to approach a problem is to think very abstractly about that problem, construct computational or mathematical models of the relevant problem area, and ultimately (if possible) test these models using experiments. The model appears to be of how research is approached in physics with some influence from analytic philosophy. The methodologies of other disciplines are largely ignored.
  5. The development and introduction of disruptive new technologies is a more fundamental and important driver of long-term change than socio-political reform or institutional change. This is clear from the overwhelming focus on technological change of top EA organisations, including 80,000 hours, the Center for Effective Altruism, the Future of Humanity Institute, the Global Priorities Project, the Future of Life Institute, the Centre for the Study of Existential Risk, and the Machine Intelligence Research Institute.

I’m sure others could devise different ways of describing EA ideology that potentially look quite different to mine, but this is my best guess based on what I have observed. I believe these tenets are generally held by EAs, particularly those working at the major EA organisations, but are generally not widely discussed or critiqued. That this set of assumptions is fairly specific to EA should be evident if one reads various criticisms of effective altruism from those outside the movement. Although they do not always express their concerns using the same language that I have, it is often clear that the fundamental reason for their disagreement is the rejection of one or more of the five points mentioned above.

Conclusion

My purpose in this article has not been to contend that effective altruists shouldn’t have an ideology, or that the current dominant EA ideology (as I have outlined it) is mistaken. In fact, my view is that we can’t really get anywhere in rational investigation without certain starting assumptions, and these starting assumptions constitute our ideology. It doesn’t follow from this that any ideology is equally justified, but how we adjudicate between different ideological frameworks is beyond the scope of this article.

Instead, all I have tried to do is argue that effective altruists do in fact have an ideology. This ideology leads them to privilege certain questions over others, to apply particular theoretical frameworks to the exclusion of others, and to focus on certain viewpoints and answers while largely ignoring others. I have attempted to substantiate my claims by showing how different ideological frameworks would ask different questions, use different theoretical frameworks, and arrive at different conclusions to those generally found within EA, especially the major EA organisations. In particular, I argued that the typical case for focusing on AI safety can be modified to serve as an argument for a number of other cause areas, all of which have been largely ignored by most EAs.

My view is that effective altruists should acknowledge that the movement as a whole does have an ideology. We should critically analyse this ideology, understand its strengths and weaknesses, and then to the extent to which we think this set of ideological beliefs is correct, defend it against rebuttals and competing ideological perspectives. This is essentially what all other ideologies do – it is how the exchange of ideas works. Effective altruists should engage critically in this ideological discussion, and not pretend they are aloof from it by resorting to the refrain that ‘EA is a question, not an ideology’.

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A Critique of Crude Positivism: Why the Epistemology of Dawkins and Hawking Fails

Introduction

In this essay I wish to address a particular set of opinions that seem to be quite popular among many contemporary atheists, rationalists, and freethinkers. It is not a single specific position, but rather a patchwork of overlapping ideas and perspectives sharing a more-or-less constant core. Being somewhat amorphous, the position of which I am speaking does not really a distinct name. For the purposes of this essay, however, I shall refer to this constellation of views as ‘crude positivism’. ‘Positivism’ is a complex and controversial philosophical perspective, which broadly speaking is characterised by a strong respect for science and empirical enquiry, and an opposition to truth claims based on metaphysical speculation, faith, or authority. My purpose here is not to attack positivism itself, but rather the relatively crude form of it that is popularised, to varying degrees, by figures such as Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Peter Boghossian, Neil deGrasse Tyson, Lawrence Krauss, and Stephen Hawking. While one again emphasising that I am describing a family of related and overlapping viewpoints rather than a single well-defined doctrine, three of the key most commonly-encountered components of this ‘crude positivism’ are the following:

  1. Strict evidentialism: the ultimate arbiter of knowledge is evidence, which should determine our beliefs in a fundamental and straightforward way, namely that we believe things if and only if there is sufficient evidence for them.
  2. Narrow scientism: the highest, or perhaps only, legitimate form of objective knowledge is that produced by the natural sciences. The social sciences, along with non-scientific pursuits, either do not produce real knowledge, or only knowledge of a distinctly inferior sort.
  3. Pragmatism: science owes is special status to its unique ability to deliver concrete, practical results – it ‘works’. Philosophy, religion, and other such fields to enquiry do not produce ‘results’ in this same way, and thus have no special status.

My goal in this piece will be to challenge these three claims. In particular, I will argue that the ‘crude positivism’ typified by these three views presents an overly narrow conception of knowledge, and represents an ultimately fragile basis upon which to ground challenges to superstitution, pseudoscience, and other forms of irrationality. My key contention is that we need to move beyond such crude positivism in order to have a stronger intellectual underpinning for the atheistic/rationalist/freethought movements. A final note on style: when I use the phrase ‘crude positivists’ I don’t mean to imply a well-defined group of people. I just use it as shorthand to refer to those who, to varying degrees, hold to one or more of the three positions outlined above.

Strict Evidentialism

Crude positivists insist that all beliefs, or at least all beliefs concerning anything of importance, ought to be based upon appropriate evidence. While I agree with this as an abstract principle, I have concerns about the manner in which crude positivists typically interpret and apply this maxim in practise. The trouble is that, when challenged, nearly everyone will be able to provide some sort of justification for their beliefs, something that they regard to be ‘evidence’. To consider a specific example, the evangelical Christian may claim to know that God works in the lives of believers because they have seen it happen with their own eyes, and experienced it personally in their own lives. Needless to say, this is not the sort of ‘evidence’ that adherents of crude positivism are likely to accept as legitimate. The question, however, is why not? After all, the justification in question is empirically based, in that it is derived from making observations about the world. Generally positivists respond that such experiences are uncontrolled and anecdotal, and thus cannot be trusted to provide reliable evidence. To this, however, the Christian may simply agree, arguing that while such experiences are anecdotal and thus do not qualify as scientific evidence, nevertheless they do constitute evidence of the relevant sort for the domain in question, namely the domain relating to knowledge and experience of God. According to this perspective, only certain particular phenomena or aspects of reality are susceptible to the investigative methods of the empirical sciences, and the nature of God and mankind’s relationship to him would not be one of these areas that science can study. These phenomena can be empirically studied, but this is done by applying different standards than those used for scientific inquiry, using methods that are much more personal and experiential. Scientific methods are applicable in the scientific domain, while other methods and other forms of empirical evidence are applicable in other domains. I am not attempting to defend this ‘separate domains’ position. Instead, I am arguing that it is not sufficient to respond to a position like this by simply asserting that beliefs should be based on evidence, since that is not the point under dispute. That is, the question is not whether some form of ‘evidence’ is important, but the type of evidence is deemed acceptable, and how that evidence justified claim being made.

A related problem concerns the issue of how evidence should be interpreted. Crude positivists often speak as if evidence is self-interpreting, such that a given piece of evidence simply and unambiguously picks out one singular state of affairs over all other possibilities. In practise, however, this is almost never the case, as evidence nearly always requires an elaborate network of background knowledge and pre-existing theory in order to interpret. For example, in order to understand a historical text, one requires not only knowledge of the language in which it is written, but also a broad understanding of the relevant social and political context in which the text was written. Likewise the raw output of most scientific observation or experiments are unintelligible without use of detailed background theories and methodological assumptions.

Given the important role that background assumptions and perspectives shape our interpretations of a given piece of evidence, it is very common for different people coming from different perspectives to conclude that the same evidence supports wildly different conclusions. For instance, many young earth creationists interpret the fossil and other evidence in light of their pre-existing belief that the bible is the literal and infallible word of God, and as a result they conclude that the extant evidence points to a divine creation event in the recent past, devising various ingenious methods of reconciling their beliefs with the apparent evidence to the contrary. My intent is not to defend creationists, but to illustrate that it is not enough to simply say that creationists ignore the evidence. These creationists are responding to the evidence (indeed they argue that it supports their position), but are interpreting it differently on the basis of different suppositions and approaches. We cannot simply dismiss them as being blinded by their presuppositions, since (as I have just argued) evidence can never be interpreted in a vacuum, free of assumptions or preconceptions, but can only ever be interpreted in the context of an existing methodological framework and various background assumptions. To say this isn’t to endorse some form of epistemic relativism, but simply to point out that if we want to explain why creationists and others like them are mistaken, we have to move beyond the crude positivistic cry of ‘seek the evidence’, and articulate a more detailed set of criteria and epistemological principles upon which certain initial assumptions and modes of interpretation are to be preferred over others. We need to do a better job of explaining what types of evidence are most reliable, how to interpret evidence, and why these approaches are more conducive to the formation of true beliefs than other, competing approaches.

Narrow Scientism

The second aspect of ‘crude positivism’ that I want to discuss is the view I have termed ‘narrow scientism’, which refers to the tendency to dismiss, or significantly downplay, the importance and status of all disciplines outside the natural sciences. Physics, chemistry, biology, and geology produce reliable knowledge, while psychology is a bit of a question mark, and economics and political science are clearly ‘not sciences’, but belong with disciples like philosophy and much of the humanities, the domain of fuzzy opinion and not verifiable fact. This, at least, is the typical perception among my advocates of crude positivism. In my view, however, this disciplinary classification is arbitrary, and fails to demarcate any epistemologically relevant distinction. In particular, what is the justification for the view that the only ‘real sciences’ are only the natural sciences? It cannot be the result of having adopted a superior set of methodologies, since in many cases there is more methodological continuity across different disciplines than within single ones. For example, analytical chemistry and cognitive psychology are both largely focused on laboratory experiments, while in astrophysics and macroeconomics experiments are mostly impossible, and so these disciplines instead rely predominantly upon observation and development of mathematical theories. Likewise, piecing together the evolutionary relationships of different species has more in common with the linguistic analysis of different languages than it does with other subfields of biology. Nor can it be the subject matter of the disciplines which sets them apart, since there is a continuum between the study of primate behaviour in biology and the study of human behaviour in the social sciences, and also between the study of natural history in geology and biology, and the study of human history in the social sciences and humanities. Furthermore, many mathematical models originally developed in the context of physics and chemistry have also been profitably applied to many other fields, especially economics and sociology (e.g. equilibrium theory, network analysis, complex systems theory). My contention here is not that there is literally no difference between the natural sciences and social science or non-scientific disciplines. I do, however, think that there is a great deal of continuity and intermingling between them, both in terms of methodologies and subject matter, a fact which belies the sharp science/non-science dichotomy advocated by crude positivists.

