William Lane Craig and God, now on Metafilter

God, yesterdayMetafilter wonders whether God exists, or more specially, whether that William Lane Craig chap has good arguments for the proposition1. I missed it all kicking off, so only contributed at the end.

By the point I noticed it, the thread had got into people talking bollocks about induction (mainly the sort of nonsense I examine below, but also including atheists who just don’t get what the problems are). I think the tactic Stephen Law calls going nuclear must be in some apologetics manual somewhere, because you certainly see a lot of it about. So, this is how I’d respond to that:

All this induction stuff is very interesting, but let’s go back to shivohum’s original comment.

This uses a standard Christian apologetical strategy (one that Craig has used himself) in response an atheist’s to use of a naive evidentialism to discount religious claims. If an atheist says “All reasonable beliefs require evidence, there is no evidence for God, therefore belief in God is unreasonable”, the clever apologist will ask “All reasonable beliefs? Really? What evidence could there be for your belief that all beliefs require evidence?” They will then go on to point out that it seems we all have to accept some unevidenced beliefs (induction is a good example for the apologist because it’s pretty hard to see how we would get evidence for belief in it without making a circular argument, as Hume knew, but Cartesian doubts about the external world are also popular). “Aha!” says the apologist, “you see, we all rely on faith, and my belief in God, angels, demons and whatnot is just an article of faith, like your belief in this induction thing you’re so fond of. We’re not so different, you and I.”

The atheist’s evidentialism is pretty naive and they probably deserve that sort of response, but still, there seems to be something wrong with equating the rejection of fairly radical sceptical positions with belief in God. I think Chris Hallquist has it right: “belief in the Christian God isn’t very much at all like most of the common-sense beliefs commonly cited as threated by Descartes & Hume-style skepticism (like belief in the reliability of our senses), but is an awful lot like beliefs most Christians wouldn’t accept without evidence–namely, the beliefs of other religions. That kind of response is very hard to reject without special pleading on behalf of Christianity, and doesn’t involve commitment to any potentially troublesome epistemic principles.”

That is, religious beliefs do seem to be the sorts of things that require evidence, as even Christians agree if you ask them what it’d take to convince them of the truth of some other religion. If a Christian were to say, “no, but, you see, it’s only Christian beliefs which are like rejection of Cartesian doubt”, we’d just say “riiiiight“. OTOH, if it’s not just Christian beliefs which are now OK because we all have to rely on faith sometimes, why not be a pagan, Muslim or Pastafarian instead?

I followed up with another comment explaining why Craig gets (admittedly grudging) respect from atheists2. I also talked about what I think is the shakiest point of the Kalam argument: where Craig needs to show that the transcendental “cause” must be something like a person: he says mathematical concepts don’t have causal powers (a recent Mefi may disagree) but then wants to argue for that the best explanation is a person who lacks several of properties of all persons we encounter (not material, not existing in time) and has properties unlike that of any persons we encounter. If we’re allowed to do that sort of thing, why not just say that there’s at least one mathematical concept with causal potency? Or even that there’s maybe more than 2 kinds of transcendental thing, for all we know? Someone must have written a paper about this, right?


  1. In reality, we all know God exists, otherwise who’s writing that Facebook page, eh? Checkmate, atheists. 

  2. You’ll see atheists explaining that Dawkins was right not to have a debate with Craig because Craig supports genocide (by which they mean the Biblical massacres like the one recorded in Numbers 31). This is silly: Dawkins will not debate with Craig because Dawkins would lose, horribly (note that one can concede this and still remain an atheist). Dawkins’s refusal to dance with Craig is prudent, but let’s not see it as some great moral stand. 

