McGinn on Religious Doctrine
January 4, 2009 — 18:48

Author: Andrew Moon  Category: Links  Comments: 22

I saw this post by Colin McGinn (recently linked from Leiter’s site) where he ends with quite a strong knowledge claim “We indeed don’t know everything, but some things we know quite well–and the complete falsity of religious doctrine is one of them.”

Comments:
  • Skeptical

    I found that McGinn thing astonishing. These lines in particular are priceless:
    I also learned something interesting: the remarkable parallels between the lives of Horus the mythical Egyptian falcon-god and our very own Jesus Christ—virgin birth, desert test, crucifixion, water-walking, dead-raising, light-giving, resurrected, three wise men, the whole shebang. I just looked this up on the internet and found a long list of strikingly exact parallels (I suggest you do the same).
    Is McGinn actually saying that he believes this stuff because he found some pages on the internet? And Christians are credulous? Physician, heal thyself.
    It is also rich that McGinn thinks that we can learn about the emptiness of religion by watching a documentary constructed by someone who aims to make it look repulsive. I imagine that McGinn would not want McGinn’s philosophical works assessed by listening to McGinn’s most ignorant fans describing his views.
    It is comic that McGinn’s ex cathedra pronouncement on what we know comes at the end of this sort of flapping ignorance, and even more comic that Leiter linked to it.

    January 4, 2009 — 21:48
  • Andrew Moon

    Hi Skeptical,
    I know you weren’t implying anything, but what did you mean about its being comic that Leiter linked to it? I linked to it too. I thought it’s important that readers of this blog know what a prominent philosopher is saying about matters germane to philosophy of religion (i.e., the claim that he knows that (all?) religious doctrine is false). To me, it points to a significant disconnect between some secular philosophers’ perception of philosophy of religion (and perhaps New Testament scholarship) and what’s actually going on in those fields.
    To any potential commenters,
    Please do not let this become a McGinn (or Leiter) bashing thread. As a general rule, don’t say anything that you wouldn’t say to them personally by way of e-mail (nonanonymously). I’d also just say to exercise charity and respect. Otherwise, I just won’t let you comment. =)

    January 4, 2009 — 23:41
  • Mike Almeida

    Did he say something about philosophy of religion? I haven’t read it, but what he says here is about the complete falsity of religious doctrine. There is a sense in which that claim is defensible, even for a theist. Suppose what he means is not the bizarre and hyperbolic claim, ‘every single assertion ever made in any religious doctrine is false’. Suppose he means that every religious doctrine contains at least one false proposition. That’s milder, and I think I can believe that. In that case there are no true religious doctrines–where a doctrine D is the conjunction of all the propositions comprising it–and there never have been.

    January 5, 2009 — 7:13
  • Suppose he means that every religious doctrine contains at least one false proposition. That’s milder, and I think I can believe that.
    Not to nit-pick Mike, but while I agree that this would be a milder claim, how can anyone possibly believe it? The sheer number of religious doctrines precludes one from consciously scanning all of their constituent propositions in order to apprehend their truth values. The best anyone can do is to argue, on inductive grounds, that the relative frequency of the falsity of propositions that constitute religious doctrines, that one does have knowledge of, is sufficient to justify one’s expectation that every religious doctrine will have some false constituent proposition(s). But this seems hardly believable to me, unless one believes (without justification) that all religious doctrines necessarily involve falsehoods. And what in one’s experience could justify this claim?

    January 5, 2009 — 9:44
  • Michael, Andrew didn’t say “about philosophy of religion”; he said “about matters germane to philosophy of religion.”

    January 5, 2009 — 9:45
  • Gordon Knight

    It is rather sad to read McGinn say something like this. McG is appropriately skeptical of many philosophical orthodoxies, yet here he mimics Daniel Dennett.

    January 5, 2009 — 10:05
  • Andrew, it is rather hard to comment on McGinn’s article without some element of McGinn-bashing. He castigates religious believers for their excessive credulity, and then falls hook, line and sinker for the discredited view that the story of Jesus is based on that of Horus.
    Charitable comment to balance above remark:
    Several commentators on his own site have pointed this out by now, and I’m sure that he’d be willing to recognize the error: after all, it was a blog, not a published article.
    Also, I think that when he describes himself as knowing that religious doctrines are false, rather than being agnostic, he is being honest.
    Of course, truth being an element of knowledge, anyone who believes there is any truth in a religious doctrine will deny that McGinn knows it to be false. Also, we could dispute about what counts as being a religious doctrine – doubtless there are plenty of claims made by religious people that McGinn accepts, but he would deny that they constitute religious doctrines.
    But, the point remains, describing one’s self as agnostic on a certain issue indicates an open mind. McGinn is being up-front about the fact that his mind is made up on certain issues, and that he has come to the conclusion that those who disagree are wrong.

