Confirmation bias or expertise? The prevalence of theism in philosophy of religion
February 25, 2012 — 8:05

Author: Helen De Cruz  Category: Existence of God Religious Belief  Tags: , , , ,   Comments: 33

One of the striking results from my survey on natural theological arguments is that most philosophers of religion are theists. Even if I restrict my count to a subsample consisting only of those people who are philosophers, who have listed philosophy of religion as one of their areas of specialization, and who are faculty or non-faculty with PhDs, the sample is overwhelmingly theist. Of this select subsample (N = 118), 70.3 % are theists, 16.9% atheists and 12.7% agnostics (the rounding explains why we are not at exactly 100 %). As you may recall, the percentage of theists slightly higher (around 73%) in my general sample philosophers of religion, which also includes graduate students, undergraduates and those outside of academia. Given that the PhilPaper survey gave a similar result, we can be highly confident that about 7 in 10 philosophers of religion are theists. One of the discussions of my preliminary results on Prosblogion is whether we should accord any evidential weight to this (i.e., should we defer to the expertise of those who are studying the existence of God), or whether this should lead us to an increased skepticism about philosophy of religion as a discipline.

There is a lively debate in social epistemology about under what conditions we should adjust our credences in the light of the conflicting opinion of epistemic peers. Conciliationists like Christensen and Feldman argue we should at least revise our confidence downward, giving equal weight to those who are our epistemic peers. Those who endorse a steadfast position argue that we can stick to our guns. There are many variations on this general theme, but it seems there is at least something of a consensus that we should bring our beliefs in line with our epistemic superiors. This does not mean that we should completely defer to the expert’s opinion. After all, as Elga already recognized, it is only in highly idealized circumstances reasonable to defer to someone’s opinion no matter what that opinion is. One can reasonably discount information that falls outside the appropriate range (e.g., the plumber informing me that my heating does not work because it is haunted by ghosts). But it seems appropriate to defer to a plumber who says the heating is broken because of some malfunctioning part he points out to me. Moreover, Alvin Goldman writes: “to the extent that it is feasible, N should consult the numbers, or degree of consensus, among all relevant (putative)experts. Won’t N be fully justified in trusting E1 (expert 1) over E2 if almost all other experts on the subject agree with E, or if even a preponderance of the other experts agree with E?”
I am not advocating any close similarities between philosophy and normal science. But supposing that philosophers do have some form of expertise and knowledge about their domain of inquiry, we could use Goldman’s principle of deference to expertise in the following way: it is rational/reasonable to adjust my beliefs in accordance to what the majority in a particular AOS believe. For example, suppose I earnestly believe that taking the one box is the correct solution in Newcombe’s problem. But I then learn that decision theorists resolutely choose the two boxes. It seems plausible I should revise my confidence in my original belief downward.
Now consider philosophy of religion. Prima facie, if we applied Goldman’s principle this seems the road to take. However, if self-selection and confirmation entirely explain the prevalence of theism in PoR, this is not the right course to take. After all, in consulting astrologers, who are the supposed experts in astrology, I would find that the large majority of them believe that astrology works. As Alexander Pruss argued in the comment section here, if God exists, philosophy of religion is one of the most important areas of philosophy, but if He does not, it’s peripheral. So we can expect a self-selection effect. Combined with confirmation bias, there is an additional worry that theistic philosophers of religion might overvalue the strength of theistic arguments, since theists in general evaluate these arguments as stronger. In fact, I found no significance for PoR as an AOS in how natural theological arguments were evaluated taking religious belief into account. Confirmation bias does not disappear even in people with high levels of education. As one commenter on my original entry suggested “My reading of the situation is that philosophy of religion is unhealthy, and further that your data are best understood as demonstrating a statistically significant conflict of interest.”
If a self-selection effect is the sole drive of theists to the field of philosophy of religion, and confirmation bias subsequently plays a role in their evaluation of theist arguments, we should be perhaps wiser to suspend judgment. The effects of confirmation bias on the rationality of our beliefs is a bit too large in scope to treat here. Suffice it so say that I am a Kuhnian at heart; I do not worry much about confirmation bias, given its prevalence it makes more sense to counter it by improving diversity within a profession. As I have argued in several papers (e.g., here), a discipline’s health does depend on having multiple, disagreeing voices. So philosophy of religion could benefit from having more atheists and agnostics.

