Thursday, August 7, 2008

Sowing the Seeds of Atheism in Rocky Soil

A lot of atheists approach me with questions of this form, “What do you say when believers say. . .” and the gist of the comment is “Well, I just have faith,” “We just can’t understand how great God is,” “This is all temporary, all will be set right in the end,” or “God isn’t something that we can grasp with our puny powers of understanding.” What these non-believers are rightly frustrated with is that they have earnestly engaged in a serious dialogue with a theist, hoping to make some sort of reasonable progress towards a resolution, but they’ve been stone-walled. And they’ve been shut out with a maddening response. The believer here has announced his or her intention to simply believe no matter what, despite any contradictions that it will embroil them in and even though the questions and objections that have been raised are valid.

There are several reasons that these sorts of stultifying answers from theists are so frustrating. First, it’s often not clear how it’s a response to the issue at all. If the non-believer is raising legitimate questions about why a good, powerful, and knowing God would permit so much pointless suffering, and the theists responds, “God’s plans are mysterious,” then the theist hasn’t given an answer to the problem, they’ve just restated it. Yes, it is a baffling mystery how a being like that would behave in ways that are so clearly opposed to its ascribed properties. Imagine if a defense lawyer reacted to a mountain of damning evidence against her client by saying, “Jury members, it’s just a mystery how my client could be innocent in the light of all this evidence that indicates his guilt.” That would be a mystery—so much so, we should all vote for his guilt, unless you can come up something better. The mystery is the problem, not the solution.

Second, the stone-walling theist’s reactions are baffling because what they are saying flies in the face of reason. Suppose a doctor did X rays, blood tests, cat scans, and every other available test and said, “There’s just no way you can have cancer. We’ve checked every possible indicator and they are all negative.” And then Smith said, “Well, I do have cancer. It’s just not any kind of cancer that can be made sense of or detected, or that makes any sort of rational sense. My cancer is beyond our puny powers of understanding.” In any other circumstance, the bizarre irrationality of this kind of response is obvious. Imagine if an atheist, upon hearing a great deal of evidence for the existence of God from believers, simply replied, “Well, the nature of the big, empty void is so beyond our comprehension, we just can’t grasp how there can be no God. The void is mysterious, especially when it seem to be inhabited by a God who doesn’t exist,” or “I have faith that there is no God.”

What can we say to the theist who flatly rejects to acknowledge real questions and arguments against what they are saying? It’s not clear that there is any sort of response left because they seemed to have left the realm of reasonable discourse altogether. If they think something is true, there has to be some sort of evidential and rational source for their confidence that their conclusion is right despite all of these counter indicators. If they’ve been paying attention, all of these powerful arguments against the plausibility of omnipotence, omniscience, and infinite goodness raise the bar such that they have to have proof for God that is so strong and so beyond doubt, it trumps all of the counter arguments. That is, at the very least, all of the questions and arguments against the God properties and against the existence of God that we now have create a rather substantial hurdle for the serious believer to overcome. It’s not that belief is always irrational—I won’t go that far. But reasonable, and sincere belief must take into account the counter-evidence. If it can’t or won’t, then the belief isn’t reasonable any more.

The irony is that when we ask people what they think about God and certainty, it is very common for them to acknowledge that while they believe, the existence of God is emphatically not something that can be known for certain. The question here is, can it even be known with enough certainty to overcome the general objections that so many thoughtful people have raised?

If there is no rational or evidential ground that is the source of the confidence in the believer’s remarks, then there’s not much that reasonable people who care about evidence, reasons, argument support and so on can say to them. They have left the game that the rest of us are playing and have opted to abandon rules of any sort. What can you say to someone who’s being patently irrational and proud of it?
What “Well, that’s just my belief,” really means is, “this is something that I am not interesting in subjecting to any serious rational scrutiny. I’m not interested in problems, contradictions, falsehoods, and confusions within my view. I’m just going to believe no matter what.” There is no answer to this, atheists, because the notions of answers, questions, reasons, and arguments all presume a minimal commitment to the truth and being reasonable that this believer has rejected.

What started as a discussion of God should now shift to a discussion of the legitimacy and demands of truth, reason, and argument. It may be fruitless to point it out, but this believer is in deep conflict with their own practice on the matter. Normal people would never accept these kinds of bull-headed, dogmatic, and irrational responses to anything important in their lives. They’d never accept a doctor’s diagnosis given in this fashion. They wouldn’t even accept a mechanic who said, “I have just chosen to believe, despite all of the evidence, that you need a new $3,000 engine.” In their daily lives, they demand more reasons, subject them to more scrutiny, and refuse to ignore the evidence a thousand times. Perhaps this comes as no surprise. The stubborn theist can acknowledge that the stance they are taking towards God is unlike their view about any other thing. If the theist doesn’t care about the role of reason with respect to God, it’s hard to get them to come around.

The important point, that the theist should acknowledge, is that a God belief is a very important, influential matter in someone’s life. It figures in all sorts of their important decisions and has an effect on much of what they say, believe, and do. That alone should convince us all that this is not a subject where we can so easily reject the role of reasons and argument in favor of personal inclination.

If none of that works, at some point, with many believers, we just have to throw up our hands and leave them to their insanity, I suppose, because there really isn’t anything, even in principle that would make them alter their course. Ironically, as Jesus said, sometimes the seeds we sow fall on rocky soil and they have no hope of sprouting and growing.


Anonymous said...

