Certain Doubters
September 6, 2007 — 17:21

Author: Robert Gressis  Category: Atheism & Agnosticism  Comments: 31

Thanks to Jeremy Pierce and Matthew Mullins for getting me on The Prosblogion. And thanks to those who welcomed me in the comments section.

I want to start with a question: why are atheistic philosophers so much more certain of their beliefs than theistic philosophers are? (N. B.: I’m talking here just of atheistic and theistic philosophers – not the man in the street.)  

Let me elaborate a bit:

In my experience, most philosophy graduate students and professors who are atheists seem not to have any worries or doubts about whether their atheism is true – they (or at least the naturalists among them) don’t seem to suffer from the worry that naturalistic atheism might just be some wonderful (or horrifying) dream. Most, or at least many, of the theists I know, on the other hand, seem to have just that worry about theism, or at least about their religious version of it: maybe I believe theism (or Christian theism) because of wish-fulfillment, or just because I was raised that way, or because of self-deception, or whatever.

Moreover, many of the atheistic philosophers I know are quite confidently atheistic because of one (or more) of the following arguments: the evidential argument from evil, the argument that the concept of God (or at least the popular, “three-O” conception) is incoherent or self-contradictory, or the argument that bringing in God doesn’t explain anything that naturalism doesn’t explain better. The theists, by contrast, are often inclined to play defense. Obviously, there are people out there like William Lane Craig, Richard Swinburne, and our own Alexander Pruss who are happy to give arguments for believing theism, particularly Christian theism, but many Christian philosophers I know think those arguments are non-starters, or at least aren’t Christians on the basis of arguments like that. Instead, they tend to believe in God or Christianity on the basis of religious experience or upbringing, and hold that there is nothing irrational in their doing so.

I admit my impressions may be wrong; perhaps I am one of only a few philosophers who thinks this is the state of things. If so, then of course the above doesn’t really need much of an explanation. But since this is how things seem to me, I’m going to assume I’m right. My wonder about this is: what explains this state of affairs?

Here are a few possible explanations:

  1. Atheism is just more reasonable than theism, either in the generic form or in any of its religious guises. Because atheism is more reasonable, people who believe it generally feel quite comfortable believing it, whereas those who deny it (and who, like philosophers, are in the business of constantly examining their assumptions) cannot help but to feel unsure about their non-atheism.
  2. Theism is more chipper than atheism. That is, if theism is true lots of other things we want to be true are much likelier to be true – for instance, salvation in the afterlife, a genuine right and wrong, an ultimately intelligible nature, a meaningful life, etc. Any belief-system that confirms so many of the things we want to be true is one we may suspect is too good to be true.  
  3. Philosophy right now is dominated by atheists. Because theists are in the minority, they generally feel more circumspect in forwarding their conclusions and are less likely to feel invulnerably confident about their beliefs. After all, if most of the smart people you know don’t agree with you about something as fundamental as theism, then you may very well think that there’s something wrong with you rather than them. (Compare this to the situation of the atheist: most of the people around him agree with him; indeed, he might go through his entire graduate career encountering no theists at all.)
  4. Philosophers have a superiority complex. On this view, philosophers typically invest a lot of their self-esteem in their sense of how intelligent they are. One way of convincing yourself that you’re intelligent is by disagreeing with conventional wisdom about matters – belief in God, for example.
  5. Skepticism is easy. Skeptical views – atheism, hard determinism, moral nihilism, and perhaps anti-realism – are perhaps hard to live, but are easy to maintain. While it’s true that any skeptical position relies on some positive epistemic principles, it also seems that denying a position often, or perhaps usually, takes less hard thinking than asserting something.
  6. The religious explanation: All the foregoing were explanations that did not themselves advert to religious principles. But we can add one such religious explanation, stemming from the nature of faith itself: belief in God requires faith, and faith is a habit, or the result of a habit, that has to develop through practice, and perhaps even in a community of like-minded believers. Thus, it is not surprising that there should be fewer theistic than atheistic philosophers; what is instead surprising is why so many non-philosophers claim to be religious.

I think many of these explanations, particularly (2)-(5), have something going for them that explains the situation. Rather than go into my reasons for believing parts of (2)-(5), I think I should leave this one to the commentators.