Link blog: art, spying, nsa, argument

Arguments From My Opponent Believes Something | Slate Star Codex
1. Argument From My Opponent Believes Something, Which Is Kinda Like Believing It On Faith, Which Is Kinda Like Them Being A Religion: “The high priests of the economic orthodoxy take it on faith that anyone who doubts the market is a heretic who must be punished.”
(tags: argument belief debate epistemology)
Skeptics shouldn’t have lined up with the Mail to call Psychic Sally a fraud
"The great pity about the legal battle between the Daily Mail and ‘Psychic’ Sally Morgan was that somebody had to win." You’re not a sceptic if you call someone a fraud without evidence
(tags: libel law sally-morgan evidence scepticism daily-mail psychic fraud)
Twelve Tones – YouTube
30 minutes of video (hand drawn pictures in time to the narration) and music on finding patterns and 12 tone music. Worth a watch/listen. Via AB on Google+.
(tags: music pattern stravinsky chromatic art vi-hart video)
Schneier on Security: The Office of the Director of National Intelligence Defends NSA Surveillance Programs
"Here’s a transcript of a panel discussion about NSA surveillance. There’s a lot worth reading here, but I want to quote Bob Litt’s opening remarks. He’s the General Counsel for ODNI, and he has a lot to say about the programs revealed so far in the Snowden documents."
(tags: terrorism nsa spying leaks privacy security prism)

Link blog: google, porn, dance, consent

Ambidancetrous: The Blog — “We don’t want to make people uncomfortable.” (aka, “What about teh menz?!”)
"Ultimately, some of the worry that some straight guys will be uncomfortable dancing with other men (or being led by a woman) may be justified." Het guys: you lost the oppression Olympics, so your comfort and consent about who touches you is less important than our plan to build a utopia through dance. PROBLEMATIC. Well, OK, that bit rubbed me up the wrong way. But seriously, I think an "ambidancetrous" dance scene would be less "problematic" if the expectations (and how they differ from pretty much every other scene) were made clear up front. What I expect would happen then is that if you insisted every lesson was ambidancetrous, you’d never get enough people to make a viable community. Maybe it’d work as an option within an established scene, though.
(tags: lindy consent gender feminism lindyhop dance)
http://www.themonthly.com.au/issue/2013/march/1361848247/karen-hitchcock/fat-city
A doctor writes about the difficulties of dealing with obesity: dealing with a social problem, and applying epidemiology to individuals. Via Metafilter.
(tags: food fat obesity medicine health)
On the stupidity of asking, “but where’s the evidence we need evidence for things?”
"it’s a mistake to think that if someone thinks maybe you should have some evidence for a particular thing you believe, they are therefore committed to a sweeping philosophical doctrine about needing evidence for absolutely everything."
(tags: evidence philosophy epistemology)
Online Child Porn – What the Papers Aren’t Telling You.
Could Google really block it? (Hint: no)
(tags: google porn filtering internet)
Ukip Activist Marty Caine Provokes Fury by Branding Drummer Lee Rigby’s Family ‘Idiots’ – IBTimes UK
Looks like the old "the EDL are the provisional wing of UKIP" joke is actually true.
(tags: edl lee-rigby islam racism ukip)

Yep, it’s still there

8856bff18d7ac166b097e64a71f2ca83A friend on Facebook linked to Louise Mensch vs Laurie Penny on the “check your privilege” thing. He went on to say he hadn’t come across that phrase, and wondered if it’s anything more than thinly veiled argumentum ad hominem. I done a comment, which seemed long enough to blog:

It’s jargon from the Internet social justice warrior subculture, as far as I can tell, so if you haven’t heard it, hang out on Tumblr, LiveJournal or bits of the feminist blogsphere (or, you know, don’t). It’s becoming more mainstream, if those articles are anything to go by.

The injunction to “check your privilege” means different things at different times. Sometimes it means “you are not in a position to know that”. For example, if I claimed “there is no homophobia in Cambridge”, someone could rightly point out that I’m not that likely to be a victim of homophobia, so I should probably ask some gay people for their opinions. Saying that continues the argument by undercutting my claim.

Sometimes it does seem to act as what Suber calls “logical rudeness“, that is, saying “CYP!” insulates a theory from argument by attributing some fault to those who do not believe it, stopping the argument about the theory by switching it to an argument about the unbeliever. As Suber says, though, it’s not clear that there’s a general duty to respond to would-be debunkers of theories we hold, and claiming that, say, feminism is nonsense because so many feminists are fans of privilege checking is itself rude. However, Suber doesn’t seem to address the point that, if we’re interested in having accurate beliefs, we should debate those with the strongest counter-arguments: our rudeness should not allow the opposition to conclude we are mistaken, but it should worry us.

