When Absence of Evidence is Evidence of Absence

There is a popular and catchy saying which I myself have been caught repeating in the past, but which, for all its intuitive appeal, is false; namely, that the absence of evidence isn’t evidence of absence. Many a new-atheist has repeated the mantra that there is no evidence for God’s existence, insinuating thereby that this absence of evidence is good evidence for atheism. William Lane Craig, a noted philosopher, theologian and tireless Christian apologist has responded as follows:

[Atheists] insist that it is precisely the absence of evidence for theism that justifies their claim that God does not exist. The problem with such a position is captured neatly by the aphorism, beloved of forensic scientists, that “absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.” The absence of evidence is evidence of absence only in cases in which, were the postulated entity to exist, we should expect to have more evidence of its existence than we do.1

He has reiterated as much more informally (but more elaborately) on his podcast, ReasonableFaith, where he says:

The absence of evidence will count as evidence of absence when if the thing existed, then having surveyed the grounds, so to speak, we would expect to see evidence of their existence, and we don’t see it. And so, for example, in the case of fairies, if they existed then we ought to be able to find traces of their existence – their dead bodies when they die, their carcasses, other sorts of remains, little clothing factories where they build their clothes, and we ought to detect them flying about just as we detect dragon flies and bumblebees – but we don’t. So this would be a case where I think the absence of evidence would count as evidence of absence.”2

On this view, the absence of evidence only counts as evidence of absence when we have some reason to expect to see the evidence ex hypothesi. This has enormous intuitive appeal; consider the hypothesis that there is at least one tiger in India. Can the fact that I, sitting in Canada, currently see no tiger really count as evidence that there is not at least one tiger in India? Surely not; presumably because that evidence isn’t expected on the assumption of the relevant hypothesis’ truth. Elliott Sober, reflecting on absence of evidence, notes that in the case of arguments from absence “it is easy to see how each can be turned into a valid argument by adding a premise. The arguments have the form:

I do not have any evidence that p is true.
p is false.

Just add the premise

(P1) If p were true, then I’d have evidence that p is true.”3

This further highlights the fact that it is natural for us to think that absence of evidence is evidence of absence only when we expect the evidence ex hypothesi.

For years I found this response intellectually satisfying, but in recent years I have come to think that it is woefully mistaken. It is true that my failure to observe a tiger in Canada provides no evidence against there being at least one tiger in India, but it is not because I wouldn’t have anticipated seeing a tiger in Canada given that there is at least one tiger in India. All my affection and respect for Craig notwithstanding, if Craig means that absence of evidence E for hypothesis H is only evidence of absence (i.e., not-H) when the probability of E on H is greater than 0.5, then he is, I think, incorrect. In what follows I will try to explain why, as well as explore what to me seem interesting corollaries of Bayesianism.4

John Hawthorne, speaking about probability theory and the fine-tuning argument at a conference back in 2015, warned:

“Human beings, even intelligent human beings, are terrible at reasoning about probabilities. There’s enormous empirical evidence that human beings are terrible at reasoning about probabilities, and so we have to proceed with care.”5

Playfully picking on (presumably) a student in the audience, Hawthorne says: “Justin gave us the kind of awesome sounding principle… [that] if you don’t see something then that can be evidence of its absence only if you expect that you would get evidence were the thing there.”6 Not the cleanest off the cuff articulation, but clearly Hawthorne had in mind the principle for which W.L. Craig advocates. He continues; “that’s wrong… and I can prove to you that it’s wrong.”7 He proceeds to give an illustration using a hypothetical creature he calls a Dynx, where he stipulates that 75% of Dynx are invisible to the naked eye, and the probability that there is a Dynx in a box placed before us is 50%. We open the box, and we see no Dynx. The probability that there is no Dynx given our background knowledge and this new piece of information (namely that we do not see any Dynx) is approximately 57%. You can satisfy this for yourself by simply dividing up the space of possibilities (i.e., ‘seeing a Dynx in the box,’ ‘not seeing the Dynx in the box,’ and ‘there being no Dynx in the box’), eliminating the possibility of ‘seeing a Dynx in the box,’ and then expressing your updated probability assessment accordingly. So, even though we ought not to expect to see a Dynx in the box if there is one in the box, our failure to observe one is still evidence for their being no Dynx. This simple illustration (and others like it) seems to be entirely compelling. What, then, is the genuinely Bayesian determination of evidence?

On the Bayesian theory of confirmation,8 some evidence E will count as evidence for some hypothesis H (given background knowledge B) just in case E (conjoined with B) raises the (prior) conditional probability of H. To put it more formally, E will count as evidence for H just in case: P(H|E&B)>P(H|B). However, [P(H|E&B)>P(H|B)]⊃[P(~H|~E&B)>P(~H|B)]. In other words, if E provides any evidence for H, then ~E provides some evidence against H. It needn’t, of course, be the case that E provides as much evidence for H as ~E does for ~H, but it strictly follows from Bayesianism itself that ~E would be evidence against H just in case E would be evidence for H.

To illustrate with an example, let us take a hypothesis H1: “that aliens exist,” and evidence E1: “I am being abducted by aliens.” Obviously P(H1|E1&B)>>P(H1|B). What is not so obvious is that P(H1|~E1&B)<P(H1|B). The reason it isn’t so obvious is that ~E1 provides negligible evidence for ~H1 (even though E1 would provide compelling evidence of H1). If aliens abduct me, that’s really good evidence that they exist. If aliens do not abduct me that’s really poor evidence that they don’t exist. It may be some evidence, but it isn’t very much evidence.

Not only can the absence of evidence be negligible evidence of absence while the presence of that evidence would be altogether compelling, but the absence of evidence can even be inscrutable evidence of absence while the presence of evidence is scrutable and enormously supportive of the hypothesis in question. Take the example of a miracle, and for simplicity let us use the miracle of the bodily resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. The bodily resurrection of Jesus, if it did occur, would be relatively good evidence for God’s existence; P(G|R&B)>>P(G|B). However, if Jesus had not been raised from the dead, would that provide any evidence against God’s existence? According to Bayesianism it would, but it seems like it would be not only negligible evidence, but even inscrutable evidence. There is no way one could put a figure (with any justification) on how much more confident it should make us in atheism that some miracle, like Jesus’ resurrection, did not occur. If we could give any estimate of what the probability is that God would perform a miracle when called upon to do so, for instance, then we could make some predictions about how many hospitalized people with terminal diseases (according to medical diagnosis) under observation get better when prayed for. We can’t make these predictions not because there is no actual probability of God doing a miracle, but because we aren’t at an epistemic vantage point from which we can assess that probability with any level of confidence at all.

Further, the evidence may not be merely negligible, but can in special instances be literally infinitesimal (an infinitesimal is a non-zero infinitely small quantity). Consider Hempel’s paradox9 for a moment; any observation of a pink shoe provides some evidence for the hypothesis that all ravens are black. The hypothesis that all ravens are black is logically equivalent to the statement that all non-black things are non-ravens. It follows, therefore, that any observation of a black raven is evidence that all non-black things are non-ravens, and any observation of a non-black non-raven is evidence that all ravens are black. An observation can’t be evidence for one without being evidence for the other precisely because they are logically equivalent statements, at least interpreted at face value; this is just what Hempel called “the equivalence condition.”10 However, it seems as though there are potentially infinitely many things which are non-black non-ravens which, at any moment, we will fail to observe. If this is so, then each of these instances of absence of evidence will count as instances of infinitesimal evidence of absence (or, at least, infinitely many of these instances will count as instances of infinitesimal evidence of absence). One thinks of the infinitely many miracles God could have performed at any given moment (e.g., growing a lost limb, bringing a dead child back to life, parting the Atlantic ocean); is it really the case that every instance of a miracle not happening provides some evidence against God’s existence? If so, and if there are infinitely many opportunities for God to perform a miracle of some kind (in infinitely many of which God decides to perform no miracle), does that not entail that the probability of theism is literally infinitesimal, or else that each instance (or, at least, infinitely many instances) of a non-miracle provides at most infinitesimal evidence against theism? This gets a little tricky, of course, because Bayesian theory isn’t really equipped to deal with cases of what we might call ‘transfinite probabilities,’11 but if we take its implications seriously even in such cases we will plausibly think that at least some things provide literally infinitesimal evidence for a conclusion or hypothesis.

An interesting objection to this suggests that there is not, even potentially, an infinite number of unobserved observables. Given the limited bandwidth of the human body as a kind of measuring apparatus,12 there may be infinitely many different but observationally indistinguishable events. Imagine, for instance, two pairs of pink shoes whose colours or sizes differ by so little as to make it impossible for any human being to tell the difference between them. For any of the attributes assessed by the five senses, there will be limited empirical bandwidth given the human body as a tool of observation. What this seems to entail is that there is not a potentially infinite number of different possible observations, in which case we needn’t concede the absurdity of infinitesimal probabilities. This objection is appreciably practical, but I’m not entirely confident that it settles the matter. After all, I can imagine a human being with “electron-microscope eyes”13 or with any number of other physical alterations which would allow them to observe an apparently potentially infinite number of different events. For any such alteration, I can imagine God miraculously bringing it about that observer S has precisely the alterations necessary to observe some miracle M1 which would have previously been indistinguishable from miracle M2, but is not now indistinguishable from M2 for S. Moreover, I’m not convinced that observational indistinguishability is terribly relevant; there are infinitely many possible pink shoes which I could now be observing, but am not, and even if infinitely many of them would be indistinguishable to me, failing to observe any one provides some evidence against the hypothesis that all ravens are black. So it seems to me that we’re stuck with conceding that at least some things provide literally infinitesimal evidence.

In summary, I think we have seen why the absence of evidence is evidence of absence in all cases except those in which the presence of so-called evidence would do nothing to raise the conditional probability of the hypothesis in question. Thus, my failing to observe a tiger in Canada provides no evidence against the hypothesis that there is at least one tiger in India not because I wouldn’t expect that evidence if there were at least one tiger in India, but because even if I were observing a tiger in Canada it would provide no evidence that there is at least one tiger in India.14 We have also seen that even when absence of evidence is negligible evidence of absence, or inscrutable evidence of absence, or infinitesimal evidence of absence (or any combination of those three), it will still provide some evidence of absence; if E would have been evidence for H, then the absence of E provides evidence against H.

