Saturday, February 12, 2011

Do you know what you believe about God and why? or Is the Genetic Fallacy a Fallacy?

Despite recent developments in psychological research, there are a number of na├»ve assumptions that persist behind many of our arguments about religious claims. 

The Genetic Fallacy:  traditionally, it has been considered a fallacy to evaluate and/or reject a view on the basis of where it originated.  That is, bringing up the causal, historical, psychological, social, or emotional account of the origin of a belief is not sufficient to reject it or show that holding it is ill-founded.  If a woman believes some proposition and someone says, “You just believe that because you’re a woman,” it’s irrelevant to whether the view is true or justified.  (For an excellent run down of fallacies see the entry in the IEP )

C.S. Lewis often bristled at the genetic attacks on his Christianity:  “you must show that a man is wrong before you start explaining why he is wrong. The modern method  is to assume without discussion that he is wrong and then distract his attention from this (the only real issue) by busily explaining how he became to be so silly.  (God in the Dock)

Of course, Lewis is making a good point, and the Genetic Fallacy sure appears to be a fallacy.  But now, with a lot more psychological research about belief formation and persistance available to us, it is legitimate to wonder if there are circumstances where we should not take a person’s avowals of why they believe some claim so seriously. 

If it turns out that a person does not have the ready access to what they believe and why they believe it as Lewis and the more rationalistic philosophers thought, then the fallacy may not be so fallacious.  

Introspectionism is the view that I know what I do and don’t believe.  I know why I believe it.  I know when I change my mind and why.  And when I’m certain about it, then I really know it.  A little more formally, we can characterize it as the view that I know my own mind better than I know anything else.  It includes presumptions about

Cognitive Transparency:  If it is in my mind, then it will be evident to me that it is.   
Cognitive incorrigibility:  I can’t be mistaken about what I take to be the contents of my own thoughts.  If on introspection, I take X to be a content of my own mind, then it is true that X is one of my mental contents.  
Belief access: If I believe it, then I am or I can become aware that I do, and the same for my disbeliefs.     
Justification Access—I have privileged access to the reasons, evidence, or considerations that led to my believing what I do.  My reasons for believing p will be incorrigible and transparent to me. 

There is a substantial case to be made for anti-introspectionism in the psychology literature, however.  Consider some studies:

            Poll students about integrated busing.  Put them in groups and have a confederate argue persuasively for the opposite view.  Poll them again and their views change sharply.  Ask them about the view they had originally and the revise it to match their new ones.   They radically change their minds, and then change their memories of their former view, and hide the change from themselves.   And none of the subjects believe that the discussion had had any effect in changing or modifying his position.

Ask  subjects to tie two hanging cords together that are too far apart to reach between.  Subjects are stumped.  A researcher walks around the room and casually bats one cord to make it swing.  Subjects figure it out within 45 seconds of the cue.  But they confabulate an explanation for how they figured it out.  "It just dawned on me." "It was the only thing left." "I just realized the cord would swing if I fastened a weight to it."

People are less likely to help those in distress as the number of bystanders increases.   Furthermore, they are unaware of the influence of these numbers; they persistently deny that they were influenced by the others present.

Give subjects a card with a smell sprayed on it.  Prime them with the word, “Parmesan cheese” and they report liking it.  Prime them with “Vomit” and they dislike it.  Same smell.

Conduct a consumer survey by asking shoppers to evaluate which article of clothing is the best.  The right most article is heavily over-chosen, no matter which item is there.  But shoppers seem to have no idea that they have a bias for the right most.  Almost all denied a right hand bias, and they confabulate answers about why the right one is the best.

Give subjects a placebo, tell them it will produce heart palpitations, breathing irregularities, tremors, and butterflies.  Expose them to steadily increasing shocks.  The pill subjects are subsequently able to endure 4 times a high amperage shocks than the ones who didn’t take the pill.  Ask them why they were able to take a higher than average amount of shock and they make up a story that doesn’t involve the pill.

Show male subjects pictures of women, some with dilated eyes, some without.  Ask them to rate the pictures for attractiveness.   They show a strong preference for the women with dilated eyes.  But they don’t know it.   And they confabulate reasons about what they find attractive in the pictures.

