Is Conciliationism Self-defeating?

Synopsis

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

Introduction to the Positions

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

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

The ‘Self-defeating Objection’ is Self-defeating

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

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

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

Many Epistemic Standards are Potentially Self-defeating

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

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

Treating Self-Reference Differently is not Special Pleading

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusion and Caveats

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

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

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A Naturalistic Explanation of the Resurrection Appearances of Jesus

Synopsis

In this piece I argue that the Hallucinations, Biases, and Socialisation Model (henceforth HBS model, which I outline here) provides a superior explanation for the resurrection appearances of Jesus of Nazareth than does the competing Christian explanation (i.e. that Jesus was raised by God). In making this argument, I first present an account of what I mean by an ‘explanation’, and how one explanation can be judged superior to another. I argue that an explanation has greater explanatory power to the degree to which it can explain diverse phenomena (‘explanatory scope’), and to the degree to which it does not need to introduce antecedently unknown entities (‘plausibility’).

I then argue that the HBS model is both more plausible and has wider explanatory scope than the Christian explanation. I argue that it is more plausible since it depends only on the existence of psychological and sociological processes which are known to exist, whereas the Christian explanation must make contentious and uncertain assumptions about the existence and motivations of God. I argue that is has wider scope because it is capable (with minor adjustments) of explaining a wide range of miracle claims across different religions, whereas the Christian account is specific to the Resurrection appearances only. I thus conclude by arguing that, since the HBS model provides a superior explanation for the resurrection appearances without needing to posit the divinity of Jesus, the alleged superior explanatory power of the Christian explanation (as argued by apologists like William Lane Craig or Mike Licona) cannot in fact be appealed to as a significant argument to support the probable truth of Christianity.

Explanation

What is an Explanation?

I will begin by assuming that our objective is to provide an explanatory account of the resurrection appearances, including other associated details like the empty tomb and the conversion of Paul. The first step, I think, is define what we mean by an ‘explanation’, since different people use this word in different ways. In my view, an ‘explanation’ is more than just a satisfying story, or an account that seems to ‘make sense’. An explanation needs to get at the ‘underlying truth’ of the situation; what we might call the ‘causal structure’ of what is occurring. I know words like ‘truth’ and ‘causal’ are themselves problematic, but I’m trying to gesture at a very tricky concept here by using terms that I hope people have some existing familiarity with.

In light of these considerations, let me provide what I think is a suitable first-order approximate definition which will be sufficient for our purposes here: “an explanation of some phenomena X consists of a set of events, entities, and processes, which taken together provide/entail the causes which gave rise to X”. Put simply, an explanation of X is an answer to the question “what made X be the case?”, or “why X and not something else?”

Quality of Explanations

Explanations are not all or nothing; they come in varying degrees of higher and lower quality. In assessing the relative quality of different explanations, I believe that essentially what we are doing is maximising some abstract quantity, which for the sake of argument I will call the ‘power’ of the explanation. That is, better explanations have greater ‘explanatory power’. Explanatory power is a difficult and abstract concept which eludes simple definitions. Here I propose (again for the sake of conceptual clarity and without pretence of comprehensiveness) to think of explanatory power as being the combination (in a vaguely mathematical manner, analogous to multiplication) of two additional concepts: ‘scope’ and ‘plausibility’. Let me explain each of these in turn.

Scope

Explanatory scope refers to the size and extent of the phenomena that a given explanation can explain. Thus, given a particular explanation, the more different things that are in X (the set of things which are explained), the greater is the scope of that explanation. Special Relativity has greater explanatory scope than classical Newtonian Mechanics, as the latter is only applicable when velocities are considerably lower than the speed of light, while the former is applicable with any velocities. Greater explanatory scope is to be preferred, as it means that the explanation yields a greater insight into the underlying causal processes at work; it ‘tells us more’ about what is going on. However, greater explanatory scope does not by itself mean that an explanation is a good one – for instance, conspiracy theories tend to have very large explanatory scope, as they provide causal explanations for (often) a very diverse range of social, political, and economic phenomena. Such explanations, however, generally score poorly on the criteria of plausibility, to which I will now turn.