Post Scriptum: I want to thank Tim Blais, Cale Nearing and Sean Boivin who provided me, in discussions subsequent to the original article, with food for thought without which I would never have made the improvements I have lately introduced above.

1 William Lane Craig, “Theistic Critiques of Atheism” The Cambridge Companion to Atheism. Edited by Michael Martin (Cambridge University Press, 2006): 70.

3 Elliott Sober, “Absence of Evidence and Evidence of Absence: Evidential Transitivity in Connection with Fossils, Fishing, Fine-Tuning, and Firing Squads,” in Philosophical Studies 143, no. 1 (2009): 64.

4 As a cautionary caveat lector; though I’m pretty confident that what I’m about to say is correct, I have not taken any class on probability theory (yet); if anyone thinks there’s some subtle mistake somewhere, they are encouraged to share it. I am more than open to updating my views.

8 Elliott Sober, “Absence of Evidence and Evidence of Absence: Evidential Transitivity in Connection with Fossils, Fishing, Fine-Tuning, and Firing Squads,” in Philosophical Studies 143, no. 1 (2009): 66.

9 James Fetzer, “Carl Hempel,” in The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, edited by Edward N. Zalta, (Spring 2017 Edition), accessed April 2, 2017. https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/spr2017/entries/hempel/

10 James Fetzer, “Carl Hempel,” in The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, edited by Edward N. Zalta, (Spring 2017 Edition), accessed April 2, 2017. https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/spr2017/entries/hempel/

11 If one dislikes this term because they think that probabilities can be no higher than 1, which makes them finite, I would suggest they think about how the conditions I just stipulated could imply that some hypothesis H is infinitely likely without having probability 1. However, if that doesn’t mollify the critic, I could agree to change the term to ‘non-finite’ probabilities.

12 I borrow here from Bas C. van Fraassen, who notes insightfully that “the human organism is, from the point of view of physics, a certain kind of measuring apparatus.” See: Bas C. van Fraassen, The Scientific Image, (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1980), 17. 

13 Bas C. van Fraassen, The Scientific Image, (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1980), 17.

14 If one thinks that observing a tiger somewhere raises the conditional probability that one may be observed anywhere then one will reject this conclusion, but they needn’t, in so doing, reject the principle this example is being employed to illustrate.

Easing your way into a Worldview

I want to offer a brief reflection on a phenomenon I see often which strikes me as curious; namely, the phenomenon of easing your way into a worldview by piecemeal steps.

In certain religious traditions (most commonly in those traditions typically referred to derogatorily as ‘cults’), there is a proselytic strategy of conveying certain articles of the faith (which may seem intuitive, wholesome, or otherwise welcome) but keeping information about other articles of faith hidden or secret except to the appropriately initiated. Underlying this practice is this unarticulated recognition that several of that religion’s teachings are so outlandish and counterintuitive that to even admit them in public (or in the presence of the uninitiated) would do damage to the cause of winning people over to their faith. As slimy as I’m inclined to think this practice is, there is perhaps something shrewd about it in light of the way most of us form our worldview-sized beliefs. In fact, it may be the case that for most major worldviews (worldviews which, in the free marketplace of ideas, do exceptionally well at winning over a great portion of the human race) people naturally ease their way into them by finding good reasons to affirm them and then making counter-intuitive adjustments along the way to accommodate them. We can illustrate this, in my submission, even by taking a critical look at metaphysical naturalism.

Take naturalism to be, approximately, the belief that (i) ‘God exists’ is not true, (ii) there exist at least some of the theoretical entities postulated by our best science, and (iii) that there exist no entities belief in which cannot be motivated in principle by a scientific view of the world (with the possible exception of God, caveat in casu necessitas). Perhaps naturalism sounds prima facie plausible to many people; the tremendous success of the scientific project of making sense of the world, the apparent superiority of scientific explanations over pre-scientific explanations, the relative implausibility of worldviews competing with naturalism given our new scientifically updated background knowledge about the world, all seem to lend some credence to metaphysical naturalism. One might be led, for these reasons, to adopt a naturalistic worldview and then slowly adjust their auxiliary beliefs accordingly one at a time. First, they may give up robust (or at least traditional) moral realism. Second, they may give up on affirming that there are objectively true (in the correspondence sense) mathematical propositions, or even analytic ones.1 Next they may give up correspondence theory, and then finally they end up denying things like qualia and conscious states.2 Before too long the naturalist will go from sounding soberingly sane to talking about “the illusion that thought is about stuff,”3 and insisting that there are no true sentences (including this one). The conclusions to which one arrives end up being so obnoxious to common sense, so ludicrous to the man on the street, that no sane person could ever agree to them without being eased into accepting them one small step at a time. Just as the frog who remains in slowly warming water until it boils her alive, so too the stubborn naturalist complacently gives in, incrementally, to ostensible insanity; the more comprehensive the atheist’s guide to reality gets, the more it looks like a guide to the surreal.

The very same happens with (some popular versions of) fundamentalism; one begins by finding the Christian worldview plausible for a variety of reasons ranging, perhaps, from natural theology to historical biblical scholarship, from cute arguments (like C.S. Lewis’ trilemma)4 to (Josh McDowell’s)5 systematic apologetics. However, before long one is arguing that the light of supernovae, which has taken millions of years to reach us, was created by God merely a few thousand years ago in order to create the appearance of now-dead stars, or that cancer exists because a talking snake fooled our most primitive human ancestor, or that carbon-dating is so inaccurate that it doesn’t preclude the possibility that dinosaurs were roughly contemporaneous with mankind. In this manner one slides from apparently reasonable starting points to what may as well be Alice’s wonderland.

A similar pattern holds true for lone-wolf thinkers whose worldviews end up being hodge-podge syntheses which hardly anyone else will ever find plausible or intellectually satisfying. Original thinkers from Zeno to Berkeley, from Diogenes to David Lewis put forward philosophies regarded by most to be laughable grandiloquent fictions. It is not surprising, then, that so many should regard the history of philosophy as a museum of the absurd. Even the man who abandons philosophical inquiry altogether creates for himself a view of the world riddled with inconsistencies and idiocies to which he remains blind thanks only to his refusal to reflect critically upon them.

Given this situation, it seems reasonable to ask: is there any stopping the flood of myriad derisory beliefs? The question of how plausible a worldview is seems irrelevant to the assessment of its truth unless the presumption that reality is not too counterintuitive turns out to be correct. If reality turns out to be massively counter-intuitive, then plausibility provides no guide to truth. However, if plausibility is the primary litmus test for believability (after logical coherence, etc.), then we are proverbially up the faecal creek without a paddle.

My reaction to this line of thought is as follows; just as parsimony should be regarded as a signpost of truth in the sense that between any two views, ceteris paribus, the more parsimonious is more likely to be true, so closer alignment with common sense makes a view, ceteris paribus, more likely to be correct. What qualifies as common sense may not be so easily answered, but something like nearly universally shared intuitions about plausibility will qualify (we can leave the details to be worked out elsewhere). Obviously most people are prejudiced, to some degree, in advance of the following exercise, but I think one of the most valuable procedures when it comes to worldview-selection is to take inventory of a (prima facie sufficiently plausible) worldview’s most counter-intuitive consequences and compare them to the most counter-intuitive consequences of competing worldviews. This exercise won’t provide us the means for any definitive doxastic adjudication, but I think it remains one of the best approaches we have to comparing competing worldviews.

The alternative, realistically, is for us to unreflectively slide comfortably into a worldview by taking incremental steps towards the absurd, readjusting our plausibility assignments slowly and surely, and ending up with beliefs we would never have consented to accept had we seen clearly precisely to what it was we were inevitably committing ourselves when we adopted the overarching paradigm in question.

1 See: W.V.O. Quine, “Two Dogmas of Empiricism,” Perspectives in the Philosophy of Language (2000): 189-210.

2 See: William Ramsey, “Eliminative Materialism”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, edited by Edward N. Zalta (2016), accessed March 27, 2017. https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/win2016/entries/materialism-eliminative/

3 Alexander Rosenberg, The Atheist’s Guide to Reality: Enjoying Life without Illusions. (WW Norton & Company, 2011), 95.

4 See: C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, (Samizdat, 2014): 29-32.

5 Josh McDowell, The New Evidence that Demands a Verdict: Evidence I & II Fully Updated in One Volume to Answer Questions Challenging Christians in the 21 st Century, (Thomas Nelson, 1999).

Some Miscellaneous Reactions to Some of Robert Price’s Points in Favour of Mythicism

In a not so recent debate1 between Bart Ehrman and Robert Price the topic of whether Jesus of Nazareth historically existed was explored. This provides us with one of the first and few high-profile debates with at least one bona-fide scholar where the participants are directly arguing about mythicism. Unfortunately, the debate was a disappointment in several respects in that neither Ehrman nor Price gave performances of the quality many, who were anticipating an outstanding debate, were expecting. However, Price did say a few interesting things which I thought I’d pick up on and say a few words about. This is not intended to be a comprehensive dismantling of Price’s view (I have not the time to be so ambitious), but just intended to provide a registry of some of my miscellaneous reactions to various points.

Price, in his opening speech, provided at least three examples of evidence which may insinuate that one early objection to Christianity was that Jesus never existed. First, he cites a statement which Justin Martyr puts into the mouth of his interlocutor Trypho in his famous Dialogue with Trypho. Second, he cites a statement which Origen is at pains to refute from an anti-Christian polemicist of the second century, Celsus. Third, he calls into evidence the words of 2 Peter 1:16-18 as though they indicate an implicit awareness that there was an allegation already circulating within the first century that Jesus of Nazareth may not have existed at all.