This is not, however, merely a question of whether disciplinary boundaries are sharp or fuzzy. The real point I am trying to make is that crude positivists simply have no justification for elevating the natural sciences (whether their boundaries are fuzzy or not) on a pedestal above all other disciples. That is, I do not think the natural sciences are epistemically privileged in the way that crude positivists claim that they are. After all, what is so special about the natural sciences relative to, say, economics, history, or even blatant pseudosciences like astrology? The most straightforward answer, and I think the one crude positivists have mostly in mind, is that the natural sciences apply a rigorous scientific method not found in any of these other disciplines, and this method is more conducive to finding truth than other competing methods. My response to this is threefold. Firstly, I note that this is not a claim that finds a home in any of the natural sciences (i.e. it is not a scientific claim), but seems to appeal to philosophical criteria that lie outside of science. I do not think there is anything wrong with that, except for the fact that it seems to sit at odds with the crude positivistic view that only science is to be trusted. Secondly, as I have argued above, it is simply not true that the natural sciences systematically apply different methodologies to those used in other disciples. Within any disciple the quality of work varies dramatically, some being much more careful and rigorous than others, and this applies just as much to the natural sciences as to other disciplines. Thirdly, and most importantly, if the superior status of the natural sciences is based on their superior adherence to a particular set of epistemological principles, then it is those principles themselves that are the true bearers of the superior status, not the physical sciences themselves. Applying these same principles to any disciple should yield knowledge justified to similarly rigorous standards. If this is correct, and what is at the bottom of the success of the physical sciences is adherence to a particular methodology or methods of inference, then it is those methods that we should focus on championing, whatever discipline they may be applied in.

It has been argued that the subject matter of the social sciences and other such disciplines is inherently ‘messier’ and more complex than the comparatively simpler physical systems studied by the natural sciences. However even if this is true, application of appropriate methodologies should still result in reliable knowledge – the only difference will be that the knowledge will be less precise and known with less confidence, since our understanding of the system in question is less complete and less detailed. This will not, however, result in a qualitatively distinct and far inferior form of knowledge, contrary to the claims of the crude positivists. Some argue that the subject matter of history and social science is such that it is not suited to study by the rigorous methods of natural science. If this were true, it would seem to leave us with two options: either no reliable knowledge about such things is possible in principle (i.e. we can say little or nothing about human history, how societies and economies work, etc), or the reliable methods of attaining knowledge in such disciples are distinctly different and at odds with those used in the natural sciences.

The former possibility strikes me as deeply implausible – why should we not at least be able to know a great deal about such topics through careful investigation, and furthermore how could we possibly know if this were the case given that we could not study these topics? The latter option seems equally unpalatable, for it is essentially identical to the argument by which the evangelical Christian claims that their supernatural claims are outside the bounds of scientific investigation. Indeed, if it is the case that the appropriate methods for studying any subject outside of the natural sciences are fundamentally different to and at odds with scientific methods, then any ground for objecting to irrational or unscientific claims is lost. Religious claims (“the divine cannot be studied scientifically”), alternative medicine (“human health is too holistic to be subjected to scientific methods”), or the paranormal (“the spirits don’t respond under controlled conditions”), it can always be argued that the subject matter lies outside of the natural sciences, and hence different, non-scientific investigative methods are applicable. In my view, this absurd outcome shows that, if we grant superior respect and status to the claims of the natural sciences, it must be because (when conducted properly) the natural sciences utilise justified and reliable general epistemological processes, processes which should similarly be conducive to knowledge acquisition when applied to other subjects. Crude positivists who instead reject any application of scientific methods outside of the natural sciences cannot then simultaneously berate those making religious, paranormal, and supernatural claims for failing to use scientific standards and methods, since by their own admission such methods are only applicable to certain subjects. Narrow scientism, then, is at odds with the core principle of basing all important beliefs upon reliable evidence.

Pragmatism

The third and final aspect of ‘crude positivism’ that I wanted to discuss in this piece is pragmatism, the appeal to the past successes of science as the primary and overriding justification for its epistemically superior status. Science, so the argument goes, simply ‘works’: it puts men on the moon, builds aircraft that fly, and makes transgenic fish that glow in the dark. Ways of knowing that rely on appeals to authority, esoteric knowledge, or personal experience, are inferior precisely because they do not ‘work’ in this way. While I do think this sort of argument has some validity, I think the crude positivist goes too far in advocating practical utility as the defining feature of knowledge. One simple problem with this approach is that many people think that prayer, mystical experiences, etc, ‘work’ in a very real way – they pray to Jesus, and they feel God’s love pouring out over them. The crude positivist, of course, is unlikely to admit that as being a valid example of ‘working’, however all this shows is that science comes out best when judged by its own criteria of what it counts as legitimate ‘success’, while the types of ‘success’ (e.g. drawing closer to god, becoming one with nature, etc) defined by other ways of knowing are simply disregarded.

Beyond this issue of defining criteria for success, there is a deeper philosophical issue concerning the relationship between the ‘success’ of a theory, and the ‘truth’ of that theory. Most of the examples of science ‘delivering results’ are, properly understood, really applications of engineering, not science itself. Of course, engineers utilise scientific findings and theories, but there is nevertheless an important distinction between the development of theory and its practical application. This is important because some schools of thought in philosophy, especially the sort of instrumentalist, pragmatic viewpoints that crude positivists are most closely aligned with, argue that the ability of a theory to deliver successful applications is insufficient to validate the accuracy of that theory in describing the way the world truly is. One example is that of Ptolemaic astronomy: it was capable of generating accurate predictions of the positions of the planets despite the fact that its underlying model for reality (an Earth-centred cosmos with the planets orbiting about crystalline spheres) is completely wrong. To take a more recent example, scientists and engineers still routinely use chemical and physical models which treat atoms as solid spheres interacting in accordance with the laws of classical mechanics. As a description of reality, this is entirely incorrect – atoms are mostly empty space, and what is not empty space consists of protons, neutrons, and electrons, which according to our best theories behave (very loosely) like smeared-out probability wavepackets, evolving in accordance with the laws of quantum (not classical) mechanics. Notwithstanding this completely inaccurate description of the underlying reality, however, the ‘billiard balls’ approach is still very useful and ‘delivers results’ in a wide range of applications. Such examples are one of the major arguments used by those philosophers who adhere to a position known as scientific anti-realism, which is the view that while science produces very useful predictive models, it does not necessarily describe the way things ‘truly are’. Thus, according to this view, science is not in the business of finding ‘truth’ per se, but merely of producing theories that are ‘empirically adequate’ and useful for prediction and practical application.

My point here is not to argue that anti-realism is correct, or that science doesn’t describe reality. Rather my argument is that either way, these considerations pose a problem for the simple pragmatism of crude positivists. If, on the one hand, scientific anti-realism is false, and scientific theories do truly describe the way the world is, then the extreme focus on scientific theories being special because they ‘work’ becomes difficult to justify, since under this view science is special not predominantly because it ‘works’, but because it yields true descriptions of reality. The simplistic pragmatism defence thus simply cannot work, and the fact that other disciplines (e.g. philosophy or theology) may not ‘deliver results’ does not mean that they cannot accurately describe reality. On the other hand, if scientific anti-realism is true, and scientific theories don’t necessary say much about the way reality truly is, then the crude positivist has no basis for critiquing non-scientific ways of knowing for not making predictions or ‘delivering results’. This is because these other ways of knowing (e.g. faith based) don’t necessarily claim to be able to provide predictive models, but claim to describe parts of reality as they truly are. If science and faith/intuition/etc are not even trying to do the same thing, the one attempting to generate useful models, the other not caring about predictive accuracy but about providing true descriptions of reality, then it is unclear how the crude positivist can even compare the two in the way they seem to want to. This approach also seems hard to reconcile with the fact that many adherents of crude positivism do very clearly make truth claims about subjects like religion and the paranormal. If this form of pragmatism is correct, then science and non-science aren’t incompatible, but rather are incomparable, for they are not even trying to do the same thing.

Conclusion

Some people will doubtless read this piece as an attack upon the value of science, or a defence of pseudoscientific, faith-based or emotion-based methods of reasoning. As I have said throughout this piece, however, this is not my intention at all. My goal is in fact to equip skeptics and rationalists to deliver a robust, cogent defence of the value of science and critical thinking in learning about the world, and the superiority of such methods over various rivals. What concerns me is that the constellation of views that I here describe under the label ‘crude positivism’ is quite popular among many rationalists and skeptics. As I have argued, however, I think these views are philosophically naive and very hard to rigorously defend. Worse, some of the more intelligent defenders of non-scientific practices, including religious apologists, practitioners of alternative medicine, and defenders of various pseudosciences, are aware of the problems with such views, and will vigorously critique rationalists who espouse them. I think we can answer their objections, but to do so requires a greater familiarity with philosophy and relevant methodlogical issues than many rationalists and skeptics have, especially when they so often dismiss these fields as irrelevant. In order to advance the cause of science and rationality, therefore, we need to abandon ‘crude positivism’, and replace it with a more sophisticated, thoughtful, and philosophically rigorous account of science and rationality.