Manipulate a subject’s moral views about some topic by having them write and deliver speeches against their own view.   Later their views have shifted towards the contrary view.   Ask them, and they insist that that was their view all along.  It also turns out that they attributed the shifting view to God before and after without noticing the change. 

Subjects who receive painful electric shocks during a learning task with no explanation will downplay the painfulness of the shocks more than if they have a reason.  But none of the subjects realize that that’s what they are doing.

So what lessons can we draw from these sorts of studies?  People are poor judges of:  What they believe, what they feel, why they believe or feel it, when they change their minds, why they change their minds, who they find attractive, why they find them attractive.

Rather than having some privileged, incorrigible access to the private contents of my mind, I observe me and I theorize about what I am thinking, why I act, what motivates me in a way very similar to how I figure out what you think and why.  And since I’m so close to the subject, I often do a poor, biased job of it.  In many cases, someone else is in a better position to say what I think and why than I am. 

What is the relevance of this sort of research for the question of belief in God?  It shows that it is quite plausible that the real causes of belief in religious matters are not the conscious reflections or intellectual decisions that we may have thought.  Believing in God, like believing in anything else, is not simply a matter of reflecting on the evidence, considering the reasons pro and con, weighing that evidence, and then willing or deciding to believe.  That’s not typically how people arrive at belief.  Believing, it turns out, is a much messier, more organic matter.  And in many cases the influences that led to belief, the causes of belief, changes in belief, and even the beliefs themselves are not readily available or introspectible for the believer.  It often feels like we are the best ones to say what is going on in our own heads, but that feeling is an illusion, as countless studies have shown. 

Does analyzing the causes that lead to a person’s belief in God give us a reason to doubt that God is real?  If we have conducted a thorough investigation of the various reasons or arguments that have been presented for the existence of God and found them wanting (we have), then it is perfectly legitimate to wonder about the causes of so much belief in the world, and to be less inclined to take those beliefs seriously.  When I hear about the various exotic magical and metaphysical views that a villager from the jungles of Borneo has, or we hear about these people in the Amazon who have never had any contact with the outside world:

it’s no longer incumbent upon us to take their self-reported justifications for their religious beliefs as serious candidates for the truth.  We have a pretty good idea about the historical, psychological, and cultural origins of these beliefs, and knowing where they came from, by itself, is a pretty good justification for thinking that they are false.  Once we get clear on the genesis of modern theism, that knowledge is also a defeater that leads us to be highly skeptical.  

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

A Simple Paradox Concerning God’s Goodness

Here’s a short way to understand the problem with attributing goodness to God.  There are vastly detailed issues in the background, but this rough sketch works to illustrate the point.  (I am deliberately conflating acting and failures to act, and leaving some issues concerning duties to rescue in the background for clarity.)

In introductory moral theory discussions, we make four standard distinctions:

How should we understand the category of morally wrong actions?  These are acts (and sometimes omissions or failures to act) where if you commit them, then you are deserving of moral blame and even punishment.  Agents have a moral obligation to refrain from doing these.  And people, the would be victims, have a right to not have these acts committed deliberately against them.  Murder, rape, child abuse, etc. fall into the morally wrong category.  
What acts are morally permissible?  these are acts that a moral agent may do or refrain from doing without violating any duties.  Committing them, or not, does not warrant any moral praise or blame.  Having toast for breakfast is morally neutral this way, unless maybe you killed someone for the toast.  

Which acts are morally obligatory?  These are acts that an agent has a moral obligation or duty to perform.  If he fails to do them, then he deserves moral blame.  Failing to feed your kids, or ignoring a drowning person while there's a life preserver there on the dock that you could toss to him are examples.  People have a right to receive these things from you.  

Which acts are morally supererogatory?  These are acts that you do not have a moral obligation to do.  But if you do them, you deserve moral praise.  People don't have a right to have you do these for them.  You violate no moral duty by doing them or refraining.  But we hold them in high moral esteem.  When someone runs into a burning building to save a child, they are going above and beyond the call of duty.  We praise them as heroes, but if he had not done the act, we would not find moral fault.   

