Arguments Against Effective Altruism

Synopsis

Here I present an argument against the ‘Effective Altruism’ (EA) movement. First, I argue that the philosophy of the EA movement is predicated upon a contested utilitarian ethical framework which the movement makes insufficient efforts to justify, and seems to lead to positively perverse conclusions when taken to extremes, as can be seen in the ‘repugnant conclusion’. Second, I argue that the myopic EA focus on empirical evidence of charitable efficacy is misguided, as it leads to worthwhile interventions being neglected simply because they are too difficult to measure. Third, I argue that in focusing excessively on empirical evidence and cost-benefit calculations, EA ignores many longer-term systemic flow-on effects, which in many cases can be far greater than short-term charitable outcomes. Finally, I argue that the EA movement’s lofty standards for empirical evidence and rational decision making are so onerous that even the EA movement itself cannot live up to them, meaning that EA fails in its endeavor to extirpate personal intuition and subjective judgements from charitable analysis.

Introduction

There have been a number of critiques of effective altruism put forward, for example here, here, here, here, and here, but at least in my view, most of them aren’t very compelling or coherent. This piece is attempt to remedy the situation by providing a more robust case against EA. For purposes of this piece, I define effective altruism as a social movement, drawing particular inspiration from the work of Peter Singer, the core characteristics of which is a focus on achieving maximum charitable impact by targeting donations to causes which have been empirically demonstrated to yield the most cost-effective outcomes, and shaping one’s life and career so as to maximize the aggregate impact one can make through such programs. Note that the views expressed in this piece do not necessary reflect those of the author of this piece.

Utilitarian Presumption

EA is based upon an underlying presumption of utilitarian ethical theory. Indeed, it often seems such utilitarianism is treated as an axiom not worthy of further discussion. But the trouble is, not everyone shares such a utilitarian ethic. In particular, deontologists and virtue ethicists will not necessarily agree with the hard-nosed EA utilitarian that we should let the blind man down the road go without a guide dog if doing so means that we are able to instead repair the eyesight of fifty Africans. Nor is there any clear reason for such people to accept this utilitarian viewpoint, aside of course from extended philosophical discussion, which given the past two millennia of philosophical history seems unlikely to yield much consensus anyway. Given such differing views on ethics, why is EA so dogmatically confident in their utilitarianism, taking it as so obvious and basic that all others should just automatically agree?

Indeed, there are some fairly simple yet powerful arguments against the sort of utilitarian ethic championed by EA. Consider, for instance, the general EA antipathy towards donations to art or cultural organizations, or even ‘community building’ sorts of activities like donating to the local scouting group or the Make-A-Wish Foundation. The standard argument against such donations is that, whilst they may be ‘nice’ and improve our communities, these benefits are overwhelmed by the utility of the many lives that could be saved if the same resources were redirected to health and education interventions in the Third World. The trouble with an argument like this, however, is that taken to its natural end, it leads to the repugnant conclusion: namely that it is better to have a world comprised of a very large number of people whose lives are just barely worth living, compared to a world comprised of a much smaller population of healthier, happier, flourishing persons. Virtue ethicists in particular would likely object to the notion that saving lives is the overriding ethical consideration that we face – what also matters is what we do with those lives, for example, to build happy, supportive, flourishing communities. But EA utilitarianism seems to tell us that more lives is always preferable.

EA supporters might retort that this abstract philosophical problem has little bearing on the actual real-world decision of whether we should donate to an art gallery or to AMF, but this seems like a highly unsatisfactory, and indeed positively evasive, response from a movement so founded on intellectual rigor and philosophical clarity. Analysis such as these demonstrate how EA rests on a much shakier philosophical grounding than its proponents care to consider or admit.

The Limits of Empirics

EA advocates careful measurement of the cost-effectiveness of donations, and generally recommends against donations to charities unable to demonstrate measurable positive impacts. Consider for instance GiveWell’s recommended charities: these are the charities for which GiveWell was able to find sufficient empirical evidence of cost-effectiveness. The ‘non-recommended’ charities are such not because they have been found to be ineffective, but only because they have not been found to be effective. The problem with this is approach is that, in general, absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. The question one must consider is: would we expect to have quality evidence of efficacy for charities that were effective? If so, then absence of evidence would be evidence of absence. But there seems to be no reason whatever to think this, and many reasons to think otherwise. In particular, social interventions of the kind carried out by charities are exceptionally complex, multi-faceted, and difficult to measure. It is not at all clear, therefore, that the absence of the evidence of efficacy tells potential donors anything at all about the charity in question. But EA treats such absence of evidence as if it were positive evidence that the charity is not worth donating to.

There are deeper issues with this overarching focus on the empirical. An obsession with specific measurable outcomes inevitably leads to a focus on those outcomes to the exclusion of other considerations. Even specific exhortations to the contrary are often ineffective, as the formal and informal incentives of the relevant organisations are all focused towards the specific goal that is actually being measured: for corporations this is profits, leading to neglect of environmental and other considerations. For charities, this problem could manifest itself in other ways. For example, if a program’s efficacy is measured by the number of bednets placed, this produces an incentive to supply large numbers of low-quality nets to easily-accessible populations who may not necessarily need them. One can consider many similar examples where a focus on one or two easily-measurable outcomes results in a neglect of other important aspects of a program, catastrophically undermining its efficacy.