Well, I must disagree with your generalization that theist get stone walled by atheist. Logic can never be sufficient to describe an Omni being's connection. This should be evident by the potential bounds of first order logic, which can only extend as far as the axioms allow. Given this, it is rather illogical for us to demand an explanation of one's religious connection with such a supreme being. A system of logic is only as good as the assumptions it is founded on, which happens to be confined to mankind's scope of knowledge. Alternatively, the faith phenomenon or god connection is not confined given its innovators boundless knowledge. In other words, the faith a theist has just may be that one piece of knowledge we will never no. Epistemic logic confirms the latter assumption...

Essentially, I believe that logic can be a great tool but it as other systems of KNOWLEDGE seem have its limitation. Knowledge of 'how' seems to be long forgotten in the haughty atheist who berates the unarticulated theist. I have only recently learned that angular momentum is the explanation for why I stay on my bike but I have yet to be mocked for such ignorance. What does the seat of reason have that gives its air of superiority over other knowledge? The Greeks believed in a form of knowledge involving intuition/perception. And any of us can contest the reliability of seeing red or the smell of fresh rain (experiencing things in general). No amount of explanations can ever be on the other side of the equal sign of such experiences. But logic, oh she can make us really doubt...

Failure to articulate one's faith is not a good reason to dismiss the possibility that they actually have such.

I also wonder if atheist knows that worship of reason/logic is ultimately based on a value judgment...

Anonymous said...

...Logic can never be sufficient to describe an Omni being's connection. This should be evident by the potential bounds of first order logic, which can only extend as far as the axioms allow. Given this, it is rather illogical for us to demand an explanation of one's religious connection with such a supreme being. A system of logic is only as good as the assumptions it is founded on, which happens to be confined to mankind's scope of knowledge...

Seems I read something relevant to this recently. Oh yes, here it is: God is Not Beyond Logic

Anonymous said...

I am sorry Regina but I think you did not take into consideration what I said. Epistemic logic suggest that there is knowledge that we humans cannot obtain.

The problem of logical omniscience

Then there's the question of the scope of a given logical system , which must assume a given linguistic framework. A nomad in the African dessert 3000 years ago hasn't the capacity to know about I-pods or high gas prices = GWB is a loser because such things do not exist in his linguistic framework...

Lastly, language itself is limited since it is not identical (in the strict sense) with cases of intuitive/perceptive knowledge i.e. experiences like the smell of a fresh rain or a work of art. The communication of such things will always be at the whims of mere description and not the experience itself. I believe the Plantinga warrant belief system hinges on the latter. The central distinction here is the difference between the eating of the cheese burger and the cheeseburger itself.

Anonymous said...

Plantinga still promoting his "Naturalism incompatible with evolution" argument

Matt McCormick said...

Thanks Reginald. You do a good job keeping up with a lot of this stuff that is getting written.

I won't offer any of the standard criticisms, but I have these two things by way of wriggling out of Plantinga's conclusion:

First, I'm prepared to accept that a LOT of our beliefs are in fact false. I don't know how many, and a belief is a mercurial thing, but think about it: when you start talking to someone, call him Smith, and he speculates that he's prone to have accidents because when he was a child he didn't get to play with other kids a lot, or because he's a Saggitarius, or any one of 100 other explanations that people give, it's not hard to start thinking that lots and lots of what people believe is false. Reading the paper fills me with this sense.

Second, I'm already so far gone down the naturalist path I'm giving up on beliefs, consciousness, and a host of other spooky, ill-defined entities that philosophers, esp. Christian ones, still cling to. Just a few words about beliefs: people are notoriously unreliable at accurately reporting their beliefs. You can induce them to say something different, offer different ideas, easily by manipulating the prompts and the environments. they don't accurately report their own emotional states, or the contents of their own minds. They will give different reports about their beliefs over time, even across just a few minutes. They also can't remember what they were feeling or expecting a few minutes earlier, and on and on and on. See the long list of psych research articles I listed in some previous posts. So I'm not very shook up by Plantinga's argument because the presumptions he's building it up with seem antiquated to me.


Anonymous said...

For all the flak directed at Dawkins when The God Delusion was published, about how shallow he was in philosophy of religion; I have to say that Plantinga's argument invokes evolution, and his knowledge of it appears to be cringe-worthy.

Anonymous said...

Human testimony is highly underrated in the analytic tradition. In fact, the Humean argument levied against such has lead the way for skeptics to proclaim that people's testimony of extraordinary experiences is rather a simple case of self delusion. Such a tactic fails to take seriously the claim at hand. Human testimony is in fact a reliable source of knowledge and is an integral part of laboratory experiments via observation. Of course the skeptic relies solely on observational consistencies yet seem to ignore that anomalies are a fact of science. Also, The court system hinges on human testimony regardless of the event observed being consistent. It seems then that the skeptic is guilty of retreating to becoming a lay psychologist and proclaim religious experiences and the like as temporary insanity...

Anonymous said...

All these men are crazy for their belief in god?

