Unhealthy Self-Selection in Philosophy of Religion

by Matt DeStefano on February 25, 2012

I’m an avid reader of Prosblogion, and their most recent post by Helen De Cruz examines the results of a survey they had posted earlier examining the Philosophy of Religion area of study, and particularly asking those classifying themselves as such to evaluate natural theology arguments. The results of the survey were interesting by themselves, but what I found more interesting was this:

One of the striking results from my survey on natural theological arguments is that most philosophers of religion are theists. Even if I restrict my count to a subsample consisting only of those people who are philosophers, who have listed philosophy of religion as one of their areas of specialization, and who are faculty or non-faculty with PhDs, the sample is overwhelmingly theist. Of this select subsample (N = 118), 70.3 % are theists, 16.9% atheists and 12.7% agnostics (the rounding explains why we are not at exactly 100 %).

It seems that we should both solicit and properly weigh expert opinion when forming a belief about a given proposition. For instance, if we are forming a belief about whether or not a particular cancer treatment will be effective, we ought to consider the qualified opinion of oncologists. If we polled oncologists nationwide and found that 75% or more thought the treatment would be effective, it ought to incline us to revise our original belief towards the ‘Yes’ side. If, however, less than 25% endorsed the effectiveness of the treatment, we ought to revise our original belief towards the ‘No’ side.

While the popular belief by itself doesn’t fix the truth of the proposition, it is reasonable to allow expert opinion to shape and adjust your initial estimate. More specifically, Cruz remarks upon the idea that we should trust the oncologist’s collective opinion over perhaps a pediatrist or a nutritionist or the rest of the scientific community as a whole. She quotes Alvin Goldman:

“to the extent that it is feasible, N should consult the numbers, or degree of consensus, among all relevant (putative)experts. Won’t N be fully justified in trusting E1 (expert 1) over E2 if almost all other experts on the subject agree with E, or if even a preponderance of the other experts agree with E?”

If Philosophy of Religion is indeed a relevant expertise to the question of whether or not God exists, should we adjust our beliefs to reflect the degree of consensus in PoR? If so, it seems that the strength of natural theological arguments are stronger than they get credit for.

Let’s consider the general population of philosophers and their respective attitudes towards the God question. From PhilPaper survey results:

God: theism or atheism?

Accept or lean toward: atheism 678 / 931 (72.8%)
Accept or lean toward: theism 136 / 931 (14.6%)
Other 117 / 931 (12.5%)

Rather than show the strength of the relative God proposition, however, I think this shows an unhealthy self-selection in the philosophy of religion as an area of study, and confirmation bias when evaluating natural theological arguments. One commenter wrote on the initial survey (emphasis mine):

Consider just one: In a foundational experiment on cognitive bias researchers investigated effects of argumentation on proponents and opponents of capital punishment—talking about a Lord paper. Both sets of participants read summaries of the procedures, results and critiques of studies on the deterrent effects of capital punishment. One set of documents provided evidence of the deterrent efficacy of punishment, and this set referred to research done in the same U.S. state before and after capital punishment was instituted. The other set of documents provided evidence of the deterrent inefficacy of punishment, and this set referred to research done in different states, some with and some without capital punishment. Half of each group was given the first set showing deterrent efficacy and half of each group was given the second set showing inefficacy. In other words half of each group had their pre-theoretical beliefs confirmed by the available evidence and half of each group had them disconfirmed.

The results exhibited a pattern of cognitive bias that became a focus of continued research in subsequent decades. Participants in both groups considered the documents supporting their convictions to represent a well-designed study that offered valuable evidence about the utility of capital punishment. Participants did not ignore counterevidence to their convictions; instead they thoroughly, carefully criticized the evidence against their convictions. 

The above study that the commenter referenced shows that people have an uncanny ability to judge even comparable research in light of their own predispositions, and one can only imagine how much stronger this propensity is when discussing something as personal and powerful as religious faith and arguments for theism.

What does this say about the initial survey results about the strength of natural theological arguments? I think it’s safe to say we shouldn’t rely upon those who classify their area of study as PoR to properly evaluate the strength of arguments in support of theism. As Cruz points out, it’s much like asking astrologers to judge the efficacy of astrology. Not that theology is as prima facie fake as astrology, but that those interested have a vested interest in seeing it succeed. We might also consider the initial decision to choose Philosophy of Religion as a vocational interest. It seems odd for many atheistic philosophers to devote significant time during their careers to a question they find devoid of content. Theist philosophers, on the other hand, must feel that questions residing in PoR are of the utmost importance.  This might help to explain a higher concentration of theist philosophers dominating PoR, while they are a small minority among the overall field.



Debate Round One: Commentary on cl’s Rejoinder

by Matt DeStefano on February 22, 2012

Well, I did not see that one coming. It’s taken me awhile to fully appreciate cl’s rather unorthodox reply, and I admit I am still largely confused as how to take it. Right off the bat, cl admits that Peter’s “needless suffering” exists, but cl doesn’t see that this conflicts with the God of the Bible:

I’ve concluded that needless suffering exists. On my view, sin caused death, suffering and so-called “natural evil.” According to Genesis, God made the world good and humans had eternal life. Sin entailed a fall from the highest possible good. It was not necessary, God did not desire it. The suffering sin produced cannot possibly be logically required for the higher good to obtain because the highest possible good had already obtained. Criticisms that God “could have made a world without suffering” are nullified.