Plausibility

The plausibility of an explanation refers to its ‘simplicity’ or (more loosely) its ‘elegance’. This is closely related to the idea of Occam’s razor, which some people state as being the principle that ‘simple explanations are to be preferred’ or ‘the simplest explanation is most likely to be correct’, however I think this is a misleading characterisation. As I believe the idea is generally understood and applied in science and elsewhere, the notion of ‘simplicity’ has little or nothing to do with how easy an explanation is to understand, or how long it takes to explain, or even how many entities or processes it needs to appeal to. Rather, the version of the razor which I prefer, and which I think is most accurately descriptive of good inferential practise, is ‘entities must not be multiplied beyond necessity’. That is, given a particular phenomena to be explained, the explanation which requires the fewest assumptions or premises that are new (that is, not known antecedently) is (all else equal) to be preferred as an explanation. Understood in this way, the value of simplicity in an explanation is that with every new assumption we introduce about something existing or some process working in a particular way, we also introduce another place where we might make a mistake or go wrong. The more of these there are in our explanation, the more likely it is that at least one of them is incorrect, and hence the less likely the explanation is to actually be true.

Explanatory Power

Now that I have outlined the notions of ‘scope’ and ‘simplicity’, I will return to articulating the concept of ‘explanatory power’. As I stated earlier, I believe that explanatory power can be profitably understood as combination (loosely speaking, like the mathematical product) of scope and plausibility. That is, an explanation is said to have greater explanatory power to the degree to which it has greater scope, and the degree to which it has greater plausibility. Explanations with greater explanatory scope are to be preferred because they tell us more about the underlying causal processes at work, and more plausible explanations are to be preferred because they are ceteris paribus less likely to introduce a false assumption or premise which would invalidate the explanation.

Many explanations in science, and I also think some in history and even philosophy, have both a wider scope and high plausibility, and so consequently have high explanatory power. Some explanations, like conspiracy theories, have wide scope but immensely low plausibility (as they must posit a very large number of people working behind the scenes, competence to avoid detection, presence of immense resources, motivations to act, and many other such things that we do not antecedently know to exist, and indeed I think often have good reason to believe do not and even cannot exist). Other explanations may lack explanatory power for the opposite reason: although they have high plausibility in the sense of not needing to posit many new entities or processes, they may be so circumscribed and restricted in the class of phenomena which they can explain, that their explanatory scope is very narrow (arguably many historical explanations are of this sort). The sort of explanations which have the least explanatory power of all are those with both narrow scope and low plausibility (I think many paranormal explanations fit into this category, as they often only apply to specific events or a small class of events, and also make reference to ghosts and other such entities which are not antecedently known to exist).

Degrees of Plausibility

Before moving on, there are two final points to make. First, when I talk about ‘positing new entities and processes that are not antecedently known to exist’, this should be interpreted properly be interpreted as also being a matter of degrees. Entities or processes are seldom known for certain to exist, but are antecedently established with varying degrees of probability. Likewise, one entity or process cannot necessarily be assumed to be equal in plausibility to another merely because they are both referred to by a single word. Positing a new type of fundamental particle, or a new Neolithic culture in some part of the world, will in general be much less ‘extravagant’, and hence much more plausible, than positing the existence of ghosts or big foot, even if the latter are capable of providing a causal account of (i.e. an explanation for) the same set of phenomena. Of course, making this determination about the relative degrees of plausibility of different entities or processes is often quite difficult, but in principle I believe this is what we ought to attempt when constructing a plausible explanation.

Consistency

Second, many people in discussing explanations make reference to the consistency of an explanation; both the consistency of the explanation with the specific events or processes to be explained, and also more generally its consistency with our existing background knowledge about the world. Personally, however, I do not think it is necessary to introduce ‘general consistency with background beliefs’ as a separate criterion in judging explanatory power (or the quality of explanations generally), as I believe the idea of an explanation being consistent with our ‘background knowledge’ about the world is already incorporated into the notion of simplicity, in the form of the number of ‘new entities’ that a proposed explanation must posit. As to the question of consistency of the explanation with the specific phenomena to be explained, I think that if the explanation is inconsistent with the phenomena to be explained, then it is simply not an explanation of those phenomena (though it may be a partial explanation of sum subset of those phenomena). This sort of specific consistency, however, is relatively easy to obtain, simply by introducing additional ad hoc auxiliary hypothesis into an explanation (e.g. in an extreme example, one could simply say the explanation works one way on Mondays and another way on Tuesdays. Obviously this has very low plausibility, but it is nonetheless consistent with the specific phenomena to be explained).