Albert Einstein Nobel Laureate in Physics Jewish

Max Planck Nobel Laureate in Physics Protestant

Erwin Schrodinger Nobel Laureate in Physics Catholic

Werner Heisenberg Nobel
Laureate in Physics Lutheran

Robert Millikan Nobel Laureate in Physics probably Congregationalist

Charles Hard Townes Nobel Laureate in Physics United Church of Christ (raised Baptist)

Arthur Schawlow Nobel Laureate in Physics Methodist

William D. Phillips Nobel Laureate in Physics Methodist

William H. Bragg Nobel Laureate in Physics Anglican

Guglielmo Marconi Nobel Laureate in Physics Catholic and Anglican

Arthur Compton Nobel Laureate in Physics Presbyterian

Arno Penzias Nobel Laureate in Physics Jewish

Nevill Mott Nobel Laureate in Physics Anglican

Isidor Isaac Rabi Nobel Laureate in Physics Jewish

Abdus Salam Nobel Laureate in Physics Muslim

Antony Hewish Nobel Laureate in Physics Christian (denomination?)

Joseph H. Taylor, Jr. Nobel Laureate in Physics Quaker

Alexis Carrel Nobel Laureate in Medicine and Physiology Catholic

John Eccles Nobel Laureate in Medicine and Physiology Catholic

Joseph Murray Nobel Laureate in Medicine and Physiology Catholic

Ernst Chain Nobel Laureate in Medicine and Physiology Jewish

George Wald Nobel Laureate in Medicine and Physiology Jewish

Ronald Ross Nobel Laureate in Medicine and Physiology
Christian (denomination?)

Derek Barton Nobel Laureate in Chemistry Christian (denomination?)

Christian Anfinsen Nobel Laureate in Chemistry Jewish

Walter Kohn Nobel Laureate in Chemistry Jewish

Richard Smalley Nobel Laureate in Chemistry Christian (denomination?)

Classical scientist:

Isaac Newton Founder of Classical Physics and Infinitesimal Calculus Anglican (rejected Trinitarianism, i.e., Athanasianism;
believed in the Arianism of the Primitive Church)
Galileo Galilei Founder of

Experimental Physics Catholic

Nicolaus Copernicus Founder of Heliocentric Cosmology Catholic (priest)

Johannes Kepler Founder of Physical Astronomy and Modern Optics Lutheran

Francis Bacon Founder of the Scientific Inductive Method Anglican

René Descartes Founder of Analytical Geometry and Modern Philosophy Catholic

Blaise Pascal Founder of Hydrostatics, Hydrodynamics,
and the Theory of Probabilities Jansenist

Michael Faraday Founder of Electronics and Electro-Magnetics Sandemanian

James Clerk Maxwell Founder of Statistical Thermodynamics Presbyterian; Anglican; Baptist

Lord Kelvin Founder of Thermodynamics and Energetics Anglican

Robert Boyle Founder of Modern Chemistry Anglican

William Harvey Founder of Modern Medicine Anglican (nominal)

John Ray Founder of Modern Biology and Natural History Calvinist (denomination?)

Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz German Mathematician and Philosopher,
Founder of Infinitesimal Calculus Lutheran

Charles Darwin Founder of the Theory of Evolution Anglican (nominal); Unitarian (could be agnostic)

Ernst Haeckel German Biologist,
the Most Influential Evolutionist in Continental Europe

Thomas H. Huxley English Biologist and Evolutionist,
Famous As "Darwin's Bulldog"

Joseph J. Thomson Nobel Laureate in Physics, Discoverer of the Electron,

Founder of Atomic Physics Anglican

Louis Pasteur Founder of Microbiology and Immunology Catholic

Matt McCormick said...

Not crazy, anonymous, just mistaken. Appeals to authority is a fallacy.


Matt McCormick said...

Ok, Carlo, let me get this straight. You are arguing on the one hand that we should abandon logic and reason, and "epistemic logic" (whatever that is) because they are inherently limited and they are only as good as the assumptions they are based upon. You want to throw those out because they don't provide us with sufficient support for theism. But you want to favor human testimony above all of that, and accept it when a bunch of people tell you with heartfelt passion that there is a God?

Seriously? Is that how you want to prioritize your sources of information? If so, I just don't know what to say. Seems like to me you're just engineering the theory and the account of evidence until it gives you the answer you want.


Anonymous said...

No where in my post did I say we should abandon logic and reason. I am merely suggesting that there are other forms of knowledge that are ignored, particularly in the analytic tradition.

Anonymous said...

To the professor,

I am confused as to why there is a lack of addressing the different types of knowledge? We learned in your epistemology that there are two forms of knowledge and yet the vast majority here seem to sit idly in only one camp (knowledge of that). Couldn't it be that the theist's faith is a case of perceptive/intuitive knowledge (knowledge of how)?

Also, I don't think it is fair professor to call that other poster on a fallacy for that listing. I myself was thinking of doing the same thing since your initial post challenged the "insanity of believers". I think you should respond to what is implicated.

To all,

In all honestly, I came to this site to revaluate my new position on God. Being that only several months ago I was a rabid atheist I am currently searching for answers as to why I was an atheist. I feel like C.S Lewis here. So far I see an incredible bias that has some foundation in reason. The comments here are snide and offensive. I always wondered why my former ilk were so angry. I still wonder this. How can there be tension within a non-believer if they truly believe that the supreme being is false? I, as an unconventional theist, harbor no anger towards any atheist. Many of you are very bright and can no doubt obliterate the average theist in a debate. But whence does the righteous ever savor victory over the defeated? I see a lot of character defects in my former atheist behavior. I remember the rush of blood and beating of my heart when a theist would ever mention god or their beliefs. That did not FEEL right.