Using “CYP!” a single line response (on Twitter, or in a comment box, say) is just blowing off steam or cheering for your team, as far as I can tell. It doesn’t actually mean anything other than “yay for us and boo for you!”

Edited to add: There’s some more discussion of this over on Liv’s journal. Read the comments too.

Bad arguments about agnosticism

“It’s arrogant to claim to be an atheist, since you can’t know that God (or gods) does not exist. It’s much more intellectually respectable to be an agnostic.”

I’ve come across that sort of claim in a couple of places on the net recently. What could it mean? Time for another post in the series on bad arguments.

Bad argument: Atheists must show beyond all doubt that ChristianGod or MuslimGod doesn’t exist

Perhaps the speaker is some sort of conventional believer, like a Christian or a Muslim or whatever. They think that it’s up to someone calling themselves an “atheist” to demonstrate with that the Christian (or Muslim) God doesn’t exist, and do it so convincingly that there’s no possibility that the atheist could be mistaken. It seems the theist is either saying the atheist has got something wrong, or saying that nobody should call themselves an atheist.

Say that an atheist thinks that the Christian God probably doesn’t exist. The theist might claim that the atheist has acted wrongly in ignoring Christianity’s claims on them, because this is only “probably”, not “certainly”. But the theist’s claim relies double standard, since nobody else is held to that standard of certainty before they’re allowed to act on a belief (the conventional theist certainly isn’t). Possibly what’s going on here is that the theist thinks the atheist should be more like them: it looks like there are believers who argue the mere possibility that their belief is true justifies their continued faith. I’ve talked about the “virtue” of faith and discussed whether God might be fond of soft cheese before, so I won’t go into that again here.

(The famous atheists who are often called arrogant don’t claim certainty, of course.)

Perhaps the theist doesn’t think the atheist has been unreasonable (given the atheist thinks it’s unlikely that God exists, it’s fair enough that they don’t go to church or whatever), but thinks that people who haven’t attained certainty shouldn’t be defined as “atheists”. Luckily, the theist doesn’t get to define atheism.

Bad argument: An atheist must deny the existence of anything that anyone has ever called a god

“Well, I’ll say it simple: a god is someone with enough power to say ‘I am a god’ and make other people agree. Mortal wizard, lich, emperor, dragon, giant, leftover bit of chaos… it doesn’t really matter what it is underneath. What matters is that it has the strength to enforce its claims.”
– Rebel Theology, from Tales of MU (Tales of MU is basically “50 Shades of Advanced Dungeons and Dragons”, so be advised that some parts of the book are sexually explicit, although the linked chapter isn’t)

If The Man’s definition of a god is the one we’re using, it’s much more likely that there are gods (pretty certain, in fact, since people have probably convinced other people of their godhood at various points in history).

Spot the godThere are people who identify gods with love or the feeling they get from looking out into the night sky or with the quantum vacuum (trigger warning for physicists: linked post contains quantum woo-woo). In these cases it seems fine for the self-described atheist to say “that isn’t what I meant” or “I don’t dispute that those things might/do exist, but it seems silly to call them gods”.

Some statements which look as if they’re claims about the existence of gods end up saying nothing more than an atheist might say, with some god-talk tacked on purely as decoration. As Simon Blackburn’s lovely (and short) piece on Hume’s Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion has it:

Philo the sceptic says that we cannot understand or know anything about a transcendent reality that explains or sustains the ongoing order of nature, while the theists like Demea say that we cannot understand or know anything about the transcendent reality, which is God, that explains or sustains the ongoing order of nature. Since the inserted clause does not help us in the least, the difference between them is merely verbal.

Cleanthes, the intelligent design theorist in the book, says that complete mystics are “atheists without knowing it”. Since some sophisticated theologians, like Hume’s Demea, call themselves theists, perhaps Cleanthes is a bit presumptuous. You can see his point, though: it’s odd that someone might be called a theist though they only differ from an atheist in calling some mysterious thingy “God”. Perhaps we should be a bit more resistant to the idea that anyone can “identify as” anything: that way lies Tumblr.

