Belief in God: Subtle Evidence, Belief-Risk

It’s obvious to me that:

  1. There is no obvious, overwhelming empirical evidence for God. God doesn’t do miracles on demand, booming voices, sky-writing, etc. Any argument/evidence for God will be fairly subtle (e.g., the Fine-Tuning Argument).
  2. There will be belief-risk when believing in God. That is, there will be, at best, substantial risk that belief in God is mistaken, given even the best arguments/evidence for God’s existence.

My impression is that, for most atheists, the above alone is enough to make believing in God unreasonable, something to avoid. Anyone trying to make a case for belief would have to find a way to deal with the above two points first: that subtle evidence is enough, and that belief-risk is sometimes worth taking.

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Extraordinary Claims Demand Extraordinary Evidence: Did William Lane Craig Make a Mistake Here?

William Lane Craig is a Christian apologist and philosopher, famous for his debates with atheists. I do enjoy his debates: even if you don’t agree with Craig (or the atheist he is debating), there is value in the debate itself. For me, what’s most important is that the issues are constantly laid out in clearer ways, and debate is an engaging way to do this.

But here I wonder about Craig’s response to the common atheist aphorism, “extraordinary claims demand extraordinary evidence.” His response is that the proverb would prevent us from accepting that a particular ticket won the lottery, as the probability of any single ticket winning the lottery is very low. For him, one cannot just consider the inherent probability of a claim, but how improbable the observations we observe regarding the claim would be if the claim weren’t true. In the case of the lottery, it would be very improbable that a winner would be announced on the media if, in fact, that winner didn’t really win the lottery. So in this case, even if the probability of that person winning the lottery is very low, we can accept that she won.

The same goes for miracles like Jesus’ resurrection. Resurrections are improbable, but the odds of our relevant observations (the empty tomb, the resurrection appearances, the disciples’ radical belief changes) would be very improbable if the resurrection didn’t take place. Thus Craig argues that we can accept that Jesus rose just as we can accept that the lucky lottery ticket holder won.

I don’t disagree with Craig’s claim that explanatory power, discussed in the previous two paragraphs, is just as important as inherent probability. But that doesn’t disprove the aphorism. In fact, it’s completely compatible with it. The aphorism allows for the accumulation of evidence, that is, explanatory power, to override initial skepticism. It only requires that the evidence be extraordinary.

What the aphorism claims is that we can’t just look at evidence for a claim, expecting that if an amount of evidence  is enough for one claim, it should be enough for every other claim. It points out that less inherently probable claims require more evidence that mundane claims. Claiming that I drove to work requires less evidence than the claim that I flew to work, using my arms as wings.

So here I think is where the real dispute is between Craig and skeptics. Skeptics think the inherent improbability of God’s existence or the resurrection of Jesus is so low as to require a very radical amount of evidence to overcome it. Atheists I’ve talked to or listened to online mention a universally observable breakdown of the natural order, something like what’s in the Book of Revelation, to meet the evidential burden: nothing less than that would suffice. That is, the skeptics focus on what they take to be low prior probabilities, generally seeing any currently attainable amount of evidence as insufficient. Craig, however, focuses on the explanatory power. But I think that both need to be considered.

One other note, skeptics do think God is very improbable; just as improbable as Zeus, Big Foot, or the Flying Spaghetti Monster. True, the last three are inherently improbable, but does that make God inherently improbable? That would depend on how similar God is to those things. I don’t see a great similarity. God is completely immaterial, while the last three are either unusual physical objects or physical objects embedded with divine characteristics. I don’t think you can compare them. So I would submit that God’s prior probability is unknown,  and not low.

Who Made God?

Children often ask this. The quick answer: God wasn’t made, He was always there. Only things that weren’t always there have to be made.

But atheists may still complain about God being used as an explanation because it stops inquiry. We should always look for some other explanation because of this. Saying “God did it” stops science. Sometimes they also insist that to use God as an explanation, we need to explain God first.

I think these complaints are based on a confusion between arguing that and explaining how. When theists use God as an explanation, they are arguing that. That is, they are trying to argue that it is true that God exists and did such and such. Theists have to admit, however, that this does not explain how. It doesn’t provide details about the processes of how the universe was made. Because “God did it” doesn’t explain how, atheists reject God as an explanation.