Here, cl is arguing that we have already had the highest possible good, and that humanity’s actions have put an end to it. Sin, or presumably — the original sin — was a fall from perfection. Without coloring the debate too much, I have to wonder if cl is referring to a literal Genesis here, or a figurative one? It seems that cl must commit himself to a literal Genesis, as the evolutionary history of mankind doesn’t exactly speak volumes about a previous perfection where we had eternal life.

Moving on, cl disputes the idea that suffering is needed in order to realize a higher good:

Even though suffering is needless, eliminating suffering doesn’t eliminate any higher good. Suffering isn’t necessary to produce goods. Obviously, Jesus didn’t believe that removing suffering eliminated higher good, else no sick would have been healed, nor would commands to heal be issued. In fact, we would have been commanded to ignore suffering. This defangs Peter’s “obstruction of divine justice” argument on the spot.

This  strikes me as a plausible  response to this notion that goods are necessarily obtained through suffering, especially given the considerations of his argument above.

Argument from Ignorance, Incredulity

cl does take a page from the Skeptical Theist playbook by noting:

Peter’s inability to conceive of a higher good or logical requirement does not justify even the provisional assumption that none exists, and to posture otherwise is to argue from incredulity. [2] Similarly, my inability to identify a higher good or logical requirement does not justify even the provisional assumption that none exists, and to posture otherwise is to argue from ignorance.

This is one area of Peter’s argument that I also found weak, and I think this will force Peter to buttress the epistemic warrant for moving from a position of “it seems that there is unnecessary suffering” to “there is unnecessary suffering”.

However, considering the context with which cl began his post, one can wonder how relevant this is. If cl is simply admitting that unnecessary suffering exists (indeed, it seems cl sees all suffering as unnecessary under the proper context), we need not surmise whether or not this move is warranted. It’s simply irrelevant.

Analyzing Analogies

cl finds Peter’s analogies to be fallacious:

These are textbook examples of the fallacy from false analogy. [4] Magic notwithstanding, there is no remote possibility of reindeer flying. However, since several members of the class “suffering” are logically required to obtain higher goods, the possibility of Peter’s examples following suit seems significant. So why would he imply only a “remote possibility” that his examples might be logically required to obtain higher goods? Why would he imply that a measly $1,000 is commensurate to eternal joy?

I’m inclined to agree with cl on these. While I think I know what points Peter was after in these analogies, I think they were a bit theatrical and didn’t quite address the points he was intending them to address. After all, we have the requisite tools to determine whether or not a reindeer flies, but do we actually have the requisite tools to understand God’s purpose in allowing suffering?

Again, though, I must stress that cl’s opening concession makes this largely irrelevant. If cl is arguing that needless suffering does exist, then isn’t Peter also warranted in making this assumption? It seems the real point of contention is not this “noseeum” (from probable to actual) but rather whether or not needless suffering entails (logically or probably) the existence of the God of the Bible.

cl begins to point out possible goods that may have come from the Black Death:

Alternatively, historians such as Bowsky (1971) and Bridbury (1983) suggest the plague may have been a key turning point in European economic development: wages would not have risen had there not been such a drastic increase in the demand for laborers. Isn’t a deficit of laborers logically required in order to spur demand? Why does Peter act stumped? Are these not grounds to doubt Peter’s claim that his examples are “proof beyond reasonable doubt” of needless suffering?

I have to imagine that very few people will take the deaths of so many Europeans from a horribly violent and destructive plague as serving a higher good by the fact that it “may have been a key turning point in European development”.

I feel as though cl is wasting words here: why defend the Bubonic Plague at all? If natural evil is simply a result of our moral failure (original sin and the fall), then we are not owed an explanation for why it will bring about good, and the fact that it doesn’t is simply indicative of a rotten world that has fallen from God’s good graces.


cl makes a similar point to a worry I had about Peter’s theodicy critique:

Peter’s note that the soul-building theodicy cannot explain animal suffering is irrelevant. One cannot justifiedly fault a theodicy for not explaining a particular type of suffering when another theodicy can (consequence for sin). #4, defanged.

I agree with cl here. It’s unfair for the atheist to criticize a theodicy for not being universal when it simply isn’t intended to be so.

