Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Reviewing Randal Rauser’s “The Swedish Atheist…” Chapter 9

Chapter 9: God is Not a Hypothesis
Randal comes back to his contention of Victor Stenger’s assessment that God is an astonishing hypothesis, and wastes no time stating his grievances, informing:

I disagree with the assumption that Christians need to justify their belief in God as a hypothetical posit that’s supposed to explain some feature of their experience. Certainly one could argue for God in this way, but it’s not the usual way Christians think about God. From the Christian perspective, God is not a hypothesis; rather, he’s a lived reality.

This statement is so confused it is hard to know where to begin. God is not a facet of experience but he is a lived reality. Well, what is a lived reality if not an experience of that reality? And if you cannot derive a hypothesis about that reality from experience, then how can you be sure it’s reality you are experiencing and not, for example, a hallucination or a delusion?

Also, Randal is doing a bit of special pleading, after all, why is the Christian reality the only one worth considering? What about the Hindu, Muslim, and Buddhist realities?

Randal hasn’t actually addressed why God is not a hypothesis (although I tend to agree here, but for different reasons), but he does mention that 

[I]f atheists really want to understand Christians, they need to get over the assumption that the only way to have reasonable beliefs or knowledge of God is by way of hypothesis inference.

I must address two things here. First, it seems Randal is making a horribly bad assumption when he thinks atheists do not, or cannot, understand Christians or Christian thinking. 

Case in point, I was a devout Christian for three decades, and spent the better part of thirty long years defending the faith. I know many atheists who have come out of religion in a similar fashion and are more than familiar with the religious modes of thinking. Of course, many Christians do not seem to be able to understand how someone could lose faith in what they hold to be a veritable truth and will often play the ‘No True Scotsman’ fallacy card, but this just goes to underscore the problem, mainly that many atheists—especially those who came out of religious faith like I did—understand Christianity (and religion overall) a lot better than most believers do.[1] Otherwise, why appeal to the fallacy that the apostate Christian who turned atheist cannot possibly comprehend the Christian mindset?

The second issue I have with Randal’s assessment is if one does not come to reasonable belief about God through inference, then how do they come to it? It seems if you eliminate inference as a way to infer God either directly or indirectly from religious experience, then you’d only be left with the assertion that God is a lived reality. This is why I say Randal’s reasoning here is confused. Because you cannot argue for the reasonableness of belief in God by merely asserting it is reasonable to believe in God.

Besides this, what is this assertion based off of if not the inference that God is real?

Randal then asks why Sheridan thinks it’s impossible for God to talk to people. They argue for a bit. None of it struck me as interesting. Randal thinks God can talk to people and through people, as most Christians are primed to believe, and Sheridan rejects that notion, rightly so. Randal then mentions God can speak through an event, i.e. give signs, and that pretty much fits with Christian conviction as well. Nothing really interesting was covered here other than rehashing Christian beliefs, so we’ll skip the majority of it.

A few pages later Randal claims:

Christians can come to have a properly basic knowledge of God in much the way that we gain knowledge through other avenues such as sense perception, reason and testimony. I would contend that basic Christian beliefs like ‘God loves me’ and ‘God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself’ are properly basic.

Notice that if you assert God, and merely presuppose God is a reality, then it’s easy to come to the belief that ‘God loves me’ is a properly basic belief. But this amounts to smoke and mirrors and doesn't constitute any real argument for God. To be fair however, Randal probably isn't trying to argue for the existence of God, merely the warrant to believe. I think Randal, being a Foundationalist of a sort, has in mind Plantinga's "warrant" to believe here. But Plantinga's argument suffers from the fact that there is an inescapable relationship between the truth-value of theism and its positive epistemic status, suggesting the goal of showing theistic belief to be externally rational or warranted requires reasons for supposing that theism is true.

A hypothesis, just to remind you, is a proposition put forward for testing and discussion, possibly as a prelude to acceptance or rejection. Right away Randal runs into a big problem by rejecting God as a hypothesis, because he’s saying such a proposition of God’s reality and the belief in this reality doesn't require evidence. You don’t even need to be able to intuit God from experience. You just have to accept God as a brute fact, and you have to accept that knowing this brute fact is also a brute fact. This circular reasoning amounts to an appeal to faith, not reasonable belief.

Sheridan then asks the most reasonable thing he’s asked in the entire book. “What is it that makes your religious beliefs so that they don’t require evidence?”

Randal then waxes on about sense perception again, as related to his form of Foundationalism, talking about how one perceives an object in an open room, such as an apple and instantly recognizes it as such. The belief in the apples existence is immediate, and we believe we are seeing an apple, and that, according to Randal, this constitutes a basic belief. Randal then informs:

Unless you have a reason to distrust your perception, you’re justified in accepting it.

Well, this may very well be true, but our senses are at the whim of our brains, which can sometimes interpret the sensory information from the experience incorrectly. Clinical sensory deprivation experiments show how even the lack of sleep will greatly impact our ability to make good sense of things. Our minds can often play tricks on us even when our senses are working properly. Have you ever seen a mirage? How about a larger than life moon hovering over the horizon?

Randal acknowledges our sensory failings when he says, “We trust our sense perception unless and until we have a reason to doubt it.”

But he doesn't seem to think there are any reasons to doubt one’s belief in God, when he informs,

[A] person is warranted in accepting basic beliefs about God just as they accept basic beliefs about the natural world.

How so? How is accepting the natural world we know to exist anything like accepting beliefs about a supernatural world which we do not know exists?

I posit that belief in 'God loves me' is an illusion of truth, akin to holding a properly basic conviction, not a properly basic belief. Beliefs relate to the world we experience. The color orange is a color we experience. Belief that God loves me may not be an actual experience, it may prove to be little more than a conviction of pious imagining.