The Resurrection Appearances

The HBS Model

We are now in a position to analyse competing explanatory accounts of the resurrection appearances of Jesus. Given the above considerations, we have established that our goal is to discover or develop an explanation with the maximum amount of explanatory power. Such an explanation allows us to understand the most about why things happened as they did, at the lowest ‘cost’ in terms of introducing new, antecedently unknown entities or processes (and thus multiplying the chances for error to creep in).

I believe that my HBS model (probably with some tweaks and additions, as its only a first draft, and I’ve had much less time to work at it and expertise spent on it than have the apologists on their arguments) possess greater explanatory power as an explanation for the resurrection appearances (and related events) on both accounts: I believe it has wider scope, and also greater plausibility. I will now defend each of these claims in turn.

Scope of the HBS Model

I believe the HBS model has reasonably wide scope because, with relatively small adjustments of details, it can serve as an account for the development and propagation of many different miracle claims and other paranormal beliefs throughout history. The psychological and sociological processes that it refers to are, given their widespread documentation and repeated validation, largely universal (in broad terms, obviously specifics vary), and so can be appealed to in many different cultural and historical circumstances to explain how people’s memories are reshaped over time, and how large groups of people can come to believe very unusual things even in spite of overwhelming evidence to the contrary. As such, since it is able to provide an account of a wide range of phenomena, the HBS model has reasonably wide explanatory scope.

Plausibility of the HBS Model

I also believe the HBS model has reasonably high plausibility, as it does not require the introduction of many new entities or processes. The model is based upon known psychological and sociological phenomena which have been generally quite well documented (though more work remains to be done on many details of course), and thus are antecedently known to exist. The main posit necessary in the model is in extrapolating these processes beyond the specific environments in which they have been originally studied, and applying them in collectively to explain a particular complex event in history (i.e. the resurrection appearances). In extrapolating and applying such phenomena, there is of course a degree of uncertainty. The HBS model assumes that the processes operate in broadly the way they have been observed to in various other contexts, and also assumes that they can interact and play off each other in the way I outlined in the model. I believe that these are reasonable assumptions to make, as the processes I document are sufficiently robust, and have been observed in sufficiently many contexts, that extrapolating them in the manner in which I have done in the HBS model is reasonably plausible, and consistent with other such ‘extrapolation’ practices in science and history.

Explanatory Power of the HBS Model

Thus, taken together, I believe that the HBS model of the resurrection appearances exhibits a fairly high degree of explanatory power. Its antecedently unknown assumptions are relatively few, mostly restricted to extrapolating and applying processes which I believe are already quite well documented. As such, it has fairly high plausibility. Likewise, its explanatory scope is reasonably high, as (with some appropriate modifications of specifics) the broad account can be applied to explain many other miracles and supernatural claims throughout history.

Plausibility of the Christian Explanation

I will now contrast the HBS model, with the Christian explanation of the resurrection appearances – namely that God resurrected Jesus, who then went on to appear to his various followers. First, I believe this account has relatively low plausibility. As far as I can tell, it requires three assumptions or premises which are not antecedently established: 1) that there is a God, 2) that this God desires to intervene in human affairs, and 3) that Jesus was the/a means by which this God desired to intervene in human affairs. I have chosen this tripartite division because I think it facilitates greater conceptual clarity: God could exist but not care to intervene in the world, or he could exist and be interventionist, but not be interested in resurrecting Jesus because in fact he is the Islamic God or the Hindu god (or whatever else). Of course, one could subsume all three assumptions into a single premise, for example simply “Jesus was God”, but I think this is essentially just stating the same three things in a different way. The key point is not how many sentences we write, but how many distinct conditions there are, each are separately controversial: some people believe 1) only, some believe 1) and 2), some all three, and others none.

So how plausible are propositions 1-3? I don’t know. I have argued elsewhere that our best guess for the probability of 1) is something like 10%, however I think even values north of 50% are also defensible (though not, say, 90%). The other two are considerably harder to put numbers on. Regardless, the real point is simply that I believe a Christian should agree that, antecedently to considering the resurrection, all of these three propositions are at best uncertain. They are a long way from firmly established. By contrast, I think most of the psychological and sociological processes utilized by the HBS model are quite firmly established, and the extrapolations made in applying them to the particular case of the resurrection are relatively small. This is, of course, a question of weighing up relative plausibilities, which is not easy to do. But I do think a strong case can be made that the processes and entities which the HBS model must posit in order to explain the resurrection appearances are antecedently known to exist with considerably higher confidence than the entities and processes required by the Christian account. As such, it is my view that the HBS model has greater plausibility than the Christian explanation.