Perhaps I am guilty of some fallacy to say that truth can sometimes feel right. There appears to be however an interesting contrast between religious and non-religious attitudes. That is, the skeptic has reason only to their defense whilst the theist reason + a righteous (good?) feeling. No doubt there are many great minds on both sides. But is it possible that one camp possesses a type of knowledge that can only be felt? One side feels awful no matter the presence of a well reasoned ground? Am I unfairly characterizing theist as happy go lucky and atheist as angry? Any thoughts on this would be much appreciated.

Matt McCormick said...

Carlo, here’s the comment you made in an earlier post about logic, reason and God:

“Logic can never be sufficient to describe an Omni being's connection. This should be evident by the potential bounds of first order logic, which can only extend as far as the axioms allow. Given this, it is rather illogical for us to demand an explanation of one's religious connection with such a supreme being. A system of logic is only as good as the assumptions it is founded on, which happens to be confined to mankind's scope of knowledge.”

I don’t understand much of this comment, but I’m really baffled that you’d press this line about the limits of logic and knowledge of God being beyond logic, and then you’d argue that testimony ought to be given such an exalted status. That’s mistaken for several reasons, one of which is that whatever limits you think there are to logic (we haven’t been using any symbolic or formal logic in any of these discussions, so the term should probably be “reason,”) the failings of testimony are well-documented, well-understood, and widespread. Another problem is the paradox of the position you’re presenting—what did you use to figure out that reason is limited? Something else? Why do you trust that to give you the real state of things? Are you giving us reasons to accept your claim that reason shouldn’t be trusted/has limits? Isn’t that contradicting yourself?

As for tone, scolding people for not using the sort of tone you want isn’t really on the topic. And you’ve engaged in a number of snide and nasty comments yourself: “Knowledge of 'how' seems to be long forgotten in the haughty atheist who berates the unarticulated theist.” The important point is not about tone, it’s about whether or not we have any plausible grounds for thinking there is a God.

As for “knowledge how,” you’re mixed up about what it is. It’s not perceptive/intuitive knowledge. Plantinga and some other foundationalists claim that there are some propositions that we know immediately and without inference to other beliefs—they are intrinsically, but defeasibly, justified. But that’s not knowledge how, that’s just a modern version of foundationalism, which is a theory about knowledge-that justification.

Knowledge how is possessing a skill or a set of operational abilities. I know how to throw a ball, and operate a tablesaw. But knowledge how doesn’t provide us with propositional knowledge that some object exists. That’s a strange category mistake—knowing how is having a capacity. Knowing that God exists is having a belief (propositional) that is also true, and that one possesses justification for. Knowing how doesn’t involve propositional attitudes, or beliefs, nor does it require that the knower be in any relationship to the truth. It might be true that McCormick can operate a tablesaw, but his ability—his knowledge how—isn’t truth functional. Nor does knowledge how involve justification.

So for someone to claim that they have knowledge how that God exists is really peculiar. I’m going to go riding, and then I am going to do some sawing, and then I’m going to do some God-ing.

Now let’s consider the possibility that someone might have some perceptual/intuitive experience of God. (I’m not sure what intuitive experience would be—sounds like paranormal nonsense to me). Is that knowledge? It might be if the other conditions are met. If one forms a belief about those perceptions and they are true, then the belief and truth conditions of knowledge are met. But the $64 million dollar question is, is it justified? There are lots of cases where people have strong, intuitive or perceptual experiences involving paranormal, supernatural, and religious phenomena where there are much easier and more obvious explanations than, “God is really appearing to Smith in his dreams.” In fact, I have encountered so many cases where a natural explanation is so much better, it would take a lot to convince me that something divine was going on. And I think any reasonable person who is having these sorts of experiences should be equally skeptical about their veracity.

Jon said...

Carlo, sure it's too easy for any of us to say jerky things some times, especially on a blog where it's easy to vent, lash out, or write shit while drunk. It's not always the same as talking to a stranger at a friends party - unfortunately.

Anonymous said...

To give some credence to what Carlo was suggesting about the kind of attitudes and tone atheists take against believers, you say, Matt...

"Not crazy, anonymous, just mistaken."

I think it would be more fair, more accurate, that we should say they are not justified. That statement itself could be just as "mistaken." What we have been suggesting in discussing these epistemic considerations--as you've pointed out numerous times in these comments--is justification.

Btw Matt, I would like to sit down and talk to you about doing some epistemology research this (academic) year. More likely next semester as I'm working this Fall and giving myself a crash course in advanced logic. I started expanding that comment you asked me to (couldn't sleep last night) and found I want to go deeper in formalizing this research (the blog will be much less formal and brief, mind you; it should be done soon, time depending).

Matt McCormick said...

Thanks Bryan. But I absolutely do no mean to say that they are not justified. Quite the contrary, I think that a lot of people, maybe the ones on the list, then and now have been well-justified in believing that God exists. Before Darwin, and before we knew as much as we know about magic, superstition, supernatural forces, and so on, thinking that God is responsible for events in the universe might be the perfectly reasonable conclusion, but mistaken nevertheless. I think that Ptolemy was thoroughly justified in believing that the Sun orbits the Earth. In fact, his justification was probably better in a lot of ways than many of us in thinking that the Earth orbits the Sun.

As you point out, certainly my own claim could be mistaken. But that possibility doesn't render me not justified. Nor does the possibility give me grounds to stop thinking that I am correct. I am prepared to change my mind if the evidence demands it, but what my body of evidence provides me is substantial grounds for thinking that there is no God and that the arguments for the existence of God are faulty. And having grounds that justify one in believing a conclusion justify you in concluding that it is TRUE--what else could justification be for? So if I conclude that it is true, then I have to think that all of these other famous theists were mistaken, even if they were justifications.

