Thursday, September 16, 2010

False Dichotomies, Deism, and Religious Bundles

Stephen Clark, at NDPR, writes:
It takes considerable faith, for example, to believe that the very same laws of nature apply throughout reality and that those laws are remotely accessible to the human mind... It also takes faith, and considerable devotion, to believe that reality is worth knowing, and that it's therefore worth struggling to discover a coherent, unified theory of everything (which we certainly don't have now). Without those dogmas, "science" only names a compendium of sometimes useful techniques and partial hypotheses which we have no reason to expect to be coherent or of any more general interest than stamp collecting. The question must then be: what sort of universe must we think this is if those dogmas are to be believable? And the answer, perhaps, is that Christian theism provides a more plausible metaphysics than currently fashionable materialism.

There's a curious narrowing of the options implicit in that closing sentence. I'm reminded of adolescents who turn to religion after deciding that the "party lifestyle" is not for them. (Drunks are tedious, therefore God exists?) At least in that case there's a kind of social reason for limiting one's consideration to the most common/conventional options: if one's project is to belong to an agreeable social group, and one finds a higher concentration of agreeable folks in the local religious tribe, then that may be more appealing than 'going it alone' in an area with few sober secular types.

But when we're engaged in an explicitly epistemic project of truth-seeking? There I find the focus on conventional religions utterly baffling. ("Materialism is false, therefore Jesus rose from the dead" is not a great improvement over the argument from drunkards.) Don't get me wrong: I find deism pretty reasonable, and am sympathetic to worries about fine-tuning and contingent existence. I can see why those worries could lead one to reasonably posit some sort of creator deity (though I am not myself persuaded that this is the best response). That's fine. What I can't understand (except in terms of non-rational social influences) is why anyone would think to supplement this minimal deistic hypothesis with one of the bundles of absurd historical claims made by established religions.

(One finds even more egregious examples of such 'bundling', e.g., in those who don't realize that one can accept moral realism, or dualism about the mind, without thereby committing oneself to theism!)


  1. I don't think individuals are doing philosophy when they make these decisions, but I think there is a charitable philosophical way to construe the decision.

    First, there might be a "live" options issue here. So Deism, Hinduism, ... might seem independently implausible to the person, or they might not even be aware of the options (e.g. I have accepted certain metaethical views among several - there could be one I haven't discovered or have reason not to seriously consider, which turns out to be better).

    Second, there might be a general judgment of the form: "My experiences make no sense to me on my current view of life. There's this other view, which is constantly presented to me by smart people I know, which makes sense of it quite well. I'll go with that."

    I think the type of judgment being alluded to in the quotation is like this, if a little more consciously philosophical. Given that a Christian picture makes more sense of the features of the Universe Clark mentions, and given that for whatever reason Christian theism is more of a live option than Deism, it's reasonable to accept the Christian picture in light of these considerations.

    As for the specific examples of Clark, I'm not sure Deism would do the trick. The cognitive accessibility of nature would be just as surprising on deism, it seems to me, as it would be on atheism (if it is surprising). Surely it is less surprising on the "metaphysics" provided by a Christian-ish sort of view, where there is a friendly God who has purposes, some of them cognitive, for human beings.

  2. I think you can be charitable when it comes to the question of why busy everyday folks buy into a religious bundle. But that doesn't cover the case of a philosopher offering out the false dichotomy. Regards, - Steve Esser

  3. What I can't understand (except in terms of non-rational social influences) is why anyone would think to supplement this minimal deistic hypothesis with one of the bundles of absurd historical claims made by established religions.

    It should be kept in mind that 'Christian theism' is a fairly broad swathe, and the theologically liberal edge is not so far from minimal deism as you seem to be suggesting.

    Not having read the Ruse book being reviewed, I sort of assumed that the narrowing down was due to Ruse rather than the reviewer.

  4. "I find deism pretty reasonable...What I can't understand (except in terms of non-rational social influences) is why anyone would think to supplement this minimal deistic hypothesis with one of the bundles of absurd historical claims made by established religions."

    Richard, why is it so much more unreasonable to postulate a God that interacts with the world than a God that doesn't? Once somebody swallows the "multiplication of entities" of a being with some sort of goals that can control the laws of physics (required for minimal deism), what is so much stranger about having it do specific things? Everything else we know about interacts with the world in more than one way!

    Aron Wall

  5. Hi Aron, the additional step to what we might call "minimal theism" strikes me as at least unmotivated. But what I find much more unreasonable are the bundles of historical claims (positing particular miracles, divine communications with select individuals, inerrant holy books, etc.) made by established religions. Again, there's a pretty big gap between "a deity created the physical universe" and "Jesus rose from the dead" (or "The Koran is the true word of God"). The respectable motivations for the former claim do little to support the latter.

  6. Richard, if all you mean to say is that the resurrction of Jesus or the inspiration of the Koran are much more *specific* claims that minimal deism, and that one should therefore not believe them apart from some more specific reason to do so, then I agree with you completely. (Indeed, since the claims are partly of a historical nature, any evidence would have to be partly historical rather than purely philosophical.)

    But to me the phrases "absurd" and "much more unreasonable" suggest that you (or your counterfactual deist self) would have bigger objections to supernatural intervention other than just the fact that they involve a lot of specific details. Obviously lots of non-absurd naturalistic claims are highly detailed as well.

    In other words: Do you think that (if God exists) the whole idea of miracles, divine communication, holy books etc. is absurd, or simply that, upon investigation, none of the particular religions turn out to be factually well-supported?

  7. I do think we should start off with a very low prior probability of selective divine communications, etc., even conditional on the existence of a deity. (I would expect divine interventions to either be ubiquitous or completely absent.) Then once we examine the world, our credence should fall further yet.

    I also think that various theological elements of (standard) Christianity -- original sin, redemption through Christ, etc. -- are utterly absurd. It's probably more this attitude that you're picking up on.

  8. Okay, but how low should our priors go? Granted we need to take a priori plausibility into consideration, but there is a danger that with an excessively contoured prior we run the risk of never being able to correct our preconceptions with the facts. I think that when it comes to questions of metaphysics, it makes sense to have comparatively flatter priors than this. Sure, the metaphysics of Christianity in particlar is rather bizarre, but so is quantum mechanics.

    Consequently, I think that one should generally weigh the "Does it look like it really happened?" factor more heavily than the "Does this make a priori sense to me?" factor.


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