    January 5, 2009 — 11:17
  • Mike Almeida

    Not to nit-pick Mike, but while I agree that this would be a milder claim, how can anyone possibly believe it?
    Here’s how. Religious doctrines are generally fairly long. Suppose you have a very short one including 25 propositions. Since, for any proposition that is not a logical truth, there is some chance that it is mistaken. That is certainly true for religious doctrines, which contains all sorts of metaphysical claims. But let’s make the chances really low. Say, there is a .9 chance that each is correct. What are the chances that all are correct? Assuming we focus on just the independent propositions, the chances are about .07. So you’ve got about a 97% chance that one of those propositions is wrong, even in this rosy picture of religious doctrines.

    January 5, 2009 — 12:38
  • Mike Almeida

    Michael, Andrew didn’t say “about philosophy of religion”; he said “about matters germane to philosophy of religion.”
    Right, I didn’t say he did. I asked if McGinn said anything about philosophy of religion. I asked because of A. Moon’s remark that To me, it points to a significant disconnect between some secular philosophers’ perception of philosophy of religion . . . and what’s actually going on in those fields.

    January 5, 2009 — 12:43
  • Mike Almeida

    Sorry AP, that’s a 93% chance.

    January 5, 2009 — 13:14
  • Cooper

    There are at least two available readings of McGinn, one of which is quite unreasonable, and the other which is much weaker. The first, which it seems generates the most ire, is
    * CMcG: It is a fact about the category of claims “religions doctrine” that any claim in that category is false.
    This implies, in particular, that McGinn knows doctrines which he is not familiar with, and indeed any future religious doctrines not yet concocted, to be false. Quite a strong statement.
    But I think it’s also possible to read McGinn as saying:
    *CMcG’: All of the religious doctrines relevant to the above discussion are false.
    It seems to me that this second reading is what McGinn is getting at. He’s saying that even though one may not know what is true, one can nevertheless rule out certain hypotheses. In other words, an agnostic stance toward a particular question does not require a relativist stance toward that question.
    Just because I don’t know (arguably cannot know) the locations of all the living wildebeests in the universe, does not preclude me from stating there are no living wildebeests on Jupiter and looking askance at anyone who claims there are.

    January 5, 2009 — 13:31
  • Tim

    It’s curious that McGinn thinks he is competent to make a sweeping statement regarding religious doctrine — and under any reasonable interpretation, he certainly intended to include the core doctrines of all the major religions he mentioned — because he has watched a propaganda flick put together by a commedian with no expertise in any religion whatsoever. It is difficult to find a similarly absurd parallel. Would he feel qualified to make deprecating comments regarding modern biology after watching a Kent Hovind video?
    It’s also curious that the Horus stuff continues to circulate despite its having been debunked many times over, e.g. here.
    Ahh well. I suppose that the immortality of nonsense is part of the price we have to pay for the internet.

    January 5, 2009 — 19:12
  • “I didn’t say he did.”
    It somehow seemed so conversationally implicated.
    Anyway, I guess in that case I didn’t say you said he did.

    January 5, 2009 — 20:40
  • Christian Lee

    “We indeed don’t know everything, but some things we know quite well–and the complete falsity of religious doctrine is one of them.”
    Like Mike, I think there is a perfectly reasonable sense in which this statement is true. Setting McGinn’s style aside, and I’m not a fan of it, it’s worth pointing out the sense in which this statement is true. It seems to me that ‘religious doctrine’, on at least one interpretation of that expression, is committed to at least one claim that is knowably false.
    I have in mind an interpretation of ‘religious doctrine’ that entails that some particular text is infallible. I think we know that no religious text, old or new testament, or the quran, or the statement of the catholic church, is infallible. All of these text contain at least one false claim. And, supposing that’s one reasonable interpretation of what McGinn is saying, and it seems to be, then it strikes me as very reasonable.
    None of this casts doubt on more nuanced religious views. Those deserve serious consideration.

    January 6, 2009 — 0:29
  • overseas

    Homer Simpson’s one foray into epistemology was “it’s on the Internet, so you know it’s true.”

    January 6, 2009 — 6:24
  • Mike:
    Your probabilistic argument for the falsity of religious doctrine is interesting, but I think it fails because, as you yourself note, the argument assumes the propositions contained in the doctrine are probabilistically independent.
    But in reality, they aren’t independent. For instance all of the propositions contained in the doctrine may be entailed by the conjunction of a single non-conjunctive and non-gerrymandered religious doctrine together with non-doctrinal facts that we can know to be true. For instance, the de fide portions of Catholic doctrine are entailed by the proposition that the teachings of Ecumenical Councils (here a definition of “teachings of Ecumenical Councils” needs to be inserted) are infallible, together with quasi-empirical facts about what the teachings of the Councils, and about other texts that the Councils teach to be infallible (such as Scripture or ex cathedra papal utterances), in fact are.
    Everybody:
    Here is a line of reasoning that someone could try to use to establish McGinn’s claim. First, argue that of all the religious doctrines, the only ones that have plausibility are D1, D2 and D3, and then argue that D12, D2 and D3 are false.
    How could one do this? Well, one might try to use some kind of simplicity argument to say that only monotheistic religious doctrines have a hope of being correct. (McGinn won’t like that given an earlier post of this.) Then one might use some argument to argue that a monotheistic God would probably reveal himself in a way that would result in a large, doctrinally infallible community that lasts over centuries.
    Once one gets to this point, there are only a few candidates open. In fact, Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, Shiite Islam, Sunni Islam and Orthodox Judaism may be the only ones.
    And then one triest to pick these off one by one. Some are easy. In the end, I think the strategy fails, because one can’t refute Catholicism. 🙂