God, it is alleged, is good.   He is morally just, infinitely good, or morally perfect.  How can we understand this description in the light of the distinctions above? We typically have the highest moral praise for those individuals who make the greatest personal sacrifices in order to perform morally supererogatory acts.  Mother Teresa, Martin Luther King, Gandhi, and many others are praised widely for their morally supererogatory acts. 

God is alleged to be all powerful and all knowing too.  So there will be no opportunities for supererogatory action that are unknown to him, or that are beyond his power to perform.  Does God perform all of the supererogatory acts that we might expect from an infinitely good, all powerful, and all knowing being?  The short answer appears to be no.  There are countless supererogatory acts that God could have done that he has not done.  There are countless supererogatory acts that God could have done but he did not do, but if a human had done them we would hold them in the highest moral esteem. 

Does God perform all of those acts which we hold to be morally obligatory for moral agents?  Again, the simple answer is no.  There have been countless opportunities to perform actions that we would consider to be morally obligatory for moral agents, but the action was not performed.  Again, God would not be limited by his power or knowledge in these cases. 

Has God committed morally wrong actions?  If God is the almighty creator of the universe, then there are countless instances where there was an event that God was either directly or indirectly causally responsible for that we would ordinarily identify as morally wrong.  Consider the class of actions or omissions that we would identify as morally wrong if a moral agent had been present and had committed them or allowed them to happen.  A person drowns by herself near a dock on a lake where a life vest sits on the dock.  If a person had been standing next to the life vest and saw her drowning in the lake, but refrained from tossing the life vest to her, we would think of that failure to act as morally abhorrent.  There are countless other events like these where it does not appear that God did what we would ordinarily have identified as the morally obligatory act.  Therefore, it would appear that God has committed (or by omission allowed to happen) countless morally wrong events. 
So it appears that God, if there is one, has failed to perform countless supererogatory acts that we would otherwise identify as morally praiseworthy.  And God has apparently failed to do many of the actions that we would ordinarily consider to be morally obligatory and good.  And God has apparently committed (or by omission allowed to happen) countless morally wrong actions or events. 

Therefore, we cannot accept the allegation that God is good, or that there is any morally perfect, infinitely good, perfectly just being.  There appears to be no such being.  And if there is no morally perfect being, then there is no God. 

As I said, this is only a rough sketch of an argument.  A carefully constructed version that ties up all loose ends, and deals better with some of the oversimplification would be much longer and much more boring. 

I am attempting to bring out into the light how severe the moral double standard is that we often apply to God.  In our ordinary, daily affairs, we invoke a set of straight forward and clear criteria for what sorts of things are wrong, which things are heroic, and which things are morally good.  But in our ideas of God we throw all of that out.  God is required to do none of the things we normally expect moral agents to do.  If he acts like the worst sort of negligent monster, again that is overlooked.  In effect, none of our judgments about good and evil apply to God, but we insist:  not only is God good, he’s the ultimate exemplar of moral perfection.  Nevermind that he doesn’t do any of the things that morally praiseworthy people do. 

Believers may respond by insisting that for God, whose moral perfection is so vastly beyond our fallible and sinful natures, goodness means something totally different.  Yes, I have to agree.  If God is good, then “good” doesn’t mean any of the things that I thought it did.  In fact, it appears to mean what we usually intend when we say, “negligent,” “abhorrent,” “genocidal,” “abusive,” “repugnant,” or just plain “evil.” 

There may also be this response from Christians, “But God has performed the ultimate of supererogatory acts; he has sacrificed his son for our sins, and offered us salvation from our evil natures,” or something to that effect.  These “God really has done wonderful things for us,” replies will miss the point, I think.  It doesn’t matter how great the deal from Jesus is, that doesn’t alter the moral status of the evil actions and failures to act.  Think of it this way—if an abusive parent neglects, ignores, or worse, actively tortures his kid with diseases, famine, suffering, warfare, and so on, for decades, and then after countless evil actions have passed, gives the kid a million, or a billion dollars, a wonderful life, or whatever reward you like, does that actually change the wrongness of what went on before?  Even if it’s infinite bliss for eternity in heaven, that doesn’t change what God was doing (or failing to do) while the neglect or abuse was happening.  Settlement money is nice to get for the victims of priest child abuse, for example, but I’d bet that lots of them would have glad traded the settlement to have not had the abuse happen to them at all.  Heaven won’t solve the problem I’m bringing out. 

