Thursday, April 28, 2011

The F Word

I'll be giving a lecture about faith and atheism for the UC Davis student atheist organization AgASA tonight (Thursday, April 28 at 6:00pm, Young Hall, Room 198.  The slides for the discussion are here:

The F Word

This is a slightly revised version of The F Word talk I have given in recent months.  A more detailed prose explanation of one of the main points, to go along with the perhaps cryptic slide bullet points is here:  Open the Floodgates

Some believers have protested that my account faith isn't accurate or adequate.  A wide range of examples of ordinary usage of the term like these have led me to a provisional definition:

  • I have faith that my husband will come home safely from Afghanistan.
  •  I have faith in my wife.
  •  I have faith that the Detroit Lions will win the Superbowl this year.
  •  I have faith in the President despite his recent problems.
  •  She’s lied to me so many times before, it would take a huge leap of faith to believe her now.  
  •  Loaning him the money to start his own business was an act of faith. 
  •  “Let’s have faith that right makes might; and in that faith let us, to the end, dare to do our duty as we understand it.”  (Abraham Lincoln)
  •   “To follow by faith alone is to follow blindly.”  (Benjamin Franklin)
  • “Faith is taking the first step even when you don’t see the whole staircase.”  (Martin Luther King)
  • "Faith is the art of holding on to things your reason has once accepted in spite of your changing moods."  (C.S. Lewis)
Provisionally then, the sense of faith that I think is most important in epistemological terms, that is widely invoked, and that is most seriously flawed is this:  

“Faith” is invoked when there’s a shortcoming in the evidence and believing is still the goal.
S believes p by faith means S believes p despite inadequate evidence.  
  • Inadequate:  on the whole, the evidence shows ~p.
  • Inadequate:  on the whole, there isn’t enough evidence to justify p.  
If there were enough evidence to justify p, then there’d be no need to invoke faith.

Faith is belief without sufficient evidential justification.   

I argue that there are a number of problems with believing through this sort of faith.  The internal problem, or the issue that the faithful believer himself ought to be troubled by, is The Floodgate Problem linked above.  The external problem concerns the degree to which one person's faith can function as a reason for someone else to believe.  If Smith has faith that p, then can Smith recommend that Jones do likewise?  I argue that at the very least, having faith is a sort of indulgence not justified by the evidence on Smith's part, and that Smith cannot have any recourse to claim that to failing to have faith is a mistake, irrational, or part of some failure to fulfill Jones's epistemic duties.  Smith can't make a leap of faith and then insist that Jones would be epistemically culpable for not doing likewise.  Atheists often ask me, "What do you say when someone says that they have faith?"  The partial answer is that no answer is needed--unlike cases where Smith gives Jones reasons, arguments, or evidence for p, if Smith goes beyond the evidence to believe p by faith, Jones can reasonably ignore him.  Evidence for p would impose a rational obligation or epistemic culpability on Jones--if there is a sound argument for p, Jones would be remiss to refuse to accept the conclusion.  But if Smith has faith, he's gone beyond what is rationally required by the evidence and this (irrational) indulgence can't be similarly recommended or prescribed to Jones.  In fact, there are a number of reasons for Jones to reject this sort of epistemic policy and that should trouble Smith than they often do.

I have been assured several times that this account of faith, despite is nearly ubiquitous occurrence among believers, is inaccurate, and that a proper Biblically or theologically based account offers a much stronger position to the faithful believer.  I have read, reread, studied these other themes in what I can find about faith for years, and I confess that for the most part, I find them either to be incoherent gibberish, or they are close enough in spirit that the problems I outline in these arguments apply directly or indirectly to them.

So I will offer a plea--if the account of faith I am considering here and elsewhere in my work is mistaken and there is some widely used sense of it that avoid the problems I'm raising, then please tell me what that is and tell me exactly how is steers clear of the problems I have raised.  But I also request that you do it without citing Biblical sources as if those claims are uncontroversial or obviously true.  That some claim occurs in the Bible falls far short of giving me, or any reasonable person, grounds for thinking it is true, or even that it makes sense, by itself.  In fact, indulge me--if it makes sense, then it should be possible to explain what faith is without citing Bible passages at all.  The only people who find those citations to be illuminating are the ones who have faith and the ones who find what the Bible has to say to be philosophically sophisticated and relevant.  Those of us on the outside aren't helped by it much.