But we perhaps we shouldn’t assume that even people who go to church and say the Creed are assenting to a set of propositions (previously) or that their expectations of what will actually happen differ from those of an atheist (previouslier). If we still call those people theists, why not Demea?

Anyhoo: Philo and Demea are both agnostics (“we cannot … know”) about something, but just because Demea has called it “god”, it’s not clear that Philo couldn’t justly claim to be an atheist (though in the book, he doesn’t, of course).

Good argument: you can’t know what’s out there

Philip Pullman said:

Can I elucidate my own position as far as atheism is concerned? I don’t know whether I’m an atheist or an agnostic. I’m both, depending on where the standpoint is.

The totality of what I know is no more than the tiniest pinprick of light in an enormous encircling darkness of all the things I don’t know – which includes the number of atoms in the Atlantic Ocean, the thoughts going through the mind of my next-door neighbour at this moment and what is happening two miles above the surface of the planet Mars. In this illimitable darkness there may be God and I don’t know, because I don’t know.

But if we look at this pinprick of light and come closer to it, like a camera zooming in, so that it gradually expands until here we are, sitting in this room, surrounded by all the things we do know – such as what the time is and how to drive to London and all the other things that we know, what we’ve read about history and what we can find out about science – nowhere in this knowledge that’s available to me do I see the slightest evidence for God.

So, within this tiny circle of light I’m a convinced atheist; but when I step back I can see that the totality of what I know is very small compared to the totality of what I don’t know. So, that’s my position.

This seems fair enough. But often criticism of atheists is phrased like this:

Bad argument: you can’t know that there isn’t an X out there

where “an X” is some particular thing which would be hard to detect, like an immaterial being who made stuff but then doesn’t intervene, say. The problem with this is that the speaker hasn’t got enough evidence to even suggest X. Sure, we can’t rule out X, but what about Y or Z or a vast number of other possibilities? Why mention X as something special to be agnostic about? Often it’s because X looks like a god from a conventional religion, tweaked to be even less detectable. But that’s no reason to think that X is especially likely to exist. The error here is called privileging the hypothesis.

To anticipate a possible objection: a lot of people saying “I believe in X” may provide evidence to differentiate it from Y and Z. But we need to be careful about what X is here, as the range of things that people refer to as “god(s)” is pretty wide. Some gods (the conventional theist ones) have a whole lot of believers but have good arguments against their existence, so claims that an atheist who accepts those arguments should call themselves agnostic about those gods seem to be you must prove it beyond doubt arguments. “I believe in gods which are invisible gremlins in the quantum foam: you can’t show that those don’t exist” is privileging the hypothesis.

Link blog: funny, belief, epistemology, science

John Stump, composer of Faerie’s Aire and Death Waltz « Lost in the Cloud
An article about the composer of that spoof piece (with directions like "release the penguins" and "add bicycle").
(tags: music composer funny)
Web of Beliefs 2012: Complete Edition – Greatplay.net
Peter Hurford’s summary of his beliefs, which links to a lot of his interesting essays. I should do myself one of these, I reckon.
(tags: religion belief philosophy epistemology science)

Link blog: philosophy, epistemology, good, catholic

What Thomas Kuhn Really Thought about Scientific “Truth” | Cross-Check, Scientific American Blog Network
“To commemorate the 50th anniversary of Structure, I’m posting an edited version of my write-up of Kuhn in The End of Science (Addison Wesley, 1996), which draws heavily on my meeting with him. I hope that this profile—which is longer and more critical of Kuhn than “Reluctant Revolutionary,” my May 1991 profile for Scientific American—provides insights into the complicated views of this complicated man.”
(tags: epistemology paradigm science Kuhn philosophy)
On God As The Source Of Being But Not Of Evil | Camels With Hammers
“Very often we atheists are dismissed as ignorant of serious theology and theistic metaphysics or as picking on theologically unsophisticated versions of Christianity because it’s simply an easier target than trying to refute the more profound religious philosophers. In what follows, I will cut to the core of what traditional Roman Catholicism since Thomas Aquinas genuinely thinks is going on philosophically, and not merely metaphorically, when they talk about God’s goodness.”
(tags: theodicy metaethics evil good catholicism catholic philosophy thomist aquinas)

Stephen Law and the existence of Jesus

Stephen Law’s paper Evidence, miracles and the existence of Jesus argues that the New Testament (NT) is not good evidence for the existence of Jesus. He takes an interesting approach: he argues that the evidence for the NT miracles isn’t good enough, and that the presence of the miracle stories contaminates the non-miraculous parts of the story such that we should be sceptical of those too.