How can it not bother a person to confidently ascribe goodness to God without attaching any of the praise, blame, or responsibilities of being good that are essential to the notion in every other case?  

Saturday, February 5, 2011

The Defeasibility Test

Ultimately in the back and forth of discussions about the existence of God, religion and the like, there is an important question that must be dealt with.  For the believer, that question is, what is the relationship, as you see it, between reasoning about God and your belief in God?  That is, is your belief in God more fundamental than your commitment to believe what reason and evidence indicates, or are you prepared, if the evidence demands it, to abandon your view of God as irrational?  The question is of obvious importance because disagreement about God’s existence that is pursued in the form of a dialogue about reasons, justifications, and the evidence is actually done in bad faith if ultimately the believer doesn’t really care what the evidence is.  If the believer places a higher premium on believing than anything else, including being reasonable about counter evidence, then he’s just engaging in sophistry when he engages in dialogue. 

Here are some examples of famous theological writers who have ordered their priorities so that believing comes first and any other information, ideas, or evidence must conform to that belief or simply be rejected:

Nicholas Wolterstorff says,
“The religious beliefs of the Christian scholar ought to function as control beliefs within his devising and weighing of theories.  . . . Since his fundamental commitment to following Christ ought to be decisively ultimate in his life, the rest of his life ought to be brought into harmony with it.  As control, the belief-content of his authentic commitment ought to function both negatively and positively.  Negatively, the Christian scholar ought to reject certain theories on the ground that they conflict or do not comport well with the belief-content of his authentic commitment.”  (72  Reason Within the Bounds of Religion.)

Why is it that one must first run an evidential test on Scripture before one is justified in accepting it? Does this not fundamentally subordinate revelation to reason?  What then is left of the authority of Scripture? 

William Lane Craig insists that nothing could possibly counter indicate the truth of the Gospels because of a self-authenticating witness of the Holy Spirit in his heart than gives him knowledge independent of all questions of evidence. 

Believing is somehow “self-authenticating” for them.  It “carries its own evidence.”  As they see it, it is a mistake to think that believing itself must be held to standards of evidence or rationality.  Rather, our standards of evidence and rationality must answer to our belief in God. 

On a similar note, we find this doctrinal statement at The Talbot School of Theology:

"The Bible, consisting of all the books of the Old and New Testaments, is the Word of God, a supernaturally given revelation from God Himself, concerning Himself, His being, nature, character, will and purposes; and concerning man, his nature, need and duty and destiny. The Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments are without error or misstatement in their moral and spiritual teaching and record of historical facts. They are without error or defect of any kind."

The infallibility of the Bible is their starting point.  As an “educational” institution, this statement is a promise—whatever other ideas you may encounter, no matter what objections arise, and no matter what the evidence is, it must all conform to our picture of Biblical truth, or it will be flatly rejected.  Bible first, reasoning and evidence second.  We can contrast this approach with the fundamental principle of a liberal arts university where the free exchange of ideas, whatever they may be, is allowed and encouraged in order to achieve intellectual liberation from dogma.  At an institute like Talbot, the goal is to propagate a preordained dogma despite the facts.  At a real university, the purpose is to instill the critical reasoning skills and a methodology for rooting out error so that the seductive trap of dogmatism can be avoided. 

There are many more believers who won’t be as forthright about their bottom line as Craig, Wolterstorff, and the Talbot School.  But in practice, they are more deeply resolved to continue believing than they are to any principles of reasoning that might lead them to reconsider their theism.  The epistemological term “defeater” has drifter over to these discussions through people like Plantinga, and believers will now sometimes say, even after hearing stark, and powerful objections to their positions that they have yet to hear anything that amounts to a defeater of the belief they started with.  This sometimes amounts to code for, “I don’t value being intellectually responsible about the powerful argument you are making more than I value my continued believing in God, so I will continue believing as I started, unaffected.”  At this point, of course, there’s really nothing left to be said.  If someone is resolved to believe at all costs, then nothing else that any skeptic could say, no matter how thoughtful or persuasive can undermine that stubbornness.  At this point, we should be prepared to conclude that someone has simply left the rational thought game and must be considered a lost cause. 