The retort to these sorts of problems is usually the assertion that one simply needs to adopt better metrics. But that is exactly the point – often there are no good metrics, or the only good metrics would be too complicated and expensive to collect given limited resources and infrastructure. So either the program goes ahead with lousy metrics, in which case EA over-emphasis on empirical outcomes can lead to adverse consequences owing to the inadequacy of the metrics being used, or the program just doesn’t go ahead at all, owing to the lack of any ability to demonstrate its efficacy. EA philosophy seems impotent to deal with this deep dilemma.

Flow-On Effects

Excessive focus on empirically-proven charitable interventions also means that the EA movement has a tendency to ignore other causes and consequences which are harder to quantify or even define with any precision, but are nonetheless no less real or important. One example would be ‘flow-on effects’, or second and third-order consequences of charitable programs. What effects does a program have on community cohesion in the long-run? How does this particular initiative alter the incentives faced by local officials, charity workers, and donors? What unintended consequences may this action have? Such indirect consequences are by definition hard to foresee or measure, and therefore tend to be neglected in the sort of outcome-based analyses favoured by EA advocates.

Consider another example. If EA had existed in the 18th century, its advocates would presumably have argued for the upper classes and emerging bourgeoisie of Western Europe to invest their time and energies in poverty reduction, promoting basic health care and education for the masses, etc. Much as contemporary EA supporters decry donations to art galleries as being comparatively ineffective, our imaginary 18th century EA predecessors would presumably have opposed the use of time and resources for speculative research in physics, chemistry, and biology, or work in areas that obviously have no practical value for improving peoples lives, such as archaic mathematical concepts like calculus and statistics, or inventing new fields of study like ‘economics’, or new ethical philosophies like ‘utiliarianism’, given that lack of any evidence at all that this sort of work would yield any practical benefits at all for the needy. And yet, without these pioneering developments, the modern EA movement would be without the technical ability to carry out its approved interventions, the statistical and modelling tools necessary to gauge their effectiveness, or even the very philosophical and theoretical framework with which to articulate their position and analyze opposing views. Examples such as this show that, at best, EA recommendations about cause prioritization seem to be missing a great deal of importance.

Impossible Standards to Meet

This issue of the limits of empirics brings me to a final point about the impossible standards that EA sets, standards which even it is unable to meet. The EA movement calls for charitable efforts to be prioritized on the basis of objective cost-effectiveness analyses. But there are numerous ‘meta-level’ questions surrounding EA which simply cannot be decided on the basis of such criteria, either because of lack of data, lack of agreement about key concepts, lack of time for analysis, or some combination of these factors. Consider the debate over the question of whether to give now or give later. What is the evidence-based, objective basis for deciding one way or the other on this question? Or consider the debate about the relative importance of ameliorating global poverty vs tackling existential risks. Again, where is the evidence or objective criteria for arriving at a position on this matter? Similar questions could be raised regarding disputes concerning earning to give, environmental ethics, population ethics, animal suffering, and many other matters. What EA supporters end up doing, of course, is make a decision based on intuition, emotion, personal experiences, and vagaries of their particular situation – precisely the decision making methods which the EA movement decries in charitable giving more broadly. This comes about, as I have said, because the standards that EA sets for itself (and others) are simply impossible to meet. We don’t have enough data, we don’t have enough agreement about core concepts, and we don’t have enough time or ability to weigh up and analyse all the various considerations.

EA supporters might respond by saying “yes but at least we’re trying to use evidence and rationality as much as we can, so our donations will on average be at least somewhat more effective, even if we make some mistakes and leave out some factors”. It is not at all clear, however, that even this claim is true. Since EA supporters cannot agree about whether to give now or later, or whether to support malaria eradication or friendly-AI research, and since no objective rational basis exists for supporting one over the other (at least by EA standards, given the lack of any clear evidence), the effectiveness of these different approaches could well vary just as much as the effectiveness of traditional charities. As such, EA giving falls prey to the very same criticism it levels against traditional charities – one might be doing good, but we can’t really tell because we can’t measure it.

 

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

Synopsis

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

A Motivating Anecdote

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

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

Disagreement and Doubt

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

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

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

Subjective Evidence

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

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

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

The Christian Response

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

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

What Evidence is For

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

But God can do Anything

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

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

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

The Value of Subjective Evidence

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

Concluding Remarks

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

Seeking God versus Seeking Truth

Synopsis

In this piece I contrast the notions of “loving and seeking for truth”, and “loving and seeking God”. I argue that, at least as many Christians understand it, these are quite different, meaning that seeking truth does not look the same as seeking god. I then argue that, contrary to this notion, truth must always and everywhere be first and foremost in our focus. Putting anything else first means that we are accepting beliefs that cannot be challenged, and hence may lead us to devote ourselves to things that are not actually real.

Introduction

If you love something, should one not seek after it? Not merely in a halfhearted or haphazard way, but “with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength.” I love truth, which, for our purposes here, I’m going to define as ‘things as they actually are’. Christians love God, and they say that I should too. The trouble is, seeking God does not at all look the same as seeking truth.

Seeking Truth

In seeking truth, one must question all assumptions, rigorously analyze all relevant evidence, and critically examine all pertinent arguments. One must be ever vigilant, conscious of one’s own biases and limitations, ever striving to overcome them as best as one can, while knowing that one is perpetually bound by the shackles of one’s own subjectivity. One must be self-critical, honestly introspective, meticulously exacting in one’s standards of evidence and argumentation. One must be humble, ever willing to admit to the limits of one’s own knowledge and understanding, ready to seriously engage with the reasoned opinions of others, to take disagreement seriously, and to say “I don’t know”. One must constantly be searching, never satisfied that one has reached the final and definitive goal – because new evidence or reasons may always come to light. Each in their own ways and in their own fields, I think that is what happens, or ideally ought to happen, in fields such as philosophy, history, and science.