Let us begin with the passage from the Dialogue with Trypho, according to which Trypho, (a Jewish intellectual who, in the dialogue, claims to have been a pupil of Corinthus the Socratic in Argos,2 and may possibly be the second century rabbi Tarfon,3 though that is not widely accepted) makes the following provocative charge:

But Christ—if He has indeed been born, and exists anywhere—is unknown, and does not even know Himself, and has no power until Elias come to anoint Him, and make Him manifest to all. And you, having accepted a groundless report, invent a Christ for yourselves, and for his sake are inconsiderately perishing.”4

Does this passage contain a veiled insinuation that Jesus did not exist? It doesn’t seem so. At very least we gather from the way Justin Martyr proceeds to respond to this comment that he doesn’t have that accusation in mind. Justin promises Trypho that “I will prove to you, here and now, that we do not believe in groundless myths nor in teachings not based on reason, but in doctrines that are inspired by the Divine Spirit, abundant with power, and teeming with grace.”5 However, Justin Martyr goes on to give argument after argument from prophecy to demonstrate that Jesus is a good ‘fit’ for the anticipated messiah of the Tanakh. He never goes on to argue that Jesus of Nazareth existed; he argues on the clear presumption that he and Trypho are agreed that Jesus of Nazareth existed. The likelihood is relatively high that Justin Martyr is writing a largely or entirely fictitious dialogue, but whether it was fictitious or not there is no way to read Trypho’s (alleged) statement as an insinuation that Jesus didn’t exist. That isn’t what Justin Martyr thought the statement insinuated, and it isn’t plausible that a historical Trypho intended to insinuate that the historical Jesus didn’t exist but just let that point drop entirely for the rest of the dialogue with Justin.

My verdict, therefore, is that this provides absolutely no evidence of any early anti-Christian polemic which insinuated that Jesus never existed.

What of Price’s second example, from the second century anti-Christian polemicist Celsus? Well, Price points out that Celsus says: “it is clear to me that the writings of the Christians are a lie and that your fables have not been well enough constructed to conceal this monstrous fiction.”6 However, to read this as a veiled charge that Jesus never existed is implausible for a variety of reasons. First, consider how the passage from Celsus continues: “it is clear to me that the writings of the Christians are a lie and that your fables have not been well enough constructed to conceal this monstrous fiction. I have heard that some of your interpreters…are on to the inconsistencies and, pen in hand, alter the originals writings, three, four and several more times over in order to be able to deny the contradictions in the face of criticism.”7 That is clearly an accusation of embellishment and selective redaction; it is clearly not an accusation of having invented the historical Jesus whole-cloth. Second, consider that Celsus elsewhere argues that Jesus is a bastard child; according to Origen in his Contra Celsus, “[Celsus was] speaking of the mother of Jesus, and saying that “when she was pregnant she was turned out of doors by the carpenter to whom she had been betrothed, as having been guilty of adultery, and that she bore a child to a certain soldier named Panthera.”89 Clearly, however, if Celsus thought that Jesus was born of illegitimate relations between Mary and a Roman soldier named Panthera, then Celsus could not have also believed that Jesus never existed. Those beliefs are so obviously logically incompatible that even an imbecile (as Origen thought) like Celsus could not plausibly have entertained both.

Finally, what of the words in 2 Peter 1:16-18? They read:

For we did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we had been eyewitnesses of his majesty. For he received honor and glory from God the Father when that voice was conveyed to him by the Majestic Glory, saying, “This is my Son, my Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” We ourselves heard this voice come from heaven, while we were with him on the holy mountain.”
(2 Peter 1:16-18, NRSV).

I consider it obvious that the author gives us an indication of what the allegation of ‘cleverly devised myths’ comes to by the way he responds to the charge. Clearly, however, he spends all his time emphasizing not that he was an eyewitness (or that there were eyewitnesses) of Jesus of Nazareth, but that he was one of many eyewitnesses of the majesty of Christ which was attested to and illustrated by miracles. It is the majesty and/or the miracles which the author believes are being alleged to be cleverly devised myths, not the historicity of the person, Jesus of Nazareth; we know this by inferring it from the way the author responds to the allegations he has in mind.

So, in my opinion, all three of these evidences of some early objection to Christianity to the effect that Jesus of Nazareth did not historically exist are completely bunk.

I want to end this reflection on some points brought out by Price in the debate with a few positive notes. There are some areas where I actually agree with Price over against the majority of New Testament scholars. For instance, Price maintains (and this came out in parts of the debate) that there is no more reason to think that Paul wrote Galatians than there is to think that Paul wrote 1st Timothy. Price’s conclusion is that we have reason to believe that Paul did not write any of the epistles traditionally ascribed to him. My conclusion is that Paul plausibly wrote all of the epistles traditionally ascribed to him. This was somewhat tangential to the debate, but it is a point of interesting qualified agreement nevertheless. More interesting still, Price argued that if we strip away all of the miraculous claims made about Christ, we are left with a first-century Jewish Rabbi about whom nothing would have been worth writing in the first place. He says, at one point, that if Clark Kent existed and superman didn’t, there would be no gradual embellishment of stories about Clark Kent because there would be no reason for anyone to remember any stories about Clark Kent in the first place. There either has to have been something about the Jesus of Nazareth of history which made him worth writing (talking, etc.) so much about in the first place, or else the stories about him were mythological from the beginning.

This, I think, is a very interesting point. If historians are intent on whittling down the Jesus of the Gospels to the point where he was an utterly unremarkable first century Jewish rabbi then there is no explanation for why he caused such a stir in the first place. Obviously most historians will respond, here, by conceding that Jesus claimed to be a miracle worker, and performed exorcism ceremonies in a way which presumed an immense and unprecedented amount of authority for himself. It was his innovative preaching along with what W.L. Craig has called the historical Jesus’ “unprecedented sense of divine authority,”10 which sufficiently explain why there were any stories about him in the first place. So, on the one hand, Price has, I think, failed to take inventory of what most New Testament scholars believe we can say with enormous confidence about the historical Jesus of Nazareth. On the other hand, though, Price does well to remind us that if scholars aren’t careful to preserve something remarkable and unique about the historical Jesus, if they reconstruct only a version of Jesus wholly sanitized by the presumption of naturalism, and about whom there was really nothing terribly special, they may be proverbially cutting the tree branch from which they hang.

 

1 Anyone interested can find the debate, at least currently, at the following link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oIxxDfkaXVY

2 Justin Martyr, Dialogue with Trypho, Ch. 1, http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/01281.htm

3 Claudia Setzer, Jewish Responses to Early Christians,Fortress Press, 1994: 215.

4 Justin Martyr, Dialogue with Trypho, Ch. 8, http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/01281.htm

5 Justin Martyr, Dialogue with Trypho, Ch. 9, http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/01281.htm

6 Celsus, On the True Doctrine, translated by R. Joseph Hoffman, Oxford University Press, 1987: 37. See: http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/text/celsus3.html

7 Celsus, On the True Doctrine, translated by R. Joseph Hoffman, Oxford University Press, 1987: 37. See: http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/text/celsus3.html

8 Origen, Contra Celsus, Book 1, chapter 32. http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/04161.htm

9 I have written a little bit on this before, a long time ago. Those interested may see: https://thirdmillennialtemplar.wordpress.com/2012/02/13/celsus-attack-on-the-holy-mother/

10 http://www.reasonablefaith.org/does-god-exist-1

An Amended Modal-Epistemic Argument for God’s Existence

Several years ago I was introduced to a clever and fascinating argument, developed by a philosopher named Emanuel Rutten, which attempts to demonstrate the existence of God from two key premises: (i) that anything which is possibly true is possibly known, and (ii) that it is not possible to know that God does not exist, from which it logically follows that (iii) God exists. The argument has some intuitive appeal to me, though I was initially skeptical about the second premise (skeptical, that is, that the atheist could be persuaded to accept the second premise). I had also heard certain criticisms of the argument which seemed to present nearly insuperable objections to it; although I started working on responses to those objections, I eventually moved on to other philosophical inquiries leaving this argument (and my many notes on it) to gather proverbial dust on my old hard drive. Recently, however, I decided to revisit the argument and use a variation on it in the context of a semi-formal online debate. I was shocked by my interlocutor’s reaction; although he had not been shy about sinking his teeth into every other argument I had presented for theism (from the cosmological argument from contingency, to the transcendental argument from the laws of logic, to a version of the moral argument, to the modal-ontological argument), I received radio-silence when presenting this argument. After several days of him reflecting upon the argument, he eventually rejoined by saying that he couldn’t think of a single criticism, but that he was convinced the argument was bad for some reason he was unable to articulate. This made me want to revisit the modal-epistemic argument for God’s existence and see if it couldn’t be salvaged in light of certain criticisms of which I am aware.

The basic intuition behind Rutten’s argument is that reality’s being intelligible is somehow connected to, and explained by, the existence of a God-like being. This same intuition seems to lurk behind Bernard Lonergan’s argument for God in the nineteenth chapter of his magnum opus, Insight, where he made the tantalizing claim (for which he argued at great length) that “if the real is completely intelligible, God exists. But the real is completely intelligible. Therefore, God exists.”1 There is also a subliminal connection here, I think, even to C.S. Lewis’ argument from reason. The same intuition is also bolstered, to some extent, by Fitch’s paradox, which is a logical proof developed by the philosopher and logician Frederic Fitch in 1963. Fitch was able to prove, using prima facie uncontroversial assumptions, that “necessarily, if all truths are knowable in principle then all truths are in fact known.”2 This philosophical finding was taken to be paradoxical by many, but it sits exceptionally well with the theist who affirms that omniscience is exemplified by God. What these observations show, I think, is that the intuition behind Rutten’s argument is widely shared (at least among theists) and may be well motivated.

The bare-boned sketch of Rutten’s argument can be outlined as follows:

  1. All possible truths are possibly known (i.e., if there are logically possible worlds in which P is true, then there will always be a subset of such worlds in which P is known).
  2. It is impossible to know that God does not exist.
  3. Therefore, God necessarily exists.

It has to be said straight-away that this is an over-simplified formulation of his argument; we will come, in due course, to his more measured articulation of the argument, but the rough sketch provided by this syllogism will help us lay the groundwork for the actual argument.