  • The query concerning the existence of a god is as scientific and metaphysical an endeavor as it is an endeavor for philosophers of religion. Thus, if Goldman’s principle applies at all (in spite of its being similar to the fallacy of appealing to authority), then one would have to count scientists, metaphysicians (71% atheists) and philosophers of science (77% atheist) among the body of “experts.” Including only philosophers of religion as experts is like saying that only philosophers of science—and not scientists—can be scientific experts. So if metaphysicians and philosophers of science are added to the body of experts, then the expert opinion leans towards atheist.
    I am open to objections.

    February 25, 2012 — 8:53
  • Since in this particular case evaluation of the strength doesn’t necessarily indicate agreement with the argument (especially since the ‘arguments’ here are actually types of argument), and there is no guarantee that everyone meant the same thing by ‘strength’, the data really tell us nothing about whether the prevalence of theists reduces diversity when it comes to actual agreement. All it tells us is that theists tend to think theistic lines of inquiry (types of argument) are more promising or interesting or worth taking seriously, which may sometimes mean that they accept the argument but may mean no more than that they think that there are arguments in a particular group that, while wrong, are not easily dismissed and reflection on which clarifies important issues. The strength of an argument can be as much about its perceived psychological and sociological impact or salience as it is about the actual argument.
    In a similar way, I don’t think we can assess the expertise situation without much more fine-grained information about assessments. If, for instance, most astrologers said that astrology works, but on closer examination some of them said that it works in the sense of producing satisfied customers, and others that it works due to causal influence of stars, and others that it works due not to causal influence but to synchronicity or preestablished harmony, and others that it works as a sort of poetic art for capturing practical advice, this is not an actual consensus. In order to recognize a consensus of experts, we need some reason to think (1) that they mean more or less the same thing; and (2) that there are broadly shared reasons.

    February 25, 2012 — 9:52
  • Kenny Pearce

    Nick- I think you might be right that metaphysicians should be counted as relevant experts, and philosophers of science might be relevant experts for the evaluation of some particular arguments (e.g. fine-tuning), but it doesn’t seem to me that philosophers of science should be regarded as experts on the existence of God per se, just experts on whether some particular arguments for (and perhaps against?) God’s existence are any good.
    Now, it’s worth noting that, according to the PhilPapers survey, metaphysicians are significantly more likely to believe in God than philosophers in general, but still only a minority of them believe in God, so I agree with you that when we combine the numbers we get the conclusion that expert opinion LEANS TOWARD atheism. However, I don’t think the ‘leaning’ is strong enough for theists to be regarded as outside the mainstream of the community of experts. Usually this carries considerable weight: for instance, anyone who denies evolution is outside the mainstream of experts in biology, and this is enough to make it reasonable for someone who is not a biologist to just trust the mainstream experts and believe in evolution without doing further research. But when there is dissent within the mainstream of the community of experts, one should be more cautious in endorsing the position held by the majority, and should perhaps suspend judgment unless and until one gains a better understanding of the debate.

    February 25, 2012 — 10:50
  • Adrian Woods

    There is a great deal of disagreement in PoR. The way Paul Moser thinks we should go about the business and the way Trent Daugherty thinks we should go about it are very different. However, those differences are embedded in a broader agreement about the subject matter in particular. This seems no different for the sciences. Scientists generally agree that there is an external world to be studied. Not everyone thinks there is an external world and of course they are generally not scientist. Within that broader agreement there is much disagreement. I do not see how the sciences would be improved or advanced by acquiring more participants who do not believe that there is an external world. In fact, I think that would rather inhibit academic progress. Of course, I may have misunderstood the point.

