Sunday, June 07, 2009

A different way of thinking

Yesterday, my wife and I happened into (separate) conversations with religious apologists. My wife's interaction was, she reports, a little heated; my own was very polite on both sides. My apologist tried out the First Cause argument, the argument from the Meaning of Life, and the argument from morality. Having discussed these arguments for nearly a decade, I didn't learn anything new, nor was I persuaded.

What really struck me is how differently religious people think, at least about religion. Religious people take philosophical, syllogistic arguments seriously; skeptics and scientists do not: they take evidentiary arguments seriously.

A syllogistic arguments deduces a conclusion from premises. The canonical example is:

P1: Socrates is a man
P2: All men are mortal
C: Socrates is mortal

The evidentiary argument instead supports or falsifies hypotheses on the basis of the correspondence or incompatibility between a prediction and an observation.

H: All people are mortal
P: If some people were immortal, we would observe them living a long time
O: We observe all people dying before they live a long time
C: They hypothesis that all men are mortal is supported by observation

H: Substances (such as wood) contain a material that, when burning, is converted to heat
P: If such a material exists, the mass of a burned item should be less than it was unburned
O: The mass of a burned substance is greater than the mass of the unburned substance
C: The hypothesis that substances contain some material that is converted to heat is falsified by observation

The disadvantage — well, one disadvantage — of evidentiary arguments is that the hypotheses "underdetermine" the prediction: There are infinitely many theories (sets of hypothetical statements) that would logically entail the same prediction. For example, some immortal people might exist, but they pretend to die or disappear before their long life can be observed.

While evidentiary arguments are problematic, interesting and lucrative to professional philosophers, syllogistic arguments have a much more severe problem: the justification of the premises: by definition we can't justify our fundamental premises syllogistically. They're just sort of sitting there. The only individual "premises" we can justify logically, i.e. those that do not cause a contradiction, are the rules of logic themselves. The best we can do with pure logic is determine whether two or more premises are mutually contradictory: not much of a constraint.

When a believer hears a syllogistic argument in favor of his position, he seems to think, "Hm, the premises sound plausible, they lead to the conclusion I favor; the argument seems good," and stops thinking. The skeptic immediately thinks, "Hm. What follows if we deny the premises? What alternatives are possible?"

Consider the First Cause argument:

P1: Everything that begins to exist has a cause
P2: The (physical, observable) universe began to exist
C: The universe has a cause

Both of the premises seem intuitively obvious; it seems perverse and obtuse to deny them. Indeed, advocates claim that because the premises are intuitively obvious, it is up to the opposition to decisively disprove them.

But obviousness is just not good enough for the skeptic, even as a starting point. Does everything that begins to exist have a cause? Did the universe really begin to exist? And what precisely do we mean by "begin to exist"? For the skeptic, just that such questions can be posed is enough to raise reasonable doubt that the advocate must answer. Without such answers, the conclusion is not proven false, but we conclude the argument fails to prove anything.

These premises seem obvious and undeniable; when they're questioned, theists throw their hands up in the air and accuse the skeptic of dishonest obtusity, of (in the words of my apologist conversationalist) "wriggling out" of the argument, or of pure epistemic nihilism.

The skeptic's position is definitely not epistemic nihilism, since we propose an alternative epistemology, i.e. evidentiary arguments. As to obtusity or bad faith, well, the premises are the only interesting thing about syllogistic arguments, so they naturally draw our attention. It's definitely true that the premises cannot be justified syllogistically. And we know that while our intuition is often correct, it is often enough incorrect (at least on evidentiary grounds) that we cannot rely uncritically on intuition. (And if we do accept intuitive obviousness uncritically, I find it intuitively obvious that no god exists; it is the theist who is being obtuse by denying this obvious premise.)

I spent about 45 minutes with my apologist examining the premises of his arguments (and I did manage to get him to agree that meta-ethical subjective relativism was at least coherent); he became increasingly frustrated (but unfailingly polite) with what I'm sure he saw as my own obtusity at refusing to accept what were to him obvious and unquestionable premises. Using my exceptional powers of 20-20 hindsight, I really wish I'd said to him, "We think differently about the world: to me, that some premise seems obvious makes it less plausible, subject to more scrutiny, than a premise that seems controversial and counter-intuitive. When a premise is counter-intuitive, we unconsciously look to an evidentiary justification; when a premise seems obvious, we are likely to take it for granted without considering the evidence. Skeptics are, if anything, more skeptical of the seemingly obvious. That may seem obtuse to you, but it seems obtuse only because our minds are operating along different tracks, at least with regard to arguments for the existence of God."


  1. I wonder how the causality goes? Are people who think that way more likely to buy into cockamamie religious bullshit, or is it that they think that way because they intutively get that it's necessary to think that way in order to preserve their prior belief in cockamamie religious bullshit.

  2. I think it's a natural, human way of thinking: we tend to rationalize more than think rationally, to find reasons to believe what we already believe, rather than examining the reasons and deciding what to believe.