Law introduces and defends two principles:

P1 Where a claim’s justification derives solely from evidence, extraordinary claims (e.g. concerning supernatural miracles) require extraordinary evidence. In the absence of extraordinary evidence there is good reason to be sceptical about those claims.

and

P2 Where testimony/documents weave together a narrative that combines mundane claims with a significant proportion of extraordinary claims, and there is good reason to be sceptical about those extraordinary claims, then there is good reason to be sceptical about the mundane claims, at least until we possess good independent evidence of their truth.

He then uses these in a deductive argument, concluding that “there’s good reason to be sceptical about whether Jesus existed”.

Debating P2

Most of the debate in the comments on Law’s blog is about P2. Law says that “Because once we know that a powerful, false-testimony-producing mechanism (or combination of mechanisms) may well have produced a significant chunk of a narrative (e.g. the miraculous parts), we can no longer be confident that the same mechanism is not responsible for what remains.”

Bradley C. came up with some counter-examples to P2. Bradley rightly says that the false-testimony-producing mechanism is key. What feels different about the ancient miracle reports (and perhaps Law’s “sixth islander” thought experiment) compared to Bradley’s examples is that in the ancient reports, we don’t really know what the mechanism was, we just know something has gone wrong. (In Bradley’s examples, we know that magicians and faith healers do tricks). If we don’t know quite what has gone wrong, we have to consider various possible mechanisms, which includes ones where the mundane testimony is also false. If we give such mechanisms any weight, that makes the mundane testimony less convincing (though it may still be positive evidence for the mundane events). But I think we’d have to consider how much weight to give them based on the circumstances, which makes it hard to come up with something general like P2.

So, I think Bradley’s come up with the equivalent of Gettier cases for P2 as it stands: even if they’re contrived, they show P2 needs changing.

Law responds to Bradley saying “You need to identify a mechanism as being the likely mechanism accounting for the false miracle claims, and then explain why that mechanism wouldn’t quite likely result in false mundane claims too.”

I don’t agree with Law here. If all we know is that something’s gone wrong with the testimony but the mechanism is obscure, perhaps it’s reasonable to say that it’s as likely that we’d have the testimony if it’s mundane parts were true as it is that we’d have it if the mundane parts were false. Then the testimony is no evidence for or against the mundane events: you should consider the events as likely as you did before you heard the testimony.

I’m not sure I’d want to go further than that and say that the burden of proof is on the people who believe the mundane portion of the testimony to show why it isn’t contaminated: mightn’t they equally well argue that the burden is on you to show that it is? But that’s what P2 says, I think: in P2, the testimony becomes evidence against the mundane events.

If you give a mechanism, though, maybe that’s just what you can argue: if you think Jesus’ disciples made it up, for example, who’s to say where the made up stuff ends? (Though why not make stuff up based on a real person, for verisimilitude?)

It looks like someone who wants to justify their belief in the mundane stuff has a motive to push the unbeliever to identify the mechanism so they can criticise it. The problem with my “average over possible mechanisms” idea, above, is that it’s pretty hard to identify them all. I don’t think we have a duty to do that with every weird testimony, though. Earlier, in defence of P1, Law correctly says that “the fact that it remains blankly mysterious why such reports would be made if they were not true does not provide us with very much additional reason to suppose that they are true.”