Of course, as the dedicated Christian sees it, this kind of complete devotion to believing in God is an admirable thing.  It shows that he is utterly committed and that he has subjugated every facet of his life.  And our culture is full of references and allusions that seem to encourage this bizarrely backward belief structure.  In our literature, movies, and stories, when someone stands by their principles and believes, no matter what, he’s a hero.  But being skeptical or being prepared to change your mind when the evidence calls for it treated as failures of character, moral defects, and personal failures of courage and strength of will.  I’ve long suspected that we elevate these behaviors in our books and movies as part of a nervous effort to fortify our own shrinking resolve to believe religious and superstitious silliness.  If Bruce Willis retains his faith in humanity, or God, or whatever, then it soothes my quavering feelings about them in me.  But I’m at a total loss to see how dedication or belief for its own sake is an admirable thing, particularly when the devotion is to something so patently misguided as vindictive, truculent, and capricious Iron Age creator deity.  If believing it doesn’t make sense in the first place, then continuing to believe it no matter what the challenge is even worse.  As they say, if it’s not worth doing, then it’s not worth doing well.  

What the inversion of belief and reason really amounts to is a slavish devotion that runs so deep it robs a person of their autonomy, their self, and the only tool they have for discovering the truth: their reason.  This is someone who values believing more than they value believing that which is supported by the evidence or reasons.  What’s always baffling about this kind of believer is the question of how one could ever legitimately move into such a position.  If you don’t already believe, then what possible means of access can there be?   Aside from a psychotic break that just results in one’s believing, what could possibly lead a thoughtful, responsible adult from not believing that Jesus is the Lord to then believing that he is and then to the policy that the belief must be elevated in importance above everything else, including any of the appeals to reason or evidence that might have got you there. 

Wolterstorff also says, “For he like everyone else ought to seek consistency, wholeness, and integrity in the body of his beliefs and commitments,” as long as all of those beliefs are brought into conformity with following Christ. 

But one wonders why there is any concern about internal consistency and integrity once reason and responsiveness to evidence have been rejected in this manner.  If the conspiracy theorist, who has rejected the most plausible interpretations of the evidence in favor of some far flung delusion, labors long and hard to get his fundamentally misguided picture of the world to be internally consistent, what possible difference does it make?  Internal consistency is a game worth playing only if we are serious about getting our model of the world to anchor to reality.  Consistency isn’t valuable for its own sake, it is only useful insofar as we are confident that the world itself is consistent, so our model of it must mirror that feature.  But that’s just the start.  If the model isn’t responsive to the constant input of new information, it’s worthless.  But once we’ve enslaved ourselves to some obstinacy like those above, why should one care about consistency?  Without the basic concern of making our belief structure about gods conform to reality and the evidence, there’s no motivation to pretend or pursue any such rules.  It’s as if Wolterstorff is insisting that it’s only acceptable to cheat on one line of your taxes, but for the rest of the project one must be internally scrupulous with the bogus numbers that result. 

What’s deeply disturbing about these admissions, besides their candor (Did he actually say that he’s only going to accept those accounts of history that conform to his preconceived religious commitments?), is their complete abandonment of the very rules that would render any of their  beliefs justified.  Once we elevate a religious belief to this status and declare that all other things we think or belief must conform to it, we’ve left the realm of sanity.  The doctrine is believing you in this case, not the other way around. 