    January 7, 2009 — 12:57
  • Mike Almeida

    Your probabilistic argument for the falsity of religious doctrine is interesting, but I think it fails because, as you yourself note, the argument assumes the propositions contained in the doctrine are probabilistically independent. But in reality, they aren’t independent.
    Rather, I wanted the assumption to be that you take any 25 independent propositions you like. I’d be stunned if there weren’t at least 25 independent propositions in any even mildly developed doctrine. Take those and assign probability 1 to the rest (Is that generous, or what?). How about that? You’d still have something like 93% chance of one of these being wrong.

    January 7, 2009 — 16:30
  • Mike:
    Actually, I am not sure you will find even two independent doctrines in any of the great theistic faiths.
    For instance, consider two Islamic claims: (p1) Moses worked miracles and (p2) there will be a Last Judgment. Intuitively, these seem pretty independent.
    Now, independently of the Qu’ran and the Bible, we have no reason to believe Moses worked miracles. Let p0 be the claim that the Qu’ran or the Bible is basically right. Then, P(p1) is approximately equal to P(p1 | p0) P(p0), where p0 is the claim that the Bible or the Qu’ran is basically right. But if the Qu’ran or Bible are basically right, then Moses worked miracles, since if a text is right, then its central claims are true. So P(p1 | p0) is close to 1, and P(p1) is close to P(p0).
    But, similarly, P(p1 and p2|p0) is close to 1. Now, P(p1 and p2) is at least as big as P(p1 and p2|p0)P(p0). Hence, P(p1 and p2) is at least as big as a number approximately equal to P(p0). But P(p1 and p2) cannot exceed P(p1) which is approximately equal to P(p0). Therefore, P(p1 and p2) is approximately equal to P(p1). Unless p2 is extremely probable, this implies that p1 and p2 are not independent.
    In general, religious doctrines in the revealed religions all are probabilified by claims like “text T is divinely revealed”, and this destroys their independence.

    January 8, 2009 — 11:07
  • Mike Almeida

    Actually, I am not sure you will find even two independent doctrines in any of the great theistic faiths.
    I definitely don’t take the propositions in the Bible (or any other religious text) as certain, since I’m not certain that everything written there was actually revealed or that what was revealed was properly described. Worse still are the chances that a multiply complex translation and interpretation project has yielded a false proposition. The chances here, epscially given the disagreement in Biblical interpretation, exegesis, etc., are not small. Somebody’s got more than 25 propositions wrong. On the other hand, obviously, anything revealed I take to be certain. The problem is in what exactly was revealed.

    January 8, 2009 — 11:47
  • Mike Almeida

    I said this,
    I definitely don’t take the propositions in the Bible (or any other religious text) as certain, since I’m not certain that everything written there was actually revealed or that what was revealed was properly described.
    I’d rather put it this way: I definitely take the propositions in the Bible to be certain, but I do not take the propositions in the “copies” of the Bible to be certain. Tolstoy’s War and Peace is an abstract object, and so is the Bible. Your concrete copy of War and Peace is probably correct (or as close as translation permits). Our concrete copies of the Bible I’m (justifiably) worried are not entirely correct.

    January 8, 2009 — 12:16
  • Mike Almeida

    But if the Qu’ran or Bible are basically right, then Moses worked miracles, since if a text is right, then its central claims are true.
    To address your independence argument more directly, I’m calling into question the claim above. If the view that the Bible (that is, our copies of it) is basically right entails that Moses performed miracles, then we cannot start with the assumption that it is basically right. What I’m calling into question is the probability of the propositions in our copies of the Bible. I’m willing to give most of them a very high probability, but then my argument runs the same way.

    January 9, 2009 — 7:27
  • Cooper

    Why is monotheism more probabilistically satisfying than polytheism? Surely, the conjunction YHWH & YHWH’ is less likely than YHWH alone; but most polytheistic religions don’t look like YHWH & YHWH’.
    Most monotheistic Gods are much larger than most polytheistic gods, hence less likely (in such a scheme as has been proposed). In particular, omniscience and omnipotence are not typically properties claimed of polytheistic gods. Perhaps the existence of such any particular god, without such attributes, is more palatable to McGinn than is the existence of a God.

    January 9, 2009 — 8:01