  • One of my colleagues, Linda Peterson, has an intesting paper regarding an assymetry very similar to the one you mention, Rob. Here is a snippet:
    The view that theism is irrational is not uncommon among contemporary philosophers. Most opponents of theism hold that belief in God is, at best, unsupported by any compelling evidence, i.e., groundless, and, at worst, contrary to available evidence, i.e., demonstrably false. According to this view, genuine philosophy leaves absolutely no room for faith. There is a certain asymmetry between the presumed evidentiary obligations of theists over against those of atheists. Theism, so the presumption goes, is prima facie implausible, whereas atheism is held to have overwhelming prima facie plausibility. Hence, in the absence of proof of theism, it is assumed that a rational person can simply take it for granted that atheism is true. Of course, theists, over the centuries, have responded to this atheological challenge with myriad arguments for the truth of theism, each of which has been roundly challenged by atheologians. I will forego discussion of this debate in deference to focus on a more fundamental issue confronting theists, viz., the alleged irrationality of simple faith. It should be noted that relatively few of theism’s most prominent defenders hold that rational demonstrations are a sine qua non of reasonable faith. Among theists who hold that there is definitive proof of God’s existence, few are able to claim such demonstrations as a motivational substratum of belief. The typical theist’s religious faith antedates her exposure to and critical scrutiny of reasons in defense of her faith. Following the atheological asymmetry presumption, such a theist, whose faith awaits proof, is less rational than her atheistic counterpart, who embraces atheism without proof. In what follows, I argue that this presumption is unwarranted.
    In the rest of the paper, she argues that there is no good reason to simply assume that theism is less rational than atheism, and that there is no warrant for thinking that the burden of proof in this debate rests exclusively on the shoulders of theism.

    September 6, 2007 — 19:33
  • Douglas Moore

    I think it’s 3, 4 and 5. 4 and 5 go together. It’s far easier to be skeptical of certain things, and the ease with which you can defend such skeptical stances is confidence-producing.
    3 works in in this way(at least for me): I think to most theists/deists the existence of God is somehow obvious, even if there are no compelling, or conclusive, or successful arguments for it. That there should be such a large majority of philosophers who deny something we find obvious is very disheartening and mind-bending. Think of it like this: Arguments for epistemological skepticism are pretty powerful, yet it seems clear and obvious that we know the things those arguments cast into doubt. What non-skeptic among us hasn’t felt the force of skepticism on occasion?

    September 6, 2007 — 21:22
  • Suppose that philosophers are distinct from the general population by being the kind of people for whom rational, evidence-based argument is the most important way of establishing truth. And suppose that theism is the kind of belief for which the most widespread motivation in the general population happens to be not rational, evidence-based argument but some other route to belief. Then I guess we would expect to see exactly the asymmetry that exists.
    (By the way, I realise this may be a corollary of number 1 in your list, or a condensed version of Linda Peterson’s idea that Kevin posted above.)

    September 7, 2007 — 3:41
  • Is there a link to Linda Peterson’s paper?

    September 7, 2007 — 10:02
  • John Alexander

    Thanks for a very interesting post.
    First I would like to make the following distinctions:
    1) Atheism = not believing in theism,
    2) Atheism = theism is unreasonable.
    3) Atheism = theism is not supported by the evidence
    4) Atheism = theism is false
    5) Atheism = not believing in God.
    6) Atheism = believing is God is unreasonable
    7) Atheism = belief in God is not supported by the evidence
    8) Atheism = there is no God
    I think that a one can be confident that 1 or 5 is true while maintaining that the others are either false or unknown. After all 1 and 4 simply refer to what one believes.
    With the others, it seems to me that the burden of proof rests with the one making the assertion. The atheist who would support 5 and/or 6 should provide reasons/evidence that supports their position independent of the theists’ ability to prove their position. Demanding that theists prove their position is not an argument against theism if they fail; it simply indicates that the argument does not work.
    So I think that the confidence one has regarding any of these options (other then 1 or 5) is the strength of the argument or evidence that supports their position. Being an atheist in the sense of 1 and 3 does not mean that I am confident in the truth of any of the other options.

    September 7, 2007 — 10:48
  • I think 2, 3 and 5 are true. I think 6 as stated is false. It is possible to believe that God exists, like the demons do, without having the virtue of faith. I also think 1 is false. (E.g., a standard part of most atheist views is that the universe came into existence ex nihilo. That’s irrational to believe.) I don’t know if 4 is true.
    Two more explanations:
    7. The Christian philosopher is apt to believe that her eternal destiny depends on part on whether she believes in God. (Belief in God is not a sufficient condition for having faith, much less love, but apart from special cases, it is a necessary condition for faith.) Thus, faith is held on to rather forcefully, and this forceful clutching of faith is apt to produce doubts. (E.g., because there is the worry that one is holding on to faith for Pascalian reasons rather than because of conviction.)
    8. At least within our ken, there are a lot more poor reasons not to believe than good reasons to believe. This is a case of a general fact that there are more poor reasons than good ones, at least within our our ken. There are a lot more poor reasons to believe the earth is flat than good reasons to believe it is round. (E.g., the following argument is a bad reason to believe that the earth is flat: “The earth is flat and 2+2=4; but 2+2 is not 4; hence the earth is flat.”) Now God and the devil act differently in the soul. God wants one to believe, but presumably not on account of bad arguments. The devil, however, does not care whether his methods involve the giving of good reasons or not. So the devil keeps on assaulting the soul of the believer with fallacious arguments, with considerations long-ago rightly rejected, etc. Moreover, if the devil can’t get the believer to become a non-believer, he will at least want the believer to be full of disquiet. At the same time, God may choose for the believer to go through a dark night with grace as a hidden guide, etc. So maybe a part of the difference is due to a difference in the modus operandi in the powers that strive in each direction.
    I feel about 7 that it is a better explanation than 8, but that may just be due to an unjustified discomfort at using the devil as a part of causal explanations.