Even from the inside of this strange position, this problem must be troubling.  The most ardent believer of Wolterstorff’s type must acknowledge that there are many other people in the world who have drawn a similar line in the sand about their favored religious claims.  That is, the Christian here will readily concur that were a Muslim or a fundamentalist Jew, or a Zoroastrian, or some other non-Christian to make a similar declaration, they would be mistaken.  Others who claim a similar primacy for their religious views, where that view is incommensurate with the Christian one, must be mistaken because there is only one true Christian God and Jesus is his only son.  So we must all acknowledge the possibility of error in this type of defense (if we can call it that) of a theistic belief.  If it is possible to be mistaken then, what is the method whereby we can hope to separate the proposals that are misguided from the ones that are authentic?  When you have the impulse to say, “All other beliefs, standards of evidence, and even reasoning itself must conform to my belief in God,” how do you know you’ve stumbled upon the right one, particularly when you know there are so many people around who have gotten it wrong by this route?   What independent route to the belief in God do you have left available to you? 

We might have said, “Well, I can know that my God is the one, authentic God because all of the evidence and a powerful set of carefully reasoned arguments shows it.”  But of course, that defense isn’t available to people like Wolterstorff--they have denied that there is any need to defend their belief this way.  The folks at Talbot can’t say on the one hand that the Bible is incorrigible, and when pressed for why, respond by insisting that the Bible says it is.  So the problem is that once you abandon the one set of methods we have for error correction, you’re set adrift.  What can be your criteria for preferring one religious scheme over another?  More importantly, what’s to separate the view you prefer (unjustifiably) from delusions or insanity?

Consider the paradox this believer is now in.  They assert:  “Many people who subjugate their lives and their faculties of reasoning to their religious beliefs are misguided and wrong.”  “Nevertheless, my reasoning must be subordinated to my Jesus ideology.” 

Or, “I am unwilling to consider any reasoning that might challenge my Christian convictions.  Other people who fail to do likewise are mistaken.  But without any reasoning at my disposal, I am unable to explain or defend why they are mistaken.” 

To their credit, these authors have put their cards on the table.  They have been up front with their resolve to simply believe no matter what other considerations they encounter.  But these admissions also make it clear that any rational discussion of justifications for their beliefs are pointless.  Reasons do not matter to this sort of believer.  Without any justification for their beliefs or their slavish dedication to them, and with their dogmatic refusal to reason about them, there’s no difference between what they are doing and getting swallowed up by a cult.  They have left the rationality playing field.  There’s no human mind left there, just dogma.

Unfortunately, the unsuspecting skeptic has often wandered into this trap in good faith, as it were, thinking that the point of having a discussion about God or Jesus or whatever was to figure out the truth, analyze reasons, possibly answer unanswered questions. But once we dig deeper, we see that this sort of believer does not have a similar view of things.  There can only be their Biblical truth.  So there’s nothing, even in principle that might dissuade him or lead him to change his mind.  That is, there’s really no point for the skeptic to offer contrary ideas, criticisms, objections, or counter arguments.  Unless those arguments conform to the believer’s prior convictions, they will be rejected no matter how great their merit.  (There’s something nihilistic and cynical about this approach, particularly if the believer is not forthcoming about his bottom line.) 

So in the spirit of John Loftus’ Outside Test for Faith, I propose a test.  Before I or any other doubter, atheist, skeptic, or non-believer engages in a discussion about the reasons for and against God, the believer must look deep into his heart and mind and ask this question:  Are there any considerations, arguments, evidence, or reasons, even hypothetically that could possibly lead me to change my mind about God?  Is it even a remotely possible outcome that in carefully and thoughtfully reflecting on the broadest and most even body of evidence that I can grasp, that I would come to think that my current view about God is mistaken?  That is to say, is my belief defeasible? 

If the answer is no, then we’re done.  There is nothing informative, constructive, or interesting to be found in your contribution to dialogue.  Anything you have to say amounts to sophistry.  We can’t take your input any more seriously than the lawyer who is a master of casuistry and who can provide rhetorically masterful defenses of every side of an issue.  She’s not interested in the truth, only is scoring debate points or the construction of elaborate rhetorical castles (that float on air). 

In all fairness, we must demand the same from skeptics, doubters, and atheists.  They are just as guilty of conflict if they rail against religious beliefs for lacking rational justification, but in turn there are no possible considerations that could ever lead them to relinquish their doubts. 

So before we can get down to the real issues, is your view defeasible?