Rutten stipulates the following relatively modest definition of God, for the purposes of his argument; God is the personal first-cause of the world (where the world is the whole of contingent reality). Since that logically implies that God is incontingent, I will abbreviate this as ‘IPFC.’ He also specifies that, for the purposes of the argument, he means the following by knowledge: “A conscious being… knows that proposition p is true if and only if p is true and the being, given its cognitive situation, cannot psychologically but believe that p is true.”3 More precisely, for any P, if some conscious being B cannot psychologically help believing that P is true, then P satisfies at least one of the following four conditions for B: “(i) The proposition is logically proven; (ii) the proposition is obviously true, i.e. intuitively self-evident; (iii) the proposition is grounded in indisputable experience; or (iv) the proposition is based on indisputable testimony.”4 This makes it obvious that Rutten means that something is known if and only if (a) it is true, and (b) given some conscious being’s cognitive situation, that being, whose cognitive faculties aren’t malfunctioning, cannot psychologically help believing that it is true. In what follows I will refer to this peculiar kind of knowledge as knowledge*, instances of knowing satisfying these conditions as knowing*, et cetera.

The first premise seems to flow directly out of the perennial philosophical commitment to the world’s intelligibility. Arguably, to be intelligible the world has to be the kind of thing which is knowable* in principle (if not always to us, due to some limitations of our cognitive faculties, then at least to some logically possible intellects with different cognitive faculties). This philosophical presumption has, Rutten hastens to note, “led to extraordinary discoveries”5 in science. In fact, it seems to be a fundamental pillar of science itself, for science is predicated on the assumption of the world’s intelligibility. The second premise also seems prima facie plausible; it is, somewhat ironically, appealed to confidently by many agnostics and some atheists.

The argument is, in its rough form, susceptible to a myriad of informative objections. Consider, for instance, the possibly true proposition: “God understands my reasons for being an atheist.”6 The proposition, although plausibly possibly true, is not knowable – for knowledge requires belief, but no atheist can believe the proposition. Similarly the proposition “there are no conscious beings”7 may be possibly true but is also not rationally believable. To avoid these kinds of counter-examples Rutten stipulates that his first premise should only quantify over rationally believable propositions. He thinks it is reasonable to exclude rationally unbelievable propositions, and that this way of restricting his first premise is not ad hoc, for it seems intuitively plausible that all rationally believable possible truths are knowable. Requiring the propositions of the relevant sort to be both (possibly) true and rationally believable navigates the argument away from obvious counter-examples. There are other counter-examples, however, and Rutten discusses some. First, consider a proposition like “‘John left Amsterdam and nobody knows it.’”8 This seems possibly true and obviously unknowable, even though it could be argued to be rationally believable. To deal with objections like this Rutten introduces a distinction between first-order propositions and second-order propositions; first-order propositions, he says, are directly about the world, whereas second-order propositions are about people’s beliefs about the world. Rutten then decides to limit the first premise of his argument to truths expressed by first-order propositions. In this way he blocks cute objections from propositions like ‘there are no believed propositions.’

Then he states his argument9 more formally in the following way (I have changed the wording very little, and added nothing of consequence):

1. If a rationally believable first order proposition is possibly true, then it is knowable* (first premise),
2. The proposition ‘IPFC does not exist’ is unknowable* (second premise),
3. The proposition ‘IPFC does not exist’ is rationally believable (third premise) ,
4. The proposition ‘IPFC does not exist’ is first order (fourth premise),
5. The proposition ‘IPFC does not exist’ is not possibly true (from 1, 2, 3 and 4),
6. The proposition ‘IPFC does not exist’ is necessarily false (from 5),
7. The proposition ‘IPFC exists’ is necessarily true (conclusion, from 6).

The third premise is either true, or else atheism is irrational. The fourth premise is self-evidently true. The fifth premise follows logically from 1,2,3 and 4. Six follows logically from five. Seven follows logically from six. So the key premises are 1 and 2. The first premise is very plausible insofar as its negation would imply that reality is not intelligible, but to deny that reality is intelligible seems absurd. That reality is intelligible (if not to us then at least in principle) seems to be a fundamental commitment of epistemology. However, if reality is intelligible, then for any first-order rationally believable proposition P, if P is possible then P is possibly known*. Can we know this premise in the strong sense of knowledge used within the argument? Maybe (e.g., perhaps it is obviously true, i.e. intuitively self-evident), but that’s also irrelevant; all we need is to ‘know’ it in the more general sense (i.e., having a true justified belief – allowing for whatever epistemology you’d like to use in order to qualify ‘justified’) in order to know (as opposed to know*) that the conclusion is true. 

The second premise is plausible given that, for the purposes of the argument, ‘knowledge’ is defined as satisfied just in case at least one of the four stipulated conditions are satisfied. However, God’s non-existence cannot be logically proven (if it can, then obviously this and all other arguments for God’s existence are worthless). On atheism, the proposition that God does not exist is not self-evidently true. On atheism, the proposition ‘God does not exist’ cannot be grounded in indisputable experience. On atheism, the proposition ‘God does not exist’ cannot be believed on the basis of indisputable testimony. It follows that the second premise is true. So, the argument looks sound, at least at first blush.

One immediate reaction to this argument is to suggest that it can be parodied by a parallel argument for atheism by substituting the second premise for: 2.* The proposition “God exists” is unknowable*. However, this is naïve; in at least one possible world in which God exists, plausibly God knows* that the IPFC (i.e., himself) exists, but in no possible world where no IPFC exists can anyone know* that no IPFC exists. As Rutten explains:“on the specific notion of knowledge used for the argument… logical proof, intuition, experience and testimony exhaust the range of knowledge sources, and none of them suffices to know that God does not exist.”10

Years ago now I heard one very interesting objection which I will try to reproduce as fairly as my memory and skill will allow. The objection basically maintains that if God could know* that the IPFC (i.e., God) exists, then it is possible for at least one atheist in at least one logically possible world to know* that the IPFC does not exist. Rutten suggests, in the paper, that “God’s knowledge that he is God – if possible – is an instance of (iii) (or (ii)),”11 meaning that it is either “obviously true, i.e. intuitively self-evident; [or]… grounded in indisputable experience.”12 But what experience could possibly establish the indubitability of being the IPFC? For any experience you can imagine having (if you were God), it seems logically possible that it is the result of an even greater being who created you with the purpose of deceiving you into thinking that you are the IPFC. What about intuitive self-evidence? Well, if it is possible for God to simply look inward and, through introspection, discover his relations (for, to be the IPFC is to bear certain relational properties, such as that of being first-cause), then why can’t there be a logically possible world in which an atheist introspects and discovers that she lacks any relation to an IPFC? If it is logically possible for the IPFC to introspectively survey its own relational properties, then why can’t a logically possible atheist do the same?

I think the best answer to this is to note that it may be possible to introspectively discover at least some of one’s essential properties (as opposed to merely accidental properties). I can know, by rational reflection, that I exist (cogito ergo sum), that I am a thinking thing, that I am either contingent or not omniscient, et cetera. I can also deduce from what I discover as self-evident through introspection that other facts happen to be true, such as that there exists something rather than nothing. So, coming back to God, perhaps God can know by introspection that he is incontingent, personal, and has some uniqualizing properties13 (that is, properties which, if had at all, are had by no more than one thing) etc. – and perhaps that means that he can deduce that he is the only being which could be an IPFC in principle, and that he is an IPFC just in case a contingent world exists. But, he could plausibly know* from indisputable experience (of some sort) that a contingent world exists. Therefore, he could deduce and know* that he is the IPFC. If atheism were true, no being would have, as an essential property, a lack of any relation to an IPFC. Lacking a relation cannot be an essential property, so there’s no reason to think it could be introspectively discovered that one lacks a relational property to the IPFC. Moreover, unless the atheist can actually produce (perhaps with the aid of premises introspectively discovered as self-evident) a logical proof that the IPFC does not exist it seems they cannot know* that no IPFC exists. So while this objection is extremely interesting, I do think that it fails; it is reasonable to maintain that, possibly, God knows* that the IPFC exists, and it does not plausibly follow that an atheist possibly knows* that no IPFC exists.

Another objection might come from considering large facts. Take, for instance, what Pruss has called the Big Conjunctive Contingent Fact (BCCF),14 and let’s take the sub-set of that fact which includes only first-order, rationally affirmable facts (for simplicity, I will abbreviate this as the BCCF*). The BCCF* is plausibly comprised of infinitely many conjuncts, and at least is possibly comprised of infinitely many conjuncts. Is this possible truth, the BCCF*, possibly known? I think it is possible so long as there is possibly a being with an infinite capacity for knowledge (or else, perhaps, an actually infinite number of beings with some finite capacity for knowledge not all of which are such that a discrete set of first-order rationally affirmable truths would have been beyond its ken). But, assuming there cannot be an actually infinite number of beings, doesn’t that presuppose something like theism, by presupposing the possible exemplification of omniscience (here we assume that BCCF*⊃BCCF, and that any being which knows the BCCF* also knows all analytic truths)? After all, the Bekenstein bound15 is generally taken to imply “that a Turing Machine with finite physical dimensions and unbounded memory is not physically possible.”16 However, it seems senseless to suggest that there could be a physical object (like a brain, or some other kind of computer) which is actually infinitely large. Therefore, doesn’t the first premise presuppose something like theism insofar as it presupposes the exemplifiability of omniscience or at least an intellect with an actually infinite capacity for knowledge? That would make the argument ostensibly circular.

First, the IPFC needn’t be omniscient even if it knew the BCCF*. Second, and more importantly, the IPFC isn’t being presupposed to be omniscient, or even knowledgeable enough to know the BCCF*. Third, a being’s being omniscient is necessary but insufficient for the truth of theism. Fourth, I’m not sure whether it is senseless to talk about infinitely large physical objects, or (actually) infinitely many beings, but I am relatively sure that most atheists have a vested interest in allowing for those kinds of possibilities in order to avoid conceding important premises in some (Kalaam) cosmological arguments. So this attempted charge of subtle circularity seems wrong.

[I should grant this this last objection could be accused of being a straw man erected by none other than myself; to that I just briefly want to say that I had originally thought that there may be an objection here, but as I tried to write the objection down clearly it seemed to crumble in my hands. Having already written it out, and having found it interesting to reflect upon it whether or not it is a viable objection at all, I decided to keep it in this final draft.]