Black Death: Punishment by God

I didn’t see this one coming. cl says:

The Black Death was a moral evil that deserved punishment. Regarding Theodicy #2, Peter said victims “were not especially more sinful” than people today. According to the Bible, that’s false. Filthiness is sin.

cl is arguing here that the people who died from the Bubonic plague were being punished for being filthy. Moreover, he argues that the cleanliness laws found in Scripture could have prevented such a catastrophe:

Take heed, foolish humans! We were warned not to become “defiled” by rats or other animals designated as “unclean” [8] and warned not to eat anything they touched. [9] God commanded us to bury dung outside city limits, [10] to avoid contact with bodily discharges because they are “unclean,” [11] to cleanse anything a person with bodily discharge touches, [12] to evacuate and seal up any house with “greenish or reddish” mildew, [13] and if the mildew persists after seven days, to “scrape the walls” inside the house, [14] remove any contaminated stones [15] and dump them outside city limits. [16]

Among other things, Wikipedia lists, “decay or decomposure of the skin while the person is still alive, high fever, and extreme fatigue” as symptoms of bubonic plague, [17] and God specifically warned that failure to obey would result in—wait for it—wasting diseases andfever that would drain away our life. [18]

Interesting argument. Of course, Levicitus is ripe for the picking when it comes to dangerously absurd rules, laws, and customs. Should humans also take heed that eating shellfish is an abomination? (Lev 11:10) Should we also avoid planting two of the same crops in a field? (Lev 19:19) It seems to me cl needs to make a case as to why we should take the entirety of these laws seriously.

cl concludes by turning Peter’s own words to him:

This evidence is so strong even Peter claims it proves God’s goodness and glory “beyond a shadow of a doubt,” leaving him no rational alternative but to abandon atheism and acknowledge the God of the Bible. Peter recently wrote,

…knowledge of the germ theory of disease contained in the Bible rather than left to be discovered by fallible scientists would have saved billions of lives. Why [God] didn’t do so, given that it would prove [God's] glory and goodness beyond a shadow of a doubt, is unknown.” [19, emphasis mine]

My list is just the tip of the iceberg, and already we have something akin to modern hygiene and germ theory, delivered 3,000 years before Pasteur was so much as a twinkle in his father’s eye—by people atheists often denigrate as ignorant goat-herders.

A pretty interesting conclusion, and I’m anxiously awaiting Peter’s response. It’s hard to judge cl’s response, as the terms of the debate have certainly shifted. In the upcoming sections, hopefully we will flesh out a better response to the Free Will Theodicy argument that Peter originally brought up. If we are going to cast all suffering as generating from (or inherited from) the Fall, we will also need substantial warrant to take such a position seriously.

Cl addresses most theodicies in turn (although we didn’t see much interaction with the ‘natural law’ theodicy, and only brief mentions of free-will), and went to great lengths to alleviate one of Peter’s examples. I don’t think it’s fair at this juncture to deduct points for failure to respond to any specific argument (as, again, the debate has certainly shifted paradigms), but I will deduct (1) point from cl for failing to properly explicate exactly how we should interpret the Genesis story.  So, I will award cl 11 points.


I’m one of the three judges for the debate between cl and Peter Hurford. In the interest of keeping the judging as fair as possible, Peter and cl have agreed to have one atheist, one theist, and one agnostic serve as judges. I suppose I fall under the “atheist” category, and I want to thank them for including me in this discussion.

To qualify myself a bit in this particular subject, I spent a semester last year in a seminar class on the Problem of Evil, so I have a fairly extensive foundation in the state of affairs in philosophy regarding this debate, as well as a familiarity with the primary texts involved. While I certainly have a position on the issue, I’m going to attempt to remain as objective and impartial as humanly possible. My overall impression of Peter’s opening statement was very positive.

Needless Suffering

Peter begins by delineating what needless suffering entails:

“Put simply, needless suffering is anything that causes pain to an entity capable of feeling it and is not logically required in order to realize a higher benefit for that entity or other entities.”

The language “an entity capable of feeling it” is a bit vague, but it seems he is referring to an idea roughly equivalent to sentience. None of his examples tie him to any necessary definition here, so we can operate under that assumption. He makes the claim by that if needless suffering exists, we do not live in the best possible world, which is to say by eliminating the needless suffering we will improve our world.

The pain of surgery and recovery, under Peter’s definition, would be an example of necessary suffering. We endure surgery and the pain of recovery in order to save us from more pain or severe consequences down the road.

I think this example actually fails as necessary suffering under Peter’s definition, though. The suffering of surgery is not “logically required” in order to realize a higher benefit – after all, God could magically remove a kidney without having a person endure the pain in surgery. I think this is a slip between natural/logical possibility and the entailment relationships, but it’s not terribly prudent to pursue it anymore here.

Assumptions & The Problem of Evil

Peter makes two assumptions: (1) Theism posits the existence of a God that is benevolent and omnipotent and (2) this God would have no reason to allow needless suffering. He omits omniscience here (I assume accidentally), but other than that this is a pretty basic description of the Problem of Evil. Knowing this debate isn’t about the general Problem of Evil, he makes a distinction:

“This is called the Problem of Evil, even though the debate isn’t about evil actions per se, but rather needless suffering as a whole.”

Peter is roughly reforming Rowe’s evidential argument from evil, arguing that God and needless suffering are mutually exclusive.

Peter’s 3 Examples of Needless Suffering

Peter has three examples of needless suffering in mind that he thinks are impossible for an omni-God to allow:

(a) Babies that suffer intensely and die from birth defects

(b) Nonhuman animals that suffer intensely in the wild and in our factory farms

(c) The Bubonic Plague that killed 25 million people in the 14th century.