Now what do I mean by an illusion of truth?

Well, as you may know, our brains are much more easily tricked than we’d like to believe, and it seems to me Randal may simply be fooling himself here. One thing we must be very careful of are what Nobel Prize winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman calls illusions of truth. An illusion of truth arises when our intuition and reason align to believe something is true when, in actuality, it’s not. Kahneman warns:

A reliable way to make people believe in falsehoods is frequent repetition, because familiarity is not easily distinguished from truth. Authoritarian institutions and marketers have always known this fact…. The familiarity of one phrase in the statement sufficed to make the whole statement feel familiar, and therefore true. [2]

How much does this reflect religion? The ritualistic paying lip service to God, the volley of amens said to religious sounding truths, the repetitive quoting of scripture and verse, the frequency of repeated worship, prayers at the dinner table, before bed, or whenever someone is experiencing a hardship; all of this reinforces the feeling that the beliefs of this particular religion are true.

On the surface belief in God being properly basic is a belief that seems true, but I would contend that it is just an illusion of truth reinforced by the repetitiveness of Christian ritual and tradition.

Knowing this, there simply is no reason to believe our senses are perfectly infallible, especially when dealing with highly abstract concepts such as God, which shares more in common with illusion of truth than properly basic belief. Unable to ignore this realization, the question becomes: how would a Christian know for certain whether or not their belief in God was properly basic or else an illusion of truth?

Another criticism I might raise is this; ‘God loves me’ may be true for the Catholic and general Protestant of Christian faith, but ‘God hates me’ could be very true if you happen to be a Calvinist. Doesn't this strike you as odd? Two Christians who claim belief in God as basic, but one claims God is loving in nature and the other claims God is capricious. Can't God be both? Can't he love who he wills and hate who he wills? I suppose the answer would be yes, but then belief that 'God loves me' wouldn't be properly basic, you see? If God is capricious, we simply wouldn't know whether or not the statement was true, and if God was all loving or all hating, then it would simply amount to an illusion of truth.

How so?

Because it shows us that we have to believe God plus some ostensible attribute of said God as being true. In the case of a loving God, where does this loving attribute come from? Why does this belief exist? Well, clearly it comes from Holy Scripture. Now we have to believe in the reliability of Holy Scripture as well. But when I believe in orange appearing orangely, I don't need to defer to ostensible attributes of orange or the reliability of color wheels. So much for belief in God being properly basic.[3]

Randal reiterates his point.

“My argument is that absent defeaters, ‘God loves me’ and other beliefs about God can be properly basic…”

Again we find a desire to establish a warrant to believe, or as I like to call it: a free lunch. It's an excuse to say faith trumps reason (by saying blind faith is reasonable), and there's nothing you or anyone else can do about it.

Quoting the philosopher Colin McGiin, Randal goes on to inform:

Reason is as miraculous as divine revelation. So here’s the problem. If you reject the idea that we can perceive truths about God because such perception is mysterious, then you likewise must reject the deliverances of rational intuition like seven plus five equals twelve and sense perception like ‘I see a red apple’ because these basic modes of knowledge are also mysterious.

I think Randal’s big mistake here is that he is presuming to know far too much about an area of cognitive science than possible. Although I give him credit for citing a secular philosopher, he might have benefited from reading a book by a cognitive scientist. Sense perception and cognition are all a part of the theory of mind, and so we’d best read a real cognitive scientists opinion on perception and cognition, like Daniel Dennett’s book Consciousness Explained or David L. Chalmers The Conscious Mind.

Once again we come to the end of the chapter. As usual, a lot of topics were raised but very little in the way in any of Randal’s points were successfully argued, if any at all. Randal’s major claim that belief in God is not a hypothesis but rather is properly basic seems problematic for the reasons discussed. His analogy with regard to our sense perception seems to be complicated by a basic understanding of theory of mind, at least insofar as we cannot simply take his word for it without conferring with other mind theorists first. Which Randal should have done if he wanted to be convincing, but he often neglects to cite relevant material and before we can raise any objection he’s already onto the next topic.

You’ll be pleased to learn, however, that in the next chapter, Chapter 10: How to Show that “God Loves Me” is False, Randal admits that “Christian beliefs are, for the most part, eminently falsifiable.”

I for one am interested to see where he goes with this line of reasoning.

[1] A 2010 study done by the Pew Research Center Forum on Religion & Public Life found that atheists and agnostics tops the list of those with the best religious knowledge, beating out Jews and Mormans. Christians didn’t even make it into the top three. This however is no surprise, since many Christians are religiously illiterate and Biblically illiterate too. According to the 2009 Barna year-end review of Christianity in America, they discovered that modern Christians care more about spirituality than Christianity, and that Biblical literary was neither a goal or a reality among the majority of Christian believers in the U.S. All this is simply a polite way of saying that Christians know relatively little about religion. We can only guess at how this impacts belief in God.

[2] Daniel Kahneman, Thinking, Fast and Slow, pp. 61-62.

[3] Although it certainly is an oversimplification of Calvinist theology, I do not think it is inaccurate. Whereas Catholics believe God is love, Calvinists believe God is deterministic. Basically, God predetermines, according to his own arbitrary will, whether you will go to heaven or hell. Such a God cannot be all loving, and these claims considered together defeat the very notion that ‘God loves me’ could at all be properly basic. The reason is because this counter example makes the Christian God incoherent. ‘God loves me but will send me to Hell’ is nonsensical. Additionally, it reveals a select favoritism based on one’s preconceived biases, and therefore couldn’t be properly basic but rather an illusion of truth.

Advocatus Atheist

Advocatus Atheist