And if you are in the area, please come by the lecture tonight.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

The Natural Theologian's Dilemma

Before developments in the 20th century like post modernism, and watershed shifts in the philosophy of religion like reformed epistemology, the standard approach to the existence of God was natural theology.  Natural theology takes the view that it is possible to render a successful argument for the existence of God.  That is to say, a reasonable person who finds the premises to be acceptable is rationally committed to accept that God exists.  For centuries, the debate has been over the acceptability of those premises whether in cosmological, ontological, or teleological arguments. 

Now, the NT theist faces a dilemma.  Either our epistemic situation is such that it renders the conclusion “God exists” reasonable, or our epistemic situation with regard to God’s existence is ambivalent (or worse.)  If the NT takes the view that our total evidence supports “God exists” more than the alternatives, then he faces a new problem.  Consider whatever particular line of argument that he puts forward as showing “God exists.”  The question we must ask now is, could an omnipotent, all knowing, all good God have rendered our epistemic situation in some regard so that the evidence was better in favor of that conclusion?  If God had wished his existence to be known through this particular form of argument or line of reasoning, could God have made the evidence better, brought it about so that there were even stronger considerations, or a more compelling case to be made?  Most people’s views, including believers and non-believers, are that God’s existence cannot be proven or shown through the evidence.  So, by implication, those people think that the case for God could be much better than it is. 

Non-believers insist that, at a minimum, our evidential situation makes non-belief, or even disbelief, epistemically inculpable.  She violates no epistemic duty in not believing.  She may even feel that our total evidential situation is such that believing or being agnostic are epistemically culpable.  Believing in or even suspending judgment about God are not supported by the evidence. 

The problem for the NT theist who insists that the evidence supports G is that by most people’s reckoning, the existence of God could be more manifest, more abundantly clear, and non-belief could be less epistemically inculpable.  Informally, among my students and the believers I talk to, the vast majority of them are skeptical that believing in God can be arrived at through argument or proven through reasoning.  Believing, to the masses, is a matter of faith and requires going beyond what is available evidentially. 

If the case for God could be better than it is, and it is not as good as it could be, then what can we make of the NT theist’s position in the context of arguments or evidence that could have been? 

If the case for God could be better, then why isn’t it?  It is very difficult to fathom how a being as powerful and knowledgeable as God is alleged to be would not be able to make his existence better know through some means that would be amenable to our investigations, our arguments, and our reasonings.  Since he didn’t, the only sort of limitation that there might be on his bringing that state about must be his own goals.  In some fashion, God, if he is real, must not want us to believe by way of the natural theological project.  A number of answers or possibly justifying goals have been offered along these lines: 

Theists like Howard-Snyder and Moser in Divine Hiddenness have suggested a preliminary list:

Maybe revealing himself is not a high priority.  It is not something he wants.  That would explain why he doesn’t do it.  It’s not that he can’t do it, he doesn’t want to. 

Remaining hidden enables people to freely love, trust and obey Him.  Coercion is incompatible with love.

Being hidden prevents a human response based on improper motives like fear of punishment. 

Being hidden prevent humans from relating to God and their knowledge of God in a presumptuous way. 

God's being hidden allows us to recognize the wretchedness of life on our own without God, and to stimulate us to search for him with the appropriate attitude (contrition.)

If he revealed himself, then it would not be possible to have the real risk associated with passionate faith. 

If he revealed himself, then the temptation to doubt would be reduced or eliminated.  Doubt makes religious diversity possible and gives us opportunities to assist others and ourselves in building personal relationships with God. 

While these are fascinating suggestions, I think they fail for a variety of reasons.  But arguing against these justifications for divine hiddenness is not my goal here.  (Hidden Theists are to be commended, however, for acknowledging what atheists have been arguing for all along—there are not sufficient evidential grounds for concluding that God is real.)  What I’d like to focus on is the implications of divine hiddenness for natural theological approaches to belief. 