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.

The Question of Christianity: A Personal Manifesto

Synopsis

In this article I outline the general framework of my overarching approach to the question of whether I should become a Christian. Beginning with William James’ observations that the decision regarding whether to adopt Christianity is both momentous and forced, I acknowledge that Christianity is not merely an intellectual exercise nor necessarily something we decide upon purely by our own volition. Nonetheless I conclude that the question of whether Christianity is in fact true is still paramount, and proceed to examine how one might go about determining the answer to this question. In doing so, I discuss the need to consider arguments for relative plausibility rather than certainty, and outline my view about the importance of basing our beliefs on reasons and evidences that are reliably truth-tracking. I then apply this framework to four major types of arguments advanced in support of Christianity: philosophical arguments for God’s existence, arguments based on the bible, experiential evidences, and the historical evidence for the resurrection of Jesus, in each case discussing how compelling I find the arguments, and why I ultimately find them to be insufficient. I then briefly consider three arguments which I believe mitigate against the truth of Christianity, namely the problem of evil, religious confusion, and evils done in the name of Christianity. I conclude with some reflections on the importance of the question and a plea for more sustained dialogue.

Background and Methodology

Momentous and Forced Options

Most fundamentally, the question I seek to answer is not ‘is Christianity true?’ More important to me is the even broader question ‘should I live as a Christian?’ The second question is related to the first, but the two are not synonymous. In particular, the question as to how one should live one’s life is much deeper and richer than merely a question concerning what is true. It depends not only on questions of facts about existence, but also on one’s values and on a certain element of personal choice as to what one wishes to commit oneself to. It also depends upon the set of plausible alternative life paths that are available, and their relative strengths and weaknesses.

To take a fairly trivial example just to illustrate the point, if Buddhism is true (read ‘the claims made by Buddhism about suffering, reincarnation, nirvana, etc’) and I don’t become a Buddhist, my journey toward enlightenment will be that much slower, but I will still have another chance in another life. This is not the case for Christianity or for Atheism, and as such, the cost of being wrong about Christianity is greater (at least by this analysis) than the cost of being wrong about Buddhism. This is similar to William James’ idea about how ‘momentous’ a decision is: choosing not to live as a Christian is a more momentous decision than choosing not to live as a Buddhist.

The decision to live my life as a Christian is thus what William James calls a “momentous” one: it has weighty consequences. It is also what he calls a ‘forced option’, meaning that I cannot decide to merely sit on the fence and wait until I have more evidence available. Like the decision to get on a train or to get married, there is no middle position available: either I live as a Christian or I do not. I may decide to postpone serious thinking about the question until later, but then I have already made the decision (at least for the moment) to not live as a Christian. I thus find myself forced to choose one path or the other. I can switch paths at any time, but at any given time I am always on one path or the other. (Note that I don’t wish to imply that living as an atheist and living as a Christian are totally distinct paths that always diverge, nonetheless they clearly diverge in enough ways for me to speak of them constituting different paths.)

The Key Questions

So how can I decide whether or not I should live as a Christian? For me there are three main subsidiary questions that I need to address in order to arrive at an answer:

  1. What is the probability that Christianity is true? By ‘Christianity being true’ I mean that ‘Jesus really was the son of God who died and was raised for our sins, etc’.
  2. Is living as a Christian a morally good life? This is where I raise concerns such as being able to trust that God is good given apparent biblical atrocities, etc.
  3. What are the costs of living as a Christian? Here I don’t mean things like ‘won’t get to sleep in on Sundays as often’, I mean more substantive things like giving up other goals and priorities.

Currently I am most interested in answering 1, as I think this is the most important and most difficult of the three. As such, the rest of this essay will be concerned with this question. I may address 2 and 3 in a future piece.

What Role for the Holy Spirit?

Christians generally believe that becoming a Christian is not primarily/not only/not at all (depending on their theological dispositions) something one chooses for oneself. They generally believe that it is something that happens through the grace and intervention of God and the Holy Spirit. I do not wish to dispute this, only to highlight that this point seems to me to be not particularly relevant to my enquiry here. Should I just wait until the moment when God decides to make himself known to me in a way that I will accept, ‘road to Damascus’ style? Whatever the exact role God may or may not play in the process, I still need to decide how to live, and I need to go about answering this question in the best way I can. I can’t control what (if anything) God decides to do for me, and so I find it useful just to speak as if converting to Christianity were something entirely up to my own volition, even if, theologically-speaking, many Christians would not agree with this. Thus, I’m using this language as a shorthand so that I can avoid making this qualification every time.

The Need to Consider Plausibility

How can I decide how likely it is that Christianity is true? In considering this question, it is important to understand what I mean when I talk of probability or plausibility. The fact of the matter is not probabilistic – either Christianity is true or it isn’t. But since I don’t know what the fact of the matter is, the question becomes one of how confident I can be given the evidence that is available. That is, how strongly does the evidence support the contention that Christianity is true over alternate possibilities? I think it absurd to say that it is impossible that Christianity is true, and likewise absurd to say that it is impossible that it is false. Maybe one quarter of both my atheist and Christian readers alike will now find themselves disagreeing, but so be it – I feel quite confident in claiming that neither extreme can be justified. Having ruled out certainty in either direction, I am left in the uncomfortable middle position of having to weigh up relative plausibility. This is no easy task, and so we are led back to our initial question – how can it be done?

Evidence and Truth-Tracking

It is my view that there is only one useful way (meaning ‘a way that actually helps us to achieve our object’) to go about answering this question, and that is by utilising what I (very broadly) call “reason and evidence“. Although there are always more subtleties and complexities than can be gone into at any one time, for now I’ll define “reason and evidence” as being those things that help us, with some better than chance degree of reliability, to ‘track the truth’ of propositions in some relevant subject domain. This notion of truth-tracking is subtle, but extremely important. Informally (I can present a more formal analysis another time for those desiring of more rigour), something is truth-tracking if the presence or existence of that thing tends to go along with, or be indicative of, the truth of certain propositions in a particular domain.

Consider the simple example of tossing a coin. My looking at the coin and seeing which side it landed on (in general) reliably tracks the truth as to what side it actually landed on. If I close my eyes and make a random guess, this does not reliably track the truth of what side it actually landed on. If I was incredibly tired and removed my glasses, my looking at the coin would probably less reliably track the truth as to what side it actually landed on, but would probably still be better than random guessing. Thus truth-tracking is an inherently probabilistic notion, always a matter of degree.

To take a more relevant example, suppose I find an argument for God’s existence which, upon consideration, I find to be quite compelling. Rather than merely assuming that because the argument seems compelling to me, that therefore the conclusion is likely to be true, I ought to ask myself ‘how reliably truth-tracking is the process of people like me analysing such arguments about God’s existence?’ The answer is, in general, that this process is not very reliably truth-tracking at all, as so many intelligent and honest people come to such different conclusions despite going through essentially the same process. I am therefore very wary of any argument which relies on me (or any other lone person) coming to a conclusion on the basis of their own analysis when there exists substantial disagreement on that question among epistemic peers (a consideration which, it should be noted, makes me at least somewhat less confident about nearly everything I say in this piece).

It is often difficult to determine how reliably truth-tracking any given type of argument or mode of reasoning is. However, difficulty in making such a determination does not entail that the concept has no value. It seems that we can say with reasonable confidence that beliefs based on widespread scientific consensus are quite reliably truth-tracking, those based on consensus of historians are somewhat less reliable but still fairly good, arguments that appeal to careful philosophical investigations are quite unreliable but probably still better than naïve unreflective opinion, while convictions based on subjective personal experience are often very unreliable at tracking truth. I wish to emphasise that this does not constitute an adoption of some form of scientism. Subjective personal experience can often be a reliable truth tracker (e.g. how hot is it today?), but I don’t think it very reliably truth-tracking for questions of the sort ‘how likely is Christianity to be true?’. For our purposes here, therefore, I believe it is accurate to say that scientific sorts of evidence are much more reliably truth-tracking than personal experiential evidence.

Needless to say, if I knew what the truth was, I would just believe that, and then I wouldn’t need to worry about all this nonsense about plausibilities and truth tracking. But since I don’t know of any place where true beliefs rain from the sky or grow on trees ready for the picking (that is, there is no easy way to just get straight to true beliefs without mediating processes), I must resort to the next best thing – finding methods that track truth and apply them as best as I can. This won’t guarantee that I hold true beliefs in the end, but given that I don’t know what the truth actually is, this method gives me better chances than any other.

Starting Points: Atheism and Agnosticism

Having established some basis for how I will conduct my analysis, I will now say a few words concerning my starting point. Of course, this is really only a hypothetical starting point, for in practise we all start from wherever we happen to be at the moment, bringing all our personal experience, knowledge, biases, and quirks with us. Nonetheless, I think it can be helpful to consider such a hypothetical starting point as a way of framing one’s thinking. Understood in this manner, therefore, I start from a position that I call atheistic agnosticism. Let me explain each of these terms.

I start from a position of atheism, because I believe that absent a reason to believe something, the proper default position is not to believe it. Crucially, this is not the same as saying that one disbelieves it. Consider “there are an even number of hairs on my head at this moment”. I do not believe this proposition, for I have no reason to. That does not, however, mean that I affirm its converse, “that there are an even number of hairs”, which would be equally unjustified. In this sense I am agnostic: I do not know. I begin the enquiry about Christianity, therefore, as an atheist in the sense that I do not affirm the proposition ‘God exists’, and an agnostic in that I do not have any particular reason to prefer atheism over theism.