I’m sure there are other possible objections which I would have been better able to iterate or anticipate had I done so years ago when this argument, and some objections to it, were still fresh in my mind. However, my sense is that that will do for an introduction to the argument. What makes this argument really exciting, I think, is that it, as Rutten notes, “does not fall within one of the traditional categories of arguments for the existence of God. For it is not ontological, cosmological or teleological. And it is not phenomenological either, such as for example the aesthetic or moral argument[s] for God’s existence.”17 The argument, whether sound or unsound, is doing something genuinely novel, at least for the analytic tradition of the philosophy of religion.

Rutten ends his short paper on an optimistic note which may be appropriately appended here, and this is where I will end my short excursus:

As I mentioned in the introduction, I propose to refer to the argument as a modal-epistemic argument. Ways to further improve it may be found, just as has been done with arguments in the other categories. I believe that if this happens, the prospects for the argument are rather promising.”18

1 Bernard Lonergan, Insight: A Study of Human Understanding, Collected Works of Bernard Lonergan, vol. 3, ed. Frederick E. Crowe and Robert M. Doran (Toronto: Toronto University Press, 1992), 695.

2 Brogaard, Berit and Salerno, Joe, “Fitch’s Paradox of Knowability”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2013 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/win2013/entries/fitch-paradox/&gt;.

3 Emanuel Rutten, “A Modal-Epistemic Argument for the Existence of God.” Faith and Philosophy (2014), 3.

4 Emanuel Rutten, “A Modal-Epistemic Argument for the Existence of God.” Faith and Philosophy (2014), 4.

5 Emanuel Rutten, “A Modal-Epistemic Argument for the Existence of God.” Faith and Philosophy (2014), 14.

6 Emanuel Rutten, “A Modal-Epistemic Argument for the Existence of God.” Faith and Philosophy (2014), 7.

7 Emanuel Rutten, “A Modal-Epistemic Argument for the Existence of God.” Faith and Philosophy (2014), 8.

8 Emanuel Rutten, “A Modal-Epistemic Argument for the Existence of God.” Faith and Philosophy (2014), 9.

9 Emanuel Rutten, “A Modal-Epistemic Argument for the Existence of God.” Faith and Philosophy (2014), 10-11.

10 Emanuel Rutten, “A Modal-Epistemic Argument for the Existence of God.” Faith and Philosophy (2014), 2.

11 Emanuel Rutten, “A Modal-Epistemic Argument for the Existence of God.” Faith and Philosophy (2014), 5.

12 Emanuel Rutten, “A Modal-Epistemic Argument for the Existence of God.” Faith and Philosophy (2014), 4.

13 Alexander R. Pruss, “A Gödelian Ontological Argument Improved Even More.” Ontological Proofs Today 50 (2012): 204.

14 Alexander R. Pruss, “The Leibnizian cosmological argument.” The Blackwell Companion to Natural Theology, ed. W.L. Craig and J.P. Moreland (2009): 24-100.

15 See: “Bekenstein Bound,” Wikipedia, accessed March 24,2017. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bekenstein_bound

16“Bekenstein Bound,” Wikipedia, accessed March 24,2017. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bekenstein_bound

17 Emanuel Rutten, “A Modal-Epistemic Argument for the Existence of God.” Faith and Philosophy (2014), 28.

18 Emanuel Rutten, “A Modal-Epistemic Argument for the Existence of God.” Faith and Philosophy (2014), 28.

Soundness is Neither Necessary nor Sufficient for Goodness

In this (very) short article, I am going to try to explain what makes an argument valid (comparing two views), what makes an argument sound (again comparing two corresponding views) and then I aim to distinguish ‘good’ arguments from either of these. I will attempt to obviate why validity, on either interpretation, will be a necessary but insufficient condition for soundness (on that respective interpretation). It will turn out that soundness (on either interpretation) will not be a sufficient or a necessary condition for goodness, and that validity (on either interpretation) will be a necessary but insufficient condition of goodness. It will also be shown that goodness is neither a necessary nor sufficient condition of soundness. This article can, perhaps, serve as a useful prolegomenon to introductory deductive logic, though its distinctions are themselves somewhat unorthodox and reach beyond the scope of formal logic.

Validity

One definition of validity which is relatively common, easily found in most introductory textbooks on deductive logic, is the following:

An argument is valid if and only if it is not logically possible for the premises to be true and the conclusion false.

Let’s explore the dynamics of this definition. It would mean that an argument of the following sort would be considered valid:

  1. All men are human
  2. Socrates is a man
  3. Therefore, Socrates is human.

Clearly, in this argument, it is not logically possible for the premises to (both) be true, and for the conclusion to be false. The same can be said of the following argument:

  1. Bob loves Carroll
  2. If Bob loves Carroll then Carroll loves Joe
  3. Therefore, Carroll loves Joe

This is pretty obviously logically valid. So too, though, is the following argument:

  1. All women are purple.
  2. Socrates is a woman.
  3. Therefore, Socrates is purple.

The reason this argument is valid is that it is not possible for the premises to (both) be true, and for the conclusion to be false. Perhaps the premises and conclusion are all, in fact, false, but in any possible world in which the premises were true, the conclusion would be true. Thus, validity is not concerned with truth so much as truth-preservation. The concern is to ensure that one cannot, in a ‘valid’ argument, move from true premises to a false conclusion. Take the following example as well:

  1. All women are purple.
  2. If all women are purple, then evolution is true.
  3. Therefore, evolution is true.

In this argument, we have a conclusion which is (I presume) true in fact, while the premises are all false. However, the argument is clearly valid as well, since it is not logically possible that the premises be true and the conclusion false. Remember that validity requires nothing more than that it is not possible for both (i) the premises to be true, and (ii) the conclusion to be false.

The difficulty with this account of validity arises when we are confronted with examples of the following variety:

  1. All men are animals.
  2. If all men are animals then Tyrannosaurus Rex makes a good pet.
  3. Therefore, 3+4=7

This argument is logically valid, since it is not logically possible for the premises to be true while the conclusion is false (mostly because it isn’t possible for the conclusion to be false, and it is ‘possible’ for the premises to be true). Such an argument, however, doesn’t have any dialectical appeal. Consider also:

  1. I once drew a square-circle,
  2. If I once drew a square-circle, then I am a married bachelor,
  3. Therefore, I once drew the impossible.

This argument can be tricky; in order to find out whether it is valid we have to ask whether it is possible for both (i) the premises to be true, and (ii) the conclusion false. As it turns out, it is not possible for the premises to be true and the conclusion false, precisely because it is not possible for the premises to be true. Thus, formally speaking, it is a logically valid argument.

Soundness

The definition of a sound argument is pretty straightforward: an argument is sound if and only if it is (i) logically valid, and (ii) all of its premises are true. For example,

  1. Socrates was mortal.
  2. Everything that was mortal, was once alive.
  3. Therefore, Socrates was once alive.

In this argument, we find that it is not logically possible for the premises to be true while the conclusion is false, and in addition, we find that both premises are clearly true. Thus, we have a sound argument on our hands. Any argument which is logically valid is sound just in case all of its premises are true. Thus, for example, the following argument is sound:

  1. A tautology is a tautology.
  2. 6-2=4
  3. The sentence ‘is this a question‘ expresses a question.

This exemplifies the problem with the formal definitions of validity and soundness. It shows that one can construct sound and vacuous arguments by simply ensuring that the premises and conclusions are all necessary truths, or at least that the conclusions are necessary truths while the premises are true. In the interest of more off-the-cuff examples, take for instance:

  1. I once wrote this sentence.
  2. If I once wrote this sentence, then I have written at least one sentence.
  3. Therefore, 3+4=7

This argument is both logically valid, and sound, and yet it appears to be a very bad argument. Nobody who didn’t already accept the conclusion could be led by it to accept the conclusion. It is a bad argument, even for those of us who accept the conclusion; if this argument were submitted as our reason for believing the conclusion then our mathematical belief that 3+4=7 would literally be unjustified (a necessary self-evident truth in which we believe can, of course, be unjustified). What all this illustrates is, first, that the formal definitions of validity and soundness are concerned only with truth preservation, and not with the persuasive force of an argument at all. As philosophers who specialize in the study of modal logic often make a distinction between ‘broad’ and ‘narrow’ logical possibility (eg. a square-circle is broadly logically impossible, but narrowly logically possible since there isn’t any purely formal way to obviate a contradiction between the predicates ‘square’ and ‘circle’), so too, perhaps, should we make a distinction between broad and narrow validity & soundness. What we have looked at so far would be the purely formal or ‘narrow’ accounts of validity and soundness. Maybe a ‘broad’ view of validity (which I will henceforth write as ‘validity*’) would be something like: an argument is valid* if and only if i) it is not possible for the premises to be true while the conclusion is false, and ii) the conclusion meaningfully follows from the truth of the premises. This definition of validity* says everything the former one did, with the addition that the premises and conclusion have to be semantically related (i.e., meaningfully related; they have to have something to do with one another). We can correspondingly say that an argument is sound* just in case it is valid* and its premises are true.

Now, validity* and soundness* are not appropriate distinctions in an introductory course on deductive logic, and so are somewhat philosophically unorthodox. However, they are rather useful outside of that narrow context, and in the context of doing philosophy. In philosophy, we don’t just want sound arguments, we want sound* arguments!

Goodness

Speaking of what philosophers want, there is another issue I wish to examine, which is what makes an argument ‘good’ by philosophical standards. It turns out, I will argue, that neither soundness nor soundness* are necessary or sufficient conditions of ‘goodness’.