I wasn't going to quibble with the list, but here's an important point. First, Einstein's views about religion have recently come to light with some new information and it turns out he clearly did not believe in God. Second, for all of the people on anonymous's list, there are ambiguities. We can't distinguish between those who actually believe and those who believe in belief (who think that it is a good thing to believe and who say they believe as a result). We also don't know about how many of these so-called theists in history who publicly espoused belief because they were afraid of execution, torture, hanging, burning, ostracism, excommunication, and a host of other social ills that believers would have unloaded on any open unbeliever. It was standard practice for philosophers for centuries to make all their deferential remarks to God and king in the preface to their books, so they could keep their jobs and their lives, and then set out doing the real philosophy.

Yeah, let's talk about projects. But I am not the resident expert on advanced logic stuff. Pyne, Mayes, and Dowden would be much better for that. I am offering the atheism seminar in the fall though.


Anonymous said...

Oh, I agree, the list is faulty as all hell. It also makes the mistake of lumping numerous beliefs into one vague class of "theists" when maybe Einstein did believe in "something" but he certainly wasn't Christian, nor probably even monotheist if we ascribe something like that to him. Many scientists have proclaimed certain religious sentiments, even using the term God, but not affiliating any kind of actual content to that usage. I think Niel DeGrasse Tyson's speech on this in Beyond Belief 2006 lays that out rather nicely.

Now, you say someone may be justified to believe in, say, p, given that they meet some criteria of justification, such as Ptolemy, even if he was mistaken. Now, we know he is mistaken because objective facts of the same kind, and mutually exclusive, came to light. We were able to compare the difference.

By what you said, are you saying that they are mistaken in comparison to your justification in not believing in God? That would seem troubling because we should immediately recognize a characteristically different kind of comparison between conflicts of epistemology and conflicts of, say, physics. It seems not only relative to whomever has some justification, but also relative to how they are justified (I will point this out in my blog, appealing to Kvanvig's article "How to be a Reliabilist" where he distinguishes between a reliable person and a reliable procedure or method).

What seems apparent is that you may be mistaken and so might the theists in question, yet to draw the comparison that, say, they are mistaken because my justified belief warrants acceptance over there's, inasmuch as I have a valid claim to that warrant, e.g., confirmation by a reliable procedure, suggests that the comparison is not complete. By that I mean we do not have a proper disjunct since both may simply be wrong. On the other hand, both may be partially correct--as JS Mill states, we all only know half-truths. But if we allow for such partial (fuzzy?) truth, and base the comparison off of mutually exclusive belief claims, then a comparison seems to fall apart because the bases for comparison is not a reliable measure, in a way it is neither here nor there.

Instead, going back to my original position, I think it is only fair to claim they are not justified, but this is a claim that does seek objective standards. They may have been justified at the time, due to limited evidence, say, but to say given new evidence today we shape our belief claims exclusive from theirs, we are saying, just like the physics comparison, that there is something objective about the world for which they are no longer justified.

Now, why do I choose justification over mistake? Because if we appeal to both objectivity and a reliable criteria or procedure, say, we are able to compare future evidence to previous belief claims. If Ptolemy formulated belief p given his criteria C, and later it is shown that under criteria C' (the "better" one, which would be fleshed out in a meta-analysis) that p is false, then we can say Ptolemy was clearly unjustified. His criteria failed to meet a higher standard such as reliabilism;it did not avoid errors as much as C', we might suppose.

One might say "so they are mistaken just like Ptolemy was mistaken about the world," but we still have to face the fact our epistemic comparison is not like the scientific comparison. To this I say, are epistemic theories mutually exclusive? We certainly can demonstrate they are underdetermined. But can one have multiple epistemic bases for justification? Since I have drawn this out far enough already, I will say we arrive at a situation much like hypothesis testing in statistics. Let's say we have two hypothesis H0 and H'0, and their respective alternatives HA and H'A. The conclusion that we draw from a reliable procedure of analysis might be to reject or fail to reject either H or H'. But the status of one test means little to the other. The tests themselves are independent (as presented, they might not be). If we have some data and H0 is to test for normality while the other test checks another kind of parameterization, they may both work out true. In this sense, the comparison is relative, and that seems to be the same boat the epistemological comparison is in. If it is, then we need some basis from a meta-analytical perspective on the comparison to evaluate things such as independence of the claims, the exclusivity of the conclusions, etc.

Without that meta-analysis it comes out troubling as I suggested earlier because the comparison really just falls apart. It's like saying the test for H' may be valid/true/justified but they are mistaken and H is the correct test. It certainly isn't supported by the justification for H, and this is kind of the position epistemic theories are in when trying to compare them.

Therefore, it seems more prudent to me to state that any epistemic theory ought to achieve a certain kind of, for the sake of the argument presented here, reliability in, say, avoiding error and producing true future outcomes (or decisions). Upon this comparative criteria, we can compare the two theories in their own right to the criteria of our standard, namely, whether we get true outcomes and avoid errors as detectable. We, then, are not comparing epistemic theories but evaluating them independently, since they are independent (exclusivity becomes irrelevant). The result is a way to say a was unjustified to believe that p, and b was justified to believe that p given the same objective evidence and our higher-order criteria.