I believe that in order to shift from this position of agnosticism and move my confidence in one direction or the other, it is necessary to have, as I say, ‘reasons and evidence’. Remember that by this I just mean things that help me to reliably track the truth of whatever proposition I’m examining. Thus, saying ‘I need a reason to change my beliefs’ is, for me, tantamount to saying: ‘I will only alter my best guess about what is true away from the initial agnostic position because of some factor which I have reason to believe will reliably improve my best guess about what is true’. So I’m not looking for reason or evidence that feels compelling to me, or that helps me to convince others, or that (by some other standard) grants sufficient epistemic ‘warrant’ or ‘justification’ to my belief. I am looking for things that will help me track the truth, so that I can increase the chances that my belief will be accurate, given that I start out from a situation of not knowing what the truth is.

Four Types of Arguments for Christianity

Having laid out this rather extensive groundwork, I will now fairly briefly consider four broad classes of reasons that I have heard offered in support of increasing one’s credence in the truth of Christianity. I find some of these arguments more compelling than others, in the sense that some of them cause me to raise the plausibility I assign to the truth of Christianity more than others, but ultimately none of them cause me to increase my credence by enough to push me above some fuzzy but nonetheless real threshold beyond which I would be willing to affirm the truth of Christianity. For each type of argument, I will briefly explain why I find it lacking.

Philosophical Arguments for the existence of God

This includes the cosmological argument, ontological argument, teleological argument, etc. Philosophers are not the experts on God’s existence, but they are expert on the question of evaluating the strength of philosophical arguments. As such, I regard the collective opinion of professional philosophers to be more reliably truth-tracking than my own personal attempts to evaluable these arguments. Since philosophers are a state of fairly considerable peer disagreement concerning the strength of philosophical arguments for God’s existence, some being persuaded by them, while others are not, I find it hard to accept that the strength of the argument s is sufficiently strong either way for me to reliably make a large update to my opinion in either direction.

On balance, I do think that arguments such as the cosmological argument and the fine-tuning argument constitute some reason for increasing my credence in the proposition that God exists, however because of the immense disagreement surrounding them (and also the many unknowns to which such arguments necessarily appeal, such as knowledge about the nature of time, causation, and possible alternate laws of physics), the amount by which my credence is increased is not large.

Arguments based on the Bible

This category includes arguments based on the power, majesty, coherence, transforming influence, beauty (etc) of the bible. Such arguments are, I think, even weaker than philosophical arguments, in the sense that the fact that one may find a particular holy text to be very powerful, transforming, coherent, etc, is clearly not a very reliable tracker of whether that text is actually true. All one need do is examine what Mormons say of the Book of Mormon, Muslims of the Koran, Buddhists of the Pali Canon, Hindus of the Upanishads, Sikhs of the Guru Granth Sahib, and many other such examples, to see that this method of arriving at beliefs about religious texts is exceptionally unreliable. Most people who read a religious text and find it to be compelling nonetheless are not followers of the correct religion (whichever religion that turns out to be).

Even worse, there are no real criteria on which to judge these sorts of properties. Philosophical arguments are often difficult to judge objectively, but at least there are some clear and agreed upon standards for doing so. In the case of comparing holy texts I would say there are none at all, and that all judgements made concerning the beauty, coherence, and power of such texts are fundamentally little more than subjective reactions which are not truth-tracking in the slightest. Muslims say the Koran is without comparison among any book written by man. Christians say it isn’t. Who is to judge? I know of no criteria on which this can be decided (note that I’m not talking about criteria for historicity. I’m talking about beauty, coherence, power, etc). In the end, I simply find no good reason (again, read ‘truth tracking reason’) to shift my belief in response to considerations such as these.

Subjective and Experiential Reasons

Subjective, experiential, personal reasons for believing in Christianity are not reliable trackers of truth, for essentially the same reasons noted above. Namely, such reasons are clearly not truth-tracking given the immense amount of religious disagreement. Millions of people from dozens of religions around the world and throughout history have reported all sorts of spiritual, supernatural, personal, mystical, divine experiences which have been immensely formative and persuasive for them, and on which they believe their own particular religious beliefs can be justified. Given that such experiences are so diverse and contradictory, however, it is clear that this is not a reliably truth-tracking process for forming beliefs about any particular properties of the divine. Some people think that these are all different manifestations of the same underlying God or spirit, but Christians (generally) do not believe this. Christians believe that they have correct beliefs about God and other religious have incorrect or less correct beliefs. If we are to determine the truth of this claim, we must seek out evidence beyond from subjective religious experiences, for these equally well support essentially all other religious claims. I think subjective religious or spiritual experiences can have value in helping one to stay committed and motivated in one’s chosen faith, but not in providing evidence (in the sense I understand it) that the path one has chosen is the correct one.

Historical Evidence for the Resurrection

The historical evidence for the resurrection of Jesus is, in my view, by far the strongest piece of evidence in favour of the truth of Christianity. Nevertheless, after a great deal of thought and consideration, while I do find that it constitutes a reason for thinking Christianity more probable, I do not think it provides sufficient evidence to overcome the countervailing factors I discuss below. I outline my thinking on this point in detail in my HBS model of the resurrection appearances. In very brief terms, I believe that human psychology and sociology is more than capable of explaining what took place with Jesus’ followers after his death, and that no reference to supernatural interventions is warranted or necessary to explain the way events unfolded.

Three Arguments Against Christianity

I will now, again very briefly, outline some considerations that lead me to think that Christianity is relatively less likely to be true. These reasons are not definitive, but I do think they hold some value as being somewhat reliable in helping me to arrive at true beliefs.

The problem of evil/suffering

I believe that the existence of the immense quantity of apparently pointless suffering in the world is less likely in a universe governed by an all-powerful and all-good God as posited by Christianity. It is true that such a God may have reasons or constraints unknown to us that explain the continued existence of such evils, however I do not believe I have any reason to believe that such reasons or constraints exist. Merely stating this as a possibility does not change the fact that, given what we do know, the amount of suffering that exists in the world and lack of any evident reason for much of it is more consistent with a universe that is not governed by a Christian God than in a universe that is. As such, I believe this constitutes a reason to lower my credence in the truth of Christianity by some non-trivial (though not enormous) amount.

The Problem of Religious Confusion

This problem mirrors concerns raised above about religious disagreement and diversity. It seems to me that the Christian proposition that God wants all mankind to enter into a relationship with him is less consistent with the immense plurality of religions and of apparently genuine religious piety and experience, than the proposition that religion is an invention of man (or also the proposition that God is indifferent to which religion we follow). Again, there may exist reasons why God allows so much apparent religious confusion and competing revelations, etc, however as noted above, the mere possibility of their existence does not alter the fact that we do not know of any such reasons, and yet we do know that religious confusion exists, and seems to conflict with a Christian God’s desire to relate to all of mankind. As such, I consider the problem of religious confusion/divine hiddenness to be a reason to lower my credence in the truth of Christianity. Again, not by an enormous amount, but by an amount that is not insignificant.

Evils done in the name of Christianity

This includes such things as Old Testament atrocities allegedly commanded by God, misogynistic teachings of parts of the Bible and many churches historically, events such as the crusades and inquisitions, Christian homophobic teachings and doctrines, and other such things. None of these are definitive, and indeed I probably regard them as weaker than the previous two concerns, however I do feel that they mitigate somewhat against the plausibility of Christianity, so I include them here.

Conclusions

The brief analyses of the various arguments I have provided above will no doubt be unsatisfying to many readers. They are intended more as summaries of my thinking and as starting points for further discussion, rather than as comprehensive or definitive accounts. All in all, after considering the arguments, I am left in a position of thinking that the reasons advanced for increasing my credence in the truth of Christianity are outweighed by the reasons to reduce my credence, and so are insufficient for me to be willing to affirm the truth of Christianity. (Note, however, that I am less confident about my ‘reasons against’ than I am that the provided ‘reasons for’ are insufficient).

Returning to my original question, I find that the probability that Christianity is true given the truth-tracking reasons I have available is too low for me to feel like becoming a Christian is the best decision for my life. This is where I currently stand, acknowledging a great deal of uncertainty and ignorance on my part. I am constantly searching for additional reasons, new considerations, and previously unconsidered evidences that may lead me to change my mind. Indeed, I think I have good reason to expect to find at least some such reasons and evidences, as I have changed my mind about such things several times in the past. My opinion is therefore provisional and subject to change as I learn and think more. That said, I will not change my beliefs without reasons of the sort I have described. I want to believe truth things and live my life accordingly, and truth-tracking reasons (or something very much like them, even if I choose to abandon that particular mode of description) are the best way I know of achieving this, given the state of ignorance in which I begin.

I would hope others would join me in this quest for truth, and that we can aid each other in pursuing our end with firm resolve, not wavering, without fear for what false beliefs we may need to give up, or new true ones we may need to adopt. This journey is not easy. We must not get complacent because of the comfort of a waystation we find along the way. As long as ignorance remains – and for us humans it always does – the journey must go on. We must not be satisfied with anything less than beliefs that are as true as we can reasonably make them. For questions as important as those we consider here, nothing less will do.

Why be an Atheist – in 400 Words

Introduction

I was recently asked to write a 400 word piece on some arguments one might give to a religious believer to cause them to doubt their beliefs. I’m generally not in the business of trying to dissuade theists from believing in God (though I may try to dissuade them from holding particular beliefs about God), however I am in the business of writing and critiquing  arguments, and so I thought I would give it a go. Here’s what I came up with. Note that the very strict wordcount meant that I could not explain the arguments in nearly enough depth to be properly persuasive, nor could I consider common rejoinders and how I would respond. I do not do any of these arguments justice or engage with them in all their complexity and nuance. Nonetheless, I think very short writing can have value at times, so for what its worth, here it is.

