Tuesday, November 20, 2012

1, 2, 3, . . . Ready or Not, Here I Come!




I’ve been thinking about the arguments for atheism from divine hiddenness.  Here’s a way to argue for atheism in that vein with some similarities to Drange and Schellenberg and with several improvements on the argument of my own. 

Imagine two scenarios, both where it would appear that God is hiding. 

Scenario A:  God isn’t real and we fail to find good evidence for supernatural beings.

Suppose that beings humans find themselves in this situation: 

There is no supernatural being of any sort.

Furthermore,  
 a.  there are no empirical indications of a supernatural beings
b.    none of the conceptual arguments for supernatural beings are compelling
c.    we have made substantial efforts to uncover supernatural beings. 
d.    none of our attempts to discover supernatural beings have succeeded
e.    the available evidence concerning supernatural beings are inadequate.
f.     there is a presumption that supernatural beings are the sort of entity that, if one were to exist, then it would manifest in some fashion that is detectable by beings with our cognitive faculties. 
g.    the presumption that supernatural beings would manifest in some way has not been defeated.
h.    naturalized models of supernatural belief formation are well justified by the evidence and they provide a better alternative account of the origins of supernatural beliefs.   

Question:  What is the reasonable conclusion to draw about supernatural beings in this situation? 

Would non-belief be epistemically inculpable in this situation?  That is, if humans  conclude that there are no supernatural beings, would that conclusion be unwarranted? 
What about believing in a supernatural being?  And would being an agnostic be epistemically culpable or inculpable in this situation? 

It seems to me for a number of reasons that disbelief in supernatural beings would be justified.  Disbelief would not be epistemically culpable.  Furthermore, believing in a supernatural being in this situation would be epistemically culpable and irrational.  I even think that being agnostic in this situation, particularly given the point in h., would be unreasonable/culpable. 

That is:
Belief in situation A:  irrational. 
Agnosticism in situation A:  irrational. 
Disbelief in situation A:  reasonable/rational. 

Scenario B:  God is Real, but Hiding

Suppose that humans find themselves in this situation: 

God exists and possesses the power and the knowledge to make himself known to humans. 

Yet for reasons unknown to humans, God insures that: 

a.    there are no empirical indications of God
b.    none of the conceptual arguments for God is compelling
c.    we have made substantial efforts to uncover God, 
d.    none of our attempts to discover God have succeeded
e.    the available evidence concerning God is inadequate.
f.     there is a presumption that God is the sort of entity that, if God were to exist, then God would manifest in some fashion that is detectable by beings with our cognitive faculties. 
g.    the presumption that supernatural beings/God would manifest in some way has not been defeated.
h.    naturalized models of supernatural belief formation are well justified by the evidence and they provide a better alternative account of the origins of supernatural beliefs.   

Question:  What is the reasonable conclusion to draw about supernatural beings in this situation? 

Would disbelief be epistemically inculpable in this situation?  That is, if humans  conclude that there are no supernatural beings, would that conclusion be unwarranted?  Notice that the evidential situation for humans is exactly the same in both scenarios.  So the answers to our questions about what is the reasonable conclusion to draw must be the same, with some interesting side notes.  Ironically, despite the fact that God is real in this situation, it seems to me that disbelief, given the evidential situation would be justified.  That is, the atheist in the world where God is real but hiding, would have a well-justified but false belief.  We couldn’t find epistemic fault with the conclusion that this atheist has drawn.  The apocryphal story about Bertrand Russell is relevant.  After a lecture about atheism, a member of the audience asked him, “Prof. Russell, what are you going to do after you die and then in the afterlife you show up at the Pearly Gates and God and Saint Peter are all there and it’s obvious how wrong you are?”  Allegedly without missing a step, Russell said he’d say to God, “Not enough evidence, God!  Not enough evidence!” 

Furthermore, if someone were to believe in God in this situation, it would be irrational and unjustified.  Ironically, she would happen to get it right.  That is, she’d have  a true belief.  But her evidence did not justify her conclusion.  Her belief would have all the virtue of thievery over honest toil, to quote Russell again.  She’d be like a psychic who accidentally predicted the winning lottery numbers.  Her getting the numbers right by accident doesn’t vindicate her method or improve the reliability of her method of derivation. 

Furthermore, if agnosticism was unreasonable and unjustified in scenario A, it would be here too.  That is, the agnostic who suspends judgment in scenario B, where a-h are also true, would be unjustified. 

The interesting question here concerns the reasonable limits to agnosticism.  Under what circumstances should one be an agnostic.  It seems to me that a-h, if they are true, are enough to warrant moving from agnostic to atheism.  Some other examples are suggestive:  Suppose we insert Bigfoot or Leprechauns into scenario A. 

Suppose there are no Leprechauns.  And suppose further that we have searched diligently, no compelling evidence in their favor has been found, Leprechauns are the sorts of things that would be revealed in some way to our cognitive faculties if we were to search and encounter them, and furthermore, we have other natural explanations of why people have believed in Leprechauns.  In that situation, you should not be agnostic.  Being agnostic would be irrational. 

Many agnostics have the view that God is not like Leprechauns, so there is a disanalogy here.  God is unlike Leprechauns in ways that require us to be agnostic about him, but atheist about the Leprechauns.  I think there could be a plausible argument here, but I’m not sure.  The central issue for these agnostics, I think, would be to deny that condition g. has been met in the case of God.  There are good reasons to think that the presumption about God’s manifesting to our cognitive faculties in h. is defeated in the case of God but not in the case of Leprechauns. 