    September 7, 2007 — 11:59
  • Heath White

    I was going to suggest 3. Evidence for 3 is that, when the situation is reversed and theists are dominant–as among the student body in the Bible belt school where I teach–the theists are quite confident and the atheists are often on the defensive.

    September 7, 2007 — 12:55
  • Quentin Smith thinks that most contemporary naturalists do not know naturalism to be true, because they do not know how to refute the careful arguments of smart contemporary theists, which they do not know how to refute because they have never read them. This is presumably a part of the story. Theistic philosophers all know many arguments against theism based on premises our philosophical community takes seriously.
    Atheistic philosophers by and large, if Smith is right, just do not know such arguments. Some do. I’d be curious whether those that do might not experience more doubt.
    Here’s another thought. For some theistic philosophers, theism is an important part of their philosophical story, but not entailed by a central principle on which everything hangs. Take a Thomistic natural law thinker. Suppose she ceased to be a theist. She would have to revise various beliefs, such as that natures are images of God, that our ultimate end is to know God, etc. But many, many of her philosophical positions would continue to be at least somewhat tenable. She could still think we have natures that define our flourishing. She could still be a hylomorphist. Much of her ethics and her ontology could prima facie remain unchanged. Of course there might be deep inconsistencies induced by dropping theism and keeping much of the rest of the view, but she might not notice those.
    On the other hand, a typical atheist philosopher is a materialist. If she became a theist, at least a Christian one, many central beliefs would need to be revised. She might have to conclude that there is objective morality, if she didn’t already believe that. She would no longer be able to say that evolutionary-type processes are the necessary ground for intentionality (since God did not himself evolve), or make any of a bunch of other claims that are plausible to materialist philosophers of mind. She might well have to revise her view of causation, since she would have to accept that a timeless being could cause something in time (assuming she became a traditional theist). Etc.
    It might thus be the case that a lot more of the philosophical views of a theist philosopher could survive with theism dropped out than in the case of an atheist. But if so, then the atheist is going to consider evidence for any of these views that would have to be dropped if she became a theist as evidence against theism. Wherever she turns in her thinking, she will see apparent evidence for atheism, because all of her philosophical thinking is (let us suppose) centered on materialism, and materialism entails atheism.
    I have no idea if this is true, if it is true that for a greater percentage of naturalism philosophers their naturalism is more tightly integrated with their other beliefs than theism is for Christian philosophers. But if it is, we have an explanation here.
    Finally, I think there is a lot to 3. Specifically, I think that we have a bunk-o-meter which helps us dismiss crazy, silly and clearly false views. This is very useful, because there is an infinity of such views (e.g., consider the view that my liver weighs ten tons but that weight is offset by an antigravity and antiinertia force in my abdomen). But the bunk-o-meter is culturally conditioned (which is fine, since our culture is the repository of much wisdom), and sometimes malfunctions. Once someone’s bunk-o-meter decrees a proposition not as merely false but as bunk, as crazy, as mythological, it is very hard to take at all seriously arguments against for the view (except maybe when writing a book on scepticism). And the bunk-o-meter of a lot of philosophers does flag theism just as much as the bunk-o-meter of almost everybody in our culture flags Greek mythology.

    September 7, 2007 — 15:56
  • John Farrell,
    I send you an email with a copy of Linda’s article attached.
    If anyone else is interested in a copy of it, send me an email; I have her permission to share it with interested parties.