The 400 Words

There are many compelling reasons to believe that an all-powerful, all-good God does not exist:

  1. There is too much suffering. If God exists, he permits plague, war, genocide, natural disasters, mental illness, and much more, all of which he has the power to prevent. Some believers say God must have reasons for allowing such things, even if we don’t know what they are. There is, however, no reason to believe that such reasons exist, and every reason to expect that a world created by an all-powerful and all-loving God would not need to include holocausts and black deaths. Every time another such event takes place, we must believe that God has yet another unknown and inexplicable reason for permitting it. The more such unknown reasons we must accept, the more evidence we gain that such a God does not in fact exist.
  2. Religions are too parochial. Many religions believe that God chose reveal his teachings at a specific time to a specific group of people, thereby leaving large swaths of humanity largely or completely ignorant of him. This is not what we would expect from an all-loving, all-powerful God who wished to draw all humanity to him, but it is what we would expect if each religion is an outgrowth of a particular human culture.
  3. There is too much religious confusion. Believers of many different faiths report similar experiences of God speaking to them, guiding them, and comforting them. If God existed and wanted humans to follow his true path, we would not expect to see so many people experiencing God in such different and conflicting ways. We would expect God would make himself clearer to mankind, rather than providing so many conflicting religious experiences and manifestations. Such a degree of religious confusion is far more understandable if religious feelings and experiences are instead solely the product of human psychology and society.
  4. God is a poor explanation for anything. God cannot explain why the universe exists, but merely pushes back the question, for we can then ask why God himself exists. Likewise, God’s existence cannot explain human consciousness, for any talk of immaterial souls or spirits merely applies a new label without actually saying anything about how or why consciousness arises. The ability of God to provide answers to such questions, therefore, is illusory, leaving us without any strong reason to believe in such a God.

Why I Left Mormonism and Became an Atheist, and What it Would take for me to Return to Religion

Synopsis

In this piece I discuss my five main reasons for leaving Mormonism: historical anachronisms in the Book of Mormon, the existence of many competing prophets and holy books, changes made to temple ordinances, the inaccuracy of Joseph Smith’s translation of the Book of Abraham, and the unreliability of subjective spiritual experiences as evidence. For each reason I include a reflection as to the general lesson I learned from this which I now apply in my examination of other religions. I conclude with some remarks about the important of seeking truth through reason and consideration of alternative views.

Introduction

I was born into a Mormon family. Both my parents were Mormons, and for the first twenty years of my life we went to church (more or less) every Sunday. I regularly read the Book of Mormon and other scriptures, attended additional church activities, volunteered at church events, and on several occasions gave talks at different congregations. When I was nineteen years old I went overseas for nine months (shorter than the usual two years owing to health reasons), to share the teachings of my church full time in what Mormons call ‘serving a mission’.

Several months after returning home, I was preparing a church lesson that I was to present when in the course of my research I stumbled across some historical information about Joseph Smith and the Book of Mormon which was concerning to me and with which I had previously been unfamiliar. I cannot recall exactly what this first material was, but it marked the beginning of a period (from 19th December 2009 to 28th February 2010) of intense study, reflection, and prayer. After a great deal of reading and an immense quantity of soul-searching, I eventually came to the conclusion that I was most likely mistaken in my beliefs, and that Mormonism was probably not the true religion.

I told my parents of my decision on the morning of Sunday 28th February 2010, and as of that day I stopped going to church, and have never returned since. In the intervening five years, I have learnt much more about philosophy, history, and science, and grown a great deal as a person. Nevertheless, my outlook and views are still shaped to a significant degree by my time spent as a Mormon, and my experiences in leaving Mormonism.

In this piece, therefore, I explain my reasons why I changed my beliefs, and the lessons I believe that I learned from these reasons which affect how I evaluate religious and other claims to this day.

Book of Mormon Anachronisms

Key point: the Book of Mormon contains numerous references to animals, technologies, and languages which did not exist in pre-Columbian America.

Out of Place Animals and Artefacts

I was raised to believe, as do most Mormons, that the Book of Mormon is an ancient record of various peoples who lived on the American continent which Joseph Smith translated into English by the power of God. It was not always clear to me how the events it narrates intersected with secular history, but nonetheless I believed that the two would be reconcilable if we had sufficient information. When I began to read more concerning the historicity of the Book of Mormon, however, I discovered that many specific practices, animals, and objects that it refers to simply did not exist in Pre-Columbian America.

Among those things mentioned explicitly in the Book of Mormon for which (as far as I am aware) no evidence has been found in ancient American cultures, and which mainstream scholars and scientific institutions do not believe existed or were found in the ancient Americas, include:

  • Knowledge of Hebrew or other Semitic languages (Mosiah 1:2, Mormon 9:33)
  • Jewish religious sacrifices, priests, temples, etc, (Mosiah 6:3, Mosiah 2:3, 2 Ne. 5:15)
  • Jewish synagogues (Alma 16:13, Alma 32:1)
  • Record keeping on plates (Mosiah 8:5,9)
  • Horses or the wheel (3 Ne. 3:22, 3 Ne. 4:4, Alma 18:9-12, 1 Ne. 18:25, Enos 1:21, Alma 20:6, Ether 9:19)
  • Domesticated cattle (Enos 1:21, Mosiah 13:18, 3 Ne. 3:22, 3 Ne. 6:1, Ether 9:18)
  • Donkeys (Mosiah 12:5)
  • Steel (Jarom 1:8, 2 Ne. 5:15, Ether 7:9)
  • Advanced metallurgy, including smelting (Mosiah 21:27, Helamen 6:11, Ether 7:9, Ether 10:23, 2 Ne. 5:14)
  • Silk (1 Ne. 13:7, Alma 1:29, Alma 4:6, Ether 9:17, Ether 10:24)
  • A land northward covered with bones, rusted metal weapons, bronze and copper breastplates, many ruined buildings, and more written records (Mosiah 8:8-10)
  • A tradition or mythology of being cast out of an ancient land and travelling across the sea (Mosiah 10:12)
  • Metal coinage (Alma 11:5-19)

Apologetic Responses

Learning about all these discrepancies was greatly disturbing to me. Like many Mormons, I was ignorant about the history and archaeology of the ancient Americas, and was not aware that the sorts of artefacts that the Book of Mormon predicated should exist simply had never been found. I went to the Mormon apologetics websites to see what responses existed, thinking there was presumably some explanation for such apparent discrepancies. The responses that I found seemed to fall into three main categories:

  • Appeals to some obscure finding of a possible horse fossil or piece of steel, etc, which were advanced by various Mormon apologist scholars but did not seem to be accepted by any other academics.
  • Claims that the Lehites, Jarodites, and Mulekites (the three separate groups of people the Book of Mormon mentions having travelled to the Americas from the Old World) were only some of the peoples present in the ancient Americas, and thus we fail to find remains of their language, buildings, or material culture because there constituted only a fairly small proportion of the overall population.
  • By far the most common response, however, is that when Joseph Smith used words like ‘horse’, ‘steel’, and ‘silk’, he was not referring to horses, steel, and silk as we would understand them, but rather was using these words as translations for words which originally referred to something that looked somewhat like, or functioned somewhat like, horses, steel, silk, etc. Thus, the translation is not literal, but analogical. Horse does not refer to Equus ferus caballus, but instead to llamas or deer or some other animal, and is only rendered as horse for ease of narration and understanding.

My Reaction to the Responses

I thought about these responses, read some rebuttals to them written by others, and eventually came to the following conclusions:

  • Obscure findings not accepted by mainstream scholars and scientists might be legitimate, but it is unlikely. The fact that mainstream scholarship does not support the historicity of the Book of Mormon in the way that it does for much of the Bible (at least post-Exodus) counts as evidence against it being a historical record, even if it is not totally decisive evidence.
  • Other peoples may have existed in the Americas at the time or after the time of the Book of Mormon (though this is not a belief that seems to be widespread in ‘Mormon culture’, where generally it seems to be believed that Native Americas are descended from Lehites and Mulekites), however the cities spoken of in the Book of Mormon are large enough and the cultures advanced enough that we should expect to see at least some surviving remains and records.
  • The explanation about ‘alternate translations’ was the one I found least compelling. First of all, this is something virtually no Mormons I knew believed or spoke about – certainly I was always brought up to believe that in the Book of Mormon, horse meant horse, steel meant steel, etc. Secondly, many of the items referred to simply have no known plausible alternate referent: there are no pre-Columbian domesticated animals that were anything like horses or cattle or sheep. Bison (one proposed candidate for ‘cattle’), were never domesticated, and deer (a proposed candidate for ‘horses’) are not ridden or used to pull chariots. Another suggestion is that ‘horses’ refers to ‘llamas’, but horses and llamas are really nothing like each other, and llamas are not used to pull chariots. Likewise, there was no smelted metal that was used at the time in ancient America which could plausibly be described as ‘steel’. Thirdly, the notion that ‘horses’ and ‘cattle’ are loose translations of some other form of animal seems inconsistent with the fact that some names in the Book of Mormon are left untranslated, including the unknown metal ziff (Mosiah 11:8), and the animals ‘cureloms and cumoms’ (Ether 9:19). It seems implausible that Joseph Smith would choose to, or be instructed to, use misleading translations like ‘horse’ and ‘steel’ whilst at the same time leaving some names untranslated. If ‘steel’ is actually some other metal or material, why not leave that untranslated? Of why not just call ziff ‘steel’? This inconsistently seems to have no explanation if Joseph was indeed receiving divine revelation during his translation.