Example (b) is a page right out of Rowe’s book. Rowe’s prototypical example of gratuitous evil (‘needless suffering’) is a small fawn, Bambi, dying a slow and painful death over a matter of weeks from egregioius burns. Examples (a) and (c) are evils that don’t result from human choice but rather are a consequence of living in our environment. Peter wishes to argue that these are needless because “no higher benefit can be identified that would logically require any of these examples.”

Peter then turns to theodicies, or attempts to explain why certain flavors of suffering might exist given the existence of God. He feels that by undermining the  cases for these theodicies, he buttresses the case for these being instances of unnecessary suffering.

Theodicy #1 Free Will  

Peter briefly talks about the Free-Will theodicy, but dismisses it fairly quickly as he says:

But I need not draw Cl into a long debate over the nature of free will, since it is quite clear that there is no free will involved in any of the examples I mentioned.

I’m not sure this is entirely true (factory farming, human treatment of animals, fetal alcohol syndrome and other effects by poor choices of diet, activity, etc.), but it’s also rather inconsequential. The broad majority of specific instances of suffering under Peter’s examples do fall outside of the realm of human freedom.

Theodicy # 2 Punishment of Sin 

One popular theodicy is that suffering is punishment for sins, and Peter makes a three-prong case against this theodicy:

    • Nonhuman animals don’t have original sin, let alone can make moral decisions capable of being sensibly punished.
    • Babies with original sin don’t need to be punished for the original sin because they have not made any conscious choice to reject God or act malevolently.
    • Given how uncorrelated sinful behavior is with suffering, this theodicy is highly implausible. Those who suffered through the Bubonic Plague were not especially more sinful than those today who have the advantages of modern medicine.

Peter’s third criticism of this theodicy seems to be the most profound. If suffering is punishment for sin, it doesn’t seem that it’s being doled out in a justifiable manner. Evil people can have lavish and extraordinarily pain-free lives, while saints and heroes can live their entire lives in the pits of suffering. It’s a strong criticism, and one that has certainly been echoed by a majority of phil-religion scholars.

Theodicy # 3 – The Need for Natural Law

Peter dismisses this theodicy by saying that (1) “there’s no reason an omnipotent God couldn’t make a world with a consistent physics that doesn’t have these examples” and (2) none of [his] examples are “remotely fundamental” to physics, and the world could operate just fine without the Bubonic plague.

I think Peter van Inwagen’s “massively irregular world” is a pretty good critique of Peter’s stated reasons. I’m not sure that the criticisms Peter levels at this argument actually address what the main thrust of this theodicy intends to illustrate. I don’t want to spend too much time editorializing, but the question a theist might ask of Peter is “What kind of world is one an atheist would find satisfactory? One in which God whimsically changes the laws of nature in order to prevent someone from stubbing their toe?”

Theodicy #4 – The Soul Building Defense

Again, Peter offers a three-pronged criticism of this theodicy:

    • All three of these seemingly different defenses can be defeated in the same way – God could have instilled any of these lessons, love for God, or character from birth.
    • Given that God knows all lessons, has infinite love for himself, and is of perfect virtue, yet has not suffered, there is no reason to think that suffering is logically necessary for these three things.
    • None of these elements of soul-making are at all relevant to nonhuman animals or those who die too young, since they are incapable of any of these three things.
Again, it seems that this theodicy doesn’t address the majority of Peter’s examples, and I think it fails for (1) and (2) which Peter mentions. It’s interesting that Peter says “God has infinite love for himself”, as I’m not sure if this is actually  a popular theological view – but his point that suffering is not logically necessary for learning lessons or loving God still reasonably stands.
I’m going to leave out analysis on theodicy #5 (genuine human accomplishment) and theodicy #6 (Reward of Heaven), as I’ve never seen those seriously advocated with any real success. I think Peter is spot on with both criticisms there,and I’d like to look at the last leg of his argument.
One of the common charges against the evidential problem of evil is the reasoning step from “There is probably unnecessary suffering” to “there is unnecessary suffering” or from “I can find no reason for suffering” to “there is no reason for suffering”. This is what Wykstra and others have criticized, which has resulted in the movement of “Skeptical Theism” movement. They argue that we can’t possibly discern God’s reasons for allowing suffering, and making this move is simply outside of our epistemic abilities. Peter uses an analogy for his response:

How do we know that reindeer cannot fly? Sure, we’ve investigated reindeer and not found any biological wings, helicopter blades, or jetpacks – but maybe they defy gravity through some undiscovered means. Sure, we’ve never observed a flying reindeer and observed millions of reindeer that don’t fly their entire lives, but this could just mean reindeer are holding out on us. Is this an argument from ignorance? Are we unfairly reasoning from “I can’t see a reason why reindeer are incapable of flight” to “Reindeer cannot fly”?

It’s a purposely, I imagine, ridiculous example but I think his point is a fair one. Are we simply to maintain an attitude of ignorance despite the failure (as Peter sees it, and has argued) of the theodicies to adequately explain the necessity of suffering? As he says:

We can accept the existence of needless suffering provisionally, based on there being no actual reason for an unknown purpose. This is why the Problem of Evil I argue is evidential, not logical. While I do accept the burden of proof to demonstrate the existence of needless suffering, it is unreasonable to demand I give proof in the mathematical sense – rather, proof beyond a reasonable doubt is proof enough.