Seeking God

Seeking God, however, looks very different indeed. Let’s take the Christian perspective as illustrative. Rather then questioning everything so as to eradicate falsehoods, we are told to simply have faith; “O you of little faith, why did you doubt?” Rather then subjecting every assumption to scrutiny, we are told to place some beliefs forever beyond scrutiny, for “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom”. Rather than seek evidence, we are told “Blessed are they that have not seen and yet have believed”. We are told not to wonder too much or question too deeply, because “My ways higher than your ways and My thoughts than your thoughts”. We are told to spurn careful thinking and rigorous seeking of evidence, for “God has chosen the foolish things of the world to shame the wise”. Rather than carefully consider alternative viewpoints and be open to the possibility that we may be wrong, we are told to that “The fool says in his heart, ‘There is no God'”. Seeking God looks like reading the Bible, praying, worshiping the Lord, and always trusting that, no matter how hard things get or how difficult a question is to answer, God always has a way, and always has an answer, even if they are not made clear to us.

Beliefs Beyond Question

I am not saying here that belief in God is incompatible with seeking the truth, or that there is a necessary conflict between faith and reason (I have argued against this in the past). What I am saying, however, is that seeking God and seeking truth are not the same; they look different. In seeking God, some beliefs and assumptions are never questioned, forming the bedrock upon which all else is understood. In seeking the truth, nothing is sacred in this way – everything is open to being challenged, for how else can we know if it is wrong? We can even challenge the very notions we are appealing to, questioning ‘what is truth?” and critically considering what is reason and how it can help us to get there. But in seeking God, there are some things that are beyond question. Some beliefs, such as the existence of God, the divinity of Jesus, or the veracity of the Bible, are simply never to be doubted, never to be subject to rigorous scrutiny. We might have many questions, doubts, and confusions about God and about the Bible, but those basic beliefs themselves are utterly immune from criticism. All evidence that we find that appears contrary or may conflict with those core beliefs must everywhere, always, without question be either dismissed, or made to fit with those beliefs. Because some things cannot be questioned.

Truth First

When we place seeking God before seeking truth in this way, what we are saying is that “God is more important than truth, even if God does not exist”. I reject this. I refuse to go along with it. God is only of supreme importance if he actually exists. The Bible is only of paramount importance if it is the word of God. Jesus is only to be worshiped if he actually is the son of God. These things all may be true, I am not saying they aren’t. What I am saying is that we must seek the truth first and foremost. Otherwise, we have not done all we can to protect ourselves from error. Otherwise, we are not doing our utmost to ensure that what we believe and what is actually the case are as closely aligned as we can make them. Otherwise, we have no basis, aside from sheer assertion or blind belief, that we are not like the billions of other people in this world who devote some or all of their lives to false beliefs. I don’t even think this is contrary to what is contained in the Bible: the selection of quotes and arrangement thereof in the passage above was intended to convey a particularly common interpretation of these matters, which I do not think is the only way or indeed the best way of interpreting what the Bible has to say about the relationship between seeking God and seeking truth.

If, in order to believe in God, I must love God more than I love truth, then, as Queen Amidala said “That is something I cannot do”. Nor do I accept the Pascal Wager-type arguments that I should abandon whatever intellectual integrity I may have (not to say that I have much), in exchange for “a live of ease”, so to speak, living eternally with God.

There… Are… Four… Lights!

God has chosen the foolish things of the world to shame the wise – See more at: http://bible.knowing-jesus.com/topics/Reason#sthash.CZlnnYke.dpuf
My ways higher than your ways And My thoughts than your thoughts. – See more at: http://bible.knowing-jesus.com/topics/Reason#sthash.CZlnnYke.dpuf
My ways higher than your ways And My thoughts than your thoughts. – See more at: http://bible.knowing-jesus.com/topics/Reason#sthash.CZlnnYke.dpuf

 

Why I am still not a Christian: My Unanswered Objections

Synopsis

Here I outline the six core reasons why I do not believe that Christianity is true. Beginning with a list of objections that I no longer consider to be compelling, I then explain what I would require for an objection to be ‘answered’, and which of the objections I think are most important. I conclude with a plea for more sustained and substantive dialogue on these important issues.

Update (April 2015): This post has been deprecated. I no longer consider it an accurate representation of my views. It may still be informative reading nonetheless.

Former Objections

A list of objections to Christianity/Theism which I used to consider to be compelling, but which I now no longer consider to be particularly strong objections. For some of these I still think there are “difficult issues” to deal with (e.g. the Old Testament atrocities), but that these difficulties do not by themselves constitute reasons for withholding belief in Christianity. Note that here I will not attempt to explain why I have changed my mind on these issues; I include them here for completeness.

  • The bible has no corroborating historical evidence
  • Religious belief is inconsistent with science
  • The doctrine of the Trinity is incoherent
  • Prayer is nonsensical and perhaps immoral
  • Problem of evil
  • Old Testament atrocities
  • Faith is irrational
  • There is ‘no evidence’ that God exists

Outstanding Objections

Here follows a list of objections which I currently consider to be powerful, compelling reasons to withhold belief in Christianity/Theism. None of these are new – they are all topics I have written about before. However, I do not consider that the responses I have received to any of these objections have been adequate or especially detailed in addressing the core criticism. I have had some limited engagement with the Euthyphro Dilemma, the Argument from Philosophical Disagreement, and the Theological Confusion Objection, and essentially no substantive responses to the other three objections.