The really interesting question to me right now is, what are those reasons that defeat the presumption?  Why should we think that God is not the sort of thing that would be manifest to our cognitive faculties in any of the relevant ways?  Pretty clearly, on lots of theistic hypotheses, God is the sort of thing whose existence or non-existence makes some manifest difference in the world.  The world or the arguments, would look different if there were no God in some way that we could discern.  The existence of gods of that sort is undermined by this argument.  But if there were a supernatural being whose presence or absence would not be manifest to our cognitive faculties, then our not finding any manifestations would not be adequate grounds to conclude that no such being exists. 

This agnostic might argue for this thesis:  There may yet be some sort of supernatural being that we can have no cognitive access to and that we can form no positive thesis about.  We should be agnostic about that being because the absence of evidence for it isn’t indicative either way about its existence. 

My question here is this:  What exactly are we being agnostic about in this case?  Which hypothesis am I suspending judgment about?  Is it this:  there may yet be some truths about which I can form no idea, I can have no comprehension, and that elude my cognitive faculties altogether. 

It doesn’t seem to me that suspending judgment is the right way to describe the attitude we should take about those proposals.  We should suspend judgment, it seems to me, about whether there are extra terrestrial forms of life in our universe.  That is a clear proposal about which our evidence is split or about which we do not have enough evidence yet to draw a conclusion.  The mercurial transcendental entity that the agnostic proposes is utterly unlike alien life.  We have no access, and we can have no access, perhaps in principle, to such an entity.  It would seem that we cannot hope to form any sort of propositional attitude at all about it, not even enough to suspend judgment about it. Furthermore, it is relevant to point out that this agnostic is taking a conservative attitude about the possibility of something that is utterly unlike any of the divine beings that are typically proposed or believed in.  This agnostic seems to have tacitly agreed that in situation A or B, the only reasonable conclusion is to be atheist, not agnostic, about the overwhelming majority of the gods that humans have believed in.  This agnostic is a very wide atheist, but not quite as wide as the widest atheist.  It just not clear to me that suspending judgment in this case even makes sense or is the epistemically responsible position.  

4 comments:

sam said...

Your hypothetical agnostic is confident that condition g has not been defeated for Leprechauns, because she mistakenly believes that we all have a relatively widely accepted definition of what a Leprechaun is.

Anyone who has indulged in fantasy fiction as a youth knows that authors attribute different features to well known creatures of folklore. Some authors’ unicorns are nothing more than horned horses; other authors’ unicorns have powers of telepathy & teleportation. Bigfoot is just a hairy hominid to many believing westerners, yet some Native Americans believe in this creature, who additionally has the ability of shape-shifting, too.

The moment a skeptic asserts that a Leprechaun would manifest in some way in the material world is the moment the believer becomes self-righteously condescending, “Oh, silly limited skeptic. You thought I was referring to a material being with green clothing and a pot of gold. How quaint! My Leprechaun is so much more Grand than your childish notions.”

When a believer becomes exposed to the criticisms of the empiricist, his god becomes a “no-see-um”; when that same believer becomes exposed to some of the criticisms of logical positivism, his god suddenly becomes boldly manifest in the material world.

Cult A believes that unicorns have two kidneys. Cult B believes that unicorns have three kidneys. Each cult is convinced that the other is morally culpable for holding the alternative metaphysical belief.

Good public radio interview. Minor correction: Jesus of Nazareth was probably executed by Pilate, not Herod. Herod was dead by 4 BCE. But you knew that.

Matt McCormick said...

Thanks Sam. Yeah, I immediately regretted that Herod mistake when I said it. You're right, of course, about the moving of the goal posts. Once someone does that, then we don't really have to worry about establishing the rationality of atheism any more. And if the agnostic is working this hard to carve out some little space for hope for a god, then my suspicion is that he's actually just a wanna-be believer. Conditions a-h, it seems to me, are met in our world, and therefore, atheism is justified while belief and agnosticism are not. Thanks.

MM

blamer said...

Hi MM, thought-provoking post.

I think as skeptics we err when we insist that a creator god can be thought of as "like" some other category of elusive being (that we all agree doesn't exist).

Those comparisons lack teeth because that biblical character that the monotheists (even the agnostics and deists I suspect) have in mind is manifestly UNLIKE all other beings. Though most presumably have in mind that Yhwh is VERY roughly "like" a man.

What we skeptics --I suggest-- primarily object to is that (however man-like he is, and however billions/thousands of years old) it's essential that any creator god was and is a "disembodied" being. That is, he's older than earthlings.

Hence those theist "dualists" with whom you're rhetorically dueling with, need only assert (b) because at least one conceptual argument for God is compelling to them: that a conscious mind can live & exist without a physical brain.

And thus (says sme) all our clever skeptical materialist footwork is almost always dismissed out of hand. Is it not?

blamer said...

Thinking about the OP a little more, this skeptical approach (criteria a-g at least) seems to work very much better for "life on mars" than for "supernatural beings". Try it.

So I'm arguing the skeptical approach that informs our confidence about (say) physical bacteria living on mars, isn't a skeptical approach that can be extended for entities DEFINED as being beyond nature, physics, location, time. That's a different kettle of nonscience, no?