So, I’m not that convinced by Law’s general contamination principle, but I think he makes some good points along the way. For example, Law says:

It would also be foolish to try to construct a two part case for Jesus’ miraculous resurrection by (i) bracketing the miraculous parts of the Gospel narrative and using what remains to build a case for the truth of certain non-miraculous claims (about Jesus’ crucifixion, the empty tomb, and so on), and then (ii) using these supposedly now “firmly established facts” to argue that Jesus’ miraculous resurrection is what best explains them (yet several apologetic works – e.g. Frank Morrison’s Who Moved The Stone? – appear implicitly to rely on this strategy).



William Lane Craig’s rebuttal

The apologetical strategy Law talks about is used by William Lane Craig in his “4 facts” defence of the resurrection (see Craig vs Ehrman, for example). Craig read Law’s paper and attempted a rebuttal on his own blog, which I think was only partially successful.

Craig’s stuff about Ehrman is weird. I guess Craig’s point here is to show how reasonable he’s being by pointing out that even this bloke he beat in a debate (Ehrman) agrees with him. But Ehrman is not a radical sceptic, Law is not die-hard mythicist. The conclusion of Law’s argument is that we should be sceptical about J’s existence, not “Therefore J never existed”, so it’s not even clear that Ehrman’s ire applies to Law, or that we should care if it does, unless Ehrman’s arguments are made more explicit.

On Sagan’s dictum that “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence”, Craig writes: “This sounds so commonsensical, doesn’t it? But in fact it is demonstrably false. … Rather what’s crucial is the probability that we should have the evidence we do if the extraordinary event had not occurred. This can easily offset any improbability of the event itself.”

Craig makes a reasonable statement of Bayes Theorem. However, Sagan’s dictum can be read in a Bayesian way (by incorporating all the probabilities Craig mentions, so that the evidence is Bayesian evidence). Craig gives no good argument that the dictum must mean what Craig takes it to mean, or that Law’s argument relies on taking it to mean what Craig thinks it means.

Craig continues: “In the case of the resurrection of Jesus, for example, this means that we must also ask, “What is the probability of the facts of the empty tomb, the post-mortem appearances, and the origin of the disciples’ belief in Jesus’ resurrection, if the resurrection had not occurred?” It is highly, highly, highly, improbable that we should have that evidence if the resurrection had not occurred.”

This might be Craig’s attempt at that argument, namely, Craig saying that Law hasn’t considered that it’s unlikely we’d have the evidence we do if Jesus didn’t do miracles. But Craig plays fast and loose: the facts are that we have the gospel narratives (and whatever other historical documents we have to hand). The empty tomb and post-mortem appearances are not facts, and Law’s argument against the “bracketing” strategy is that they cannot be treated as facts. Craig cannot have the empty tomb or the post-mortem appearances as “facts” without addressing Law’s arguments.

Oddly, Craig doesn’t address really P2 or Law’s arguments for it at all: he just says “oh no it isn’t”. Craig’s strongest when he says that there is extra-Biblical evidence for Jesus’ existence. I’m not an expert, but my understanding is that Josephus’ mentions of Jesus is thought by historians to have a core around which Christian interpolations accreted, for example. Since even if we grant P2, Law’s argument fails without premise 6 (“There is no good independent evidence for even the mundane claims about Jesus (such as that he existed)”), perhaps this is a good tactic on Craig’s part. Law appears to agree that premise 6 is his weakest empirical premise: “6 is at the very least debatable”. In a way, it’s odd that everyone is concentrating on P2.

So, I think Craig casts doubt on Law’s conclusion about Jesus’ existence, but he doesn’t do much to convince us that Jesus rose from the dead or did any other miracles.

Jerry Coyne’s blog has some good comments on Craig’s rebuttal.

David B Marshall’s rebuttal

David Marshall also had a go at rebutting Law. He didn’t do as well as Craig, as his arguments relied on attempts to differentiate Law’s thought experiments (“Ted and Sarah”, and “The Sixth Islander”) from the claims about Jesus, but the distinctions he made between these, distinguishing magic from miracles, weren’t relevant to Law’s arguments, as far as I can tell. You can see my response to him here , his reply here and my response to that here, another attempt by Marshall here and my final response here.