    February 25, 2012 — 11:15
  • hiero5ant

    (I submitted a long-ish reply three days ago in the other thread, but it appears to have been swallowed by the abyss. If it’s not up in a few hours I’ll repost it.)
    One reason expertise is taken to be authoritative in hard disciplines as opposed to the more humanistic ones – say, art criticism – is that the former’s consensus is at least in principle gotten through forcing their claims to make contact with experiment, pounded mercilessly against the unyielding anvil of what some of us are pleased to refer to as “evidence” or “objective reality”. Whereas the natural-apologetic arguments are simply that: arguments. Words. To the extent that someone (and I would guess that includes pretty much everyone on this blog) “has more expertise in philosophy of religion than I” when it comes to natural apologetics, that consists entirely in more familiarity with spins on twists on retreads on rephrasings on the same small set of dead arguments that have been bouncing around for centuries or more before this alleged expert community came into being.
    So what we are talking about is a greater familiarity with a set of texts written by other philosophers of religion, not a greater familiarity with evidence.
    I once watched a creationist claim with a straight face to my paleontologist friend that there were “no transitional fossils”. Someone who on a daily basis digs transitional fossils up and holds transitional fossils in his hand and could, if it pleased him, literally hit the creationist over the head with transitional fossils. And here he is fending off one of a legion of Dunning-Kruger zombies. Here it is plain that skepticism of expert consensus is risible because that consensus has (again, literally) tons and tons of evidence on its side, to which the experts are answerable.
    But the natural apologist is answerable only to 1) pure deductive validity and 2) the naked logical possibility that her premises are true. Now there is no reason in principle why we couldn’t live in a world where gods routinely made appearances, submitted to tests, gave interviews on questions philosophers would like to know in a weekly Meet the Press type deal. Then, I would be forced to withdraw my complaint that there is no subject matter for natural apologists to be “experts” about. But then, it would turn out to be a kind of science, and not a humanism.
    Kenny Pearce talks about philosophers of science being experts on Fine Tuning. But he curiously ignores the most important member of Nick’s trifecta: actual scientists.
    What percentage of actual physicists, answerable to actual evidence, find e.g. the finte tuning or cosmological argument persuasive to the degree that they actually deploy it in their professional capacity? By my reckoning, effectively zero. Even sincere theists in physics, biology etc. don’t use natural apologetic arguments, except possibly in the privacy of their own home/sunday school. Whereas the natural apologists who have set up a beachhead in PoR quite often engage in the active, conscious denial of genuine expert consensus in scientific fields. So the nonbeliever can also fall back on a kind of argument from pessimistic meta-consensus against these views.

    February 25, 2012 — 13:47
  • Helen:
    “In fact, I found no significance for PoR as an AOS in how natural theological arguments were evaluated taking religious belief into account.”
    Very interesting. Question: What about the other way around? Hold fixed the evaluation of natural theological arguments. Is there is signficance for PoR as an AOS in how strongly one evaluates one natural theological arguments?
    If there is no significance there, either, then the two pieces of data will equally support the following hypotheses:
    H1. How strongly philosophers evaluate natural theological arguments is largely determined by whether they have religious belief. (Confirmation bias.)
    H2. Whether philosophers have religious belief is largely determined by how strongly they evaluate natural theological arguments.
    I wonder if one could then design any argument to determine how prevalent one or the other causal pathway is.
    It would also be interesting to see how this works out in regard to arguments in other areas. Generally, we would expect some correlation between philosophers believing p and their thinking that an argument A for p is strong. We could then ask: Do people who work on free will evaluate the strength of Consequence Arguments differently from people who don’t work on free will, once one controls for where one stands on compatibilism? Do people who work on truth evaluate the strength of the Liar Paradox argument for dialetheism different from people who don’t work on truth, once one controls for where one stands on dialetheism? Etc.
    “when we combine the numbers we get the conclusion that expert opinion LEANS TOWARD atheism”
    That’s assuming that philosophers are the relevant expert group. But there is another relevant expert group: theologians. Granted, the self-selection issues will be even more problematic than in philosophy of religion if we try to account for theologians’ opinions. But at the same time, not taking theologians’ opinions into account will also result in a biased sample. For theologians and philosophers address many of the same kinds of questions of deep existential importance, and so many of the intelligent people leaning towards theism and seeking answers to these questions will become theologians instead of philosophers. (Especially if they have a perception, just or unjust, of a bias against theism in the philosophical profession.)