    September 7, 2007 — 20:53
  • John Alexander

    A point of clarification. I misspoke when I wrote, “I think that a one can be confident that 1 or 5 is true while maintaining that the others are either false or unknown. After all 1 and 4 simply refer to what one believes.”
    I should have said that 1 and 5 are true if they refer to the actual beliefs states of the persons holding them. I should have then said that the others are either true or false, known or unknown before moving on to the claim that the burden of proof rest with the one making the assertion.
    I am not trying to be provccative here, I am simply claiming what I think is an somewhat trivial point that is often overlooked that the confidence one has in one’s position rest on (with) the strength that one has in what one offers in support of his/her position. I am not a theist because I think the evidence supports a non-theistic position more then it does a theistic one. My father, who was a minister, took the same evidence as supporting his theistic beliefs. Now of course we were filtering this evidence thru different conceptual schemas where certain core belifs that we held were not the same. but the point is that my father was not irrational because he beleived in theism even though I thought the evidence did not support his position and he did not think I was irrational for the same reason. We thought the other wrong, but that does not entail that one then has to conclude that the other is irrational.
    I believe that 1 and 3 are true and that the others are false.In Robert’s classifications I support #1 because I believe 1 and 3 (in my distinctions) are true. However, I do not think that this means that non-atheists are necessarily less comfortable with their position, especially given the strength of commitment of some of the assertions and argument given on this blog and the practicing theists that I have known in my life.

    September 7, 2007 — 21:09
  • Gene Witmer

    As one of those confident atheist philosophers, I thought it might be apt for me to chime in. (I read Prosblogion intermittently but haven’t commented before.) I’m sure sociological factors play some role (as per #3 above), but there are two other explanations I want to point to.
    The first is suggested to me by a remark Alston makes in the Introduction to *Perceiving God*. He writes:
    “Contemporary American nonbelieving academics, in philosophy and elsewhere, often find it curious that some of their intelligent and highly respected colleagues are believers even though they do not claim to possess any conclusive arguments for their religious beliefs. I believe that what is revealed in this book concerning the role of the experience of God in providing grounds, both psychological and epistemic, for religious belief can help to explain this phenomenon.” (p. 5)
    I suspect that Alston is right in that most sophisticated believers have some religious experience that at least provides a psychological explanation of their belief. (I would be very curious to see whether Prosblogion readers who are believers can confirm this.) If it is true that most sophisticated believers wouldn’t believe without having had the relevant experiences, then you should have no trouble understanding the position of non-believers.
    Imagine: if you entirely lack anything resembling a religious experience, and you don’t find theistic beliefs arising spontaneously and naturally — so that you have nothing to incline you to belief *other than* the arguments for theism, would you find the question of theism at all compelling or urgent?
    I doubt it. Interesting as some of the arguments are, none of them is, I daresay, all that powerful — especially if we are aiming at the conclusion that a being with the traditional features exists. Since most theistic philosophers seem to acknowledge the same point, however — recognizing only a limited force to such arguments — is it really that surprising that those of us who lack those experiences don’t worry much about it?
    You might say that this merely explains why we don’t believe, not why we’re confident about it. But the sort of confidence in question, as described in the initial post, is just the lack of angst over the question. As put there, the observation is that most atheist philosophers “don’t seem to suffer from the worry that naturalistic atheism might just be some wonderful (or horrifying) dream.” Not worrying about error is not the same thing as a kind of “I refuse to listen to opposing arguments” dogmatism.” My point is that if one doesn’t have those experiences or naturally arising beliefs, the arguments for theism are, you know, interesting philosophical arguments, but they’re far from being powerful enough to cause one to fret over them. They’re on a par with, say, interesting philosophical arguments for phenomenalism or dialethsim or other views we find strange.
    The second explanation concerns the practical consequences of error. Suppose I’m wrong and God does exist; how bad of a consequence is this? If I could take seriously the prospect of a God that punishes disbelief per se, I would worry. But I don’t see how anyone with any moral sense could take that kind of God seriously. If we’ve arrived at our disbelief in a conscientious manner (and I *hope* our theist friends will concede us this much, but maybe not), what do we have to worry about? Of course, we might lose out on the benefits of such belief if it’s true, but there’s no threat of hellfire if we get it wrong. At least, this sort of attitude makes it perfectly explicable why atheists don’t *worry* in the way described in the initial post. If we’re wrong, well, we’re wrong, but unless reality is truly as twisted and horrifying as a monstrous Lovecraftian tale, that error is not going to lead us to some horrid fate.

    September 7, 2007 — 21:46
  • I think the answer is 1. I think most atheistic philosophy professors end up retaining their atheism over time because they think there’s just very little reason to accept it.
    There may be all sorts of other causes of their initial advocacy of atheism (e.g., as teenagers they are put off by various religious things and people), but the reason they stick with it, the one that keeps them advocating atheism over their adulthood, can be summarized as follows.
    ‘Well, it certainly could be true, in the sense that there is no knockdown argument against its possibility, but as it has turned out the arguments for theism stink, and while religious experiences are impressive, there is little reason to think they call out for the truth of theism’.
    That’s my guess!