I think this rebuttal is interesting for what it shows about what ordinary believers (rather than super-apologists like Craig) think are good arguments. Marshall appears to think that because the Jesus story is more fleshed out and more meaningful, it’s more likely to be true. I’m not sure whether this is a straightforward example of conjuction bias (obligatory Less Wrong link), or of the notion that the point of religion is to be in a meaningful story. Charitably, it might be an attempt at inference to the best explanation, but I don’t think the stuff that Marshall mentions means that the best explanation of the NT stories is that they are true.

So what do you think?

There was bloke called Jesus who was the basis of the NT stories. Pre-moderns had porous selves, so it’s pretty difficult to understand their writings in modern terms, but there is no good evidence that this bloke did miracles or rose from the dead. I don’t know how much of the NT is true, but I don’t accept Craig’s bracketing or 4 facts arguments: taking out the core miracle but leaving the context which points to a miracle does look like cheating without independent evidence of the context, because mechanisms where both the context and miracle are made up seem pretty likely to me.

Bad arguments about religion: faith and evidence

There’s an atheist bad argument which runs something like this: “Faith is believing stuff without evidence, believing stuff without evidence is always bad, therefore faith is bad”.

This seems reasonable at first, but sooner or later you meet a William Lane Craig or similar apologist type, as Jerry Coyne did recently:

Craig argues that science itself is permeated with assumptions about the world that cannot be scientifically justified, but are based on faith. One of these is the validity of inductive reasoning: “Just because A has always been followed by B every time in the past is no proof at all that A will be followed by B tomorrow.” To suppose the latter requires faith.

According to Coyne, as well as the problem of induction, Craig mentions last-Thursday-ism and the idea that we’re all in the Matrix as beliefs that we reject on faith. Some of commenters on Coyne’s blog react as if Craig is advocating these ideas that we all reject, that is, as if he really thinks that the Sun might not rise tomorrow or that we’re in the clutches of a cartesiandaemon. But that’s not Craig’s point. Nor is Craig being inconsistent if he gets on an aeroplane assuming that the laws of physics will carry on working as they always have to keep it flying. After all, he’s not the one claiming that it’s always wrong to believe things without evidence.

The problem here, which makes the atheist’s argument a bad one, is that the atheist has cast their net too broadly. Craig is right to say that there are things that atheists (and everyone else) believe “on faith”. To say that these beliefs are always unwarranted leaves the atheist open to Craig’s counter-argument that, to be consistent, the atheist should then discard those beliefs or admit that it’s not always wrong to believe things without evidence.

Doing better

Nevertheless, something has gone wrong with Craig’s argument if it’s supposed to be a defence of religious faith (as all Craig’s arguments ultimately are). Religious faith is different from belief in induction or the existence of an external world. The atheist should abandon the claim that unevidenced beliefs are always bad, and concentrate on the distinction between religious beliefs and, say, the belief that the external world is real.

One way of doing that would be to turn Craig’s allegation of inconsistency back on him. As Chris Hallquist puts it

belief in the Christian God isn’t very much at all like most of the common-sense beliefs commonly cited as threatened by Descartes & Hume-style skepticism (like belief in the reliability of our senses), but is an awful lot like beliefs most Christians wouldn’t accept without evidence – namely, the beliefs of other religions.

The atheist’s discomfort is now the apologist’s: either he must accept that, say, Muslims or Scientologists are right to take things on faith (in which case, why not join up with them instead?); or further distinguish his religion from theirs (probably by making arguments about the resurrection of Jesus). The atheist’s acceptance of the real world doesn’t come into it.

Hume’s own solution to radical scepticism was to note that he couldn’t entertain that sort of thing for long. Creatures like us soon fall unavoidably back on treating other people as if they were conscious, the world as if it were real, and so on. The great man tells us:

Most fortunately it happens, that since reason is incapable of dispelling these clouds, nature herself suffices to that purpose, and cures me of this philosophical melancholy and delirium, either by relaxing this bent of mind, or by some avocation, and lively impression of my senses, which obliterate all these chimeras. I dine, I play a game of back-gammon, I converse, and am merry with my friends; and when after three or four hours’ amusement, I wou’d return to these speculations, they appear so cold, and strain’d, and ridiculous, that I cannot find in my heart to enter into them any farther.