If all six of these objections can be answered satisfactorily, I would say it is “very highly likely” that I would become a Christian. However, many of the objections address largely independent lines of argument, so it is certainly not the case that all six would need to be addressed for me to change my mind. The objections are also in (rough) order of importance, such that I think that even if only the first two or three were adequately answered, that would probably be sufficient for me to become a Christian. The final three objections are, I think, the weaker ones (though still important, just not as important as the first three), so answering those three alone would probably not be sufficient for me to change my mind, though it would cause me to increase my subjective probability in the truth of Christianity.

Finally, when I talk about these objections being ‘answered satisfactorily’, I don’t mean that complete, fully worked-out, and totally unproblematic solutions must be provided, or that every last issue or reason for doubt be removed. As I said above about some of my ‘former objections’, it is quite possible for an objection to be ‘satisfactorily answered’ even if ‘difficult issues’ still remain. This happens all the time with theories in science, history, and philosophy. Instead, what I require is that that ‘core central objection’, or that the ‘central sting’ (so to speak), of the objection is addressed in a way that greatly weakens it as a reason to withhold belief in the truth of Christianity.

The HBS Model of the Resurrection Appearances: the reports of appearances of Jesus to his followers after his crucifixion, and also related matters like the empty tomb, are better explained by my purely naturalistic HBS Model, which has wider explanatory scope than the traditional Christian explanation, and requires no new or controversial assumptions about God’s character or desire to intervene in the world. More on this here goo.gl/KCrJgL

The Argument from Metaphysical Uncertainty: philosophical arguments for God’s existence, such as the cosmological, fine-tuning, and ontological arguments, are based on so many uncertain premises and inferences about matters (the ‘ultimate nature’ of space, time, causation, reality, being, etc) concerning which we know very little, and have extremely limited ability to discern truth from falsity. Hence it is not justified to draw any confident conclusions either way on the basis of these types of arguments. More on this objection here https://fods12.wordpress.com/2014/05/02/

The Argument from Philosophical Disagreement: over 80% of professional philosophers do not believe in God. This does not prove that God does not exist, but I do think that it is a powerful reason to be considerably less confident in the strength of the philosophical arguments in favour of God’s existence. More on this here https://fods12.wordpress.com/2014/04/18/

The Theological Confusion Objection: many informed, intelligent, pious Christians disagree about a large number of fundamentally important doctrinal and theological questions. These are not minor matters – they are vital to understanding mankind’s relationship to God, how to live righteously, interpretation of the bible, the nature of God, etc. This is not an argument for Christianity being false, but it is, I think, a powerful objection to the claim (often made) that Christianity can provide a compelling ‘explanation’ for the ‘big questions’ of life, the universe, mankind’s purpose, etc. Without such explanatory power I think the case for Christianity is significantly weakened. More on this here https://fods12.wordpress.com/2014/05/31/

The ‘Ego Worship’ Criticism: in appealing to subjective experiences in their own lives of relating to God or feeling God’s power and God’s influence in their lives, and other such things, Christians arrogate to themselves an unjustified degree of epistemic privilege. They assume that their own subjective experiences are veridical, in spite of enormous variability of such experiences across those of differing religious beliefs, and without justification treat the conception of God they construct in their own minds to be clearly indicative of the true nature of God. More on this here https://fods12.wordpress.com/2014/03/02/ and here https://fods12.wordpress.com/2014/03/03/

The Euthyphro Dilemma: is the pious (the good) loved by the gods because it is pious, or is it pious because it is loved by the gods? The usual response to this is something like ‘goodness is part of the nature of God’, which I consider to be inadequate as it simply buries one mystery within a bigger one, without providing any actual explanation. This is not an objection to Christianity being true, but it is an objection to the notion that Christianity can provide a metaethical ‘explanation’ or ‘justification’ for morality.

Conclusion

I will conclude with a quote from a piece I wrote last year for a Christian website (http://www.biblesociety.org.au/news/an-atheists-point-of-view-why-christians-arent-being-heard):

“Some Christians I have spoken to think that reason is antithetical to faith, or that use of reason and evidence represents an arrogant dependence on one’s own faculties in place of reliance on God. I think this concern is misplaced. Reason and evidence are not cynical devices designed to undermine faith – they are tools to help us, as limited and imperfect humans, to guard ourselves against self-deception, overconfidence, and other sources of false belief. Nor should reason be considered to be in opposition to faith. As I have learned in my time speaking with Christians, faith does not mean blind belief without evidence: is means placing one’s trust in God by building a personal relationship with him. Such trust should not be without foundation, but should be firmly grounded on solid reason and evidence. In 1 Peter 3:15 it says that Christians should “always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have”. I thoroughly agree with this sentiment.

Christianity makes a very bold claim: that all humans are eternally lost unless they surrender themselves to the redeeming power of Christ. As an atheist, I think this claim is false. But if this claim were true, I would very much want to be convinced of that fact, as would many of my fellow atheists. Indeed, I would go further than this: if Christians believe they have compelling reasons and evidence for their beliefs, I insist they share them with us! In the words of Isaiah 1:18 “come now, let us reason together”. Let us sit down together, Christians and Atheists, and politely but honestly share our best reasons in a spirit of good faith and friendship. Let us do this not occasionally, but often. These issues are too important to be neglected as a result of our tendency to separate ourselves from those we disagree with.”