Problems with Dating the Birth of Christ

There is one further problem with the historical accuracy with the Book of Mormon which, as far as I know, I may be the first to have noticed (I’m sure other people have come across this too, but I can’t recall having read of it anywhere else). The problem concerns that dating of the birth of Christ. 1 Nephi 1:4 states clearly that the record begins at the beginning of the first year of the reign of Zedekiah, which has been dated to 597 BC. In 3 Nephi 1 versus 1,4, and 26, it is made clear that the signs associated with the birth of Christ occurred exactly 601 years after Lehi left Jerusalem. So, if Lehi left Jerusalem in 597 BC and Christ was born 601 years afterwards, that places Christ’s birth in the year AD 5 (remembering there was no year 0). This date is simply far too late; even the traditional dating places Christ’s birth at 1 BC, and most modern scholars accept a date of 4 BC or earlier, given that Herod died in this year and so was not alive in 1 BC.

Thus, according to the Book of Mormon, Jesus was born about nine years after he actually was. I do not think it is plausible to argue that the dates given are approximate, as says quite clearly ‘the ninety and second year of the reign of the judges’. This also tallies with Mosiah 29:46, which tells us that the first year of the reign of the judges (when Mosiah died) occurred 509 years after Lehi left Jerusalem, and 509 plus ninety-two equals 601. Joseph Smith was generally quite good with keeping dates in the Book of Mormon internally consistent, but in the one instance where we have the ability to cross-reference them with known historical events we find a discrepancy. A nine year discrepancy in dates is hardly sufficient by itself to totally discredit the Book of Mormon, but to me it was interesting (as I discovered it myself as far as I know) counterevidence to the belief that the book was divinely inspired, especially given that Joseph Smith declared the Book of Mormon to be “the most correct of any Book on earth”.

Lesson 1: Historicity matters

The lesson that I take away from this examination of the historicity of the Book of Mormon is that it is exceptionally important to examine religious events that claim to be historical, and determine whether their claims are consistent with what is known from history and archaeology. Any inconsistencies that are uncovered do not by themselves necessarily disprove the religious claim, since history and archaeology can be wrong. Inconsistencies of this sort do, I think, count as evidence against the claims, and the greater are the discrepancies, the less plausible it becomes that the religious events in question actually took place.

Before accepting a new religion, therefore, I would need to conduct a careful investigation of whatever historical claims it makes, and determine the extent to which they are validated by, or at the very least consistent with, what we otherwise know about history. This is one reason why, for instance, I have become very interested in the historicity of the New Testament, and am concerned by some of its potential inconsistencies and problems (particularly the birth narratives). I am now very wary of religions that make false claims about history.

Competing Prophets and Holy Books

Key point: there are numerous prophets and holy men who have produced their own works of scripture comparable in various ways to the Book of Mormon, and there is no clear basis for accepting the claims of one over the other.

Other Claimed Prophets and their Scriptures

One of the most common reasons for accepting the Book of Mormon as divinely inspired that I heard as a Mormon was that there is no possibility that an uneducated young man like Joseph Smith could have written the Book of Mormon by himself, given its considerable length, narrative complexity, internal consistency, inclusion of many specific cultural and technical details, and application of various literary conventions. I myself found this argument quite compelling for quite some time. During the course of my research, however, I discovered that there have been a great many alleged ‘prophets’ who, like Joseph Smith, have written lengthy and intricate works which they claim to have been revelations or divinely-inspired translations of ancient records.

A brief selection of some of these, many of them being breakaways from the main body of the Mormon church, includes: James Strang who wrote The Book of the Law of the Lord, Goker Harim who wrote The Sealed Portion of the Brother of Jared, Christopher Marc Nemelka who wrote The Sealed Portion: The Final Testament of Jesus Christ, Art Bulla who wrote The Revelations of Jesus Christ, and Joseph Morris who wrote The Spirit Prevails. Particularly intriguing is the case of Pearl Lenore Curran, an alleged spirit medium around the turn of the 20th century who produced a voluminous amount of literature (including many poems) allegedly all authored by the spirit she was in contact with.

View of the Hebrews

I also found out about a very interesting work called View of the Hebrews, which was published seven years before the Book of Mormon by New England clergyman Ethan Smith. It shares with the Book of Mormon a number of key themes, including that native Americans are descended from Israel, and the inclusion of many references to Old Testament prophets. There is no evidence of which I am aware that Joseph Smith knew of this book or copied it in any direct way, and there are many differences of details between the Book of Mormon and View of the Hebrews.

I do believe, however, that the existence of this work does show that many of the core ideas and major themes of the Book of Mormon were already circulating in the intellectual and social spheres in which Smith was raised. This does not prove that the Book of Mormon is not divinely inspired, but it seems to me more consistent with the hypothesis that Joseph Smith wrote the book out of his own (very vivid) imagination drawing upon ideas that were current at the time, than with the hypothesis that the content of the book was revealed de novo from a divine source.

Could Joseph Smith have written the Book of Mormon?

Another claim with which I was familiar was that the time taken to translate the Book of Mormon was far too short for it to have been done without divine inspiration. During the course of my research I began to have doubts about this claim, and at one point I sat down to do the math. The bulk of the Book of Mormon was dictated by Joseph Smith during a single period of 90 days, some sources saying that only about 65 of these days having been used for translation work. The Book of Mormon is 275,000 words long (which includes quite a lot of material copied verbatim from Isaiah which should probably be excluded from this count). If we assume Smith worked 65 days, he must have produced an average of 4,200 words per day, which for an eight hour day is roughly 530 words per hour, or about nine words per minute. Putting it that way, the output seemed much less miraculous to me. Still quite impressive to be sure (Smith was known to be a keen story teller and have a very active imagination), but hardly superhuman.

It must also be remembered that Smith originally started writing over a year before, when he produced the 116 pages that were subsequently lost. Thus Smith had quite a lot of time to think about, and perhaps even make notes, concerning his story – it’s certainly not the case that he started from scratch at the beginning of those 90 days. Also, Joseph Smith had a further eight months to make corrections and adjustments before the book was first published in 1830. Even then, the first edition is not the polished work we read now: it was not broken up into versus, and the chapter divisions were much longer and different to those now used. There were also a large number of spelling and grammatical errors which were progressively corrected by the church in subsequent editions. Considering all these factors, I came to conclude that although the production of the work by Joseph Smith was quite impressive, it was not a superhuman feat, and can certainly be explained without appeals to divine revelation.

Lesson 2: Comparative religion matters

The primary lesson I have taken away from this analysis of different prophetic works is the importance of not considering the merits of only a single perspective, but to instead compare the relative merits of different religious teachings. Joseph Smith’s claims and writings looked far more impressive to me when they were all I knew about, and much less impressive after I compared them alongside the alleged prophecies and holy books produced by many other religious leaders. It is so easy for one viewpoint to look amazingly compelling when it is the only one we have seriously examined.

This observation has contributed to my current deep concern with religious disagreement, and desire to find some clear, objective criteria on which the truth or falsity of given religious claims can be adjudicated. The mere fact that a religious book and body of thought seems incredibly impressive and compelling to us is insufficient, when there are so many in other traditions who think that their revelations, their beliefs, and their holy books are likewise so uniquely compelling. We need to try to look at things from comparatively form multiple perspectives, and not merely from within the narrow framework of the one tradition we are comfortable and familiar with.

Changes to Temple Ordinances

Key point: certain Mormon temple ordinances have undergone significant changes since they were originally restored by Joseph Smith, contrary to the church’s own teachings that God’s ordinances cannot be altered.

A Note to Mormon Readers

In this section I do not discuss or reveal any details or aspects of the current endowment ceremony which endowed members have covenanted to keep sacred. I limit myself to general remarks, and go into details only in the case of certain elements of the ceremony that have now been removed. If even this makes you uncomfortable, skip this section.

Changes to the Endowment

All Mormons go to religious services at a chapel each Sunday, but those who are of age and deemed worthy are also encouraged to attend another set of worship services in a building called the temple. There, Mormons perform special ceremonies and ordinances, the most important of which is called the ‘endowment’. Most members experience the endowment ceremony as a combination of pre-recorded videos and live actions performed by those present. With a few small exceptions, the entirety of the ceremony, which lasts over an hour, is scripted, and thus is performed word-for-word identically on every occasion. This is relevant because this script has been changed in some important ways since the endowment was introduced. Aspects of the endowment which have been significantly altered include the following:

  • Penalties: the endowment used to contain penalties associated with revealing any of the sacred elements of the ceremony. These were removed in a 1990 revision of the ceremony.
  • Ministers as agents of Satan: the ceremony contained several scenes in which a protestant minister was portrayed as an agent of Satan. This was removed in the 1990 revision.
  • Wives obedience to husbands: women used to be required to promise to ‘observe and keep the law of your husbands, and abide by his counsel in righteousness’. In 1990 this was changed to ‘obey the Law of the Lord, and to hearken unto the counsel of her husband, as her husband hearkens unto the counsel of the Father’.
  • Oath of vengeance: beginning in the days of Brigham Young and lasting until around 1930, the endowment ceremony included an oath of vengeance for the murder of Joseph and Hyrum Smith. It read ‘you and each of you do covenant and promise that you will pray and never cease to pray to Almighty God to avenge the blood of the prophets upon this nation, and that you will teach the same to your children and to your children’s children unto the third and fourth generation’.
  • There have also been substantial changes to another ordinance called the initiatory. For more information on this see http://www.i4m.com/think/temples/temple_ordinance.htm

There is no question about these changes; they are not lies made up to discredit the church, as some Mormons tend to say of such things. More information can be found on the relevant wikipedia pages, and also on the FairMormon Mormon apologetics website.

Divine Ordinances Cannot be Changed

While Mormons and non-Mormons alike may be troubled by the content of these removed portions of the endowment, most troubling of all for me when I discovered this information was that it seemed to directly contradict the church’s teaching that God’s ordinances must be performed exactly in the specified manner and cannot be altered. This was one of the justifications of the need for a restored church in the first place, namely the argument that the original correct form of many ordinances like baptism had been lost and corrupted over time. As stated in the official church publication Teachings of the Presidents of the Church:

“Ordinances instituted in the heavens before the foundation of the world, in the priesthood, for the salvation of men, are not to be altered or changed.”

