I’ve just returned from a wonderful 2-day philosophy of religion workshop at Glasgow organized by Victoria Harrison, who put together a diverse and high-quality program. One of these exciting papers was by Joshua Rollins’ (U of Oklahoma) on the common consent argument.
Roughly speaking, in its crudest form, the Common Consent argument (CCA) goes as follows:
- Most people believe in God
- Therefore, God exists
This argument, traditionally widely endorsed, has fallen on hard times. Not only does it seem problematic to infer the truth of a belief from its mere popularity, declining religiosity in the western world have challenged premise (1). However, the recent shift in epistemology to social epistemology has rekindled an interest in the CCA. As Joshua indicated, social epistemologists have convincingly demonstrated that we do (and ought) take other people’s opinion into account as evidence. We do this in the case of testimony – where we acquire a vast amount of knowledge through other people – and in the case of peer disagreement, where disagreement with others is a fact we need to take into consideration in many cases. In what follows, I’ll reflect on some ideas offered by Thomas Kelly, who wrote a recent paper on CCA, and implications of cognitive science of religion for CCA.
The proposition that the mere popularity of a belief might constitute evidence for its truth may strike us as odd. Mill, for instance, argued that common opinion might be OK for the common folk who are unable or don’t feel entitled to form their own opinion, but to us, thinkers “the argument from other people’s opinions has little weight. It is but second-hand evidence; and merely admonishes us to look out for and weigh the reasons on which this conviction of mankind or of wise men was founded”.
Kelly regards this Millian view as implausible, especially in the light of recent social epistemology (see above).As for common consent, he observes is often reasonable to defer to majority opinion. An example he offers (and I encountered in real life many times) is the following: suppose I think I need to put out my bin on Friday as always, but I notice everyone else’s bin standing outside on Thursday. I will, justifiably, revise my beliefs and put my bin out too (I usually only afterwards realize there’s a bank holiday upcoming or some such, but by then I have already deferred to the majority view). Social epistemologists recognize this importance of other people’s beliefs as prima facie evidence for the truth of these beliefs. Thus, given that a large percentage of the population are theists (recent estimates somewhere between 70 and 90%), we come to the datum that Kelly puts forward as the basis for the CCA:
Datum: A strong supermajority [i.e., more than 60%] of the world’s population believes that God exists.
On the basis of the datum, one can construct an updated CCA to the effect that the datum provides (defeasible) evidence in favor of the proposition that God exists. There are several counterarguments Kelly discusses. I will here sum them up briefly, but will not go into the replies he offers on behalf of the theist:
- bite the bullet (i.e., say that the datum provides evidence for God’s existence, but that on the whole, evidence such as gratuitous evil points to atheism)
- argue that the unsophisticated are overtly represented among theists, whereas the well educated/critical reasoners etc. are more likely to be atheis
- argue that the datum is insignificant, because people did not come to their beliefs independently
- argue that the datum is false – religious beliefs do not have the same referent (i.e., Allah and God do not refer to the same being).
Kelly thinks (3) is the most significant problem, and I’ll look here at what cognitive science can say about it. Imagine the following possible worlds. Each of them is similar in that a supermajority of the population believes in God. However, how they come to these beliefs differs:
- w1 – people come to belief in God independently, through critical reflection (e.g., consideration of natural theological arguments)
- w2 – people come to belief in God through cultural transmission (e.g., from their parents)
- w3 – people come to belief in God because it’s innate
- w4 – people come to belief in God as a combined result of cultural transmissions and some innate cognitive predispositions.
Intriguingly, Kelly thinks people who live in w1 have the strongest evidence for the proposition that God exists. He thinks w3 is a lot less strong, because it is vulnerable to defeaters (e.g., cognitive explanations of why we believe in God such as adaptationist accounts that say such a belief is evolutionary advantageous). This is interesting because many CCAs (e.g., Calvin’s) have the claim that belief in God is innate. Such a claim isn’t necessary for CCA and, according to Kelly, doesn’t help the theist.
I think we probably live in w4. Religious belief results from a combination of what cognitive scientists call content biases and context biases. Context biases have to do with the context of testimony, e.g., peer pressure or parental upbringing. Content biases have to do with the content of the testimony – what is the actual thing being testified. Cognitive scientists have convincingly argued that religious beliefs are easily acquired. For example, Pascal Boyer has argued in his Religion Explained that there is something attractive about counterintuitive ideas like listening statues and invisible people. We tend to remember such ideas better than boring ideas like inanimate status or visible people. Hence the attraction of religious beliefs.
It’s clear at this point that not all such cognition and culture explanations will debunk CCAs for a variety of other beliefs. After all, a combination of context and content biases can account for the widespread human belief in the existence of trees, cats and other minds. The fact that our minds, collectively, hit upon such concepts, provides in such cases at least prima facie evidence for them. But when we delve in a bit more detail into the evolutionary explanations for such beliefs, we can see why they aren’t defeaters (i.e., widespread belief in trees is best explained by the actual existence of trees, on which our evolved capacities latch on, whereas widespread belief in God is commonly not naturalistically explained by invoking an actual deity – I’m not saying such a supernaturalistic explanation is not possible, just that it’s not on the table in cognitive science of religion).
Cognitive science thus seems like a viable way to undercut CCA. A lot of the standard moves philosophers make when responding to debunking arguments, and that work reasonably well for justifying one’s individual religious belief in the face of such defeaters, don’t work so well in the context of CCA. For instance, some theists respond to evolutionary debunking arguments by saying a naturalistic & supernaturalistic explanation aren’t competing, since God works through natural selection to bring in us about a belief in him (a sort of thomistic account). Although a CCA proponent might take this line, it does, I think, take the bite out of CCAs.
Perhaps the best line of response for the CCA-defender is to say that such explanations aren’t on the whole that impressive. Cognitive science of religion is still in full development, they haven’t even reached consensus on whether or not religion is an adaptation or byproduct, many features of religion remain unexplained (e.g., mystical experience, for instance, is studied but not really naturalistically explained in CSR). Moreover, relying on the pessimistic meta-induction, combined with the immaturity of the scientific study of religion, a theist can argue that today we aren’t particularly impressed by past debunking arguments such as Freud’s, Marx’s or Feuerbach’s (although they continue to be reiterated in theology and philosophy, no cognitive scientist takes them seriously, except perhaps Freud’s with a lot of modification, see e.g., Kirkpatrick). I’m not sure if these movesÃ will help the theist. In any case, the fact that CCAs seem – at least to me – somewhat vulnerable to CCAs indicate that best explanation considerations loom at the background of CCAs.
For instance, the best explanation why people put out their bin on Thursday in my earlier example is that the bins will in fact be collected on Thursdays (there are other explanations such as that everyone in the street but me is victim to some practical joke, but these seem less plausible). But a naturalist will not accept that the best explanation for the datum is that God exists. She could cite cognitive science explanations as naturalistic explanations for the datum (This post is a bit longer than I intended. Anyway, I’m now returning on a long, but eco-friendly train journey from Glasgow to Oxford, so I won’t be able to respond to comments for a while, but it would be interesting to hear if others’ intuitions might differ from mine.)