I submit that the goodness of an argument consists in two things: i) that the argument is logically valid*, ii) that the accumulated uncertainty of the premises to the argument’s intended audience sets a reasonably high lower bound on the probability of the conclusion. This second criterion is specially crafted to avoid the common mistakes which have, in the past, been made even by some relatively good philosophers like William Lane Craig; namely, the mistake of thinking that premises in a valid argument need be merely each more plausible than their respective negations for the conclusion to follow forcefully. Indeed, the (probability of the) premises of an argument merely set a lower bound on the probability of the conclusion.[1] If that lower bound on the probability of the conclusion is less than or equal to 0.5 then the argument is not compelling. Whether an argument is persuasive or not to some subject is going to depend on their appraisal of the premises, of course, but a good argument will consist of premises which are not merely more plausible than not, but also highly plausible – plausible enough, at least, that the conclusion will also seem highly plausible. This definition obviously subjectivizes ‘goodness,’ making it dependent upon an audience’s appraisal, but that shouldn’t bother us very much because plausibility has to figure into the goodness of an argument in some way, and ‘plausibility’ is already a term of epistemic appraisal.

Consider the following two arguments, both of which are valid and at least one of which is sound. First, the modal ontological argument, which we can roughly reconstruct as:

  1. God possibly exists (i.e., God exists in at least one logically possible world).
  2. If God exists in one logically possible world then God exists in all logically possible worlds.
  3. If God exists in all logically possible worlds then God exists.
  4. Therefore, God exists.

This argument is sound just in case the conclusion is true. However, that doesn’t make it a very good argument in my sense. Indeed, consider its parody:

  1. God possibly does not exist (i.e., there is at least one logically possible world in which God does not exist).
  2. If there is at least one logically possible world in which God does not exist, then there is no logically possible world in which God exists.
  3. If God exists in no logically possible worlds then God does not exist.
  4. Therefore, God does not exist.

At least one of these two arguments is valid, valid*, sound and sound*, but it is arguable that neither of them are good. Goodness, then, consists in more than just soundness*. So, given the way I’ve just outlined things, we can imagine any number of arguments which are good without being sound, sound without being good, valid* without being sound, sound* without being good, but none which are good without being valid*. The goodness of an argument, it seems, is largely in the eye of the beholder; the goodness of a valid* argument is entirely in the eye of the beholder.

 

[1] See: http://www.reasonablefaith.org/deductive-arguments-and-probability

A Passage (not) About Rape

In the last several years I have shifted the focal point of my studies from broadly theological (including, but not limited to, Biblical studies), to specifically philosophical (through the avenue of philosophical theology). However, recently I was treated to a somewhat nostalgic experience: being called upon to act as an apologist for scripture. Although it is somewhat unfortunate that the question caught me unprepared, it did catalyze my interest in looking at the passage more carefully. In the end I found the problem to evaporate entirely upon closer inspection (as I have learnt from experience to expect). However, I also found that this verse is popularly used on the internet in an attempt to undermine the credibility of the claim that the Bible is a product of divine inspiration. So, I thought maybe I’d briefly address this alleged difficulty. This treatment will be a little more anecdotal and exploratory than academic, but whatever – it’s my blog and I’ll do whatever I want.

I was presented with a passage from Deuteronomy by two young women who had interpreted it as a justification for rape and a very peculiar kind of victim blaming. The passage read as follows:

“If a man happens to meet in a town a virgin pledged to be married and he sleeps with her, you shall take both of them to the gate of that town and stone them to death—the young woman because she was in a town and did not scream for help, and the man because he violated another man’s wife. You must purge the evil from among you.”
(Deuteronomy 22:23-24)

They had reasoned that because the term ‘violated’ had been used this was a description of a man who had raped a virgin pledged to be married. They inferred, therefore, that the young woman who had been raped would be put to death because she did not scream for help. They then argued that in actual rape cases one is not always able to call out, nor is it always acceptably safe to do so. The passage had scandalized them and they turned to me to see what I might say in its defense. Having felt pressed for time I decided to assure them that although a passage like this may look bad at first blush, I have always found that upon closer inspection one finds that understanding more of the historical, legal and literary context mitigates the scandal we originally feel. With my dinner growing cold as it sat on the table, I asked if I could get back to them after having looked at the passage more carefully for myself – and that’s when one of them accused me of sounding like a Jehovah’s Witness (I happened to know that she had grown up in that community and had a bad experience ending in her departure – in fact, it was in excommunication). Being unable to tolerate the slight, I gave them my full attention, leaving my dinner to get cold. As I tried to balance reading the passage (along with the surrounding context, etc.) with keeping up in conversation with them over the phone as they jumped from one related issue to another, I noticed that they were trying to enunciate a general view of religion in line with that of the new atheists like Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins; a view of religion particularly contagious to those who had a negative experience with a rather immature version of religion (usually found in cults like that of the Jehovah’s Witnesses).

Then, after several dozen minutes of discussion which began to trail further and further away from the original topic, I decided to read the passage again with fresh eyes, but this time my eyes seemed drawn to the very next verse:

“If a man happens to meet in a town a virgin pledged to be married and he sleeps with her, you shall take both of them to the gate of that town and stone them to death—the young woman because she was in a town and did not scream for help, and the man because he violated another man’s wife. You must purge the evil from among you.
But if out in the country a man happens to meet a young woman pledged to be married and rapes her, only the man who has done this shall die.”
(Deuteronomy 22:23-25).

Those words contextualized the passage in a way which I thought, and continue to think, makes it impervious to the objection that it engages in victim-blaming. Even though I was at the disadvantage of no longer having my preferred bible-study software (for my laptop had recently just died), I couldn’t help but notice that in the only clear instance of ‘rape’ here, not only was that term used in contrast to the term ‘violate,’ but the punishment was supposed to be meted out differently. There are, it seems, (at least) two ways to interpret this passage. Either it suggests that a woman who is raped in a city is at fault, while one raped in the country is not – or it suggests that the woman in the city is being put to death for being a willing participant in the crime of adultery (as indicated by the fact that she did not cry out for help in an urban area where she would presumably have been heard). The first reading seems pretty wild, even on the assumption that the text is merely an uninspired primitive catalogue of ancient near-eastern jurisprudence. On the second reading, however, the alleged problem just evaporates, for the woman, far from being a rape victim, is being punished for deciding to cheat. Now, while that doesn’t mollify us completely (and, as I will shortly argue, shouldn’t), it is quite a different thing from suggesting that being raped is a capital offense (or that being raped without crying for help is a capital offense).1 The passage states, instead, that cheating (here understood as adultery) is a capital offense – worthy of capital punishment. I have read (though I cannot strictly confirm) that the Talmud calls the sin of adultery ha’averah meaning something like ‘the paradigmatic sin.’2 Interestingly, however, the way adultery is used in the Torah, it is meant to indicate illicit sex between a woman married, or one pledged to be married, and some man other than her husband (or soon to be husband). It does not apply to sex between an unmarried woman (not pledged to be married) and any man, whether married or not.3

This is for at least two reasons, as far as I can make out; first, because the law was written in a time and place where culture was inexorably (and, importantly, incorrigibly) patriarchal. I have elsewhere written about the nature of law under less than ideal circumstances of justice, but to reiterate the idea briefly; I believe that some laws, even if good, would be unenforceable given the reality of less-than-ideal circumstances. To give a simple modern example, I believe that it should (ideally) be illegal to mistreat animals intended for consumption (where by mistreat I mean abuse, put into horrible conditions, made to live through a hellish existence, et cetera). I also believe that such a law would be literally unenforceable in our current society. We would need moral and cultural progress with respect to our understanding of animal rights for that law to be feasibly enforced. I am suggesting that something similar is true nearly across the board; realistically speaking, whether we like it or not, it seems as though reforming a patriarchal society in the blink of an eye by introducing laws which would, for them, completely reorganize their societal structure and be incomprehensible to them as a culture, is just infeasible. No appeal to omnipotence (omniscience and omnibenevolence) can help one circumambulate this problem unless some good argument is provided to think that God would either prefer, or be indifferent to, a culturally-coercive revelation, rather than a sort of ’embedded revelation’ designed to catalyze progress organically by working to reorient culture from within (note the parallel, here, to the doctrine of justification by infusion, rather than by imputation). I can think of no such argument. Moreover, given the destabilizing effects of changing culture too radically too suddenly (i.e., a sort of cultural whiplash), I just don’t see how it could be incumbent upon God to demand a people, as a culture, to live up to standards which would have been entirely incomprehensible to them (such that they would appear not just mysterious, but utterly baffling). Culture, after all, is largely a product of people’s collective free expression and (in my opinion) all noteworthy theodicies rightly presume that freedom is paramount.

Now, obviously this rationalization (a sort of attempt to harmonize primitive systems of justice with modernist temperaments and moral scruples) applies to civil rights more easily than it could to natural rights. However, if no natural rights are violated in principle by capital punishment (which, I maintain, is not a violation of natural rights in principle), and no natural rights are violated in principle by inequality under the law, rather than inequality of treatment under the same law (and, again, I maintain that no natural rights are violated by some inequality under the law, whether that’s ideal or not), then I think the difficulty here is largely emotional, rather than strictly intellectual.4

I also want to note that if I am right about the realistic constraints of less than ideal circumstances vis-à-vis justice, I would expect the law, were it inspired, to on the one hand navigate its way around violations of intrinsic natural human rights, and on the other hand set a trajectory towards the good society. I would expect to see the establishment of a jurisprudential tradition which would, given its initial conditions, aim naturally towards moral progress. Do we have any reason to think this is the case with Jewish law? Well, perhaps we do. For a start, I think there is good evidence that this Jewish law already set itself apart as morally outstanding in its own era. Consider the following observation from the analytic philosopher of religion Paul Copan:

Middle Assyrian laws punished not a rapist but a rapist’s wife and even allowed her to be gang-raped. In other ancient Near Eastern laws, men could freely whip their wives, pull out their hair, mutilate their ears, or strike them –a dramatic contrast to Israel’s laws, which gave no such permission.5

These laws were clearly steps in the right moral direction. I also cannot quite see how they would violate, strictly and in principle, natural rights. It is interesting to ponder whether these laws, though they appear primitive to us (their beneficiaries who have had several thousand years to build systems of law influenced by them), really do appear to lubricate the gears of progress insofar as they really do catalyze significant legal and moral progress. Notice that David Werner Amram, a reputed legal scholar in his time, argued that progress in the holistic interpretation, understanding and application of the Pentateuch’s law concerning adultery was already observable by the end of the first century (A.D.).