Likewise from the church magazine the Ensign:

“Through time and apostasy following Christ’s Resurrection and Ascension, however, the divine authority of the priesthood and the sacred ordinances were changed or lost, and the associated covenants were broken. The Lord revealed His displeasure over this situation in these words:“For they have strayed from mine ordinances, and have broken mine everlasting covenant;”

And from church General Conference:

“We explained briefly the Apostasy and the Restoration: that there is vast evidence and history of an apostasy from the doctrine taught by Jesus and his Apostles, that the organization of the original Church became corrupted, and sacred ordinances were changed to suit the convenience of men, and that today good people all over the world are confused with contending religions with differing doctrine and methods of worship.”

Apologetic Responses

Mormon apologists have claimed that there is a difference between changing the ordinances themselves, and changing some outward details of their presentation. This is certainly contrary to what I was always taught, that God’s ordinances must be performed exactly. It also seems contrary to teachings such as this:

“No jot, iota, or tittle of the temple rites is otherwise than uplifting and sanctifying. In every detail the endowment ceremony contributes to covenants of morality of life, consecration of person to high ideals, devotion to truth, patriotism to nation, and allegiance to God.”

According to this passage, every small detail of ordinances is important. Changes as substantial as removing entire portions of the endowment would thus surely be counted as ‘important’ details which contribute to the spiritual value of the ordinance, and thus presumably ought not to be changed. The church does not like to discuss these matters, and discourages members from speaking too openly about temple ordinances, even beyond the specific aspects that members promise not to reveal. As such, relatively few members (especially younger members) are aware of these facts. When I became aware of such things, my confidence in the church, though not completely undermined, was considerably shaken.

Lesson 3: Openness is essential

The main lesson I gained from learning about the changes to temple ordinances was the importance of openness to critical examination and discussion. The LDS church is notoriously sensitive to criticism, and very secretive about matters such as changes to the temple ordinances. I am not talking here about keeping certain aspects of the ordinances sacred; I’m talking about hiding from members the changes that have been made to key salvific ordinances (this also applies to various aspects of church history, but that’s another matter).

I do not believe that truth needs protecting, and were I to adopt another religion I would look for one which is open about its past and present activities, and which does not attempt to keep certain facts from its members or discourage them from thinking critically about such things. Any sign of resistance to critical open enquiry of this sort is thus very suspicious and off-putting to me. No true religion should feel the need to ‘protect’ its members from facts that they think may be unpleasant or may lead them to doubt.

Inaccurate Translation of the Book of Abraham

Key point: Joseph Smith claimed to translate the Book of Abraham from ancient Egyptian papyri. Some of these papyri have been discovered, and the translations provided by modern Egyptologists bear no resemblance to those given by Smith.

Background to the Book of Abraham

The Book of Mormon was not the only ancient record Joseph Smith claimed to have translated. In 1835, Joseph Smith acquired several ancient Egyptian papyri taken from some mummies that had been brought to America from Egypt several years earlier. At the time, Egyptian hieroglyphics had still not been deciphered, and owing to his famed translation abilities Smith was asked to attempt a translation. Smith examined the papyri and declared that they contained the writings of the ancient patriarch Abraham. He translated the papyri over the course of a few months, and the resulting work, the Book of Abraham, was published several years later and eventually canonised by the church in 1880. It now forms a key component of the Pearl of Great Price, one of the four canonical texts of the church.

Joseph Smith’s Inaccurate Translations

The original papyri owned by Joseph Smith were long thought to have been lost, but in 1966 several fragments were discovered in some university archives. It is unclear exactly what proportion of the original documents these fragments represent, however they do include large portions of one of the figures (called facsimiles) that are included in the Book of Abraham alongside the text (see here). Numerous professional Egyptologists have since examined these recovered fragments, and they are uniform in their assessment that their content bears no relation whatever to Smith’s translation. Essentially, the papyri are first century Egyptian funerary texts, and contain no mention of Abraham or any of the other doctrinal or historical elements contained in the Book of Abraham.

Apologetic Responses

When first I discovered these facts I was shocked and dismayed. This seemed to be a very clear disconfirmation of Joseph Smith’s ability to translate through divine assistance. I immediately sought out responses of Mormon apologists to see what they had to say on the matter. In preparing the present article, I discovered that just last year the church published a piece on its website discussing the translation of the Book of Abraham. The answers provided in this piece fall into two basic categories, and are essentially the same as those I read on Mormon apologetic sites when conducting my original research:

  • Since we have only recovered a fraction of the original papyri, we do not know whether the portions we have are the same as those Joseph Smith translated from, or what degree of overlap there may or may not be.
  • Joseph Smith may not necessarily have engaged in a literal textual translation of the papyri. I will quote from the lds.org essay on the subject, which articles this perspective quite succinctly: “Joseph’s study of the papyri may have led to a revelation about key events and teachings in the life of Abraham, much as he had earlier received a revelation about the life of Moses while studying the Bible. This view assumes a broader definition of the words translator and According to this view, Joseph’s translation was not a literal rendering of the papyri as a conventional translation would be. Rather, the physical artefacts provided an occasion for meditation, reflection, and revelation. They catalysed a process whereby God gave to Joseph Smith a revelation about the life of Abraham, even if that revelation did not directly correlate to the characters on the papyri”

My Reaction to the Responses

I never considered these responses to be very satisfactory. At the very least, we know that Joseph Smith did not translate facsimile 1 correctly, since we have recovered large portions of it, and if any inference can be made about the missing portions of the papyri, surely the most reasonable presumption would be that they would likely resemble in subject matter the portions that we do have, not that they would concern matters totally unrelated. As to the idea of a ‘non-literal translation’, once again this is not what I had always been taught. I was always told and read in church materials that the Book of Abraham, like the Book of Mormon, was a genuine translation of a real historical document.

There is no way we can know from historical investigation whether or not Joseph Smith received some sort of spiritual revelation catalysed by the papyri, however from my perspective the evidence fits far better with Joseph Smith having falsely believed in his divinely-inspired ability to translate, rather than God actually having inspired Joseph to write something that bore no relation to the document he thought he was translating, and then have highly misleading teachings about said document continuing to be taught throughout God’s true church. Like everything else, this alone is not completely definitive, but for me it was exceptionally compelling counterevidence against Joseph being a true prophet of God.

Lesson 4: Beliefs need to be testable

From my investigations of the Book of Abraham, and particularly upon discovering the ‘not a literal translation’ response, it became increasingly clear to me just how important it is that we have same method of testing or falsifying our beliefs. Not in some scientistic sense, but simply in the sense of being able to determine whether they are likely to be true or not. The ‘spiritual translation’ answer was so unsatisfactory to me precisely because there is no way to tell whether it is true or not, and can therefore be said of essentially any text from any religion. Thus, any religion which I joined now would to have at least some methods of testing out the truth of its claims, and not merely rely on completely untestable claims of spiritual revelation.

The Unreliability of Subjective Spiritual Evidence

Key point: Mormon doctrine places very heavy emphasis on personal spiritual witness as the prime method of learning the truth of the church, however the existence of many competing religion, as well as the findings of modern psychology, show that evidence of this sort is extremely unreliable.

Spiritual Witness in Mormonism

By far the single biggest reason why I accepted the truth of the Book of Mormon and the restored church is because of the validating ‘spiritual witness’ I believe I had received from God. Mormons believe this is by far the most important and most fundamental way one comes to a knowledge of the truth of the church, often appealing to a passage found in the Book of Mormon in Moroni 10:4, which reads:

“And when ye shall receive these things, I would exhort you that ye would ask God, the Eternal Father, in the name of Christ, if these things are not true; and if ye shall ask with a sincere heart, with real intent, having faith in Christ, he will manifest the truth of it unto you, by the power of the Holy Ghost.”

Mormons and those investigating Mormonism are encouraged to read the Book of Mormon and pray sincerely to God to provide them with a spiritual witness of its truth. For many years, I believed that I had received such a witness, which I described as a powerful sensation of peace, comfort, and insight that I gained when reading and pondering the Book of Mormon. I believed that this was a witness from God telling me that the things I was reading and praying about were indeed true, that they were good, and that they were from God.

Cognitive Biases and Conflicting Experiences

During my period of reflection, however, I started to learn about human psychology. I found out about expectation bias (how our expectations enormously shape our perceptions), cognitive dissonance (how we use motivated reasoning to manage apparently conflicting beliefs), the availability heuristic (our tendency to misjudge the probability of events based on a few particularly vivid examples), post-purchase rationalization, pareidolia (seeing patters where none exist), and selection bias (distorting our view of something by the biased way in which examples are chosen). I learnt about a fascinating book called When Prophecy Fails, which documents how may end of the world cults continue to believe even after their predictions fail to come to. I learnt about the immense research documenting the fallibility of human memory, how every time we recall an event we reconstruct and potentially alter the memory, and how relatively easy it is to generate false memories.

Learning about these things, I began to see how they applied in so many ways to my own experience as a Mormon, and also to the way in which Mormons approach spiritual witnesses generally. When I prayed for spiritual confirmation, it was with a strong expectation that I would receive it, which greatly increased the chances that I would come to believe I had such an experience regardless of whether or not there was any true supernatural involvement. Pareidolia would help ensure that I interpreted a wide range of potential thoughts, feelings, and sensations as being consistent with a spiritual witness. The immense amount of time and energy I had put into the church throughout my life would lead to a significant amount of cognitive dissonance and post-purchase rationalisation effects if I were to fail to receive a witness, and thus I was much more likely to convince myself that I had received one. My memory of the spiritual experiences I had had, and those I had heard about from others, was likely altered over time and perhaps had changed significantly from the way events originally occurred.