Of course, the skeptical theist may respond that the analogy is insufficient, and that while we may be able to reasonably discern whether or not reindeer can fly, we simply don’t have the faculties to comprehend what God’s possible motives for allowing suffering could be, and any proposals are empty gestures into thin air. (See Peter van Inwagen’s “Argument from Silence”)

Overall, Peter did a fantastic job in his Opening Statement. His arguments were valid, his definitions were clear, and he did a good job at providing epistemic warrant for accepting his premises and the rejections of the various theodicies. It’s certainly hard to judge this on a point scale (as our current system does seem to favor argument flooding), I will award Peter the full 12 points. I’m looking forward to the rest of this debate.


It’s been a while…

by Matt DeStefano on January 25, 2012

It’s been a while for blog posts!  With the stresses of applying to graduate school and finishing a tough semester largely behind me (besides the absolute turmoil of waiting for admission decisions!), I’d like to resume posting here as much as possible. Here’s some tidbits and housekeeping that I wanted to get out:

Ryan of AIGBusted has a response to “The Gospels Tell Me So”, continuing our slow but steady continuation of Luke’s “Christianity is False” Series. Here’s a snippet:

“In a nutshell, the authors argue that since the gospels say that certain miracles happened, we ought to believe them because we usually believe what ancient authors wrote (if they intended to record history). Now let me be very clear: I agree that in general we ought to believe ancient historians. But what about in the specific case of miracles? In the present day, we’ve investigated lots of miracle reports and found them to be mistakes, frauds, or not credible in some way. See the work of James Randi or Joe Nickell if you don’t believe me. That tells us that most of the time, perhaps all of the time, when someone reports a miracle it did not happen. Therefore, when it comes to miracle reports in the gospels, they ought to be considered false until rigorously proven otherwise. This standard is no different from the standard we apply to other ancient authors. After all, most of us wouldn’t believe tales of witchcraft occuring in Salem, Massachusetts or ghost stories from the ancient world.”

I’ve written a paper about Plantinga’s evolutionary argument against naturalism (piggybacking onto Paul Churchland’s response). You can find it here.  The introduction is as follows:

“Alvin Plantinga’s Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism argues that given the story of biological evolution and naturalism, we wouldn’t expect our cognitive mechanisms to be reliable, or that the probability of any given belief being true is very low. Given that our beliefs are generated by our cognitive mechanisms we have a defeater for all of our beliefs which include both evolution and naturalism. Paul Churchland responded by arguing that it is not our native cognitive faculties that justify our beliefs of evolution and naturalism, but the faculties provided to us by the sciences through enhanced evaluation techniques and artificial sensory modalities. Plantinga’s “innocent assumption” is that the theory of evolution and metaphysical naturalism are derived from our native cognitive systems alone, which undermines his entire argument. In this paper, I will argue that Churchland’s response is successful in defeating the conclusion of Plantinga’s argument in regards to biological evolution, and consider whether or not Churchland’s response is adequate in defense of philosophical naturalism. Finally, I will examine Churchland’s alternate proposal of representation as a map of possible experiences, and consider the consequences of such a theory in regards to the EAAN.”



Plantinga’s Ghost in the Machine

by Matt DeStefano on November 19, 2011

I’ve been working on a response to Plantinga’s Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism, which has me reading the newest iteration of the argument in his book with Michael Tooley, Knowledge of God. In it, another argument against naturalism got my attention. A neural event will have NP properties (the physiological properties of the neural event), and content (the proposition itself: ‘There is a sabertooth tiger in the bushes’). Given a naturalism account of thought and conscious activity, it seems we have a neural event that is causally and logically sufficient for our propositional attitudes. So my NP properties are logically and casually sufficient for my belief that ‘My argyle socks look awesome.’ According to naturalism, we need not countenance an immterial self/soul that thinks those things, because our NP properties are sufficient.

Plantinga feels that it’s impossible to imagine/conceive of a way in which an “underlying reality” (that is, the NP properties/neural event itself) can account for thought. He notes possibly the most well-known appreciation of this problem with Leibniz:

“One is obliged to admit that perception and what depends upon it is inexplicable on mechanical principles, that is, by figures and motions. In imagining that there is a machine whose constructionwould enable it to think, to sense, and to have perception, one could conceive it enlarged while retaining the same proportions, so that one could enter into it, just like into a windmill. Supposing this, one should, when visiting within it, find only parts pushing one another, and never anything by which to explain a perception. Thus it is in the simple substance, and not in the composite or in the machine, that one must look for perception.” (SEP)

I’m rather nonplussed by the prospect of using our imagination or ability to conceive as a means of determining reality. When I was younger, I had no idea how microwaves worked, and I thought the lights inside must be incredibly hot to warm up my Hot Pocket so quickly. I was always baffled when I opened the microwave and found that the air wasn’t exceptionally warm and the lights weren’t even remotely hot. How did it cool down so quickly? Does my inability to conceive of how a microwave works have any bearing on the reality of the microwave working? Assuredly not.