Explanatory Scope of the Christian Explanation

I also think that the HBS model has greater explanatory scope than the Christian explanation. As noted before, the HBS model (with minor adjustments) can explain a diverse range of supernatural and miracle claims from all over the world, as it relies on psychological and sociological processes which (in general terms) are known or reasonably thought to operate in sufficiently similar ways across different times and cultures (there is, of course, a degree of extrapolation here as noted above, but I believe it is reasonably small). In contrast, the Christian explanation is so specific that it can only account for the Resurrection appearances, and perhaps also (with minor adjustments to extend the account to Jesus also appearing at other times and places in history) at least some subset of other Christian miracle claims throughout history. It cannot, however, provide any explanation for the many other miracles reported in Buddhist, Hindu, Mormon, Islamic, Pagan, and many other religious and spiritual traditions. As such the Christian explanation has narrower explanatory scope than the HBS model.

A Caveat

I am not saying here that a Christian worldview cannot provide an explanation for non-Christian miracle claims or paranormal occurrences. Rather, what I am saying is that the Christian account of the resurrection appearances, or any simple extrapolation thereof, does not itself provide such an explanation. Perhaps by introducing further assumptions about God appearing in other ways throughout history, or demons acting to deceive mankind, or even by appealing to some of the very same psychological and sociological mechanisms which the HBS account is based on, a Christian would be able to provide an explanation for these other miracle claims that is consistent with their worldview. But my point is precisely that this would require positing additional entities or processes (demons who can appear to people, or God choosing to reveal himself in additional ways to other peoples, etc) which are not entailed by the original explanation of the resurrection appearances itself.

Conclusions

Summing up, I have argued that the HBS model of the resurrection appearances possess greater explanatory power than does the Christian explanation. As such, I believe that we ought to prefer the HBS model over the Christian explanation, and judge that the former is more likely than the latter to be a correct, ‘true’ account of the causal processes which accounted for these sequences of events. If this is correct, it follows that the inference from the resurrection appearances to the probable divinity of Jesus (and hence the truth of Christianity) is an unsound one. Such an inference cannot validly be drawn, because in fact a more satisfactory causal account of these events can be given which does not entail the divinity of Jesus or the truth of Christianity.

It is very important to emphasise that here I am not in any way making an argument for the falsity of Christianity. Indeed, I believe a perfectly orthodox Christian could agree with my entire argument here. I am saying only that the Christian explanation for certain historical facts concerning the resurrection appearances (and related matters like the empty tomb and conversion of Paul) does not constitute by itself a strong reason to believe in the truth of Christianity, as there exists a superior explanation which does not entail this conclusion (namely, the HBS model). In spite of this, Christianity could nonetheless be true, since the HBS model does not rule out the divinity of Jesus or the reality of the resurrection accounts; it simply renders them unnecessary to explain said phenomena. Indeed, I believe (though I don’t have any firm data on this) that the majority of Christians both in the present and throughout history have not believed on the basis of this sort of historical argument. As such, I certainly don’t think that refuting this argument is a refutation of Christianity. It is merely a refutation of this particular argument in favour of Christianity.

A final point that I wish to make is that this isn’t merely some sort of intellectual game. It’s about finding the truth. If we wish to honestly seek the truth, we cannot decide on our conclusion beforehand and work out what evidence or arguments will get us there. We must examine the evidence and arguments as objectively as we can (with perfect objectively always remaining elusive), and attempt to arrive at the conclusion which is best supported by said facts and arguments. I believe that the conclusion which is best supported by the facts and arguments available, in the light of the analysis I have given, is that the resurrection appearances can be better explained naturalistically rather than supernaturally, and that as such the Christian explanation of the resurrection appearances does not constitute any substantial reason for belief in the truth of Christianity. I might be wrong about this conclusion, and so I invite everyone reading this to honestly and politely critique my arguments to expose errors or gaps in my reasoning. May we all be enriched in this joint search for the truth concerning this most important question.

Christian Evangelism – Ministry to the Gullible?

