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January 18, 2010



Is their meta-argument that people ought to believe only those things whose first principles have been demonstrated? My training is in mathematical logic, and I still can't think of any examples of beliefs that are obtained in this way. The standard axioms of set theory were chosen in such a way that they would lead to the working of the funny formulas Newton and Leibniz made up to predict motion. There are always ulterior motives to beliefs, be they empirical or psychological. Sometimes they're institutional and hidden (not many logicians give a s**t about physics, for instance), but they're still around. That doesn't mean all beliefs are equal, at least not for the purposes of any specific inquiry's objectives.

I suppose that if you adhere to counterfactual notions of human cognition, then theism would be on even ground with non-theism. I think my hangup with this whole process is that I'm looking at it through the lens of transferability. Are the categories introduced in these arguments useful for anything other than talking about the existence of god? If not, I'm not even likely to say they're false--just irrelevant. But maybe that's my apatheism showing again.


@Leighton, you said 'I suppose that if you adhere to counterfactual notions of human cognition, then theism would be on even ground with non-theism.'

What do you mean? I know what counterfactuals are. Pretty solid on human cognition. Not tracking when you put them together, especially when putting them together leads to the possibility that theism and non-theism would be on even ground.

Can you elaborate?


Jay, it's kind of an obscure tie-in to the previous paragraph that I didn't transition well. If I'm understanding Greg correctly, these books' arguments run something like this, explicitly or implicitly:

1) Ideally, people should only hold belief systems whose first principles have been demonstrated.

2) Theism's first principles can't be demonstrated.

3a) Science/reason is a single entity and can be considered equivalent to non-theism.

3) But science/reason's first principles can't be demonstrated from within the framework of science/reason either.

4) Therefore, theism and non-theism are on equal footing.

Before even touching the problems with (3a) or (3), I'm lost at (1). That's not how anyone, even mathematicians, actually acquires beliefs. (After Goedel, mathematicians in particular are sensitive to the fact that demonstrating things within their own framework is impossible if the framework is big enough to hold number theory.)

It's hard for me to see this as anything other than setting up the strawman of "Since we can't be 100% certain of anything, every belief is equally likely to be true." Nobody is ever 100% certain of a belief, at least in a cognitive capacity. (I think certainty belongs in the category of emotions rather than cognition, but that's a tangent for another day.) So it seems to me that if you set a standard for holding beliefs that, in practice, nobody actually meets, it's a disingenuous way of arguing that two things are equally likely to be (1) true and (2) relevant.

Greg Horton

Leighton, I think you nailed it. It's not as if they actually believe all first principles must be demonstrated, but they ignore the way science and reason actually work to demonstrate that metaphysics is on an equal footing with those two endeavors. I believe Jay is the one I discussed causality with, and as Jay pointed out, causality can't be proven, but it can certainly be observed to happen over and over, so while we can't be certain of it, we can rely upon it. This seems an all together different way of knowing than faith, and is counter to the argument these folks are trying to make: faith is just another epistemic category but is closer to trust than knowing. But to offer an analogy, if I push a rock down a hill, I will see over and over that it rolls on its own once pushed. To demonstrate the same level of near-certainty, theists would need to call upon god to demonstrate in a tangible way his presence and/or activity on a consistent basis. It is this they are incapable of doing, and to explain the absence of activity, they quote Jesus about not putting god to the test or they insist that god is god and can do as he pleases. All fine and good, but that's a theological argument, not an epistemological one.


My response to somebody who said that would be that what we test are hypotheses that assume those first principles. The successful testing of hypotheses does add some credibility to the first principles. Theism relies on a lot of metaphysical hypotheses that aren't even testable. Further, the hypotheses of theism that might be testable (e.g., the earth is <10,000 yrs old) really aren't logically connected to theism's first principles (e.g, that the God and Father of the Lord Jesus Christ created the earth in seven literal days).

At some point during the Enlightenment (or before---maybe it started with Paul in Acts 17), theists (and particularly Christian theists) decided that they would validate their faith with science and reason. Maybe that was part of the evangelism program? Maybe that was part of just not feeling like a silly ass. I don't know. The problem is that it doesn't work. The outcome of this seems to demand equal footing via techniques such as you identified and to shoot the messenger (e.g., scientists are under the influence of the devil).


Greg, I see what you mean. In the context of a philosophy class, I'd have to admit the possibility that the tensile strength of steel could, for no discernible reason, change tomorrow. But I'd be a lunatic to suggest that we should therefore stop building bridges, "just in case."

Trusting demonstrated causality is metaphysics too, strictly speaking. But it's different than the metaphysics of asserting the existence of a being for which no empirical evidence can be verified. Here's what I suspect is going on: Each faith tradition has a concrete notion of God that "works" for them and has socially observable features. The problem is that these various notions of God aren't compatible with each other. By the time you abstract away enough of the details so that you can pretend they're all talking about the same thing, you're left holding wisps of ether, and your arguments are necessarily so vague that they're more like a squid squirting ink to escape a predator than light shining on a confusing topic. As I think I mentioned in an email, I really don't think Thomas Merton and Jerry Falwell had anything in common beyond accidents of etymology.