Let’s examine Plantinga’s proposed solution. Pretend for a moment that Leibniz’ Mill is an insurmountable problem and it seems we need to countenance an immaterial self to properly capture the phenomena of thought. Peter van Inwagen points out the difficulties inherent with either account: why should it be any easier to explain thought via dualism (immaterial parts maneuvering to form thought) than it should for materialism (material parts maneuvering to form thought)?

Plantinga argues that they are different because typically an immaterial self, a soul, is simple. It does not consist of parts, therefore thought does not need to be explained by the workings of its parts. One might ask, how does it produce thought? It produces thought because it is a basic activity of selves to think. Just as an electron has a charge, immaterial selves have thought. Therefore, asking the question How does an immaterial self think? is just as nonsensical as asking How does an electron have a charge?

It is harder for me to imagine an immaterial thing that thinks basically than it is to imagine a combination of parts generating thought. It prompts a laundry list of questions: How is thought properly basic to an immaterial self? How can an immaterial thing think, and do we have good evidence for thinking that they do?  How can an immaterial self have parts or not have parts? Where does the immaterial self causally interact with the material self? The pineal gland?

It seems to me that this is just another ghost in the machine (a la Ryle), and does very little in moving forward sensical talk about the process of thought. The inability to imagine or conceive of a system producing thought has no bearing on whether it actually can.


Hell and Vagueness: Is Faith Binary?

by Matt DeStefano on October 5, 2011

I just read Ted Sider’s Hell and Vagueness after a friend of mine presented it in class, and I think it’s perhaps the strongest argument against the Heaven/Hell concept that I’ve ever encountered. I’ve seen variants of it before, but none that have been as persuasively argued and that have so clearly drawn the line in the sand. I’m going to focus on his argument about the concept of faith and its relation to salvation, but he also argues about moral judgments in his essay which I strongly encourage you to look at.

He begins by noting that Heaven and Hell are binary states: Heaven is really, really good - a place of divine worship and celebration. Hell, on the other hand, is the worst possible evil, a place of eternal punishment.  So, if we were going to put them on a spectrum, it would look something like this:


Of course, there are possible states in between that range from “Very good” to “Very bad”, but presumably these two are the best and worst, respectively. More notably, everyone goes to one of these two places: there are no destinations in between the two ends of the spectrum. (Annhiliationism might seem to disagree prima facie, but the underlying problem still remains) So, it seems that such a binary conception of reward and punishment should be judged by an equally binary scale: people without faith should go to Hell and people with faith should go to Heaven. While this sounds simple enough, Sider argues brilliantly that this is not the case.

But, as Sider argues, even propositional attitudes like faith come in degrees. It’s not as simple as “having faith” or “not having faith”, there are all sorts of positions in between. You could be doubting, but still believe in most Christian doctrines. You could be coming into faith, after having a lifetime of doubts. Drug addicts might profess faith until they fall off the wagon.  You could be a “weekend warrior”, as my church loved to call them, that professed faith sincerely every Sunday but forgot about it the moment the weekend ended.  At what age can we actually know what we are declaring when we say we have “faith”?

Or, of course, there is the other side of the spectrum. What exactly do you have to have faith in to go to Heaven? Do you just need to believe that there’s a higher power, and act accordingly? Do you need to believe everything in the Bible is literally the word of God? Do you just need to believe in the Resurrection? Do you need to believe in the Trinity? While Sider doesn’t explicitly address this in his essay, it’s a corollary concern that can also push the intuition that faith isn’t such a binary concept.

So, it seems like faith is a spectrum.

Absolute Faith <—————————————————-> No Faith

All of these positions would be occupied by a person with a distinct amount of faith (presuming we could build a rubric for what ‘faith’ requires). On one end we might have the Pope, Paul, St. John the Baptist, while on the other we might have people like Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, and other atheists without so much as a smidgeon of faith. In the middle, we might have the “Weekend Warriors”, people that are having severe doubts but still retain some semblance of faith, or people who are deciding whether or not they believe, etc.

But, God has to draw the line somewhere, right? He has to say “X amount of faith is required in order to grant access to Heaven”. He has to draw an arbitrary line in the sand that determines the eternal resting place of the individual. Here is where the crux of the problem lies: the people on either side of the line are going to be different only by the slightest amount. For the sake of illustration, let’s say that you could plot faith on a scale from 1F-100F (100 being “Absolute Faith”, 0 beings “No Faith”) and let’s say that God draws the line at 50.

A person with 49F is going to be minutely different from a person with 51F, but they are going to receive extraordinarily different retributions for those differences. The person with 49F is going to spend an eternity in Hell, while a person with 51F is going to receive eternal salvation by virtue of 2F! 

This hardly seems like actual justice. Imagine if we employed the same technique for stealing. If you steal an item that’s valued less than $100, you will a stern warning days in jail. If you steal an item valued at $100.01, you will be put to death. That’s absurd, and any reasonable human being will attest to the injustice of such a system. But, if we look closely, the Christian system is far more injust than the system I have just described. A difference of a modicum of faith will result in either eternal joy or eternal suffering, not simply two varying levels of “bad”, but an absolute binary opposite.