But we can use explanations for both of the above purposes. We can use an explanation to uncover a mechanism, or we can use an “inference to the best explanation” to argue that a certain event occurred. An example: I can explain why the sky is blue by pointing out different features of light and the absorptive properties of gasses in the atmosphere — that’s explaining how. Or I could argue that my friend was awake late last night because there is an email in my inbox from him with a timestamp of 2:20 am. In the latter case I am not trying to get into the details of how the universe works so much as show that my friend was awake at that time. Notice that I don’t need to have an explanation for why my friend was awake to make the point: what kept him up is a different question from whether he was up.

In the same way, when theists offer arguments for God’s existence involving God as an explanation, they aren’t trying to uncover mechanisms that can be used to further scientific inquiry. They are merely arguing that God exists; they are arguing that, not explaining how. And just like my friend’s email, arguing that God exists isn’t the same as showing how God exists.

So arguing that God did something may not advance scientific goals, but that in itself doesn’t mean that God didn’t do it, or that God isn’t a good explanation. It just means that God doesn’t suit the goals of atheists.

The Presumption of Atheism: The Best Policy?

The philosopher Anthony Flew made the case for it (“The Presumption of Atheism,” Canadian Journal of Philosophy 2 (1972). Also available here). What is meant by the presumption is that a-theism, non-belief in God, should be the default, unless evidence is produced for God’s existence. Atheism is innocent until proven guilty. Likewise, theism is guilty until proven innocent.

Flew rejected the usual arguments for the presumption (see his paper). Instead he said this:

. . .  to accept such a presumption is to adopt a policy. And policies have to be assessed by reference to the aims of those for whom they are suggested. . . . What then are the aims by reference to which an atheist presumption might be justified? One key word in the answer, if not the key word, must be ‘knowledge’. The context for which such a policy is proposed is that of inquiry about the existence of God; and the object of the exercise is, presumably, to discover whether it is possible to establish that the word ‘God’ does in fact have application. Now to establish must here be either to show that you know or to come to know. . . If a true belief is to achieve this more elevated status, then the believer has to be properly warranted so to believe. He must, that is, be in a position to know.

So basically his case is that placing a burden of proof on theists is the best policy given our goal of knowledge. Knowledge requires evidence.

Two things can be said here. One is that knowledge may not always require evidence. The philosopher Alvin Plantinga has argued for his notion of basic beliefs; beliefs that are warranted because any properly functioning mind would automatically believe them (other basic beliefs: the belief that our senses and reason are generally reliable).

But here is another: what if the goal of belief isn’t always knowledge? Consider the context of personal relationships, we trust our spouses and friends, typically. Have they always produced evidence for their trustworthiness? I submit that this isn’t always the case. Many times there are gaps in our knowledge of our friends and relatives that permit their wrong doing without our knowing. Still, we give them the benefit of the doubt — we trust them unless they do something to violate our trust.

William James argued for so much in his Will to Believe. There he responded to W.K. Clifford’s claim that one shouldn’t ever believe anything on insufficient evidence. Part of his response was that this approach might work well for things on which we have the luxury to wait and gather evidence; scientific beliefs are usually like this. Science is a great place, given its goals, to be an evidentialist like Clifford. But not all situations are scientific situations. Personal relationships involve contexts where one cannot wait on or demand evidence for belief. We have to take risks to have relationships. I figure most people would agree with James that the contexts involving belief in God are more like personal relationships than scientific investigations.

A clarification: belief could mean what philosophers mean by it — a willingness to assert that a proposition is true, and act on it. But Christianity doesn’t have such a flat notion of belief. It’s more like the trust found in personal relationships. The philosopher’s (and scientist’s) belief is geared toward knowledge.  Knowledge, on the philosopher’s view, is justified true belief (with some bizarre exceptions). But maybe there is another sort of knowledge found in personal relationships; an intimacy perhaps. It’s no accident that the King James Version of the Bible refers to sex as ‘knowing’ someone.

So maybe the best policy isn’t to adopt a presumption of atheism if one’s goals are to have a relationship with God, and not the increase of the philosopher’s (and scientist’s) notion of knowledge. If we want to be friends and lovers of God (as opposed to researchers of God), maybe we need to give Him the benefit of the doubt regarding His goodness, or even His existence.