Synopsis

In this piece I present some personal experiences and impressions of how Christians have tended to engage with me over the years. I argue that such engagement is usually fairly superficial, with Christians generally not seeming to be very well informed or having put much thought into their positions, nor are they very willing to seriously discuss difficult ideas. I contrast this lack of engagement with the very strong Christian focus on evangelism, and argue that the two observations can be reconciled by notion that Christians are primarily interested in spreading their message to people who don’t think too much or ask too many questions. Thus I argue that most Christians are not in fact very interested in serious intellectual discussion of their beliefs.

A Personal Anecdote

As some of my readers may know, last week I attended the Melbourne University Christian Union (CU) midyear Summit, which is a five-day long camp featuring sermons, bible readings, discussions, and some social activities. I write this post partly as a response to some of my experiences there, but also drawing more broadly on my numerous past interactions with Christians.

One of the major themes of this Summit was evangelism, or Christian mission, as it is also called. One evening there was a particularly forthright sermon on the subject, by which I mean that it was very frank in exhorting Christians to take their faith generally, and evangelism specifically, very seriously. Some illustrative quotes from this sermon: “Christianity cannot be some kind of hobby or interest that you have – it’s all or nothing”, and “your former way of life is dead, and you are dead to the world…you no longer have to fulfill the expectations of the world”.

Following this sermon I commenced a discussion with a few fellow attendees (Christians) about some of the matters raised that I found perplexing or troubling. This included questions like ‘why is Jesus worth following to this extent?’, ‘is it not a profoundly negative outlook to talk of being ‘dead to the world?”, and various other such things. The sermon had troubled me in a definite, though slightly ineffable way, and I was desirous to discuss this issue further, hoping that the Christians may aid in my own understanding and interpretation of what was said.

I say all this by way of setting the scene for what happened next. As it turned out, there was a musical ‘cafe night’ scheduled to be held shortly after the conclusion of the sermon, and so, within a few short minutes of beginning our discussion, all three of my Christian discussants departed to join the party. Looking around me I found the dining room, which previously had been filled with well over one hundred people, completely deserted. Having no particular desire to participate in the festivities (I don’t think there was any heavy metal in the lineup), I retired to my room. As I walked back to my cabin, it struck me how incongruous it was that, immediately following a sermon which strongly extolled the overwhelming importance of evangelism, the Christians with whom I had been speaking all thought it a better use of their time to attend a musical cafe night, than to engage in meaningful religious discussion with a non-believer.

‘Serious Engagement

I narrate this incident not in order to cast particular aspersions on the persons involved, but merely so as to motivate and illustrative the broader point that I wish to make in this piece. That point is this: in my experience, most Christians most of the time are not very interested in engaging in serious intellectual discussion about their faith. Let me clarify a few points. When I say ‘most Christians’, I don’t mean ‘most random people off the street who call themselves Christians’; what I mean is ‘most Christians who attend CU events, bible readings, talks, or other such events that I go along to’. When I say ‘serious intellectual discussion’, I don’t mean ‘exchanging a few pleasantries, attesting to their own person conviction, and affirming the importance of dialogue’, I mean ‘engaging in serious, thoughtful discussion of their own world view, my own world view, and the many difficult questions which stem therefrom’.

What does such engagement look like? I don’t think it looks like any one specific thing. Different people do it in different ways. Some characteristic properties of such serious, genuine engagement might include: sincere attempts to understand the other person’s viewpoint, asking questions about why the other person believes what they believe, thoughtfully considering one’s answers, asking what sorts of reasons or evidences could hypothetically change their mind, some acknowledgement of uncertainty or the complexity of the issues being considered, attempts to identify common ground and also specific points of disagreement, and importantly (when practical), attempts to followup the discussion later and continue the engagement for as long as both parties find the issue to be important and worth discussing.

My Experiences with Christians

Sometimes my interactions with Christians have looked a lot like this. More often, however, the following (stylised) outcomes are more common:

  • Even immediately following a sermon or bible reading , Christians I speak to will not say anything at all about what was discussed. The conversation will proceed as if we just bumped into each other on the street
  • The Christian will ask why as an atheist I am attending the event, I will tend them I like to discuss matters of faith and understand alternative viewpoints better, and then they express some general approval of that endeavor, but without any apparent interest in actually engaging in such a discussion
  • The Christian will engage in discussion with me for a time, often asking a number of questions, but then before long, either they seem to become uncomfortable or lose interest or something, but for whatever reason they break off the discussion
  • An engaging discussion will commence and continue for some time, but the Christian will not actually thoughtfully consider my views, objections, or doubts. In many such instances it seems that eventually each line of inquiry or discussion is ended by some platitude about faith, or the power of the bible, or God being relational, or an account of their own personal conviction
  • The Christian will engage seriously, but then seem uninterested in continuing the discussion on later occasions after further considering the matter