How Warranted is Properly Basic Belief?

by Matt DeStefano on October 2, 2011

This is in response to Dr. Matthew Flannagan’s essay Showing Christianity is True. I’ve previously written a response to Dr. Flannagan in my post When Christians Play the Part of Skeptics, and when we were deciding as a group which articles we wanted to tackle, I happily picked a name I recognized. Flannagan is easily one of the best thinkers of the bunch, and I was certainly interested in the topic of his essay: the epistemology of religious belief, and more specifically, reformed epistemology. If you haven’t already read it, I would definitely take the time to peruse the article and then you can understand where my critique is coming from.Flannagan begins by laying out a few questions that seem to have intuitive answers: Are there other minds?  How do I know the Universe wasn’t created Last Thursdaywith the appearance of age? How do I know it’s wrong to inflict pain on others? He continues by saying:

“Unless we want to fall into a global scepticism that defies all common sense we have to acknowledge that there are some beliefs which we hold rationally and know are true that, nevertheless, cannot be shown or proven to be true from premises that all intelligent people are required to accept.”

I’m curious as to how Flannagan is using the term “proven to be true”. He seems to be setting the bar at deduction: unless we have a valid deductive proof with premises that “all intelligent people are required to accept”, then we cannot accept things as true. Or, rather, we can rationally hold these beliefs to be true without argument or evidence. This is a key move of the reformed epistemology movement, and one I think is gravely mistaken. This is a radical epistemological stance that seems like a carryover from Cartesian foundationalism. It seems that philosophers and scientists make claims of knowledge that aren’t deduced from a valid logical argument. We seem to know things like exercise increases overall health, alcohol consumption causes liver damage, and nicotine is an addictive substance. Perhaps Flannagan’s answer to this would be that we could only know these things by properly basic beliefs (the physical world is real, cause and effect, etc.), but it’s interesting that under this type of skepticism, he would have to conclude we don’t actually know those things.

Flannagan moves on to say that even though these can’t be proven true by argument, they aren’t groundless. He quotes Platinga and distinguishes between two types of experiences and “evidence” that lead us to ground our properly basic beliefs: sensory data evidence and doxastic evidence. Sensory data is fairly self explanatory: experiences we get from touch, sight, hearing, and all of the other senses we use to interact with the physical world.

Doxastic evidence is a bit of a queer category: he quotes Platinga again as saying that doxastic evidence is when “the belief feels right, acceptable, natural.” This seems to be the type of evidence that leads Flannagan to what I gather is his thesis:

“Belief in the existence of God is, from the believer’s perspective, properly basic and grounded directly in some form of religious experience; hence it is justified and rational to believe these doctrines independently of any argument in favour of them.”

This immediately raises a hundred different red flags in my mind. How do we know that our beliefs aren’t what are causing us to have a religious experience?  How do we characterize that religious experience as one relating to Yahweh rather than Zeus or Thor? How do we know the difference between when we have a religious experience and when we are being delusional? What types of “feelings” are required in having a religious experience? These are things you’d expect someone defending the idea of a properly basic belief grounded in religious experience to address.

Nisbett and DeCamp Wilson, in their landmark Telling More Than We Can Know: Verbal Reports on Mental Processes have shown our remarkable inability to properly account for causal effects on our behavior. It’s odd to me that Flannagan and other reformed epistemology advocates place so much emphasis on our ability to introspect and not only confirm the character of the experience (religious or otherwise), but purport a causal relationship between that experience and the Christian God simply by examining our own feelings regarding our experiences. Is this really the only basis required for properly basic belief?

However, Flannagan skips over this seemingly vital defense and continues by addressing a slightly different question: How can we convince people that haven’t had these doxastic experiences that Christianity is true? Flannagan lays out a few different possibilities:

1. Rebutting Objections to Christian Belief

Flannagan points out that while you need not give argument for your belief in Christianity (Can you imagine an atheist saying ‘I have a properly basic belief that there is no God!’), it does not mean that Christianity cannot be defeated by reasons against them. However, providing an “out” for Christian belief no more convinces me of its truth than Russell’s justification for his celestial teapot convinces me of its truth. In fact, the more wild and improbable the defenses become, the more inclined I become to dismiss it entirely.

It also stands that Christianity has gone under significant changes through out its history, and has an enormous amount of doctrinal change and fracturing. Which Christianity do we need to object to? What prevents the apologists from just moving back the goal posts everytime a significant part of Christian doctrine is rebutted?

2. Showing Alternatives to Christianity to be False

He states that if you can illustrate that all of the viable alternatives to Christian theism are false, then you have a valid reason for accepting Christianity as true. Of course, this becomes an increasingly hard task when you have to compare religious ideologies.  What metric do we use to determine what qualities of God are actual, and which ones are merely accidental byproducts of a flawed human conception?

Ironically, the skepticism that RE is built upon vanishes when we begin talking about other worldviews.

3. Reason Conditionally as a Christian

Flannagan says that if you reason conditionally as a Christian, you can provide “satisfactory” answers to existential, moral, and other types of questions. This isn’t a small debate, but I think Christianity fails to answer some of its most basic internal questions, let alone external questions. In fact, a large portion of atheist writing is actually aimed at showing how badly the Christian metaphysical system answers questions about reality.