In closing this comment, that is kind of where I want my project to go. I want to compare coherentist, reliabilist and probabilist meta-epistemological theories and methods. It might be where my grad work takes me in logic (to give a formal articulation of it using more complex models of analysis). Since Mayes is teaching the uncertainty class (cuts into my calculus course, so I can't take it unfortunately), I figure he ought to be a good source on that matter. I don't think anyone else is. But at this point I don't need anyone too involved in the advanced logic. That is for my own preparation for logic and metamathematics I will take in grad school, possibly at Berkeley. What I need help with is the particulars of epistemological theories. I haven't taken 180 or 181, whichever it is, so my epistemological background is wholly self-taught, and the books were dated. I got the jist of classic views, but the more recent developments seem to overlap, so the difference seems to be in the details. Those details and the bredth of the field are really want I need assistance with, since I don't have the time currently to do that much research besides pick-and-grab the important sources (I found Kranvig to be an excellent (free) wealth of information on, at least, coherent theories, among other stuff, e.g., reliabilism). I know that you have taught Epistemology and I have heard you are good at it (and hard). That, to me, suggests you are probably a good source of information on the matter! Oh, and I can't take the seminar class either. Not only for the fact my plate is full as it is, but it isn't at an appropriate time for me. Plus, I'm just bored with religious studies! I prefer the anthropological take on it these days, which focuses more on traditional cultures. has a few videos presented by such anthropologists. Great stories to listen to (and a great website if you haven't actually heard of it yet).

Matt McCormick said...

There are lots of interesting ideas here, Bryan. Thanks. But you're running several very important distinctions together and making some mistakes, I think. We cover a lot of these over the better part of a semester in Phil 180, so I won't go into it all here. But here's a few thoughts:

1) There isn't a difference in kind between my justifications for believing claims in physics and my justifications in believing other things. There are no "objective justifications," as you say, in one realm where something is settled. There are only different degrees in confidence that one has as a function of the quality, comprehensiveness, and force of a body of evidence. What you're trying to say, in a too complicated manner, I think, is that the superiority of my justification for believing atheism is not as great as the superiority of our justification for believing in a heliocentric universe instead of a geocentric one like Ptolemy. That is, you think that the two are disanalogous. That would be a conclusion about my position that you'll either be justified in believing or not, and one that you might try to convince me to agree about. It won't be true a priori, and it won't suffice for people to just stipulate that some non-believing is not as justified in believing there is no God.

2) Justification is a relational predicate. It is something that a person has or doesn't have, and has in degrees. Beliefs too. These things aren't mind independent entities. Beliefs don't exist without minds. And justifications don't exist without some believer who has a web of other beliefs, background info, epistemic standards, rules of inference and so on. Talking about whether or not a belief is justified without being sensitive to that is a bit like talking about whether or not mint ice cream has objectively good flavor. (Not to suggest that justification is nothing more than personal preference.)

3) Be careful about conflations surrounding reliabilism and justification. Whether or not a person's belief was produced by a reliable cognitive mechanism is a separate question from whether or not that person is aware that it is justified. It could be reliable, but S doesn't believe it. Or it could be unreliable and S is fully convinced that it is justified. S has the reliable belief that p is distinct from S has the belief that S has the reliable belief that p.

4) Ptolemy's belief could have, probably was, produced by a reliable belief forming process. Reliability is a measure of the success rate for a given belief forming process at producing true beliefs. If the majority of beliefs formed by a process are true, then it is reliable. Some processes are more reliable than others.

5) Knowing that a given belief forming process is reliable itself involves forming beliefs about it, and judging their success rate. So there's a recursion problem here. So we shouldn't conflate truth with justification or with warrant. A proposition's being true is one thing--Ptolemy's believing that the Sun orbits the Earth was wrong. It's being justified is another matter. Ptolemy did more research, compiled more of the information available to people in his day, and thought about it longer and harder than any of us have thought about the issue. Part of being justified is not being culpable for failing to satisfy one's epistemic duties. And part of what comprises one's epistemic duties is the state of science, logic, inductive reasoning, and the general human knowledge base available to a person. We can't blame Ptolemy for not being able to look at NASA photos, or knowing about mathematical techniques that were invented in the 19th century. So I think by any reasonable account of justification, we would have to say he's epistemically blameless. In fact, he's probably an exemplar of what it is to acquire a justified belief about something. Nevertheless, he got it wrong.

There are a lot of issues here, and it takes a lot of background in epistemology to work out the details.


Anonymous said...


Between (4) and (5) you point out that reliability is determined by its success rate in the former, but then he isn't blameworthy due to the ignorance about information we have today. There's really two ways to view this. Either (I) we can say his success rate is reflected in the fact he got it wrong, therefore it is blameworthy. And what I said may have been suggestive of that. That may be a disingenuous treatment of his work, however. The alternative is (II) the process he used is the same or similar to the empirical process used today and from a higher-order perspective the procedure itself is reliable as his failure is part of the much smaller fraction of successes the empirical procedure produces on the whole.

It seems clear that you would agree II is a better representation of what is going on, but I think that furthers my point. The reason we can see Ptolemy as inculpable is that because he did not have access to certain information that we can scientifically (empirically) correspond to an alternative theory today.

My reason I claim it is not analogous to claim Ptolemy is wrong as it is to claim a theist is wrong on some account is because Ptolemy's account was something objective and could be refuted, falsified, scientifically disproven, as it was. His belief contained an objective link between justification and truth, as Kvanvig would say (in the linked article previously).