The NT theist cannot have it both ways.  He cannot on the one hand argue that “God exists” is the reasonable outcome of a non-question begging, objective analysis of the arguments and evidence, while endorsing justifications of divine hiddenness like those on the list on the other hand.  He cannot insist that God’s existence is manifest and reasonable while also claiming that God has his reasons for withholding his existence from serious inquiry.  God’s existence is either justified by our epistemic situation or it is not.  And the very fact that the arguments for his existence are so embattled, weak, complicated, and unconvincing, even to other believers, works against the NT theist.  By defending the NT approach with some new, carefully constructed, and subtly nuanced version of the cosmological argument, or whatever, he faces the much harder question:  if this is how God wanted us to arrive at belief, then why did he give us so little to work with?  Why would God have done such a poor job or facilitating our apprehension of the reasons and their implication of his existence?  Why did God do such a poor job of it?  Currently, over 70% of professional philosophers whose careers and expertise are devoted to ascertaining the reasonableness of the very best arguments we have concluding that there are no compelling rational grounds for God’s existence in the traditional, NT sense.  A NT theist may think that there is a successful argument for the existence of God.  But given the historical, social, and philosophical context, he cannot reasonably conclude that existence of God could have been no more convincing than it currently is, by any measure.  Even if he thinks some argument succeeds, surely he doesn’t think that God could not have arranged the epistemic situation to be better than it is.  To think that God’s existence is manifest through argument, and that not even God could have made it more obvious is just to flatly ignore the hoards of reasonable people who have thought long and hard about the problem and concluded otherwise.  God’s existence is obvious to no one, and it is obvious it could have been more so.  Put it this way, I am a mere human being with exceedingly limited faculties; making my own existence undeniable and obvious to someone is painfully easy. 

One common reply here is that God could not fully reveal himself to us without robbing us of our freedom.  It’s not at all clear to me what sort of freedom would be compromised—it didn’t seem to have robbed Moses, Abraham, or Satan of their freedom.  But the problem here would be for the NT theist to make this claim.  If God cannot , for whatever suspicious reason, show himself to us for fear of robbing us of our freedom, then that suggests that the best arguments we have leave our freedom with respect to God’s existence intact.  That is to say that the best arguments we have do not commit us to believing, which is another way of saying that they just don’t work. 

The NT theist is saddled with a deep dilemma, then.  Not only must he meticulously construct a version of the case for God (of the argumentative gaps) that does not fall prey to the long list of standard criticisms of the close cousins to that argument, he must also explain why it is that God was forced to bury this glorious, essential, and redemptive truth in exactly the contentious, ambiguous, and unconvincing, indecisive  circumstances where we find it.   He has to argue that the evidence shows that God exists, and then explain away so much epistemically inculpable non-belief, so many failures of other arguments for God’s existence, and the absence of a better reasons and evidence.  He has to navigate the impossibly fine line between “the evidence is compelling—not believing is irrational and epistemically culpable,” and “God has his reasons for withholding his existence from us lest we be convinced.”  Coming up with an argument for God now, I maintain, is too little and too late. 

If, on the other hand, the theist embraces the other disjunct of our premise from the outset:  our epistemic situation with regard to God’s existence is ambivalent (or worse.) Then we are done.  He has now acknowledged the atheist’s point—believing is not justified by the evidence.  What remains will be determining whether believing anyway in a situation like that is reasonable.  At the very least, the theist who acknowledges divine hiddenness cannot maintain that non-belief in that situation is epistemically culpable.  He cannot claim that God’s existence is not manifest because he has justifying reasons for not revealing himself and  that a person who does not believe in that circumstance is irrational, unreasonable, or somehow epistemically blameworthy for not believing.  He may argue, I suppose, that such a non-believer is failing to fulfill some duty to have faith, or a responsibility to believe passionately, or some other mandate to believe that which is not epistemically justified.  But I have my doubts about his being able to successfully defend this strange new form of obligation to believe. 

So one of my standing questions about any allegedly successful argument for the existence of God is not about the support for the premises or the details of its justification.  My question is, why isn’t the argument vastly more convincing than it is given that God surely could have done better sooner.  And since he didn’t, I have to conclude that not even God wants us to believe by route of such an argument—if he did, then he could have easily made it believable.  Call this the epistemic challenge for God:  even if you think that God’s existence is supported by some argument, you must acknowledge that God could have arranged things so that the evidence was much better than we find it.  That he didn’t shows that it wasn’t his intention.  So why should any of us take your argument seriously?  Not even God wants us to.  

Friday, April 1, 2011

Good News: Prometheus to publish my book, working title The Case Against Christ.

Prometheus has agreed to publish my book about Jesus' resurrection.  Tentatively, we'll be working on final revisions of it for the Spring 2012 book season.  More details as they develop.