Good thoughts all, but a further, and I think more damning (for the theist) distinction is that in every area of life outside of religious faith, the vast majority of theists in developed countries rely implicitly on the first principles of the secularist. Now, I don't think parsimony is necessarily even prima facie wise in all circumstances, but if the only motivation for positing a first principle is that it is necessary to accommodate a belief that lacks any independent evidence (read epistemic reason for belief) of a generally accepted kind, then it is pretty clear the principle is different in type from one which is accepted very nearly universally on broad, though admittedly underdetermining, evidence. The principles are so disparate in terms of strictly epistemic support, that it is laughable to put them in the same room with one another. Now, if the evidentialist/secularist attack on theistic metaphysics proceeded solely by claiming that theistic first principles are underdetermined by available evidence, the arguments for equality might make sense. However, I don't know any serious philosophers who would make such a silly argument. Hume taught us all long ago that induction is inherently circular, but when induction is all that's available, and its deliverances are vast and overwhelmingly reliable, then it carries infinitely more epistemic weight than ad hoc principles crafted purely to suit the doxastic artifacts of human development (both biological and sociological). In other words, what difference does it make to say, "My opponents' theories fail on this point, too," when all theories fail on the mentioned point, and that fact was never part of the opponents' critiques in the first place?

Todd Littleton

These are the kind of conversations and discussions we theists should not fear. In fact, it may be well for us to pay careful attention and be grateful someone challenges our language game(s). Too often theists read these kinds of threads and tend to dip into the Robertsonian (Pat that is) well and pull out so much incendiary tripe that we should not be invited to even overhear these helpful musings.

Continue ...

The Dude

My position is that faith is trust in a knowledge claim that relates to a real state of affairs, regardless of the subject. It doesn't matter if its about science, Jesus or turning on a light switch and expecting light. Considering that, I don't see skepticism rising to the surface at all. In fact, without the skeptic being able to provide good reasons to doubt a belief, you have no good reason to stop believing it.

Greg Horton

charles, thanks for your permission to continue believing in the tooth fairy. i've been sweating it since i was 7. honestly, this is the least rational response you've ever had for me. you've managed to turn epistemology on its head.


Your Dudeness,
I'm not entirely sure I'm interpreting your comment correctly here, so let me know if I'm off base. As it's written, it seems to me that there are a couple of charitable ways to parse this statement: "without the skeptic being able to provide good reasons to doubt a belief, you have no good reason to stop believing it." This could mean either that any belief lacking a strong defeater is reasonable to hold, or it could mean that skeptical reasons need to be specifically applicable to the individual beliefs they're supposed to undermine and not just applicable to belief generally.

I'll take the second possibility first because it seems clearly wrong to me, and I kind of doubt it's what you meant anyway. If any skeptical thesis were sufficient for inferring that beliefs in general or some subset of beliefs was unjustified, then that inference to doubt should fairly clearly be transitive to all beliefs within the relative subset. For example, if there were a compelling statement of the argument Greg cited in the original post, that first principles are underdetermined and all or most beliefs are dependent on first principles for justification, then that argument should be sufficient to sap a wide class of beliefs of their justification.

Now the other interpretation is a bit more interesting. It's pretty similar to the version of foundationalism supported by Alvin Plantinga, who argues that any argument against theistic first principles, such as those suggested by evidentialism, is an epistemic "tar baby" or "self-referentially incoherent" (a couple of Plantinga's better catch-phrases). There's certainly something interesting about this argument. The most common objection is exactly the one Greg alludes to by referencing the tooth fairy. Plantinga calls it the Great Pumpkin Objection, and dismisses it basically by saying that belief in the Great Pumpkin (or the tooth fairy or any other such fanciful being) is just silly. Needless to say, that response is totally unsatisfying to the objector since the force of the objection is that Plantinga's epistemic principles allow for justified silly beliefs.

While the Great Pumpkin poses a real problem for foundationalists in the Plantinga mold, I think that there is an even more significant response that spares the evidentialist (full disclosure, I'm planning to write a thesis defending evidentialism from objections like Plantinga's). There is good reason to think that the evidentialist thesis, roughly that affirmative beliefs are justified just in case there is sufficient positive evidence to support them, is not the kind of belief that needs to withstand its own test. This sounds ad hoc and convenient on first read, so let me defend it. When we talk about justified beliefs, we're usually talking about things like existential statements (theism, atheism, materialism, idealism, dualism, etc.) and predications (x is red, good, bad, etc.). However, epistemic principles are not like either of these, and perhaps they are not beliefs at all (some people have argued that they cannot be believed justifiably, I'm not in that camp, but I don't think they have to be believed to be followed or applied). Instead, they are practices of belief formation whose relative effectiveness or normativity is judged on a pragmatic basis. While it is not uncontroversial, truth is typically assumed to be the telos of epistemic practices. If that is right, then we should judge epistemic principles based on their relative ability to yield true beliefs and avoid false ones. While the theist is completely right in saying that theism is not the kind of thing that can be confirmed or refuted on the basis our normal experience, the epistemic principle of faith can fairly be compared to competing epistemic principles such as those undergirding the practice of logic or scientific inquiry.

Jessica Campbell

I like this. it is funny. I think we are all missing the genius of theism- you never have to discount your asinine beliefs b/c the more you believe the better you are! it's so fun and so clever. I particularly like the following theistic tricks:

1. point out how truly bizarre what they believe is, then say something like - but isn't it bizarre that god loves sinners like us? and then 1. rejoice that god loves us lowly sinners, and 2. affirm faith in preposterous ideas.

2. when faced with a doubting pray-er you can just tell the pray-er that sometimes god is silent. THAT"S GENIUS!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

3. also- in desperate situations- blame the individual's doubt on the individual. i love it.

4. name something ridiculous that happened in the bible then say - God is amazing.

It's so fun I just wish I could apply it to all areas of my life.

Oh to not be tied to a desire for truth, coherence, or credibility. damn you science and reason for testing your propositions and chucking them out if they don't hold up....damn you Kuhn and your scientific revelations and paradoxes.... I LOVED GEOCENTRISM!!!!!!! ugh!!!!!!!!

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