Is that the same kind of case with saying a theist is wrong? I don't see it. I do not think we have just one categorically similar situation. Which seems suggestible by saying in (1) we do not have a difference in kind between these two cases.

By what I mean by an objective justification--as opposed to a subjective one, as is espoused in Kvanvig's "Subjective Justification," mind, n.s., 93, no. 369 (1984):71-84--is that the belief is maintained by an objective link between justification and truth. We have something objective which lends itself to be measured, tested, or falsified, etc. Religious beliefs are, in large part, not of this kind. That is not a new or queer statement I make. Religious beliefs depend very much on subjectivity.

As for (2) and (3), I am aware of those issues, but I do not think they are involved in what I have said. (3) is talked about specifically in the article I cited above, and certainly we cannot talk about epistemology without the person who believes something, as you state in (2), but we also don't have a homogeneous knowledge set where everything in it is the same thing. Some of those things will be subjective, e.g., S's belief about p, even though q is an objective reason to reject it, and S does not think q is a good reason. On the other hand, something like q is an objective piece of knowledge. I'm not going to get into a broader analysis of coherentism at this time, but one isn't it BonJour who developed the idea that a coherent system of beliefs can be a communal system? i.e., it is held by many (I would say like an intersection of individual sets, or maybe a parameterized union of sorts, if that's possible--really just a function then.). Then the weight of one person's individual (subjective) beliefs do not weigh as much on the overall system. We do see these kinds of belief systems such as "the scientific community" in the rhetoric of today, but also in practice that we hold beliefs we, some might say, are not justified in holding, but we do because of the broader mechanism involved in accepting scientific investigation (done by a community).

My point is that the knowledge set is more than just the individual, and within and functioning on it we do need to take account of the individual, but the "landscape" is diverse and, for simplicity, differentiated at least by objective versus subjective kinds of positions, as well as, about objective versus subjective kinds of things. I would never discount the weight of the individual (I think I've adequately argued against that numerous times on your Blog). What I am saying is the kind of claim against, say, Ptolemy, is of a different sort than a criticism against a theist, because of the content.

I was going to make a more logical representation of this, if we break the epistemological claims down to functions, but I gotta jet. I may follow up later or just wait for a response. What I would demonstrate is that our more simplified expressions of epistemic claims (e.g., S believes that p...) do not express the diverse relations I am trying to identify. Since they appear, to me, to differ in both order and inputs, we can express them functionally, and that is what I would try and use to express that. But it is also difficult to represent here considering I don't have access to useful symbols I could get in Word!

Until later.

Anonymous said...

Dear professor,

"""Are you giving us reasons to accept your claim that reason shouldn’t be trusted/has limits? Isn’t that contradicting yourself?"""

No contradiction at all. I would only be inconsistent if I denied logic/reason. And as I have stated numerous times, I do give continence to reason/ logic. I just see a failure on the skeptics part to realize logic/reasoning has limits. You must assume that all cases of knowledge will only be symbolized. This is false. Epistemic logic has a case where absolute truths exits but will never be attained by humans. In addressing the latter I think you may get a better idea of where I am coming from. In professor Dowden's logic 2 course book referenced this under epistemic logic.

"""That’s mistaken for several reasons, one of which is that whatever limits you think there are to logic (we haven’t been using any symbolic or formal logic in any of these discussions, so the term should probably be “reason,”"""

Reason cannot be distinguish from first order logic because reasoning exists in a linguistic form. And what is linguistic can be symbolized. Every word you and I spoke here can be symbolized so I fail to understand why you separate the two. Logic is limited to the linguistic framework we have access to.

As for knowledge of how, I disagree with your characterized. Hellenistic philosophers referred to intuitive/perceptive experiences as a from of knowledge. Even Locke refers to a case of intuitive knowledge. I am equating knowledge of how with intuitive knowledge because I believe they are the same thing. If I am incorrect in such an equivocation I am untroubled since my point still prevails.

"""So for someone to claim that they have knowledge how that God exists is really peculiar. I’m going to go riding, and then I am going to do some sawing, and then I’m going to do some God-ing."""

Now this is a bad case of ridicule. People do not go Goding. They KNOW HOW to connect with God like you knew how to ride your bike.

"""Now let’s consider the possibility that someone might have some perceptual/intuitive experience of God. (I’m not sure what intuitive experience would be—sounds like paranormal nonsense to me). Is that knowledge?"""

Maybe I can bring to light what you think is so utterly nonsense. Please explain to me wholly and indubitably what the smell of rain in the morning is like or seeing the color red? Biologists define knowledge as not just information but that which is available for use. An immune system has no propositional knowledge of its defenses but can employ them readily. Psychologists also refers to controlled thinking process and automatic thinking processes. The latter does not necessarily follow the former in terms of knowledge acquisition.

Lastly, I would like to present a brief refutation of a line of thinking here that I believe many atheist hold. Its appears to be assumed that God being unreasonable and yet knowable is absurd. Likely because the skeptic believes that only knowledge can be based on reason or propositional knowledge. Yet, we can assume that humans are lesser beings to God. And since God is the ultimate set of all things then humans, logical systems, the universe, are all mere subsets of the infinite set (God).

So it then would be irrational to prove god through reason alone ( I mean this strictly and wholly). Of course we can make inferences to God's existence through sensing him etc but to define such a profound being is well irrational.

Like the red or white blood cell having no propositional knowledge of the conscious being it is consumed in, so the human of the Omni conscious being...