Let me make a few further points. Again, bear in mind that when I say ‘Christian’ I mean ‘people I meet at these events’, not ‘random professed believer off the street’. In my experience:

  • It is rare to find a Christian who knows (or at least seems to know – I don’t usually ask explicitly) what the word ‘epistemology’ means. That might seem petty, but given what protestations to knowledge they have and their mandate to spread it throughout the world, one would think it at least somewhat important that Christians (at Melbourne University no less) have some idea of what knowledge is and how it can be justified
  • It is rare to find a Christian who has any familiarity with even the most basic issues of New Testament historicity, such as the short ending of Mark, the debate about authorship of the gospels, the discrepancies between (for instance) the birth narratives, etc
  • It is very rare indeed to find any Christian who seems to have even considered the problem of many faiths – that is the question of how they can be so confident of their own religious experiences or revealed texts given the existence of so many conflicting experiences and revelations in other religions
  • Very few Christians seem to know anything more than the most superficial facts about religions like Islam, Mormonism, or Buddhism – other than the fact, of course, that said religions are not true
  • Though many Christians seem to have some notion that morality requires a ‘grounding’ of some sort in God, few seem to have even a basic familiarity even with terms such as ‘metaethics’, ‘moral realism’, ‘divine command theory’, and the euthyphro dilemma

My point here is not to show how much cleverer I am than all those silly Christians. I’m really not very clever at all – just annoyingly curious. My point is exactly as I stated it before: that most Christians most of the time are not very interested in engaging in serious intellectual discussion about their faith. If they were, they would, it seems to me, at least be minimally informed about some of the basic issues I outlined above, and be far more receptive and willing to critically engage than my experiences above seem to indicate.

Ministry to the Gullible?

Some readers may wonder what business I have complaining about Christians not seriously engaging about their faith. Isn’t that their own business? Of course it is, but I find it puzzling given the seemingly high degree of lip service that is paid to the importance of discussing one’s faith with others, with evangelising – as my recent experience at Summit clearly illustrated. I have a theory about this. It is a very cynical theory. I don’t really have much specific evidence for it, other than that it seems to fit the facts as I related them above.

Here is my theory: Christians are interested in talking about their faith, and they are enthusiastic about evangelism, but generally speaking most Christians are only interested in doing so when it does not require them to think very much or very hard. Inviting people to read the bible, praying for them, bearing testimony about Jesus, sharing some of the key teachings of the gospel – these things may be scary at times, but none of them requires much real thought or intellectual effort. I know – I’ve done it. After a few times practice, its really pretty easy to go through the same basic points and invitations and deal with the same common but fairly simple objections or questions. When someone starts really engaging and asking tough, innovative, thoughtful questions you hadn’t considered before – that takes real effort to deal with. Probably better to find someone else who will just believe what we tell them without asking too many questions.

Conclusion

Am I being too cynical? Too harsh? I have listened to numerous Christian conversion stories. Often they are five or ten minutes long. In my experience,very few of them make any reference at all to any sort of reason or evidence or intellectual examination, or anything of the sort. Some people literally say things like ‘I was invited to read the Bible, and as I learned more about Jesus I was just amazed at how much he loved us, and I knew that I wanted to follow him’. Because, they don’t let you print books that aren’t 100% true, right? Because, everything I ‘feel’ about God must be 100% veridical, right?

My thesis here is that these are the sorts of people that Christians want to evangelise to. For the most part, they don’t care to evangelise those who actually think through the matter carefully and desire to engage in continued substantive dialogue. Christians may even acknowledge this – perhaps they will describe such people as ‘prepared’ or ‘receptive’, or say that the ‘spirit was working in them’. Personally I would use words like ‘credulous’, ‘unthinking’, and ‘gullible’. Whatever words one chooses to use, my point is this: most Christians seem to want to evangelise to people who will accept what they say without much challenge. They are not very interested in evangelising those who are really interested in seeking the truth, difficult and complex though such an undertaking can be.

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.”