    September 7, 2007 — 22:15
  • David Slakter

    Regarding Quentin Smith, it seems that he is raising the bar for atheists to the same level as that for theists. For those who believe that the bar is already too high, such as myself, his approach is unsatisfactory. Outside of that, Smith is clearly right about many naturalists’ ignorance of careful arguments for theism.
    As to whether being aware of those arguments might lead an atheist to have more doubts, they at least should make atheism seem less obviously true to atheists. Or perhaps that’s just another way of saying that should have more doubts.

    September 8, 2007 — 8:18
  • I’d say some theist uncertainty has much to do with the fact that, even if God does exist, the work isn’t over for them. The task still remains to discern what traits God has, what role God plays in our world, what’s expected of humanity, etc. A traditional Catholic theist has a host of ideas and arguments to consider, and subsequently criticisms to answer. Thus far more opportunities to be uncertain of something (and therefore, perhaps, everything) than, say, an atheist (owing largely to #5.)
    Some atheists (Most? Many? I do not know) have have the opposite quirk going on – they seem content to declare atheism on the basis of not believing in one type of God. Not just the O3 God, but a specific view of the O3 God, where if act X is evil yet still is allowed to occur, the O3 God cannot exist, end of discussion. All other philosophical that may touch on God in some way (philosophy of mind, nature, etc) are, when it comes to God in particular, just sport at that point.
    Actually, that would be an interesting way of approaching a discussion between a theist and atheist: Instead of arguing point-blank about the existence of God, arguing over whether a collection of traits of a given being would make it reasonable to regard said being as God, and then whether it’s reasonable for a being to exist that has each of those traits individually.

    September 8, 2007 — 20:48
  • Alexander R Pruss wrote:
    I also think 1 is false. (E.g., a standard part of most atheist views is that the universe came into existence ex nihilo. That’s irrational to believe.)
    I’m not sure that this is true. I’m not aware of any study identifying the cosmology of “most atheist views.”
    Anecdotally, I can say that the answer I hear most from atheists about the beginning of the universe (and the answer, I, personally, give) is “I don’t know.”
    This doesn’t seem, to me, to be “irrational to believe.” Personally, I find positing a powerful being who thinks without a brain, who affects matter without being physical, who creates a sloppy and dangerous universe while supposedly having infinite wisdom is a bit irrational–i.e. it is believed without reason to believe.

    September 9, 2007 — 9:23
  • There’s a question I’ve always wanted to ask and I think its relevant to this thread as it relates to #1 (“either in its generic form…), and to Dr. Witmer’s comment above.
    Are there any philosophers who are theists or very sympathetic to theism given their philosophical reasoning but are not religious? Most atheist-theist debates feature materialists on the one hand and the traditionally religious on the other, but perhaps there are notable exceptions in the philosophical community?

    September 10, 2007 — 11:31
  • Professor Witmer:
    I agree that the idea of God punishing those who, after sufficient and honest investigation, find the reasons for belief insufficient is indeed morally problematic. But it is not unreasonable to suppose that God would punish those who neglected to investigate the issue with the seriousness and intellectual honesty that the issue calls for (after all, the question whether there is an infinitely good being love for whom is the center of a flourishing human life is plainly a question of great importance). And here there is room for anxiety: “Did I indeed investigate the matter sufficiently? Did I do so with an unjustified aim of coming away with a particular conclusion? Did I sincerely try to overcome any biases that might have hampered my investigation? Did I develop a virtuous character for the investigation? (For it might be that when one is investigating the being that is claimed to be the Good Itself, one only has much hope of finding if one has a good grasp of the good, and it may be that a good grasp of the good is developed through virtue.)”
    These are, I think, hard questions for anyone.
    (You might of course ask whether I apply the same standards to theists. Yes, I do, but there is a long story to be told there about the supernatural grace of faith and how it is reasonable to hold on to that faith even if one is unable to find good arguments. No parallel story can be given by an atheist, since disbelief in God is not a part of a supernatural virtue on anybody’s account.)

    September 10, 2007 — 12:45
  • I think one explanation is that philosophers, both theist and atheist, are a part of post modern academic culture and its biases.
    1 People who are good at something tend to view it as the end all and be all. Post modern culture is good at science and technology, everything else is secondary. (Science can’t know God, therefor God is secondary and more likely not to exist.)
    2. Our culture does not like uncertainty. We see ourselves as too smart for uncertainty. Science will sooner or later find all the answers and it is just a matter of time. Things of faith are uncertain and it requires the leap of faith. (Faith, viewed in this context is not a strength but a weakness.)
    3. Progress (more like change)is viewed as the ultimate end. New things are good and old things are bad.. (Religion is old and therefore bad.)
    4. Our culture looks for a truth to serve us and not a truth to serve (Jacques Maritain said something like this in a different context). (If there was a God it would demand that I serve him and not the other way around and this is not what we are wanting)
    5. Left brain is valued more then right brain things. (God is not just rational but relational. Our culture is not comfortable with this and try to restrict it to our personal lives. It like we are autistic in some ways.)
    All these cultural tendencies bias philosophers away from theism.

