Consider what is called the “Common Consent Argument” for God’s existence:
(1) A vast majority of people believe God exist, therefore,
(2) God exists.
Historically, this argument hasn’t been taken very seriously. I haven’t seen it promoted by many theists, but I’ve seen it lurking behind many discussions between believers and non-believers. After all, if so many people have historically believed, shouldn’t this count as some sort of evidence for the truth of the conclusion?
I’m not convinced, as others might be, that this argument is an argument from popularity - or that an argument from popularity is always necessarily a fallacy. I’d like to piggyback off the discussion at Prosblogion which examines a paper by Thomas Kelly. He gives us a few scenarios in which we do treat popular opinion as evidence of the belief:
For example, if I initially believe that our recycling is scheduled to be picked
up tomorrow, but I subsequently learn that everyone else on our block thinks that the
pick-up is scheduled for today (perhaps I observe that others have already placed their
recycling bins on the curb this morning), then I will change my view. Moreover, barring
very unusual circumstances, surely this is the reasonable thing for me to do. Similarly, if I
perform some non-trivial mathematical calculation but subsequently learn that others who
performed the same calculation arrived at a different answer, then I should treat this as
evidence of my having made a mistake.
In the comment section, there are a few thought experiments being lobbied by philosophers to illicit the same response. I’d like to explore what I think are two of the most difficult problems with this argument, and there are several more explored in the post I linked to: (1) The first premise, specifically what we mean by “God” and “most people” is not at all clear and (2) The nature of the proposition is such that if the CCA is successful, it’s still not remotely convincing.
As for (1): it’s not certain here what “most people” is referring to. Does this cover all human beings of all eras? If so, the same problems that I raised in the Sensing God post rear their heads again. The monotheistic conception of God is rather new, and especially the God of the Muslims, Christians, and Jews. Does the term “God” differentiate beyond these different iterations, or does it satisfy all propositions equally?
Let’s revisit the decision to put your recycling bins on the curb when we see others doing the same. If the CCA is to be successful, then the fact that most people believe they should put their cans out this morning counts as evidence for the truth of the pick-up day changing. If I had just come home to see the rest of the bins on my block outside, I would indeed put my bin out for collection. But, at the same time, I would also wonder what information I had missed. Did the trash collection agency post a notice regarding the change in dates? Is there some holiday that I am forgetting which will cause the trash to be picked up early/late? What piece of information am I missing that others are privy too?
I’m not merely relying on majority opinion, I’m reasoning that the majority have access to a piece of evidence that I do not. Namely, that these people have either remembered a holiday, seen a notice, or been otherwise informed that the trash pick-up dates have changed. The majority opinion is not evidence by itself, it is only evidence by proxy: it indicates a gap in my own epistemic grounds for making a decision.
Another difficulty is easily illustrated by the example of performing a “non-trivial mathematical calculation”. I’ve actually had this experience as a TA for a Critical Thinking course. If you haven’t tried the Wason Selection Task, try it here. Here’s the description:
“You are shown a set of four cards placed on a table, each of which has a number on one side and a colored patch on the other side. The visible faces of the cards show 3, 8, red and brown. Which card(s) must you turn over in order to test the truth of the proposition that if a card shows an even number on one face, then its opposite face is red?”
In experiments in which they ask people to do this task, less than %10 of people get the correct answer. I don’t think it’s a wise idea to take the majority opinion as evidence here, and it’s primarily because of how equipped we are to answer this question. If, however, we were to use as a sample only people who have expertise in logic (and could properly spot the material condition), I would put a much higher degree of trust in the majority opinion. This distinction is key in realizing the difference between lay consensus and expert consensus.
I’m not certain that we can say that “most people” have the requisite epistemic warrant for rendering a conclusion about the existence of God. I would argue that many people haven’t done the requisite research, vetting of their own beliefs, etc. to give them the status of expertise regarding this question (this goes for both atheists and theists in general).
Overall, even if I grant Kelly his point about social knowledge, I would argue that the CCA is exceedingly weak. In the face of the extraordinary wealth of literature in psychology that shows how prone we are to confirmation bias, detecting agency, and a litany of other mistakes – I’m also worried about how sound the processes of coming to those beliefs are. We are better served by thinking of majority opinion as a guide to uncovering evidence rather than as evidence itself.