    February 25, 2012 — 15:24
  • [Note: this is just a copy of my comment at News APPS]
    I think it’s worth questioning the assumption that any group of philosophers should be considered the expert community with respect to an issue like whether or not there is a god (or are gods). It seems to me that philosophers of science are not the relevant experts in analogous questions of science (e.g. is the universe expanding or contracting?; or, how fast does light travel?). On the contrary, practitioners of science are the experts in these questions – e.g. Stephen Hawking. But as philosophers of science (qua philosophers of science) aren’t the ones who generate expert scientific opinion, philosophers of religion (qua philosophers of religion) shouldn’t be taken as the ones to generate expert religious opinion.
    Someone made the interesting suggestion that theologians are at least as expert as philosophers in religious matters, but I think that even theologians are not quite the right analogue to practicing scientists, although they are perhaps traditionally closer to a practicing role with respect to religion than are philosophers. It seems to me that there really isn’t a satisfying analogue to “the scientific community” with respect to religion. But the closest thing would be a collection of serious practitioners of religion – i.e. those thoroughly and seriously engaged in religious practice, surely including many philosophers and theologians, but also clergy and, importantly, the authors of mystical literature.
    Now surely the expert religious community is not as authoritative for laypersons as is the scientific community. I (with probably everyone here) would argue it’s not even close (although several large religious institutions disagree!) – so distant, for example, that even uneducated atheists can’t be properly accused of being to religion what, say, creationists are to biology. But I do think it’s worthwhile to reflect on the fact that it’s mystics (I mean figures in mystical traditions proper, be they in Catholicism, Sufism, etc.), clergy, etc., that are the closest thing we have to the “scientists” of religion. After all, if there is a religious realia, it’s a bit odd to think that philosophers of religion are the ones with privileged access to it (qua philosophers), as opposed to religious practitioners (qua practitioners).
    Although I think it’s clear in what I’ve said, I do want to emphasize that I am not suggesting that we should all start deferring to Sufis, Kabbalists, and the rest (…surely we’d first have to defer to experts in the epistemology of disagreement…). Rather, I’m trying to make what I suppose is a more structural point about where the closest thing to religious experts would be – if (and maybe this is a contentious “if”) the science/phil science relationship provides the best model.

    February 25, 2012 — 20:45
  • Kenny Pearce

    hiero5ant -I’m not sure to what degree scientists might be relevant experts on the fine-tuning argument. Personally, I think the fine-tuning argument is not as much better than naive ‘gap’ arguments as it is purported to be, because it is a principle of scientific methodology to give physical explanations for apparent fine-tuning just as much as it is a principle of scientific methodology to give physical explanations of particular events. This is the sort of debate I was thinking philosophers of science could contribute to. Now, physical cosmologists of course have something relevant to say here as well, insofar as it’s THEIR methodology we are examining. But the philosophers (and, I perhaps should add, historians and sociologists) of science are the people who STUDY scientific methodology; the scientist, qua scientist, merely uses it. So good philosophy of science can’t be done in isolation from scientists, but there are relevant differences which make it at least unclear to me to what degree scientists are relevant experts here. (I should add: I’m open to the possibility that scientists sometimes, perhaps often, engage in philosophy of science, and that perhaps they sometimes do better at it than professional philosophers do; if and when that’s the case, then THOSE scientists will be experts, but not in their capacity as scientists.)
    You also mention cosmological arguments. Of course physical cosmology is going to have things to say that are relevant to the truth of some premises of cosmological arguments, but I really don’t see why the physical cosmologist would be an expert at the evaluation of the argument itself. Relatedly, here’s an explanation for why even physicists (and biologists) who believe in natural theological arguments don’t deploy them in their professional capacity: because these arguments, good or bad, aren’t part of their professional expertise. Now, to say this is to reject the so-called ‘Intelligent Design’ movement, with their claim that these natural theological arguments are in some sense ‘scientific,’ but there are lots of good reasons to reject that claim anyway.
    Alex – Let’s say that the relevant experts are ‘natural theologians’ and ‘natural atheologians’; i.e. those who study natural theological/atheological arguments. Some of these may be found in theology departments. But the doctrinal theologian or systematic theologian presupposes the existence of God, and hence is not an expert on the question of whether God exists. (Similarly, to go back to hiero5ant’s post, the physicist simply presupposes that there is a physical world accessible to the senses, and so is not an expert on the validity of that presupposition.) I don’t know how many of these people really are in theology departments, but certainly there are some, and perhaps by including them we would reach parity, or even lean toward theism. But I don’t think that this undermines my main point that unless one has some particular reason to favor one group of experts over another, one can’t confidently take one side or another on this issue on the basis of ‘expert opinion.’ I don’t think considering selection bias is going to change this.