What Christians Disagree About

Synopsis

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

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

The Bible

Which books are the word of God

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

The degree to which the bible is completely correct or trustworthy

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

The degree to which the meaning of scripture is clear

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

Salvation

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

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

Whether the atonement is limited or unlimited in scope

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Other Doctrinal Issues

The necessity, purpose, and proper mode of baptism

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

The nature of Christ

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

The possibility and nature of Christian apostasy

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

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

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

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

What will happen at the ‘end times’

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

The nature of hell

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

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

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

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

Creation and the Fall

The meaning of the Creation account in Genesis

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

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

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

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

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

Church and Worshiop

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

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

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

The appropriate modes of worship

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

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

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

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

Ethical Matters

Whether the bible supports or opposes slavery

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

God’s position on the morality of homosexuality

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

God’s position the morality of abortion

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

 

On Evidence and Truth: Why Reason is our only Hope

Synopsis

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

Truth and Reason

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

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

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

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

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

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

Christian Belief

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

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

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

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

A Case for Christianity – A Critique

Synopsis

In this piece I provide a critique of the Cosmological Argument portion of this video (see here https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=57Vr1Bkmvhk), a talk called ‘A Case for Christianity’ which has recently come to my attention. I argue that the speaker’s defenses of inference to the best explanation, the contingency of the universe, and the principle of sufficient reason, are all inadequate, and fail to properly consider plausible alternatives and counterexamples. I also discuss the comparative abilities of theism and naturalism to offer an ‘explanation’ for the origin of the universe, arguing that the speaker’s case for theism’s superiority is not well supported by the arguments he uses. Finally, I make some brief comments in response to the fine-tuning argument. Note that I do not discuss the historical arguments made in the second part of the talk, as I have addressed these in much more detail here (http://goo.gl/KCrJgL).

Inference to the Best Explanation

The speaker begins by appealing to ‘inference to the best explanation’, claiming that we use this sort of inference in science, history, and everyday life all the time, and that therefore it is valid. I believe that his argument is problematic for a number of reasons. First let me consider the two ‘examples’ that he gives to illustrate inference to the best explanation.

His first example is of electromagnetic theory providing evidence for the existence of electrons. Here, however, he simply presupposes the truth of scientific realism (that is, the notion that theoretical entities like electrons ‘really exist’, and are not merely useful fictions). Not only is scientific realism highly controversial, but it is also precisely the point he is attempting to establish here. That is, in order to accept that electromagnetic theory provides strong evidence for the ‘real’ existence of electrons, one would already have to accept the philosophically controversial premise that abductive arguments (another name for inference to the best explanation) are a valid method of reasoning about what is true. But this is precisely the point that the speaker is attempting to establish by citing this example. Thus the argument is question-begging.

In the case of the open window example, the speaker is confusing abduction and induction. Induction refers to the process of inferring that because something is often the case, or has often happened in a particular way, that therefore it is probably likely to happen similarly in this particular (new) case. That is a different type of argument to inference to the best explanation, but is precisely the type of reasoning being used in the window example. Thus, this second example also fails to support the speaker’s argument about the validity of inference to the best explanation.

Aside from the flaws of his examples, there is a deeper problem with the speaker’s argument – he fails to provide a proper definition of what they mean by ‘explanation’. It does no good to say ‘explanation tracks truth’ when it is not at all clear what ‘explanation’ actually means, or what one looks like. At various points throughout the talk he speaks of explanations as providing ’causes’ of something, as giving ‘a reason why’ something happens, and also of being able to fit with empirical data. These are all different notions of explanation (and there are many more that are debated in philosophy). Before any sensible argument can be made about what inferences can be drawn on the basis of explanations, it is first necessary to provide at least a reasonably clear explication of what exactly is meant by this term. Otherwise, things that one claims as being ‘explanations’ may not actually be explanatory at all (a potential issue with some of his later arguments). In sum, the speaker simply does not address these issues in sufficient depth (or really even allude to them at all), and thus they fail to make their case for the validity of abductive arguments.

A final problem with inference to the best explanation, which the speaker also does not address, is that at best all that such arguments can tell us is that when some explanation is superior to another, then we can infer that the state of the world ‘corresponding to’ that explanation is more likely. We cannot actually say how much more likely it is without knowing more about the comparative explanatory power of the competing explanations. It could be the case that even the best explanation available is so poor, is such as bad explanation, that the corresponding state of the world is still not very likely.

The Contingency of the Universe

The speaker argues that the universe is probably contingent, because the universe is simply the sum total of everything in the universe, and as far as we know everything in the universe is contingent. There are several flaws with this argument.

First, we simply do not know very much about the large-scale structure, origin, and nature of the universe. We do not know what was possible and what wasn’t – the science (and philosophy) of these matters is a long way from being settled. For the speaker therefore to simply assert that ‘as far as we know everything is contingent’ grossly overstates the extent of our knowledge, and dismisses too readily the high levels of uncertainty that remain.

Second, the speaker actually gives no reason as to why the universe should be contingent even if all of its constituent components are contingent. This is simply the fallacy of composition. He does acknowledge that it isn’t logically necessary that this be the case, but then he simply brushes off this objection and asserts that ‘it is a real stretch’ to argue that the universe could be necessary even though all its constituents are contingent. Why? No argument is given. Indeed, there seem to be many obvious counterexamples where properties of the whole are not manifested in any of the parts. For instance, cells are alive, but cells are made up of nothing but atoms, which are not alive. Words have meaning, but words are made up solely of vibrations of air or dots of ink, which do not have any meaning associated with them individually. To give another example, we would have to ‘go and look’ to see if any particular book was in a library – that fact would be contingent. But it would not be a contingent fact that a library contains books of some sort, or else it would not be a library at all.