Among educated folk, thoughts of gods rely on meetings with other believers to keep them going: believers are chronic sinus sufferers. They rarely anticipate the world being any different from a godless one, and those who act as if God is real are called crazy even by their fellow believers. To be sure, that doesn’t mean their avowed beliefs are false. But again, they are not like the commonplace beliefs that everyone takes on faith. In my experience, they fly forgotten, as the dream dies with the dawning day. How about a nice game of backgammon?

Edit: gjm11 suggests another reasonable response in this comment: admit that believing stuff without evidence is bad, and try to minimise it, and say that the problem with religious faith (in so far as that means holding unevidenced beliefs) is that it means having way more unevidenced beliefs than necessary.

Edit again: I’ve also commented with a shorter version of this on Coyne’s original posting, so there’s some discussion there too.

See also

My inner witness is tingling

In her series on Christian Belief Through the Lens of Cognitive Science, Valerie Tarico reports on the work of neurologist Robert Burton. Burton argues that “Despite how certainty feels, it is neither a conscious choice nor even a thought process. Certainty and similar states of knowing what we know arise out of involuntary brain mechanisms that, like love or anger, function independently of reason.” I thought of Burton’s stuff recently: over on Common Sense Atheism, Luke Muehlhauser linked to William Lane Craig’s Q&A blog. Someone asks whether Craig would still be a Christian if his favourite arguments were defeated or if Jesus’ bones were found, and Craig responds by saying that “even in the face of evidence against God which we cannot refute, we ought to believe in God on the basis of His Spirit’s witness”. Muehlhauser remarks that Craig “doesn’t give a damn about evidence”.

Muehlhauser is right to say that the inner witness of the Holy Spirit cannot be good evidence. People will believe God has caused certain beliefs to arise in them regardless of whether God has or not. It’s hard to see how evangelicals like Craig could disagree with this, since, for example, they presumably do not think that God convinced Muslims to be Muslim, whereas at least some Muslims do think this.

My sensus divinatatis is tingling

Unfortunately for atheists, lack of evidence will only worry evangelicals if they accept that all beliefs should be derived from evidence. Craig, following Alvin Plantinga, does not accept this (although Craig disagrees with Plantinga on Christian theology: Craig thinks that God “witnesses” to people, Plantinga thinks that people have a sensus divinatatis, a faculty which enables them to know things about God). According to Allen Stairs, Plantinga argues that some beliefs are formed legitimately, but without being inferred from other statements which serve as evidence. Take, for example, my belief that I have a headache, or my belief that I can usually trust my senses, or that the world was not created 5 minutes ago with the false appearance of age. Plantinga calls such beliefs “properly basic”, and says there is no good reason not to put belief in God in the same category.

One objection to Plantinga is that this sort of argument proves too much: Matt McCormick wonders whether he might have a sensus atheistus which assures him that anyone who claims to have experienced God is mistaken. This seems weaker than Plantinga’s claim (since it’s not clear where the atheist sense comes from, whereas Plantinga claims his divine sense comes from God), but then, who cares whether the argument goes against you when you have a sensus atheistus? What of other religions where people claim revelations from God? Craig says his job is to use factual arguments to convince those people that their apparent revelations are merely internal experiences. He says this is what atheists should also do with him, though this seems to contradict his earlier statement that such persuasion shouldn’t work on him.

There’s also the problem of the content of this revelation. Just what is included in it, and how can you tell? Christians are a bit reticent about it, in my experience: Sye the presuppositionalist never did tell me whether he could distinguish between knowledge revealed by God and knowledge he obtained by other means, nor did I ever find out whether the Holy Spirit witnesses to robhu that Hebrews is inspired scripture but 1 Clement isn’t.

Craig seems to go further than Plantinga in one important respect. Plantinga’s work, as described by Craig, tries to address the allegation that Christianity is unmotivated or irrational, by shifting the burden of proof onto people who disagree with it: they must show I’m wrong, Plantinga says, I don’t have to show I’m right. Craig goes further, and says that no arguments or evidence should convince him: that’s unmotivated and irrational.