    February 25, 2012 — 20:58
  • Cres

    If you are a theist, then your belief in God is a core part of who you are: devoting your professional life to justifying and understanding that belief through the study of Philosophy of Religion makes plenty of sense.
    For all but the most militant of atheists, I suggest, their non-belief in God does not play that core role. For many, God is just one entry on a long list of things they don’t believe in. That it is mostly religious people who choose to devote themselves to the philosophy of religion should come as no surprise to anyone, I feel.

    February 26, 2012 — 6:10
  • Robert Gressis

    Hi Cres,
    You wrote that, “If you are a theist, then your belief in God is a core part of who you are”, and “For all but the most militant of atheists, I suggest, their non-belief in God does not play that core role.”
    I don’t know if I understand your claims, because I’m not entirely sure what it means for something to be a core part of who you are. Let me take a stab at it, though: for someone’s theism to be a core part of who they are, it has to structure their life and other beliefs in important ways. For instance, someone who is a theist will often act in ways that evince that theism — by praying, going to church, and trying to find out more about God or deepen her relationship with God. In addition, her theism will structure her reactive attitudes: if someone disparages God, belief in God, or her religious organization, she will feel her hackles raising; if she sees a beautiful natural scene, she will feel grateful to God for creating it; if something terrible happens, she will immediately wonder why God let it happen, or she will simply assume that God has a good reason for letting it happen, and so on. Is that a fair representation of what you mean for some belief to form a core part of who you are?
    If that’s a fair representation, then I don’t think I agree with either of your claims. I think it’s possible to be a theist, even a religious theist, even if your theism is not a core part of your life in the above sense. You might even bemoan this fact (most of my students who are theists seem to fit this description of theism, with the difference that they don’t bemoan this fact). Similarly, I think it’s quite common for someone’s atheism to play a core role in her life. I know plenty of atheists who immediately roll their eyes, feel embarrassed, or irritated whenever they see or hear any mention of God. Indeed, most of the atheists I know fit this bill. Admittedly, these atheists don’t make atheism a practice in the sense of going to meetings of atheists or working for atheist causes, but they do disparage religion whenever the subject comes up. So, they have the (opposite) reactive attitudes, and undertake at least some of the same kinds of actions, as the core theist I described above.

    February 26, 2012 — 9:28
  • This was very interesting. Thank you.
    A simple clarifying question to ask on a survey might be: “When did you become an (a)theist? Before or after deciding to specialize in philosophy of religion (or other subject).”

    February 26, 2012 — 14:10
  • Helen De Cruz

    Hi Alex (sorry for the delay).
    I put everything into a linear model, and PoR did not come out as a significant factor in the overall scores of arguments for/against the existence of God. Now it seems to me (but I still need to test it) that PoR can be a significant factor for the scores of individual arguments. For instance, PoRs rate the argument from divine hiddenness much stronger than the general population. I’d need to do multiple tests for that and control for type-1 error. To decide between your hypotheses, a more detailed survey would be needed, or qualitative data about the changes in religious belief in people who decide to engage in philosophy of religion, as Steve suggested.

    February 26, 2012 — 14:47
  • Kenny:
    I agree with your overall conclusion that expert opinion doesn’t help in this case.
    “But the doctrinal theologian or systematic theologian presupposes the existence of God, and hence is not an expert on the question of whether God exists.”
    Someone smart who does serious intellectual work on the assumption that p, and is not thereby led to deny p, provides some evidence for p. For it makes it likely that she probably didn’t find any patently false conclusion to follow from p and other plausible suppositions. And that’s evidence for p.
    Likewise, I think the physicist’s work is some confirmation for the thesis that there is a physical world.
    I also think there may be some arguments of a sort that philosophers as such as are typically not competent to evaluate, such as arguments that depend heavily on deep engagement with the Gospels and involve a literary judgment that the miracle reports are more likely to be accurate than a fraud or a mistake.