For these reasons, the speaker fails to establish their conclusion that the universe is contingent.

The Principle of Sufficient Reason

The speaker argues that all contingent facts must have some reason or explanation as to why they are the case, a notion which is called the ‘principle of sufficient reason’. He argues that this principle underpins essentially all of science, and that rejecting it leads to nonsensical conclusions. However, I think the speaker fails to establish their argument about PSR, for the following reasons.

First, he is not clear about exactly what constitutes a ‘reason’. Is it a physical cause? A non-physical cause? An explanation? A purpose? What exactly? It seems difficult to take the argument very seriously when it is not even clear what claim is actually being made. On a related point, even the notion of causation itself is philosophically problematic, as David Hume and others have noted. To this the speaker makes no reference at all, and seems content merely to take the concept of ‘causation’ as an unproblematic given.

Second, the fact that something like the PSR (arguably) ‘underpins all of science’ does not imply that it is everywhere and always true. The author falls into the same trap that he accuses the naturalist speaker of falling into, namely of assuming that because a given concept sometimes works or is successful in a particular sphere (in this case science), it therefore follows that it is universally applicable. That simply does not follow. It could be the case that science works well for questions where PSR (or something like it) is applicable, and does not work well for questions where it does not. One can also raise the deeper question of whether science actually provides ‘reasons’ or ’causes’ at all, rather than merely describing empirical regularities (again, as argued by Hume). These are complex and much-debated questions in philosophy, but the speaker ignores them, and simply adopts as ‘obvious’ particular simplistic answers which, conveniently enough, also support his argument.

Third, to reject the PSR does not imply ‘nonsense’. It merely is to say that we do not properly understand abstract and difficult concepts like ‘causation’ well enough to make confident claims about them.

The Failure of Naturalism

The speaker then proceeds to argue that naturalism is unable even in principle to provide an explanation for the origin of the universe, as naturalistic explanations can only refer to physical laws, which themselves did not exist before the universe and hence cannot be appealed to in an explanation of it. A few responses are in order here.

First, the line of argument being made here is very dubious. It seems that the speaker is saying that we could tell that naturalistic explanations could never explain the origin of the universe, even before we had even tried to construct any, or test them to see if they work. He is saying that even in principle they simply cannot yield such an explanation. Looking back over history, it seems this line of argument that science ‘cannot possibly even in theory’ explain any given phenomenon has fared very poorly, the most obvious example being vitalism and explaining the unique nature of living beings. In general, I think it is wise not to place great confidence in armchair philosophizing arguments about what science can and cannot explain ‘in theory’. Their track record seems to be very poor indeed.

Second, it is not at all clear the a naturalistic explanation would require physical laws. When we begin talking about things that existed “before” the universe began, and how the universe could have come into being, we are so far outside of the realm of what we can understand, of what we can know about with any confidence, and so far beyond the bounds where our intuitions are useful, that it is just not at all clear what a naturalistic explanation of the origin of the universe would look like, or what it would need to appeal to. The fact that the speaker cannot now imagine how such a thing could be developed is simply an example of the fallacious argument from lack of imagination.

Third, the argument here relies on the notion that the universe is contingent, and that contingent things require explanations, both premises which, as I argued above, are questionable at best.

God as an Explanation

In this section, the speaker argues that theism provides a satisfactory explanation for the origin of the universe, on that basis that it was created by an uncaused non-physical mind. There are many problems with this proposed explanation.

First, no non-physical substance, entity, or process, is known uncontroversially to exist. The only non-physical things that we think ‘exist’ are abstractions, like nations or languages or mathematical theorems. But God is not supposed to be an abstraction; he is supposed to be a ‘real’ non-physical entity. It is certainly possible that such entities exist, but outside of the question of God, we do not have any other good reasons to believe that such things are exist at all (indeed, the very notion may be incoherent – this is debated). In contrast, we know that physical processes and entities are real (or, at least, we know this with a fairly high level of confidence, philosophical skepticism notwithstanding). For this reason alone, I think it is reasonable that naturalistic causes be granted higher plausibility when considering questions such as how the universe came to be.

Second, even if we are to accept non-physical causes, there seems to be no reason to accept this particular one that the speaker presents. Instead of a non-physical uncaused mind, could we not instead posit a non-physical uncaused substance called ‘vitalic phlogiston’, which gives rise to the universe as a product of the fluctuations of its internal harmonic vibrations. It seems there is an almost limitless number of potential non-physical ‘explanations’ (again, a problematic term the speaker does not properly define) for the origin of the universe. Why should we prefer Christian theism over any of these others? One may argue that additional criteria or evidences are available with provide such reasons, but in that case it seems that the cosmological argument by itself is not actually doing very much ‘work’, so to speak, of providing support for theism.

Third, the speaker’s claim that the rebuttal that ‘minds are complex’ necessarily assumes materialism, seems to be rather a stretch. In fact, it seems perfectly reasonable to say that, even if materialism is false, minds are still very complicated things. Minds are capable of a wide range of thoughts and behaviours, which are often very unpredictable and interact in complex and unexpected ways. One can go on and on listing various ways in which minds are complicated, none of which depend in any way on the notion that minds must be material. The argument is not that minds are complex because brains are complex. The argument is that minds are complex precisely because, by their nature, by the definition of what we mean by ‘mind’, a mind is an intricate, multifaceted, and hence complicated thing. Merely stating that ‘God is non-material and therefore simple’ does not address this point, and is little more than argument by assertion.