    September 10, 2007 — 13:40
  • Gene Witmer

    Alexander Pruss wrote:
    “I agree that the idea of God punishing those who, after sufficient and honest investigation, find the reasons for belief insufficient is indeed morally problematic. But it is not unreasonable to suppose that God would punish those who neglected to investigate the issue with the seriousness and intellectual honesty that the issue calls for (after all, the question whether there is an infinitely good being love for whom is the center of a flourishing human life is plainly a question of great importance).”
    The issue is an important one, certainly, and I can see how one would stand under an obligation to investigate it. But I have trouble seeing how this point could be enough to show that atheist philosophers should be anxious. Most such philosophers are going to be reasonably well acquainted with most traditional versions of the relevant arguments, at least to the extent that they’ve investigated the issue to some respectable degree. Should they worry about investigating it *further yet*? How much more of an obligation could they reasonably be supposed to have?
    Perhaps an example will help. Suppose you hear a rumor of something that is such that, if it’s true, it’s quite momentous indeed — say, that Alzheimer’s can be stopped in its tracks by a steady diet of Cheerios cereal. It’s important enough that you’d better at least look into it, strange as it sounds. But after some respectable investigation, during which you find no good reason to believe the claim (at least, by your own lights), it seems silly to suppose you have a continuing obligation to make very sure that you’re right about its falsity. The probability of its truth has (by your lights) dropped below a crucial threshold where it seems sensible just to dismiss it unless new evidence or considerations come to light. Are you to be blamed or punished for not investigating it further? It depends, of course, on how much you’ve actually investigated, but I expect that you’ll agree that there *is* a threshold beyond which you’re released from that obligation (again, pending new evidence or the like).
    In the same way, I suggest, for most atheist philosophers, the hypothesis that God exists has dropped below that threshold. After a certain amount of investigation, it just seems so unlikely that it need not be bothered with any further. Of course, any particular philosopher may have failed to give it due investigation, with due seriousness. The key point, however, is twofold. First, the moral obligation to investigate an important claim only carries so far; if one has honestly concluded after a substantial period of investigation that the claim is just extremely unlikely to be true, that surely will satisfy the obligation. Second, many atheist philosophers will, at least by their own lights, have reached that threshold. If by their own lights, they’ve done quite enough investigation and find theism just far too unlikely to merit further pursuit, then, at least, again, by their own lights, they are hardly morally to be blamed if they are wrong. That’s certainly how I see it.
    You might think that atheist philosophers ought not to be too confident, however, in their thinking they’ve investigated the question sufficiently. After all, immoral motives may well play a role in their coming to believe they’ve investigated sufficiently. One can push the question to higher and higher levels, of course. Suppose I’ve already come to believe I’ve investigated quite enough. Now I can feel some angst over the question: Is my belief I’ve done enough *itself* free from morally regrettable motives? If I believe it is, I can then ask the question again about *that* conclusion: Did I reach that belief in a way that doesn’t involve morally regrettable motives? And so on. Presumably, it’s rational to cease worrying at some point, pending further evidence or considerations.
    I won’t say that all atheist philosophers I know who are confident can lay claim to such rationality, but I do think most of them can. And even if there is an error in there, so that some morally disreputable motives did play some role, if the philosopher has been quite rational in trying to weed out such motives, then, even if some blame or punishment is merited, it seems unlikely to be anything so horrendous as to merit angst.
    Perhaps another analogy may be worth thinking about. Consider the thesis sometimes called the “no free will either way” thesis: the claim that free will is metaphysically impossible, as it is inconsistent both with determinism and its denial. If this claim is correct, it’s very important, since it means that whenever we hold someone accountable, we’re doing something morally wrong. Of course, we couldn’t be blamed for such actions, but we should still want to try to avoid such wrongdoing. Now, suppose you have looked into arguments for the thesis and found them wanting. Still, perhaps you have found them wanting because, after all, there is considerable emotional resistance to giving up one’s reactive attitudes of resentment & such. So you should check to be sure you’ve not dismissed it for that sort of unsavory reason. And, of course, the meta-question can be raised as well: did you perhaps close investigation and think you’d done enough as a result of some such morally regrettable motive? Of course, in this case, there’s no issue of punishment as a looming consideration, but there *is* an issue of avoiding wrongdoing. Presumably, you stand under some moral obligation to avoid harming people who don’t deserve it. So you should feel some angst about making sure that you’re right in rejecting the thesis — at least until you’ve done enough investigating to rationally assure yourself that the issue no longer merits further pursuit.
    The analogy strikes me as worth thinking about for the following reason. In this case, I imagine you might set the bar for investigating sufficiently relatively low. If, by contrast, you set the bar for investigating sufficiently the question of theism at a much higher level, then that seems an unwarranted prejudice. Indeed, one might think that there’s *more* of an obligation to investigate the “no free will either way” thesis, since, while it’s important to investigate theism, it’s not really all that clear what *harm* one would be doing if one is in error about it, but if nobody is actually morally responsible for whatever they do, then it really is a terrible harm that is perpetrated when we blame and punish.
    Incidentally, it’s a pleasure to engage with you, Alex (if I may). I quite enjoyed your paper on modality and actual powers in the Blackwell Guide to Metaphysics. (And I’d like to read your book on the principle of sufficient reason, although there are a ton of books that fit this category of “I want to get around to reading this!”)