    February 26, 2012 — 15:31
  • Kenny Pearce

    Alex – Yes, I think I agree with everything you just said. But I’m not sure that the case of smart people who are engaged in a research program which presupposes that p is the same kind of evidence for p as the testimony of people who are experts on the question whether p.

    February 27, 2012 — 0:06
  • Caleb Cohoe

    Re: Helen, 2:47.
    Is divine hiddenness the only argument to be significantly related to a PoR specialization? This might just be a case of being more familiar with the argument, as divine hiddenness has only recently been formulated and talked about as a distinct philosophical argument (though the kind of experience that motivates it stretches back much further). Non-specialists may be rating it lower simply because they aren’t familiar with it as such.
    Relatedly, I am very interested to know whether there are any significant differences in the evaluation of individual arguments between atheist or agnostic philosophers who don’t list PoR as a speciality and those who do (either considering atheists or agnostics separately or putting them together, as the sample sizes allow). Do the non-believing specialists think some types of arguments are weaker or stronger than the non-believers who don’t specialize in PoR? Is their overall view about the strengths of theistic arguments and atheistic arguments similar or not?
    Significant differences about individual arguments might indicate the sorts of argument where expertise might be relevant, particularly if the evaluations of the atheist/agnostic PoR specialists in these cases showed some degree of convergence with theist PoR specialists. One could also examine how theist specialists and non-specialists compare in their evaluations of individual arguments, but my suspicion is that there may be fewer statistically significant differences between them (since, in my experience, theist philosophers who don’t specialize in PoR are more likely to be well acquainted with the relevant arguments than atheist/agnostic philosophers who don’t specialize in PoR).

    March 14, 2012 — 15:00
  • David

    You know, more than 80% of string theory researchers actually believe string theory is true. Once you understand why that happens (and self-selection is not a big mystery), you’ll understand why most theologians are religious.

    March 19, 2012 — 9:18
  • The fact that there is a sizeable body of physicists who are fairly familiar with string theory and think string theory is true is some evidence for string theory. After all, only a fairly small proportion of physics theories T satisfy the desideratum that a sizeable body of physicists are familiar with T and think T is true. This isn’t true, for instance, for the theory that gravity is a purely terrestrial phenomenon, or the theory that everything is made of water, or the phlogiston theory of combustion, vel caetera.

    March 19, 2012 — 9:55
  • Kyle

    How can we distinguish lack of diversity (a mark against some dogma) from appropriate consensus (a mark in favor of some dogma)?
    There are probably some easy cases where it is clear that people go into a field because of antecedent beliefs they want to defend and some where it is clear few people have beliefs about the field before they go in (string theory?). There are clearly more complicated cases though.
    If climate scientists agree that anthropogenic climate change is happening and urgent action needs to be taken, should we take that to mean there is a legitimate consensus or that the people who go into climate science are probably bias?
    Of course, there might be other biasing factors in this case too (e.g. research grants for green initiatives), but it is very unclear from an outsiders perspective what to make of consensus in this area.
    Any suggestions for a criterion that places climate science in either the illegitimate dogma or legitimate consensus camps?

    March 19, 2012 — 12:00
  • Danielle

    “I know plenty of atheists who immediately roll their eyes, feel embarrassed, or irritated whenever they see or hear any mention of God. Indeed, most of the atheists I know fit this bill.”
    This seems to indicate why many atheists wouldn’t be interested in thinking about philosophy of religion 24/7. Doing something that makes you irritated all day every day is a bad career move.

    March 19, 2012 — 12:06
  • Is theist used to mean “monotheist” (as Cres would say) or a believe in one or more deities? In which of the three categories (theist, atheist, agnostic) would Spinoza fall? Is there a breakdown of the theism numbers between monotheisms vs Buddhism, Hinduism, and other polytheisms?
    I’ve always found these terms terribly confusing. I personally am irked with the implication that “theism” or “religion” entails the necessary belief in a single capital-G God.