The Fine-Tuning Argument

The speaker ends with an argument that further evidence for divine creation can be gained from the fact that the universe is, despite apparently enormous odds against it, capable of sustaining intelligent life, a fact which is a natural corollary of the theistic explanation, but not of any naturalistic explanation. One can question this argument on a number of grounds.

First, it is by no means established that the universe is in fact actually ‘fine-tuned’ for life. Certainly some scientists and philosophers think that this is the case, but there are also many who do not (e.g. Victor Stenger). As I argued before, we simply do not know enough about the laws of nature, how they interact, why they are as they are, and what else could have been possible, to make any confident claims about ‘fine-tuning’.

Second, even if the universe is fine-tuned, the speaker does not adequately consider potential naturalistic explanations for this. He too readily dismisses multiverses, which, although doubtless sound absurd to a layman, are nonetheless taken very seriously by a large number of physicists and philosophers, and are widely considered to be a powerful, plausible explanation for a wide variety of phenomena (including many apparent paradoxes of quantum mechanics). This of course is not proof that multiverses really exist, but I think the notion cannot be dismissed nearly so readily as the speaker does. A second, totally independent possible naturalistic explanation is the various forms of the anthropic principle. Although this sort of anthropic reasoning is highly controversial, so too is the existence of God, so it seems unreasonable and unfair to dismiss such potentially powerful alternative explanations arguments so readily.

Overall, contrary to the speaker’s argument, it is not clear that theism has the unique advantage of being able to explain the apparent ‘fine-tuning’ of the universe far better than can naturalism.

Conclusion

In my view, the speaker fails to establish his argument. He makes too many quick leaps of logic on the basis of questionable premises, without adequately considering possible objections, alternate explanations, or rebuttals. The speaker is also far too ready to make confident conclusions about difficult questions, such as the nature of causation and the origin of the universe, despite the fact that we simply do not know very much at all about these matters, or even how to think about them properly. Overall, the claims made about the likely existence of a creator God are not justified by the equivocal and incomplete nature of the reasons provided.

The Myth of Christian Humility

Synopsis

Some Christians say that atheists arrogantly place their own reason and intellect above God, thereby undermining their ability to understand the limits of human reason compared to the wisdom of God. I argue that this notion is completely the inverse of the truth. It is Christians, not atheists, who, for various reasons, arrogantly place their own experiences and intellect as being primarily and unassailable, and it is the Atheist who properly acknowledges the constraints and limits of human reason. (NOTE: this article is polemical, so for the purpose of rhetorical force and clarity, it omits certain caveats, qualifications, and exceptions that I would normally include. Readers should bear this in mind when interpreting the piece.)

There is a myth which many Christians believe, and is frequently raised as an objection or snide refutation of atheist thought. This myth – nay, this lie, for many who reiterate it should know better – asserts that atheists arrogantly place their own reason, their “science”, above all else, displacing God from his rightful place as primary and foremost of all. Christians, so says this lie, humble themselves by accepting the limits of human reason and science falsely so called; the Christian defers his own judgement to that of God, whose wisdom far exceeds our own. For it is a fool who says in his heart “there is no God”, and the beginning of wisdom is to fear the Lord. The Christian thus humbles themselves in the face of their limitations, while the Atheist arrogates to themselves the position of arbiter of ultimate truth.

This is a lie. It is, in fact, the exact opposite of the truth. It is the Christian, not the Atheist, who arrogantly asserts their own intellect as supreme above all else, and it is the Atheist, nor the Christian, who properly acknowledges their own limitations. Amongst Christians, there are two main types of attitude with respect to reason; the one can be said to be deficient, and the other, excessive. In actual fact, the sin is as great in either case, for to err either side of the mean is equally deplorable.

The Christians who exhibit deficiency are those who reject the need for reason and evidence altogether. For them, their own personal experience of God, be it through prayer, reading the bible, attending church, or various life experiences, is sufficient to convince them totally, utterly, and with utmost finality, of the truthfulness of all of the many claims of Christianity. Arguments, evidence, logic: these might be useful in making Christianity appear more acceptable to the world, to attract those who would otherwise reject the good news out of hand. But ultimately, such things do not matter, for even if an argument is refuted or a piece of evidence found to be inadequate, it does not matter; after all, even the foolishness of God is wiser than the wisdom of man. These Christians know the bible is the word of god. They know Jesus died for their sins. They know god answers prayers. In exercising such resolute belief, however, these Christians exhibit perhaps the worst form of intellectual arrogance known to mankind. their own subjective experience, their own interpretation of biblical passages, their own life history, their own thought processes – these things trump every possible argument, objection, and disconfirming piece of evidence imaginable. Such Christians have not made God their sovereign, they have made themselves – their experiences, their emotions, their interpretations – primary, foremost, dominant over all else. They do not care about what is true; they care only for the God that their own subjectivity has built for them, out of a haphazard, idiosyncratic mixture of their personality and life experiences. In worshiping a God that is a construct known only through their subjective experiences, they are in essence worshiping nothing but their own ego.