Actually arguing those positions goes beyond the scope of this essay, but all over my site and other atheists’, you can see arguments as to why theism fails to explain basic tenets of the universe, or even basic internal convictions of theism itself.

4.  Put that Person in a Position to have Requisite Experience

Flannagan makes an extremely peculiar analogy:

“Suppose I see a tree in the park and my wife asks me to show her that this tree exists. The obvious way to do so is not to construct a proof of the existence of a tree but to take her to a park and show her it. Similarly, many people fail to grasp self-evident axioms of logic because they fail to understand them, but when these are explained to them they become self-evident.”

This rests upon the claim that God is as self-evident as logical axioms, or trees existing in the park. If a theist could simply bring me to a church and point to God, the God thesis would be much less controversial. Those comparisons are far too generous, and I think even Flannagan would deny their relation if pressed further. The amount of detractors who were sincere believers before their deconversion serve as strong counter examples to the existence of God (or a ‘requisite religious experience’) being as self-evident as touching a tree in a park.

Apparently, if a person goes to church where “God is at work”, and reads Scripture, interacts with other Christians that this will put them in a place where they might have a requisite religious experience. So, immerse someone in a culture and they might adopt its tenets. It’s no secret that churches use this method all of the time. Unfortunately, this method smacks of cultism. If you brought someone to a Scientology compound, it’s possible that they might after considerable immersion begin to buy into the ideology. But, should we gather from that conversion that Scientology is true? Absolutely not.

Flannagan brings up Pascal, saying that while the agnostic simply cannot choose to believe (a concession many Christians don’t realize), he can choose to search, to try and understand, and when the agnostic does so sincerely, he will come to experience God. But, this reaches back to what I called the vital defense of reformed epistemelogy: give me some reason to suspect that these doxastic experiences are from God. Otherwise, I think it’s more reasonable to just assume I’m experiencing hyper-active agency detection or delusions.

This is my first entry into the group series Why Christianity is False. The index is here.  


Explaining Logic (Foxhole Atheism)

by Matt DeStefano on October 2, 2011

This is a guest post from Mike at Foxhole Atheism intended for the Christianity is False series. I’ve taken the liberty of sharing it here in order to get the largest possible audience. If you want to comment on this piece, you can go here to do so. 

Glenn Hendrickson, in his essay Christianity Explains Logic, makes what I consider a shockingly bold claim. Hendrickson claims that the Christian worldview alone accounts for the laws of logic.[i] I’ll begin by directly quoting Hendrickson’s formulation of the argument:

1. All we experience is grounded in the laws of logic.

2. The Christian worldview alone adequately explains and accounts for the laws of logic.

3. Therefore, all we experience cannot be explained or accounted for outside of the Christian worldview.

I will keep this short and sweet, and even go beyond the scope of his argument. I will show that no form of theism has an advantage over atheism in explaining the laws of logic, Christianity included. The laws of logic actually require no explanation, which makes (2) false, which means we should reject the conclusion.

Have you ever asked a Christian to explain why God exists? You probably received an answer that God’s existence requires no external explanation. God exists necessarily. I want to point out that this actually is a valid response if God’s existence is in fact necessary. It would mean there was never a time when God did not exist and there is no possible world in which God does not exist.

When we say something requires an explanation, it is because it could have been otherwise. If my wife comes home early, I might ask, ‘What are you doing home early?’ The only reason this question makes sense is because it could possibly have been otherwise. Things that exist contingently require an explanation of their existence. Things that exist necessarily do not.

Now, are the laws of logic of logic contingent or necessary? The laws of logic are uncreated and exist necessarily.[ii] They could not have been otherwise. Let’s see how this relates to the earlier argument:

4. The laws of logic are necessary.

5. Things that exist necessarily do not require an explanation of their existence.

6. Therefore, any worldview that recognizes this adequately accounts for the laws of logic.

Premise (6) renders the earlier premise (2) false. Short and sweet.

[This post is part of the series Why Christianity is False]

[i] I would actually say there are two arguments in this essay. Dismantling the first, though, will make dismantling the second unnecessary. If the atheist can account for logic just as well as the theist, then we are acting in a coherent manner in our daily lives.

[ii] I’m assuming here that by “laws of logic” Hendrickson is referring to things that fall under modality de dicto(see Plantinga’s important work The Nature of Necessity).



Christianity is False Series (Index)

by Matt DeStefano on September 30, 2011

This was originally posted on Foxhole Atheism, but I’m republishing it here. I’m joining together with Foxhole Atheism and Answers In Genesis Busted to tackle a series of essays by Christian Apologists. It’s an interesting endeavor, although I will say in advance that I’m sorely disappointed at the strength of the some of the arguments. My first post will be a response to Chad Gross.

The author of Common Sense Atheism, Luke Muehlhauser, began a counter-apologetics project called ‘Why Christianity is False.’ This project’s goal was to specifically respond to each essay in the series ‘Why Christianity is True,’ hosted by Brian Auten of Apologetics 315.

This page will serve as an index to the series on my own site that I will update as the response essays are completed. Comments are welcome. Enjoy!