    March 19, 2012 — 13:29
  • jordan

    “This seems to indicate why many atheists wouldn’t be interested in thinking about philosophy of religion 24/7. Doing something that makes you irritated all day every day is a bad career move.”
    One could apply this reasoning to many different areas in philosophy in an attempt to explain the differing views or make-up of the discussion. If that is the case, however, then such reasoning provides little in way of explanation.

    March 19, 2012 — 14:16
  • Rich

    The last time I checked, there’s no such thing as the fallacy of appeal to authority. It may be true that there are persons who think that an appeal to authority is fallacious, but I’m not sure we should pay any attention to them; I suspect such persons are not well thought out on principles of evidence. For unless one has an epistemology that demands that one suspend judgement regarding some statement s in the absence of having the relevant firsthand experience of the relevant states of affairs that is capable of providing the evidentiary resources that will justify their doxastic state(s) toward s, an appeal to authority is not only necessary, but arguably part of a robust, well-developed epistemology. Of course, there’s the fallacy of appeal to unqualified authority. But clearly the difference is in the qualifier ‘unqualified’. This leads me to my second point. You claim that Goldman’s principle is similar to the (non-existent) fallacy of appeal to authority. It is clearly not since no such fallacy (really) exists. Nor is it similar to the fallacy of appeal to unqualified authority. Yes, Goldman’s principle involves an appeal to authority, but the principle requires that they be putative experts. Accordingly, it seems to me that does not imply a fallacy so long as when a person S appeals to some authority A, S has good evidentiary grounds for taking A to be an authority on the issue under consideration. Notice that this is compatible with A’s being mistaken and correctable. It is for this reason that they are putative authorities. (I’m sure that Goldman will agree that we don’t want to say that S is an expert on some topic only if S is infallible and incorrigible.) What exactly are the good evidentiary grounds? While that is clearly an important issue, I think we can leave that aside for my point. Whatever they are, so long as a person has them, their appeal is epistemically reasonable.

    March 19, 2012 — 14:43
  • Helen De Cruz

    The interrelated questions seem to be whether
    – self-selection precludes expertise. I don’t see why this would be the case. In PoR there is a domain of relevant expertise, namely, amongst others, expertise in arguments for/against the existence of God. Regardless of whether God exists, one needs to acquire a competence in specific defenses, attacks, counterarguments, etc and considerations of internal consistency, explanatory potential etc. in questions on His existence.
    – whether, after taking into account self-selection there is still some residual confirmation left over.

    March 19, 2012 — 15:17
  • Scott

    I don’t we should think of philosophers of religion as being experts about the question of whether or not God exists, rather, they are experts on arguments for and against God’s existence.
    Given that many (most?) philosophers of religion believe that these arguments do not exhaust everything that could be brought to bear on the question then we shouldn’t think that they are experts on that question.
    If we look at it this way, then reasons for thinking there is confirmation bias are reduced. This is because different religious traditions have had different attitudes to natural philosophy from enthusiasm through ambivalence and hostility. For this reason we should expect that philosophers of religion are coming into the subject with a variety of opinions about these arguments.

    March 20, 2012 — 5:42
  • jordan

    Scott’s comment is one of the most reasonable in this thread.
    One minor issue. Scott, you said:
    “I don’t we should think of philosophers of religion as being experts about the question of whether or not God exists, rather, they are experts on arguments for and against God’s existence.”
    Do you think a more accurate statement of the last part (and more in line with the rest of your post) would be something like:
    “…rather, they are experts on a certain number of arguments for and against God’s existence.” ??

    March 20, 2012 — 15:47
  • Helen De Cruz

    I am inclined to think that the relevant expertise in philosophy of religion is indeed something along the lines of what Scott and Jordan suggest: expertise in PoR is expertise on arguments for/against the existence of God, next to arguments for/against the reasonableness of religious belief, arguments for/against the internal consistency of certain forms of religious beliefs, e.g., Christianity with its specific doctrines on Incarnation, the Trinity etc.
    If this is the case, and self-selection does not wholly explain the prevalence of theism in PoR, then perhaps the prevalence of theism does have some evidential weight in favor of theism. Before I got into PoR I was decidedly a non-theist (although religion has always fascinated me) but I have since revised my beliefs in the light of particular arguments. Perhaps this is atypical, but I am not alone in this (see some of the comments in this thread and threads at NewApps and elsewhere).