"The whole is more than the sum of its parts"

Aristotle Metaphysica

Anonymous said...

Oh, I should add that the one thing I was going to make clearer (with the logic) was that there is a distinct difference between the claim against Ptolemy versus that of theists, wherein the former we have objective facts to verify the truth and the justification (the success rate, the claim, the reliability, the procedure, whatever). In the latter, however, we are comparing things that are subjective and more like comparing opinion or reasoning strategies themselves which are far from comparing merely facts or first-order data, for instance. That is why I used the previous analogy to comparing hypothesis tests in statistics, and what I was trying to get at in the past two comments.

Anonymous said...

epistemic logic

Anonymous said...


I guess I should add something to my last statement. I see where you are going with your rhetoric of intuitive knowledge and knowledge about/through some practice/experience/use. Do you mind presenting, if you have them, some more concrete examples or analogies that demonstrate exactly what you are referring to. Matt made the comment about not knowing what kind of knowledge that would be, and we have to be careful about defining what qualifies as knowledge (because information alone, e.g., does not qualify). It seems rather Platonistic as you present, or as Matt says, "paranormal nonsense." If there's a biological (maybe genetic?) kind of basis to how this information (or knowledge) is derived, what would that be?

Furthermore, you speak of God as some universal set. That is a failure of naive set theory. Compare that to ZF or ZFC set theory which is properly axiomatized. You cannot have a set of all sets, it is not well-defined, which is a requirement of a set definition. Search SEP or IEP for more on that.

Anonymous said...

Hi Bryan,

I am not sure I explain the basis for intuitive knowledge any further then I have. But I am sure you used it once before when you first learned how to ride a bike. Social learning theory in psychology is when people adopt or imitate actions. This process is often undertaken by the automatic thinking process i.e. the human autopilot system. It allows us to grasp things before you understand them (propositional knowledge). As I said before, biologist define knowledge as not merely propositional knowledge but that which is of use.

As for sets, of course there is a set of all sets Bryan. The set of all sets is the infinite set of all things. Sure, it isn't well defined nor do you have a logical notion of such. but again, how can you honestly attempt to define that which is indefinable? To do so is irrational even by logical standards. I think this is what Plantingua meant to say when he referred to atheism as so illogical. That is, atheist are stuck in their logic bubble.

God is not what you imagine or what you think you understand. If you understand you have failed. ~Saint Augustine

Anonymous said...


Your example of what biologists claim to be knowledge, is it what is understood as knowledge proper in epistemological terms? Or is it characteristically different? We don't want to compare apples and oranges, so to speak, so I just want to make sure we are all aware of how we are describing knowledge to begin with.

And to say there is a set of all sets, say, S, and then to say it is not well-defined, i.e., it is outside of our ability to understand it in terms of sets, is to say both that S is a set and S is not a set (sets need meaningful definitions/names). How can you assent to such an idea when it is inherently contradictory?

For those who don't understand why a set of all sets is a problem, consider the definition of a set S={x|x is a set}. This is the "set of all sets." Russell's paradox demonstrates a set theoretic liar's paradox where we can have a set {x|x is a set and x does not belong to x}. Well, the first part is captured by S. We can form another set A such that A={x|x belongs to S and x doesn't belong to x}. We fall into the liar's paradox and have a meaningless definition of a set, since A should clearly belong in S, but A doesn't even belong to A.

Therefore, S is meaningless. If you are trying to characterize God in some way as this "set of all sets" then God is a meaningless name. The kind of counter argument that runs around like "our logic just can't capture God" is like saying "your math is just weak because it cannot capture my concept of addition which says 2+2 is a billion!" Even if you can construct, say, an algebraic system, to capture that operator (which wouldn't be that hard), it doesn't make it consistent with reality nor useful nor comparable with standard mathematics (like addition under the group of integers).

If you disagree, then I ask, what is meaningful about S? What is meaningful about something impossible to capture with our human minds? Or more to the point, what is meaningful in what we do conceive to signify that which we cannot capture with our minds?

Anonymous said...

Hey Bryan,

"""Your example of what biologists claim to be knowledge, our example of what biologists claim to be knowledge, is it what is understood as knowledge proper in epistemological terms?"""
I am not sure what your asking here. There is more to knowledge than propositions. SEE cognitive theory development or genetic epistemology.

"How can you assent to such an idea when it is inherently contradictory?'

Easy. Its only contradictory of you think in a logical bubble. Of course doing so is circular, which coherentists seem to not mind. And set theory is also inherently contradictive given skolems paradox. I do not assent to any solutions that have been presented obviously. There is no difference between my idea of a infinite set of all sets and Gödel's power sets ad infinitum. Both, if pondered in the bubble, are problematic.

"""Therefore, S is meaningless..."""

S or god does not have itself nay meaning whatsoever. names are signs or shall we say referents and do not
in themselves have meaning. just a as stop sign does not in any way illustrate what stopping means.

You are just going to have to think about what I am saying more round about Bryan. I know exactly where you are coming from because I was there a few months ago. Four years of being an atheist and I was trapped in my own bubble. if you cannot grasp the idea that knowledge can be had by other means then propositions then appealing to me with such is rather trite.

In Phil of language Professor Kaplan claimed that people can be trapped in a proposition. It can be equally stated that the atheist is trapped in first order logic...

Derek said...

What really bothers me is how theists use one of those lines and then think they've just won the debate.

Unknown said...

Then again, I only barely understand DNS. These are just a few things that have crossed my mind.