    September 11, 2007 — 11:17
  • Gene:
    Thanks for a thoughtful response.
    Maybe here’s where one needs a Pascalian counter-response.
    Take the free will case. Suppose I am wrong in thinking that I have free will. Then my reactive attitudes have caused a finite harm to some people. But it is not a harm for which I am responsible, since on the view in question, no one is responsible for anything. Moreover, if there is no such thing as responsibility, then it does not seem to me that there is such a thing as a reason for action. In particular, there is no reason to stop having reactive attitudes. I suppose it would be better, impersonally speaking, if one didn’t have the reactive attitudes, but if it is not up to one to abandon them, then why does it matter that it would be better not to have them? And in any case, the losses are finite.
    This is similar to the question whether anything matters at all. If the answer is positive, the question matters a great deal. But if the answer is negative, this matters not all.
    At least Christian theism posits as available to us a good infinitely higher than all the finite goods–the good of communion with the Good Itself. That seems to bear investigating, indeed more investigating than a cure for Alzheimer’s.
    Moreover, on the purely intellectual side, theism offers a sketch of answers to the deepest why-questions, questions about why we and other contingent exist at all, why there is a purpose (understood in a way that doesn’t immediately entail a purposer) to our lives, etc. Some of these why-questions are ones where there is no equally good competing non-theistic explanation.
    The main available alternative to a theistic answer to some of these questions (especially the question of why there is something rather than nothing, and why there are any positive contingent facts) is the claim that the questions are why-questions about brute facts. (I happen to think there are no brute contingent facts, and have argued this in my PSR book, but I am not relying on that here.) But one should not rest in supposing something is a brute fact… Even if a brute fact is possible, it should be a last resort. Thus even if one is not investigating theism per se, one should be investigating these questions.
    But of course one might say here that there is a division of labor: “Someone should investigate them, but why I?” That’s a fine answer, except that the questions I think are central to the philosophical enterprise, and intelligent people should all think about the central questions at least from time to time.
    Moreover, it seems to me that in cases where the best alternative to a proposed and fairly worked-out answer to a why-question is the claim that the fact is brute, then absent a very strong argument against the proposed answer or a better proposal, one should keep open the possibility that the proposed answer is correct.

    September 12, 2007 — 12:50
  • Are there any philosophers who are theists or very sympathetic to theism given their philosophical reasoning but are not religious? Most atheist-theist debates feature materialists on the one hand and the traditionally religious on the other, but perhaps there are notable exceptions in the philosophical community?
    Well, there’s Antony Flew.
    I’m not sure what you mean by religious. There are people who have orthodox views officially who don’t do much in terms of practicing a religion that they officially belong to. I know one well-known theistic philosopher like that.
    There are also people who are simply theists but don’t consider themselves religious, in a way more like what Flew has now come to accept. I know two people in my own program, one who just graduated and another who is still working on his dissertation, who are in that category.

    September 12, 2007 — 15:07
  • Thanks Jeremy. Flew sounds like an example of what I was driving at (I need to go back and review what he said his views are).
    There are gradations of religiousity, of course, but it would make sense that if the philosphical arguments for theism are persuasive, then there should be a set of people who are led thereby toward some form of theism but who wouldn’t necessarily be led to adopt many of the specific beliefs and practices that go with our major religions.

    September 12, 2007 — 16:35
  • I don’t think anyone has thus far mentioned the role the atheist philosopher’s (typically) strongly held belief in scientific realism plays in their justificatory self-assuredness. I think many atheist philosophers (many that I have known personally) will employ the argument from the instrumental success of science and IBE to conclude that scientific explanation “trumps” religious explanation every time. The Argument goes like this:
    i) Science is highly successful at predicting the outcomes of future events.
    ii) The success of science can best be explained by hypothesis of scientific realism (IBE).
    iii) Therefore scientific is true
    Supplementary Premise:
    iv) If scientific realism is true then there God does not exist (N.B. there are many sub-arguments that conclude with this proposition, no room to list them all here of course).
    v) Conclusion: God does not exist.
    With this sort of reasoning lying behind a good deal of atheistic thinking, it seems hard to imagine a situation which could occur to undermine the atheists certainty that there is no God. Suppose the atheist is visited by supernatural being, if they scientific realists how could they conclude other than that they’d been experiencing hallucinatorily?
    The adoption of scientific realism provides both a rough and ready responses to theistic arguments, like the argument a congentia mundi, and it provides insulation against possible hypothetical deductive counter-examples to their main reasons for holding atheism true.

