Saturday, September 27, 2008

Grasping at Possibilities

There’s a common response to hard challenges to belief. Frequently, the theist falls back to the answer, “Well, you can’t prove it wrong!” The idea seems to be that in general belief is epistemically permissible as long as one doesn’t have compelling proof to the contrary. So a belief is warranted or at least not irrational in cases where one’s evidence on the whole supports it, and also in those cases where one’s evidence seems to neither confirm nor disconfirm it on the whole.

Plantinga, in his modal version of the ontological argument seems to be resorting to a similar sort of defense. He acknowledges that his argument doesn’t prove the conclusion that God exists. Proof would require true premise different than the conclusion that, when taken jointly, imply the truth of the conclusion. Plantinga concedes that someone who already believes in God would accept his premises, and thereby would see it as a proof. But no non-believer would accept them because the conclusion that God exists is, in effect embedded in the premises. Circular arguments can be sound, after all. But they don’t convince anyone. But after acknowledging that he hasn’t proven the existence of God, he says something curious. He says that he has established the rational acceptability of believing. He seems to think that his argument establishes that there is nothing contrary to reason in believing, so it is somehow now warranted to believe. The point also seems to be that he could not fault someone for being irrational for not accepting the argument, given that it assumes the very thing it is intended to prove. I think a careful read of his argument shows that he asserts the rational acceptability of believing. But showing it is another matter.

But what interests me here is the notion that belief is epistemically inculpable or rational for S in cases where S’s evidence does not, on the whole, disprove p. Consider some examples where this is obviously not the case:

I don’t have any proof that there is not a Ferrari sitting in my garage right now (while I am not in there), therefore it is acceptable to believe that there is one.

I don’t have any proof that my neighbors have not had their minds taken over by aliens, so it is reasonable to believe that they have.

I don’t have any proof that Gefjun, the Norwegian goddess of agriculture, does not exist, so it is ok for me to believe that she does.

Imagine that you have a suicidal friend who is consumed by negativity and depression. He laments that he thinks he will die of cancer. You say, “But you don’t have any real reasons to think that you have cancer.” He says, “Can you prove that I don’t have cancer? No, you can’t. See, so I have cancer. I am just going to kill myself now and get it over with.”

Theist: You can’t prove that there is no God, so there’s nothing wrong with believing.
Atheist: Ok, since we can’t prove there is no God, then there’s nothing wrong with not believing.

I don’t have any proof that John McCain and Sarah Palin are not evil time travelers from the future intent on destroying the United States, therefore I believe that they are.

In general, lacking evidence to the contrary for p does not entitle a person to believe it anyway. In general, doing that would be patently irrational. Resorting to this defense is a flimsy, last ditch effort to retain some semblance of reasonableness but we can see that there’s no defense to be had here.


Anonymous said...

I have to agree inasmuch as one does not have evidence it does not act as justification to believe whatever one wants. On the contrary, however, we do experience times when it is perfectly fine to believe or not believe in something. How to we gauge this, through some kind of epistemic "risk" or "consequence" maybe?

I think the real solution comes from having a broader epistemological perspective on the issue. Take the claim

(1) S believes that p is true, given that there is no q or ~q which confirms or denies p.


(2) S believes that p is true, given that there is some q or ~q which does confirm or deny p.

I don't state these conclusively one way or another for reasons that I hope will be clear. The point is that the major difference between (1) and (2) is that given S believes that p is true, we have some knowledge which runs contrary to it, or at least a warranted believe that runs contrary. Consider the cancer example,

I believe I have cancer even though there is no evidence to suppose I do.


I believe I have cancer even though there is evidence that I don't.

We would find the latter case far more seriously mistaken than the first. Why? Because there is clear evidence to the contrary. We take our beliefs to be rational and part of that is connecting the dots of our epistemic claims. Consider a different case,

I believe in the tooth fairy even though there is no evidence for it.


I believe in the tooth fairy and I met it!

The latter example in this case is some obscure justification, but this is just as obscure as to why someone would believe they have cancer even though they have no evidence for or against it. Here we have a believe based on some kind of evidence, even if it isn't good, e.g., completely subjective. But how do we gauge this? Is it worse than the first example in this case? I would find the former more serious and for the exact same underlying reason in the first case.

The reason why I think the former example is more serious is because it does have implicit counter evidence imbued in the mere fact we have some kind of epistemic "knowledge set." I take a coherentist position in this regard, and part of the body of knowledge and beliefs one has encompasses many things, such as knowledge about the world, science and myths. If I believe there is a tank in my garage then I should have some pretty good other beliefs to support that belief. I may have no explicit beliefs to that end, such as "a retired military general with an old tank allowed to take it off base was planning to give it to me this weekend." But we are all aware that we live in a country where tanks aren't allowed to just be driven around freely, nor even removed from military depots freely, etc. All these kinds of beliefs we should have in our understanding of things, and they need to be weighed in. So given that I may not have any explicit belief for or against my belief about having a tank in my garage, I certainly have implicit beliefs in the mere fact I have a comprehension about the world I live in which should lead me not to believe such a thing. But does that entail I cannot believe I might have a tank in my garage? Absolutely not! It is these kind of queer beliefs one has, contrary to everything our understanding of the world would lead us to, that are far more serious than the latter example in the previous case. To keep in line, let me say I had a call from a friend who told me the general put a tank in my garage. Is that evidence for it? Absolutely not, but what if I held my belief about the tank at this point? I wouldn't be rational to believe something like that as it still runs counter to my implicit understanding of things, but if I did think, say in the back of my mind somewhere, just "maybe" it wouldn't be that big of a deal, certainly not as serious as the former example, and that is why I think that example is far more serious.