Under the Talmudic law the severity of the Mosaic code was in many instances modified, and the laws relating to Adultery came under the influence of a milder theory of the relation of crime and punishment. Indeed, the rabbis went so far as to declare that a woman could not be convicted of Adultery unless it had been affirmatively shown that she knew the law relating to it—a theory that resulted in the practical impossibility of convicting any adulteress. No harm was done by this new view, because the right of divorce which remained to the husband was sufficient to free him from the woman, who, although guilty of the crime, was not punishable by the law. Upon this mild view followed the entire abolition of the death penalty, in the year 40, before the destruction of the Second Temple (Sanh. 41a), when the Jewish courts, probably under pressure of the Roman authorities, relinquished their right to inflict capital punishment. Thereafter, the adulterer was scourged, and the husband of the adulteress was not allowed to condone her crime (Soṭah, vi. 1), but was compelled to divorce her, and she lost all her property rights under her marriage contract (Maimonides, “Yad ha-Ḥazaḳah, Ishut,” xxiv. 6); nor was the adulteress permitted to marry her paramour (Soṭah, v. 1); and if she married him, they were forced to separate.6

Perhaps the sample-size (of precisely one) and the viability of several alternative hypotheses for this apparent progress (conditioned on the implementation of this Jewish legal framework) makes such an argument appear overly ambitious. However, at least as far as the test-tube of history is concerned, the Pentateuch’s laws ostensibly showed themselves to be indisputably progressive, both for their time and in their orientation.

Second, I think the true tropological richness of the passage is filtered through its anagogical (i.e., eschatological) and allegorical senses. It is pretty clear that throughout their literature the Isrealites constantly return to one particularly popular way of conceptualizing their relationship with God, and this is in the form of a marriage covenant. For example:

For your Maker is your husband, the Lord of hosts is his name;
the Holy One of Israel is your Redeemer, the God of the whole earth he is called.”
(Isaiah 54:5)

Israel’s sin and rejection of God, then, was often couched in the language of adultery:

“I passed by you again and looked on you; you were at the age for love. I spread the edge of my cloak over you, and covered your nakedness: I pledged myself to you and entered into a covenant with you, says the Lord God, and you became mine… But you trusted in your beauty, and played the whore because of your fame, and lavished your whorings on any passer-by. You took some of your garments, and made for yourself colorful shrines, and on them played the whore; nothing like this has ever been or ever shall be. You also took your beautiful jewels of my gold and my silver that I had given you, and made for yourself male images, and with them played the whore… Therefore, O whore, hear the word of the Lord… I will judge you as women who commit adultery and shed blood are judged, and bring blood upon you in wrath and jealousy.”
(Ezekiel 16:8,15-17, 35, 38)

The New Testament obviously makes special use of this theme as well, in talking about the Church as the bride of Christ (the bridegroom); indeed, eschatology is ultimately expressed in the Bible using this imagery. So, with this allegorical trope in place, and the anagogical significance of adultery in place, one can see how the punishment for adultery may have been partially motivated by its archetypal significance for Israel within the context of its covenant relationship with God.

As an aside, it seems to me, at the risk of sounding a little cheeky, that the real injustice, if there is one, in the way this law was written seems to be that the man who sleeps with a woman pledged to be married is put to death, even if she seduced him and he had no knowledge that she was pledged to be married. There was obviously a presumption behind the law that men either were already aware of who was (pledged to be) married, or that they had a duty to verify that the person was not married or pledged to be married which it is reasonable to expect them to be able to do. However, just like all systems of law, this one allows for ambiguities, and this is why there are judges (and why jurisprudence develops in an organic way, much like tradition).

As a post-script, I want to acknowledge that there are, of course, other Biblical passages allegedly condoning or enjoining rape. Perhaps the most well known comes from Numbers:

“Now kill all the boys. And kill every woman who has slept with a man, but save for yourselves every girl who has never slept with a man.” (Numbers 31:17-18).

This is, I do not hesitate to say, a difficult passage, but it is largely difficult precisely because young women and girls are spared, while boys are all killed. I can understand the reasons for this; one would want to kill all the males because men are stronger than women, and they may grow up to not only resent the Israelites, but to rebel against them. The married women could be killed for the same reason, for even if they are the weaker sex (on average and in kind), their resentment and ability to rebel (by killing children, for instance, or poisoning men) cannot be ignored. Why, though, spare the young women? I think the idea was that they could be assimilated; in particular because they had obviously not participated in the immorality associated with Baal worship (due to their being demonstrably virginal). This is, however, apologetic speculation on my part. I raise the verse only to call attention to the fact that while Biblical passages can be difficult, no passages (no, not even this one) come close to enjoining rape. Although that seems a popular interpretation in the dark corners of the internet, a much more viable interpretation is that the passage recommends keeping every virgin girl alive and considering them eligible to marry the sons of Israel. In fact, I think that is the standard Jewish (and Christian) interpretation of this passage.

1 Although it is, of course, possible to be raped while being physically prevented from crying out, the law was obviously not written with this circumstance in mind. Rather, this just represents a more primitive standard for evidence establishing guilt ‘beyond a reasonable doubt.’

2 I cannot confirm that this traces back to the Talmud, since I have been unable to find any such reference in the Talmud, however, that may be due to my own incompetence or unfamiliarity with the Talmud. Where I read this about adultery, originally, was from Rabbi Ronald H. Isaacs, in an online article here: http://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/adultery/

3 Another interesting note: the law seems to apply even if the man were seduced by a woman pledged to be married and he had no knowledge that he was participating in adultery. Ironically, then, the law seems especially unjust, if it is unjust at all, to men. I would dispute, however, that this is genuinely unjust; it simply makes presumptions about the man involved in the crime (namely, that he did so with knowledge concerning the act’s adulterous nature, and that of this the judges could be sure beyond reasonable doubt).

4 Think here, for example, of the way the modern constitutional-democratic law treats children as ineligible voters, even though arguments could be made for allowing them to vote should they feel so inclined. Indeed, they arguably have a greater vested interest in politics than do senior citizens, but they are treated unequally under the law because we believe that most of them are unable to consent to the extent we reasonably expect voters to be able to consent. Consider, additionally, whether it intrinsically violates human rights to be able to forcefully conscript men into the military (in a time of desperation and war), but not forcefully conscript women into the military (perhaps allowing them to exercise freedom in joining the military under these conditions).

5 Paul Copan, Is God a Moral Monster?: Making Sense of the Old Testament God. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2011. 140.

6 David Werner Amram, “Adultery” in The Jewish Encyclopedia. http://www.jewishencyclopedia.com/articles/865-adultery

If Atheism is true, we ought to believe that Theism is true.

Years ago when I was struggling with whether I should become an atheist or not, several arguments dissuaded me from going that route. One argument which I had come up with for myself was a purely pragmatic argument which seemed, at the time, pretty good to me. In retrospect and with the advantage of a bit more maturity, I think the argument I had in mind was far from compelling. However, it was interesting nevertheless. I was unfortunately never able to track down certain miscellaneous quotes from Nietzsche with the use of which I wanted to frame part of the argument, but that may be because they were apocryphal to begin with. In any case, I will, in what follows, try to give the reader a decent sense of how this pragmatic argument is supposed to go.

In my youth I was committed to the project of truth-seeking; I felt uncompromising and optimistic. I recall, just by way of anecdote, that a professor of mine in a pre-university philosophy course asked the class which we would rather be: a happy pig or a miserable philosopher. I was one of the few (perhaps, actually, the only one) who said I would rather be the miserable philosopher, because the philosopher would be better able to ascertain the truth. This illustrated, I thought, my commitment to believing something – anything – in virtue only of its truth. This seemed to me, at the time, both right-headed and morally upstanding. However, there came a point where I began to feel myself sliding inevitably towards atheism, naturalism, empiricism and nihilism (a philosophical cocktail of bad ideas). I was slightly horrified by the thought that this collection of ideas may be true, and that perhaps intellectual sincerity would lead any inquiring mind (or, perhaps, at least mine) to affirm them. I reasoned that if they were true, however unpleasant I may find them, I ought to believe them.

It was only after a bit of reflection, coupled with sufficient exposure to two atheistic intellects (namely, Friedrich Nietzsche and William Clifford) that I began to recognize that I was illegitimately importing a sort of quasi-Judeo-Christian commitment into my ethics of belief. I realized that if atheism and nihilism were true, then were would be no robust ethics of belief at all, no moral imperative to believe that atheism is true. On the Judeo-Christian view, there is a sort of natural connection between truth, goodness and beauty. Beauty, on this view, is indicative of goodness, goodness of truth, and these relations are reciprocal. I had not previously considered, however, just how intellectually revolutionary atheism really is; there is, as far as I can see, absolutely no reason to suspect that the truth is either good or beautiful if atheism is true. The truth would just be whatever it is, however ugly or horrifying, however existentially disorientating and dreadful. In such a scenario, where is the moral value in believing in that which is true for no other reason than that it is true?

These ruminations led me to construct the following argument:

  1. Either theism is true, or atheism is true.
  2. If theism is true, then I ought to believe that theism is true.
  3. If atheism is true, then I ought to believe that theism is true.
  4. Therefore, I ought to believe that theism is true.

Intuitively the most surprising premise here is clearly the third, but I think that there are some eligible reasons for thinking that it is true. Allow me a moment to unpack that, a little, by appealing to Nietzsche.