I also became increasingly concerned about the variability of personal spiritual witnesses across different religions. I found examples of people from Islam, Catholicism, Buddhism, and Wicca, all who reported experiences and feelings which were broadly similar in form to those I had experienced, and those I had heard other Mormons witness about. I wondered how different people could receive genuine spiritual witnesses of conflicting spiritual truths. The more I thought about this, the more dissatisfied I became with simply believing that I was right and others were wrong. I could not find any rational basis for thinking my spiritual witness, or those of Mormons I knew, where more likely to be true than those experienced by people in other religions. This realisation, combined with my new knowledge of human psychology and our powers for self-deception, eventually led me to believe that the experiences and sensations I believe I had had were in fact the products of my own mind, and not the result of divine influence.

The Three and Eight Witnesses

It was a result of similar considerations that I came to believe that the testimonies of the three and the eight witnesses (groups of men who claimed to have seen the gold plates from which the book of Mormon was supposedly translated) were also not a reliable source of information. In the course of my research on the matter I came across this quote by Illinois governor Thomas Ford, who opined that the event of the witnessing of the plates may have proceeding something like this:

“The witnesses were ‘set to continual prayer and other spiritual exercises.’ Then at last ‘he (Joseph Smith) assembled them in a room, and produced a box, which he said contained the precious treasure. The lid was opened; the witnesses peeped into it, but making no discovery, for the box was empty, they said, “Brother Joseph, we do not see the plates.’ The prophet answered them, ‘O ye of little faith! how long will God bear with this wicked and perverse generation? Down on your knees, brethren,  every one of you, and pray God for the forgiveness of your sins ‘ The disciples dropped to their knees, and began to pray in the fervency of their spirit, supplicating God for more than two hours with fanatical earnestness; at the end of which time, looking again into the box, they were now persuaded that they saw the plates.”

I had no reason to believe that the details of this hypothetical account are correct, but it seemed to me that something like this was eminently plausible given what I now knew about human psychology. There were also some other problems with the witnesses which came to my attention, such that virtually all of them were either relatives or friends of Smith, and a number of whom had strong financial and social interests in the success of the church. Also, the witnesses did not give their own independent accounts of events, but merely signed a single document prepared for them, thus leaving us with no way to corroborate their separate accounts with each other, or see whether each of them experienced the same thing, rather than each having their own rather unique spiritual experience which they then misremembered and reconstructed upon later recall as being consistent with the written account. I also found out that a number of other prophets had their own groups of witnesses, including Solomon Spalding and Jesse Strang. I found out about the many sightings of the Virgin Mary, some of them very well documented and with a large number of witnesses (as a Mormon I did not believe in such apparitions). All in all, I was left far less impressed with the accounts of the witnesses than I had previously been.

Lack of Apologetic Responses

Searching for responses to these concerns from Mormon apologists, I could find almost nothing. It was almost as if Mormons had never even thought about such questions before, a notion which I found both bizzare and deeply discouraging. In the face of such evidence and in the absence of any real responses, I became extremely skeptical both of my own spiritual experiences, and of the reported and recollected experiences of others. I no longer considered them to be a reliable way of finding truth, or of determining the veracity of writings like the Book of Mormon.

Lesson 5: Subjective evidence is unreliable

My experience with Mormonism has taught me to be highly skeptical of any claims to divine or spiritual knowledge gained primarily on the basis of personal religious experience, sensations, or feelings. I do not believe that such things are a reliable way of finding truth, and as such any religion which I joined today, though it may have an important place for such experiences, would not elevate them to be the primary means of determining the truth of religious claims.

Bringing Things Together

Leaving Mormonism

By the end of my period of intensive study and reflection, I had come to the conclusion that Joseph Smith was probably not a divinely inspired prophet, and that the church he established was probably not God’s true church. I did not come to this conclusion on the basis of any single argument or piece of evidence, but as a result of multiple, largely separate considerations, the five major ones I have outlined here (there were many other lesser considerations as well, but I have omitted them to save space). No single discovery I made was enough to completely undermine my faith by itself, nor did any of them definitively and conclusively disprove the truth of Mormonism. Rather, it was a question of relative plausibility and explanatory power of different ways of interpreting the facts.

Becoming an Atheist

Having come to the conclusion that Mormonism was probably not a true religion, I found myself having little or no reason to continue believing in god. The main reasons why I had previously believed in God were as a result of my belief in the Book of Mormon, in the first vision of Joseph Smith, and also as a result of my own personal spiritual experiences. Having become convinced that all of these reasons for belief were mistaken or inadequate, I lacked any reason to continue believing in God. I thus began describing myself as an atheist or an agnostic, depending on the mood I was in – at present I prefer the term ‘weak atheist’.

Continued Searching

To this day I remain open to the possibility that my decision to leave Mormonism might have been incorrect, and that the Mormon church is in fact true, and that Joseph Smith is in fact a true prophet of God. For me to once again believe in this, however, I would need to find compelling answers to these five problems I have outlined here, as well as a number of other comparatively minor matters that I have not discussed here. To my continued disappointment, none of my Mormon friends or acquaintances were interested at the time, or have seemed interested since, to discuss these issues and concerns with me.

Since leaving Mormonism I have also continued to search for new reasons or arguments as to why I should believe in God, or adopt some religion other than Mormonism. As yet, I have not found reasons or arguments which I find sufficiently persuasive. Nonetheless, my ignorance and limitations remain immense, and so the search goes ever on. I am still only near the beginning of my journey

Lesson 6: We must compare worldviews holistically

Partly as a result of my experiences investigating various aspects of Mormonism, I have come to the view that it is essential to consider a body of evidence collectively, rather than merely examining each argument or fact in isolation. It is certainly important to look at details of each particular argument, but if this is all one does, it is very easy to get caught in the trap of ‘explaining away’ every possible counterargument or discrepancy within the framework of what we already believe. In this way, we never shift our beliefs, and we are not receptive to new evidence.

Instead, we need to make the effort to consciously take a step back and think ‘which perspective, which worldview is most consistent with the evidence as a whole? What is the most reasonable thing to believe that has the greatest chance of being true?’ This means making a genuine sincere effort to understand alternate viewpoints and interpretations, rather than just dismissing them point by point on each particular argument. We need to put on the goggles of those we disagree with, see through their eyes, and then switch back to our own goggles and consider which pair provided the better view of reality. This is not an easy thing to do, but I think that if we wish to maximise our changes of holding true beliefs, it is something we must regularly strive for.

Some Concluding Thoughts on Reason and Belief

Many Christians I know are very committed to their faith, believing very strongly in Jesus and his power in their lives. Nevertheless, I have found that many such persons are unable to answer many of my questions, objections, and criticisms. When I raise such matter, they tend to change the subject, fail to get back to me after saying they will, respond in ways that seem to portray an almost complete lack of understanding of my perspective, or sometimes even flat out say to me that they do not know how to respond. At the same time, such persons, seemingly without fail (although I guess I cannot know for sure) remain unwavering in their beliefs. Nothing I say seems to have much of any impact at all. Even in the very act of being unable to provide any cogent or relevant response to something I have said, they nevertheless maintain the same level of confident certainty that their beliefs are correct. I speak mostly of my Christian friends here (and some of them are among my very dearest friends), though I suspect similar remarks would apply to many of my Mormon friends as well, had I ever had any substantive conversations with them about such matters.

My reaction to this attitude is one of considerable incredulity. It’s not that I want to prove to these people that they are wrong or to get them to change their minds. Rather, it’s a matter of wanting to understand their reasons, and becoming frustrated and disappointed when they seem unable to articulate them. As far as I can see, weighing up and interpreting evidence and arguments is the way we try to distinguish truth from falsity. If we hold on tenaciously to a belief even in the face of objections to central aspects of that belief to which we have little or no idea how to respond, then we are in effect abdicating our role as searchers after truth. If we are right, we hope to be so by sheer luck, not because we have done all we can to cleave true from false beliefs and maximise our chances of holding to the true and rejecting the false.

I refuse to believe that God created us with an intellect only to have us forego its use, and instead wallow in confident certainty in the very face of our own admission (tacit or explicit) that we do not have the tools we need to discern whether our most dearly held beliefs are in fact likely to be true. This is a rejection of the paramount importance of truth, an abdication of our intellectual integrity, and, having given up truth as our guiding light, constitutes a surrender to the vicissitudes of chance and passion to control our destinies. Such a life is not the life I want to live, and I call upon everyone everywhere reject this form of passive slavery to falsity and unreason, and instead fight with all our might, with all our strength, and with all our souls, to find out what is true, and to live by those truths that we find, always with a confidence proportionate to the reasons we have for belief.

This does not mean that we will have all the answers – that would be absurd – but it does mean that we should always have sufficient answers to justify our current level of confidence in how we can know what we claim to know. If we cannot give such answers but nonetheless hold fast to our beliefs, then we are lying to ourselves, and (if he exists) we are lying to God too, for we are pretending to know things that we do not in fact know, or at least do not know with the level of confidence we claim. I am guilty of doing this; I think we all are at times. But that doesn’t make it right or good.

I urge all people everywhere to think more carefully, to learn more, to listen to alternate views, and generally to put more effort into finding and holding onto truth, and not merely the appearance or the feeling of truth. I have no interest in this counterfeit version – only the genuine article will satisfy. I hope that Christians, Mormons, Atheists, and everyone else will recognise their fundamental underlying unity as seekers of truth, and join together on this grand and noble quest to understand this vast and confusing world in which we all live.

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.