Christians who exhibit excess, by contrast, are those who claim to believe on the basis of reason and evidence. It is they who appeal to such stratagems as the Ontological Argument, the Moral Argument, the Cosmological Argument, and the appeal to the Resurrection of Jesus. In so doing, however, they venture far beyond the bounds where reason and evidence can safely take them. Not content to remain silent on that about which we cannot speak, such Christians confidently pontificate on matters far beyond human ken, discussing the ‘ultimate meaning’ and ‘true nature’ of such abstruse notions as time, being, essence, goodness, and causation. Indeed, they go further than more speculation; they claim to establish confident, firm knowledge on the basis of these sophistries. They care not that many men and women more learned than they have considered the same matters all throughout the ages, arriving at utterly contradictory conclusions. Nor do they care that such questions are unable to be tested by science, history, or indeed by any known reliable method for separating falsehood from truth. Disagreements, uncertainties, ambiguous evidence, and other difficulties are of no concern to these Christians, for they know that they are right. In making such a determination, however, they place themselves – their own minds, their own intellects, their own wisdom – as supreme above all else. Not only is their wisdom superior to that of all those lesser heathens who disagree with them, but it is also of sufficient penetrating depth and expansive breadth as to be capable of accurately illuminating, with unprecedented surety and clarify, the most arcane mysteries of the universe. Such hubris is the exact opposite of the intellectual humility to which these Christians pretend. Thus, in establishing their own opinion, their own intellect, their own assessment of the evidence as primary and foremost above all else, they have made a God in their own image. They worship not God, but their own minds.

Unlike the both deficient and the excessive Christian, the Atheist attempts, to the best of their ability, to adhere to the Golden Mean of human reason. They seek out reliable evidence wherever it can be found, and as evidence mounts, doubt diminishes and certainly grows – but never to a full ripeness, as the Atheist knows that human reason is limited, always leaving room for doubt. The Atheist seeks to understand the mysteries of life, space, and time as best as they can, but are ever vigilant and watchful of false pretensions to knowledge, when claims are not supported by sufficient evidence, or when our ability to question outstrip our ability to understand. When, as is often the case, evidence is equivocal, good arguments are to be found on both sides, experts are in disagreement, and sources of reliable facts are scarce; in cases like this the Atheist properly withholds judgement. Thus, to the question “do you believe that God exists”, they answer cautiously: “I do not, for the evidence is inconclusive, however I am open to changing my opinion in the future if new evidence or arguments become available”. Atheists are wary of subjective, anecdotal experiences and abstract, unfalsifiable philosophising – not because such things are always wrong, but simply because they have turned out to be wrong so often in the past, and the Atheist does not assume himself to be in such an epistemically privileged position that merely because it is their experience or their reasoning process, that therefore all these difficulties of reliability and uncertainly magically vanish into the ether. In short, rather than arrogantly asserting the supremacy of their own intellect, it is the Atheist, and the Atheist alone, who properly humbles themselves, recognizing both the power, but also the limits, of human reason and certainty.

There is one thing, however, about which the Christians are totally correct. They are right in saying that Atheists do, in fact, worship a God. For, in striving always to abide by the Golden Mean of human reason, the Atheist worships Veritas, god of truth. Although she is elusive and often subtle, she is a far superior God to those worshiped by most Christians.

My Model of Science

Synopsis

This is based on a short piece I wrote a couple of years ago about what I think is the nature of science, what makes something ‘scientific’, when scientific reasoning is reliable, and how it can be justified. I have updated some element to reflect my most recent thinking on the matter.

A Model of Science

  1. Science is the process of carefully collecting objectively verifiable empirical data about the world, categorizing this data to help better understand and access it, and using such data to construct rigorous, testable models about the way various phenomena behave.
  2. There is no philosophically interesting ‘fundamental’ methodological difference between the natural sciences and the social sciences. All are equally scientific to the degree to which they adhere to point 1.
  3. Confidence in a given scientific model is increased to the degree that it is based upon objectively verifiable and carefully collected empirical observations, to the degree that it makes specific verifiable predictions, and to the degree that it appeals to fewer entities or processes that are not otherwise known to exist (i.e. to the degree that it makes fewer new assumptions).
  4. A scientific model is said to explain some system to the extent that the model is able to make specific predictions about the behaviour of the system under a given set of circumstances. These ‘predictions’ need not necessarily be of future events or experimental results, but they must be empirical in some form.
  5. Scientific models are relevant or applicable in a particular situation to the degree to which they are based on observations from similar circumstances/phenomena, and to the degree that they have made successful predictions under similar circumstances.
  6. This methodology is self-consistent as it presents a descriptive and normative model for science which is based on objective facts about the history, practice and past successes of science, and makes predictions about what sorts of scientific methodologies will generate useful results.

Preempting Some Rebuttals

  1. Whatever the nature of the ‘ultimate reality’ we inhabit, so long as it exhibits at least some degree of predictability or regularity, then this methodology would be expected to arrive at reliable beliefs about that reality. Thus the ‘Problem of Induction’, while not directly answered, does not seem to hold a great deal of force against Science.
  2. Science has been very successful in the past at making accurate predictions and generating technological advances, therefore it is reasonable to suppose that the method has some degree of validity.
  3. Science does not require perfect objectivity or rationality of its practitioners, nor does it require or assume complete separation of observers from their observations.
  4. Science does not presuppose naturalism or materialism, or require the existence of universal natural laws. It requires only the sorts of regularities described in 1.

A Controversial Claim

  1. Science, as described here, is the only method of arriving at reliable, justifiable knowledge about any aspect of the world outside of our own direct, everyday experience (a concept I will define more rigorously elsewhere).
  2. Intuition, commonsense, philosophical reasoning, subjective experience, emotion, tradition, religious dogma, and political ideology are not reliable methods of arriving at knowledge of the external world outside of our own direct, everyday experience.

 

When NOT to Update Your Beliefs

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

When NOT to Update Your Beliefs (in pdf form)

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