    March 20, 2012 — 16:02
  • I think, if anything, this evidence for atheism.
    Even if we grant that (a) philosophers of religion are experts on the question of whether God exists, (b) we should thus give their opinions seriously evidential weight, and (c) 70% of them are theists, it does not follow that we have here any evidence for theism. We must also take into account the fact that *more* than 70% of the general population from which these philosophers come are theists. Given the assumptions granted above, that means that becoming an expert on the question of God’s existence tends to *decrease* the likelihood that one believes in God. That, if anything, is evidence for atheism.
    (I here set aside the selection effect worry, which, if it exists, would presumably be a selection for people who started as theists, and would thus mean we have here even greater evidence for atheism, since it would mean that becoming an expert turns even more people into atheists.)
    My apologies if someone already mentioned this. That’s a long thread of comments up there! 🙂

    March 20, 2012 — 20:05
  • Helen De Cruz

    Dustin: I think we need to disentangle several causal threads here.
    First, it is not at all easy to determine the no of theists in the general population. Since philosophers in my sample and the philpaper sample are overwhelmingly from the developed countries, we need to look at the prevalence of theism in that sample.
    I looked at the Pew Forum to examine religious belief in the US. This is about 83%. The percentage is lower in Europe. This is probably the figure you are thinking about when you say that becoming an expert on arguments about God’s existence decreases the likelihood one believes in God.
    But, more importantly, philosophers are not just a random pick of the population. They are a well-educated, usually from richer socio-economic backgrounds. The relevant control group is thus not the population at large, but perhaps other professional philosophers, where belief in God is only 23.9% (see my earlier results of the survey) and in scientists, where it is 33%, see

    March 21, 2012 — 6:09
  • Thanks for the thoughts, Helen. I was surely too quick to assume that the relevant comparison group was the population at large. But I don’t think that it can be philosophers at large or scientists either, since a fair number of those will have a fair amount of expertise in the question of God’s existence.
    What we really want to know is whether gaining expertise in the question of God’s existence tends to increase or decrease the likelihood that one will believe that God exists, no? If it is, then what we really need to do is to look at the rate of theism amongst people who are *just beginning* to study philosophy of religion, and compare this with the rate of theism amongst people who have studied it for some amount of time.
    Of course, a major problem is that an increase/decrease in the rate could merely be the result of selection effect: it could be that when people become atheists/theists, they become more likely to stop studying philosophy of religion. So we will need to keep track of all of these drop-outs as well. I know you and others have already been talking a lot about selection effect. I just wanted to note the particular way selection effect could play a role in the study that I am suggesting.

    March 21, 2012 — 10:30
  • The time is ripe for a separation of church and philosophy.

    March 21, 2012 — 13:07
  • Raff

    Maybe I’m naive, but I tend to think there is a good deal of confirmation bias, not only in PoR but throughout inquiry. Most natural scientists are not external-world skeptics; most moral philosophers aren’t moral error theorists; most epistemologists are not global skeptics; most aestheticians are not aesthetic error theorists. The list could continue. In many fields, there is an obvious fascinating object (e.g. goodness, knowledge, the universe, beauty, divinity, etc), and if one denies or even strongly doubts that the given object exists, there is no obvious reason to spend one’s life mulling over that object. Surely, there are those iconoclasts in a field (think of John Mackie in ethics and PoR), who find a field interesting in spite of denying that the given object exists, but it should come as no surprise that they are in the minority.
    Of course, there is an epistemological question about what to believe, if this sort of explanation is true. Any thoughts?

    March 23, 2012 — 11:29
  • Anonymous

    I don’t say why this applies only to philosophy of religion. This is an issue in every field.

    March 24, 2012 — 16:18
  • The influence of gender and philosophical specialization on assessing natural theological arguments – part 1

    Earlier on this blog, I have reported results of a survey on natural theological arguments (N=802), see here and here. To briefly recall, the survey asked philosophers to rate the strength of natural theological arguments, grouped into 8 arguments that…

    April 27, 2012 — 4:25