Friedrich Nietzsche was one of the most stunning atheistic intellectuals of all time as well as one of the most perceptive avant-guarde philosophers (if he can be called a philosopher) to ever hold pen to paper. I have been fascinated with him at least since reading On the Genealogy of Morality: A Polemic. His insights, in some ways, have the eerie quality of haunting the mind forevermore once they have been introduced. It is to him I appeal, partly, in setting up this pragmatic argument for belief in theism. Consider the following two passages from Beyond Good and Evil:

“All psychology so far has been stuck in moral prejudices and fears: it has not ventured into the depths. To grasp psychology as morphology and the doctrine of the development of the will to power, which is what I have done – nobody has ever come close to this, not even in thought: this, of course, to the extent that we are permitted to regard what has been written so far as a symptom of what has not been said until now. The power of moral prejudice has deeply affected the most spiritual world, which seems like the coldest world, the one most likely to be devoid of any presuppositions – and the effect has been manifestly harmful, hindering, dazzling, and distorting… But suppose somebody considers even the affects of hatred, envy, greed, and power-lust as the conditioning affects of life, as elements that fundamentally and essentially need to be present in the total economy of life, and consequently need to be enhanced where life is enhanced, – this person will suffer from such a train of thought as if from sea-sickness. And yet even this hypothesis is far from being the most uncomfortable and unfamiliar in this enormous, practically untouched realm of dangerous knowledge: – and there are hundreds of good reasons for people to keep out of it, if they – can! On the other hand, if you are ever cast loose here with your ship, well now! come on! clench your teeth! open your eyes! and grab hold of the helm! – we are sailing straight over and away from morality; we are crushing and perhaps destroying the remnants of our own morality by daring to travel there – but what do we matter! Never before have intrepid voyagers and adventurers opened up a more profound world of insight: and the psychologist who “makes sacrifices” (they are not the sacrifizio dell’intelletto – to the contrary!) can at least demand in return that psychology again be recognized as queen of the sciences, and that the rest of the sciences exist to serve and prepare for it. Because, from now on, psychology is again the path to the fundamental problems.”1

A little later he writes:

“Something could be true even if it is harmful and dangerous to the highest degree. It could even be part of the fundamental character of existence that people with complete knowledge get destroyed, – so that the strength of a spirit would be proportionate to how much of the “truth” he could withstand – or, to put it more clearly, to what extent he needs it to be thinned out, veiled over, sweetened up, dumbed down, and lied about. But there is no doubt that when it comes to discovering certain aspects of the truth, people who are evil and unhappy are more fortunate and have a greater probability of success (not to mention those who are both evil and happy – a species that the moralists don’t discuss).”2

Nietzsche is, here, highlighting the point that there is no reason to believe there will be any correlation between truth and desirability, much less truth and goodness. If psychology, not physics, philosophy or theology, is the true queen of the sciences, then why the truth? Why not rather the lie?

There is, however, a caveat. Even if moral nihilism is ultimately true in the sense that there is no moral ontology, a naturalist, I thought, should still practice something like rule-utilitarianism, even if only out of self-interest (which, I suppose, makes it a form of ethical egoism). What I mean by that is that atheists can still have a rationale for adopting an ethics of belief; one which is admittedly not morally loaded, but which is nevertheless sufficient for practical purposes. They can appeal, for instance, to personal preferences for living in the context of a social contract. That is, in fact, what I was preparing to do if I became an atheist.

What does this atheistic ethic of belief come to? In answer to this I can turn to William Clifford, whose evocative essay, The Ethics of Belief, is the “locus classicus”3 for subsequent philosophical reflection on the ethics of belief. In that essay Clifford argued that “it is wrong always, everywhere, and for anyone, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence.”4 He reasoned that beliefs formed upon insufficient evidence were liable to lead, in general, to otherwise avoidable suffering, providing some provocative thought experiments to illustrate his point. He insisted that beliefs are really just the chain-links between sensation and action, and that no bona fide belief has no influence over action. Perhaps I can be permitted to quote him at length;

“Nor is it that truly a belief at all which has not some influence upon the actions of him who holds it. He who truly believes that which prompts him to an action has looked upon the action to lust after it, he has committed it already in his heart. If a belief is not realized immediately in open deeds, it is stored up for the guidance of the future. It goes to make a part of that aggregate of beliefs which is the link between sensation and action at every moment of all our lives, and which is so organized and compacted together that no part of it can be isolated from the rest, but every new addition modifies the structure of the whole. No real belief, however trifling and fragmentary it may seem, is ever truly insignificant; it prepares us to receive more of its like, confirms those which resembled it before, and weakens others; and so gradually it lays a stealthy train in our inmost thoughts, which may someday explode into overt action, and leave its stamp upon our character for ever. And no one man’s belief is in any case a private matter which concerns himself alone. Our lives are guided by that general conception of the course of things which has been created by society for social purposes. Our words, our phrases, our forms and processes and modes of thought, are common property, fashioned and perfected from age to age; an heirloom which every succeeding generation inherits as a precious deposit and a sacred trust to be handled on to the next one, not unchanged but enlarged and purified, with some clear marks of its proper handiwork. Into this, for good or ill, is woven every belief of every man who has speech of his fellows. An awful privilege, and an awful responsibility, that we should help to create the world in which posterity will live”5

To have beliefs which are formed upon insufficient evidence, then, is to be liable to act on misinformation, which, if it results in preventable harm, represents the fruits of a failure to properly discharge one’s social duties in forming one’s beliefs. I have treated more extensively of Clifford’s views elsewhere (and I refer the interested reader to another post here), so I won’t spend any time critiquing his views. What is significant, here, is that all the thought experiments Clifford provides make clear that he is a consequentialist, and, in particular, presumably a rule-utilitarian. That implies, though, that if there were a false belief which led, on its own, to no negative consequences (and perhaps even led to positive ones) it could be adopted without fear of failing to discharge one’s ethical duties with respect to belief-formation.

Clifford’s ethic may provide the atheist with an understandable motivation to eradicate religion. What, though, about theism? Theism and religion are not necessarily inseparable; there are atheistic religions (e.g., Buddhism) as well as irreligious forms of theism (e.g., Deism). So what difference does theism itself make? Well, it allows one to consistently avoid moral nihilism, for a start. It safeguards us against the overwhelming existential angst of living in a world in which our entire lives necessarily amount to nothing more than ‘sound and fury signifying nothing,‘ the effect of taking seriously is veritably crippling. Theism provides a rational basis for hope, a firm foundation for existential optimism. Theism seems more psychologically natural (consider the reasons evolutionary psychologists provide for why we have beliefs like theism at all), it is more epistemically conservative, it is in line with phenomenal conservatism. Indeed, if one is a pragmatist, then I think one already has good reasons to be a theist; theism, after all, adds nothing but philosophical elegance and existential optimism to one’s view of the world. Provide me with any naturalistic view of reality and I can create at least one theistic parody of it with the result that the view I provide will have no relevant differences save for improvements like having fewer brute facts, or being existentially more bearable (of course, it may also be slightly less parsimonious, but at an agreeable cost, and besides, it isn’t easy to see why parsimony would be valuable in its own right on atheism, even if it were,6 on atheism, indicative of truth).

One can easily imagine an old widow, living alone with only her faith and knitting needles to comfort her as she faces the prospect of death. Strip her faith of every element save for theism (and whatever one might have to add to theism to get existential optimism in the face of death); can anyone imagine a scenario where that belief alone contributes in any way to otherwise avoidable suffering? Does anyone really think it can be our moral duty to disabuse her of her belief in God? One might argue that the belief invites more of its kind, and it is, in kind, a belief based upon apparently insufficient evidence. However, there is a sub-kind of this kind which, I’m arguing, can be believed upon insufficient evidence with no possibility of negative consequences, and it is this ‘kind’ of belief about which Clifford must remain silent. After all, we don’t want to disqualify beliefs on the basis of arbitrary ‘kinds,’ and I have pointed to a significant difference in kind between beliefs like theism and the sorts of religious or superstitious beliefs to which Clifford’s attention is drawn.

Now, in reality, I think much more can be said by way of defense not only of religious beliefs, but of the proper basicality of beliefs like the belief that God exists. However, I am attempting to make religion (and controverted epistemologies) as peripheral to the argument as possible, and attempting to show how theism, at least, seems always and everywhere to be a beneficial belief, all things being equal.

How good, really, is this argument? Well, although I feel that atheism would be a metaphysical nightmare, and I agree with thinkers like Nietzsche (et alia) who recognize that atheism is anything but a desirable truth, perhaps some optimistic atheist would just disagree with this and insist that atheism is good news. Additionally the atheist may argue that it is our social duty to embrace atheism (or the agnostic argue that it is our social duty to embrace agnosticism) because either (i) I am wrong to think that theism in itself (conjoined with whatever auxiliary assumptions will license existential optimism) is a beneficial rather than harmful belief in general, or (ii) I am wrong to think that I can legitimately distinguish the ‘kind’ of belief theism represents and the ‘kind’ of belief Clifford warns us against, or both. Finally, the atheist can also argue that it isn’t so clear that if theism is true one ought to believe that theism is true (perhaps God rewards the intellectual honesty of disbelief). Premise two could, therefore, be called into question, but it will be hard to do so if, on theism, there really is a connection between truth, goodness and beauty (or, at least, a correlation between truth and ultimate desirability). The third premise is obviously the critical one; that if atheism is true, and assuming there can be an ethics of belief at all, it seems to follow that one ought to believe that theism is true in light of the clear psychological (existential, philosophical, et cetera) benefits of belief in God, with none of the potential negative consequences associated with other false beliefs. The only other way to get away from this argument which I can think of would be to deny the first premise by appealing to something like verificationism, logical positivism or non-cognitivism about the proposition “God exists.”

So the argument is, like all arguments, only as powerful for some subject as the premises are plausible to that subject. I can imagine numerous ways for the atheist to object to the argument. I, myself, cannot shake the impression that each premise is extremely plausible, but this impression hangs on the view that atheism would be a horrible truth, theism would be a comparably wonderful truth (which, if true, ought to be believed whether we are pragmatists or correspondence theorists, so long as we agree to have an ethics of belief at all), atheism provides no rationale for believing something merely in virtue of its truth, and that theism, as a belief, seems preferable to atheism even if atheism is true.

1 Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil: Prelude to a Philosophy of the Future, eds., Rolf-Peter Horstmann and Judith Norman, trans. Judith Norman.” Cambridge Texts in the History of Philosophy (2002): 23-24.

2 Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil: Prelude to a Philosophy of the Future, eds., Rolf-Peter Horstmann and Judith Norman, trans. Judith Norman.” Cambridge Texts in the History of Philosophy (2002): 37.

3 Chignell, Andrew, “The Ethics of Belief”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2017 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/spr2017/entries/ethics-belief/&gt;.

4 Chignell, Andrew, “The Ethics of Belief”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2017 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/spr2017/entries/ethics-belief/&gt;.