    It takes an incredible amount of conscious discipline for anyone — even professional scientists such as Collins and Miller — to think rationally.

  3. This is an excellent essay.

    Several months ago I tried to convince some apologists that deductive arguments cannot do what they think they can do. I was naturally accused of denying the utility of logic.

    Also, I think you are right about how people think differently.

    I recall hearing a first cause argument when I was about 12. I did not have the tools to explain that the argument was question begging. But I do remember thinking to myself "Wow, there is something seriously wrong with this guys ability to think clearly."

    My reaction today is the same when I argue with apologists.

    Of course Craig and Plantinga assert that all people that do not believe as they do have improperly functioning cognitive faculties.

  4. Technically, Plantinga asserts that atheists do not have good account of why their beliefs are indeed reliable.

  5. "Plantinga asserts that atheists do not have good account of why their beliefs are indeed reliable"

    Yes, but he says more than that.

    In a debate with Daniel Kolak in the book The Experience of Philosophy Plantinga says "I am committed to supposing that you are blind in some way".

    Also, I remember somewhere reading that Plantinga asserts that if a person reads the bible and does not realize certain "great truths of the gospel", then that person has improperly functioning cognitive faculties due to sin.

    I can't readily find a source, so I might be mistaken.

    Craig for sure claims that he knows the truth because of the Holy Spirit. If I disagree with him, it is because I am a sinner who rejects the Holy Spirit.

    There is no argument against that, other than to point out that Craig has disqualified himself from rational conversation.

  6. Plantinga sounds Van Til/Bahansen in this case.

    Craig is just a fucktard.

  7. Bob Altemeyer's research shows how fundies think differently, but not exactly why they do. Other research shows that juveniles show less activation of the frontal cortex. I don't know if MRI studies have addressed religiosity, but it would be interesting.

  8. I think that Van Tilian presuppositionalism and Reformed Epistemology are the same thing.

    I asked John Loftus about that once and he strongly disagreed, but we really didn't get into it.

  9. uzza: I'm a big fan of Dr. Altemeyer's work.

    UnBeguiled: The connection between presuppositionalism and reformed epistemology seems plausible.

  10. The Robot Girl6/7/09, 11:29 PM

    It's stupid and stuff, the hole thing is just stupid.
    Everything that exists has a cause. Case over, u cant argue with that. If it didn't exist and stuff- why would you even bother to argue?
    Everything that exists has a cause- this argument can not be defeated, mere existence- enusures the argument is won.
    We trap ourselves with our own thinking- and thus ask the rong questions- and we can only get out if we think in another way!

  11. The Robot Girl6/7/09, 11:31 PM

    Er, god doesn't actually exist- so does he have a cause, then?
    He can't.

  12. They're just sort of sitting there. The only individual "premises" we can justify logically, i.e. those that do not cause a contradiction, are the rules of logic themselves. The best we can do with pure logic is determine whether two or more premises are mutually contradictory: not much of a constraint.

    Incidentally this is the same reasons why arguments by proponents of "free markets" (capitalist or socialist) fail. They try to argue the point by starting from unproven premises.

    But I like your succinct way of stating this

  13. Someone familiar with modern physics will simply deny the first premise of the Kalam argument, as anyone who reads a couple popular physics books will be able to tell you that quantum mechanics allows for acausal events. Further, one might argue that such acausal events are the only ones where things "begin to exist" proper (as in, popping in from 'nothingness'), rather than, say, a chair, or a baby "beginning to exist" by being assembled out of pre-existing pieces (which are the examples the Kalam proponent will want you to look at). So, clearly, everything that begins to exist is acausal. :)

    And that's even granting the notion that it isn't a gross error to look at examples of events happening within the universe, and go on to apply that to the universe as a whole.

    It really is a terrible argument when you look at it closely.

  14. Yeah. I met a guy this last semester at my university who's an anarcho-capitalist, as I used to be (and he was also a Rand fan, also as I used to be--intriguing). If I'm remembering correctly, he tried to justify his entire political and economic outlook on a premise that, worded as it was, I just couldn't accept. It was too vague to make sense, and to the extent that it did make sense, I wasn't sure that it was true--I require evidence of its truth.

    I also informed him that he did not provide me with a way to get from that statement of his to moral prescriptions, which was one thing he wanted to end up with. Additionally, he seems to have never analyzed rights claims to see what they actually meant or to ascertain exactly what a right is. The tendency of people to not analyze their own statements really bugs me, especially if they're trying to prove or demonstrate something they deem important.

    Regarding economics, I honestly don't know what to believe anymore. More data is needed (for me, at least), but it's hard to tell what to count because of all the complicating factors in societies. I'm closer to capitalism than to communism or socialism (I think), but I am reluctant to label myself.

    Great post, BB, but I do have one reservation: I think that everyone should take syllogistic arguments seriously... but only when the context is right for doing so. The problem is that apologists often don't know the proper contexts for using them.

  15. To add to my previous post: Even when apologists use syllogistic arguments in the right circumstances, they often tend to gunk them up with formal and (as in the First Cause argument) informal fallacies.


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