    September 14, 2007 — 9:58
  • Sorry for the double post, but proposition(iii)should read:
    iii) Therefore Scientific Realism is true.

    September 14, 2007 — 10:01
  • I know there are people who think scientific realism doesn’t make much sense without theism. I also know that there are people who think the actual state of scientific evidence makes theism improbable. But I’ve never heard of anyone thinking that the thesis of scientific realism, as a view about the nature of science itself, somehow entails that theism is false.

    September 14, 2007 — 15:13
  • DRM

    Jeremy, I think what he’s getting at are those missing premises. Most of them having to do in some way with methodological naturalism. Others(the more common ones) having to do with some sort of scientism. Thus, we get something like Searle’s claim in Mind, Language and Society page 35:
    “For us, if it should turn out that God exists, that would have to be a fact of nature like any other. To the four basic forces in the universe–gravity, electromagnetism, weak and strong nuclear forces–we would add a fifth, the divine force. Or more likely, we would see the other forces as forms of the divine force. But it would still be all physics, albeit divine physics. If the supernatural existed, it too would have to be natural.

    September 15, 2007 — 4:55
  • But scientific realism is a much broader thesis than naturalism or scientism. It’s not that there are missing premises. It’s that this particular premise is doing no work, and those missing premises should be in its place (rather than supplements to it). But once it’s clear that naturalism is one of the premises, it’s no surprise that atheism follows, since atheism and naturalism are flat out inconsistent.
    So I’m not sure what the argument is supposed to accomplish. It becomes question-begging in the same way that it would be to argue for God’s existence by assuming something that could only be true if God exists (and therefore something atheists who are aware of the issues will deny).
    That’s consistent with its being a sound argument, but it doesn’t help establish it to someone who doesn’t already believe it, and that makes it hard to see why the argument is doing any work other than confirming something the person already believes. That may go some distance in explaining why someone who holds the view holds it with such subjective certainty, which was the original issue here, but I think it depends on holding the premises with such subjective certainty, which just pushes the question back.

    September 15, 2007 — 8:43
  • Nobody believes that if scientific realism is true, God doesn’t exist. That’s not at the basis of anyone’s atheism. You’ve got yourself a bad hunch there. Sorry.
    Gene Whitmer’s comments are very good.

    September 21, 2007 — 10:26
  • “It becomes question-begging in the same way that it would be to argue for God’s existence by assuming something that could only be true if God exists (and therefore something atheists who are aware of the issues will deny).”
    All valid deductive arguments for the existence of God assume something (viz., the conjunction of their premises) that could only be true if God exists. It can’t be an objection to a deductive argument that it is valid.

    December 11, 2007 — 16:01
  • All valid deductive arguments for the existence of God assume something (viz., the conjunction of their premises) that could only be true if God exists. It can’t be an objection to a deductive argument that it is valid.
    That’s tricky. I think it’s mistaken to claim that my objection is nothing more than that this argument is valid when I say it is question begging.
    1. God exists and Snow is white.
    :. God exists
    Of course it is valid, but it also begs the question. So there are arguments whose validty depends on question begging assumptions. Demarcating which beg the question and which don’ isn’t easy.

    December 11, 2007 — 16:35
  • Mike:
    I have no doubt that there are question-begging argument tokens. However, that an argument assumes something that could only be true if the conclusion is true is not a criterion for question-beggingness. In fact, it is more a criterion for validity.
    I am convinced that question-beggingness is always dependent on the dialectical context. In fact, I do not know if there are any arguments that are question-begging in all contexts, with the exception of arguments whose conclusion is literally a premise.
    The problem is that for just about any valid argument, one might always find oneself knowing the premises through some epistemic route that does not go through the conclusion, for instance by testimony. Suppose I come to across a book and that contains a lot of surprising claims, and all of them have checked out, with the exception of the last one which I am not yet able to verify. This last claim is: “God exists and snow is white.” I conclude, on the basis of the inductive evidence, that the claim is true. Hence, I come to believe that God exists and snow is white. And then I read your argument and draw the conclusion that God exists. Your argument did not beg the question against me in this case.
    On the other hand, your argument would beg the question in just about every “standard” situation.

    December 11, 2007 — 21:43