When we apply this to the religious person, some religious people have informed and experienced decisions about their beliefs. They may have encountered events or people in their life which compels them to believe the way they do. Now that is fine, inasmuch as it coheres with the rest of our understanding of the world, providing us with those implicit beliefs. To me this draws a clear distinction (though not clearly drawn) between two kinds of theists: those which believe within the bounds of understanding and those which believe superseding any bounds of their understanding. The latter is the more serious case and precisely because their ill-formed beliefs affect their understanding. This is exemplified when you have someone who knows, say, science very well, and yet they take basic facts and form a completely different opinion about them to fit their skewed view of the world. A young-earth creationist, and I have met some like this, may be far more knowledgeable on topics of fossils and geology, etc., and yet when they evaluate the facts and connect the dots and make sense of the theories, they completely go off the mark and get it wrong, to put it mildly. They shape facts to fit their skewed view. In this way, a person is believing in something without evidence, but more than that, they even take non-evidence and make it evidence.

Therefore, the more serious case, from my experience, seems to lead to worse outcomes in the fact people do still seek justification, and since they don't have it (in the more serious case), they will find a way to get it by making it up or skewing evidence to their cause.

On the other hand, we might have people who believe as they do for whatever reason, but instead believe in evolution but believe, also, that God is its engineer, or that God works through nature, etc. They don't take supernatural things and throw out the natural. There are many theists of this sort who have no counter evidence, nor implicit beliefs that say it is misguided. They lack evidence for or against and yet still believe as they do, and it coheres with everything else they understand about the world. In this case, it is not merely "grasping at possibilities" but having an open belief out there which is trivially epistemically because it causes no "damage." If we are to look at "risk" or "consequences" as I alluded to before, I think it would have to be measured in some way like this--whether it is damaging to their personal knowledge beliefs, and those we build collectively (e.g., science). Many open beliefs like in (1) are of that sort, in that they are not damaging. On the other hand, some are "risky" and they seem to lead to a reshaping of one's knowledge set to accommodate this malformed belief. Beliefs of this sort or beliefs taken in this way, are like a pathogen, infecting one's knowledge set in such a way that it builds on it and reshapes it like a cancer or some other disease (and hell, it even spreads!). If we are to characterize the problem, I think it needs to be focused on beliefs of this sort or beliefs taken in this way, for the larger picture of beliefs without evidence are not always a problem nor even capable of leading to such a problem.

Matt McCormick said...

Thanks Bryan for the thoughtful reply. I'm not quite sure what you're getting at. But I can certainly understanding invoking some account of harm or risk to judge the acceptability of different belief cases and their relationship to the evidence. But believing those things that are harmful may or may not be rational, it seems to me. I would suggest that we should hold a person's belief system, at a minimum, to some broad standards of consistency like those that coherentists endorse. I've got an earlier post about coherence and atheism, I think. And on those sorts of criteria, believing contrary to one's evidence would probably come out worse than merely believing in the absence of evidence. Nevertheless, the latter is seriously out of whack with most people's ordinary practice, or I'd argue that it should be. That's not to say that believing contrary to one's evidence is not worse.


Anonymous said...


eh, I don't know if I could call it thoughtful. I've been half asleep all day. Anyway, you say, "lacking evidence to the contrary for p does not entitle a person to believe it anyway. In general, doing that would be patently irrational." What I was spelling out was that we have two cases in which case it really comes down to how that "p" fits in the whole scheme of one's belief system or at least how it is treated, since we can still be rational and hold onto a belief p for which we lack evidence against. The irrationality really shines through when some p has no justification and runs counter to other things in the belief system, or even worse, this p helps shape their belief system.

Anonymous said...

mr. mack I think you are unfairly characterizing theists and MR. alvin chip monk's position. The theist position you give is a case of the scarcrow man...we are not taking someone's view serious. alvin and his fellow chip monk theist logcians are just playing the skeptics game. We all really have faith and thats all that counts. but since the skeptic cries about proof and sound arguments as though such things are holy devices then we have to accomadate. its the one guy who sits on that skeptic fence who we are trying to budge.

On to addressing your post. First i need to know something...

Do you think everything needs a proof?

Because axioms dont have proofs...

Robert Morane said...

"Because axioms dont have proofs..."

Axioms are proven true by the fact that they cannot, logically, be proven wrong. Example:

Axiom: Logic is logical. To prove that this axiom is false, you need to reason... logically! But if the conclusion of your logical argument is that logic is illogical, then your conclusion isn't valid because it is derived from a... logical (!) argument.

Axiom: Existence exists. If you disagree... well, you need to exist to disagree, don't you? ;-)

That's how we know that axioms are true: to prove them false, you must first assume that they're true, which makes your "proof" self-defeating.

If you CAN prove that x is false, then x isn't an axiom.

Robert M.