I’ve recently been wondering whether atheism – the belief that God does not exist – could be properly basic. By that, I mean whether it could be a belief that is not based on arguments, but nonetheless formed by a reliable mechanism that is truth-oriented.
I doubt whether atheism could be properly basic. If I am right, then, in order for atheism to be warranted (or maybe even merely rational; see below), atheism has to be based on arguments—whereas, perhaps, such a thing is not required for theism.
Now, here’s my line of thought. It seems we need to consider two mutually exclusive and jointly exhaustive scenarios: one in which God exists and one in which he does not.
We can be rather short about the first scenario. If God exists, then it seems impossible that humans have a truth-oriented reliable mechanism that produces the basic belief that God does not exist. Such a mechanism could never be both truth-oriented and reliable, for all of its deliverances – each instance of the basic belief that God does not exist – would be false.
There’s a good version of the modal problem of evil in Ted Guleserian’s (TG), ‘God and Possible Worlds: The Modal Problem of Evil’ (GPW) in Nous (1983). GPW is directly largely to Plantinga’s modal realism+theism and similar views. But I think the problem is more difficult than he suggests. TG tries to show that there is a possible world in which there is pointless and preventable evil. And so he invites a response of modal skepticism about such a world. He would have been better advised to provide a series of worlds, a G series and a B series, and then ask how the evil in the B series could be necessary to a greater good: i.e., how the evil in the B series could be justified evil.
Religious disagreements are conspicuous in everyday life. Most societies, except perhaps for theocracies or theocracy-like regimes, show a diversity of religious beliefs, a diversity that young children already are aware of. One emerging topic of interest in the social epistemology of religion is how we should respond to religious disagreement. How should you react if you are confronted with someone who seems equally intelligent and thoughtful, who has access to the same evidence as you do, but who nevertheless ends up with very different religious beliefs? Should you become less confident about your beliefs, or suspend judgment? Or is it permissible to accord more weight to your own beliefs than to those of others?
In November and December 2014, I surveyed philosophers about their views on religious disagreement. I was not only interested in finding out what philosophers think about disagreements about religious topics in the profession (for instance, do they consider other philosophers as epistemic peers, or do they take the mere fact of disagreement as an indication that the other can’t be right?), but also in the influence of personal religious beliefs and training. I present a brief summary of results below the fold; a longer version can be found here.
Many theists are libertarians about free will. I take it as a minimal implication of libertarianism that at any time t at which an agent S freely chooses A, S might have chosen ~A instead. The future branches into many genuinely possible alternatives. I want to make a few observations.
1. Note first that the free will defense (FWD), as Plantinga offers the argument, simply assumes that we have libertarian freedom. It is the assumption of libertarian freedom that makes it possible for (what I’ll call) bad CCF’s to be possibly true: recall we are invited to consider a world in which CCF’s of the sort, God creates S in T ☐⟶ S goes wrong, are true. Such counterfactuals could not be true unless we assumed that there are worlds in which God exists and agents produce evil. He could have ended the argument right there, after affirming that at least one of these is true somewhere in metaphysical space, since that is the conclusion we’re after.
2. That brings me to my second quick observation. For all of the fuss in the FWD, all we really need, for Plantinga’s purposes, is one counterfactual of the sort, God creates S in T ☐⟶ S goes wrong, to be true in some possible world. The rest of the argument is unnecessary for the main purpose. If there is such a true counterfactual, then God exists in some world where there is evil, contrary to the logical argument from evil. So ends the dispute.
My main point is that atheological opponents might reasonably balk at the idea that libertarian freedom is compatible with theism. Here’s why. Assume we have libertarian freedom. For any rational agent S, if S has libertarian freedom with respect to action A, then S can perform ~A. For actions A with moral significance, libertarian freedom entails that you can perform the morally wrong action ~A. But the modal claim that you can perform the wrong action ~A entails the further modal claim that God can actualize a world in which you go wrong. So far, I assume, so good. Now, unless it is true that you and everyone else is universally transworld depraved in every possible world in which you go wrong, which is simply not credible, this means that God can actualize a world in which you go wrong when he might have actualized a world in which you go right instead. Certainly, there is some world like that under the assumption of libertarianism. But why should an atheological opponent accept that? He shouldn’t. Why wouldn’t an atheological opponent urge instead that God cannot actualize a world in which you freely go wrong when he might have actualized one in which you freely go right. He would. But then it’s reasonable to believe that libertarianism is not compatible with theism.
Contributor Trent Dougherty interviews Erik Wielenberg as part of Baylor’s C.S. Lewis 50th Memorial Conference.
You can find more videos from the event on Baylor’s ISR Channel
In its classical formulation, Pascal’s Wager contends that we have something like the following payoff matrix:
God exists | No God | |
Believe | +∞ | −a |
Don’t believe | -b | c |
where a,b,c are finite. Alan Hajek, however, observes that it is incorrect to say that if you don’t choose to believe, then the payoff is finite. For even if you don’t now choose to believe, there is a non-zero chance that you will later come to believe, so the expected payoff whether you choose to believe or not is +∞.
Hajek’s criticism has the following unhappy upshot. Suppose that there is a lottery ticket that costs a dollar and has a 9/10 chance of getting you an infinite payoff. That’s a really good deal intuitively: you should rush out and buy the ticket. But the analogue to Hajek’s criticism will say that since there is a non-zero chance that you will obtain the ticket without buying it—maybe a friend will give it to you as a gift—the expected payoff is +∞ whether you buy or don’t buy. So there is no point to buying. So Hajek’s criticism leads to something counterintuitive here, though that won’t surprise Hajek. The point of this post is to develop a rigorous principled response to Hajek’s criticism entailing the intuition that you should go for the higher probability of an infinite outcome over a lower probability of it.
A gamble is a random variable on a probability space. We will consider gambles that take their values in R*=R∪{−∞,+∞}, where R is the real numbers. Say that gambles X and Y are disjoint provided that at no point in the probability space are they both non-zero. We will consider an ordering ≤ on gambles, where X≤Y means that Y is at least as good a deal as X. Write X<Y if X≤Y but not Y≤X. Then we can say Y is a strictly better deal than X. Say that gambles X and Y are probabilistically equivalent provided that for any (Borel measurable) set of values A, P(X∈A)=P(Y∈A). Here are some very reasonable axioms:
- ≤ is a partial preorder, i.e., transitive and reflexive.
- If X and Y are real valued and have finite expected values, then X≤Y if and only if E(X)≤E(Y).
- If X and Y are defined on the same probability space and X(ω)≤Y(ω) for every point ω, then X≤Y.
- If X and Y are disjoint, and so are W and Z, and if X≤W and Y≤Z, then X+Y≤W+Z. If further X<W, then X+Y<W+Z.
- If X and Y are probabilistically equivalent, then X≤Y and Y≤X.
For any random variable X, let X* be the random variable that has the same value as X where X is finite and has value zero where X is infinite (positively or negatively).
The point of the above axioms is to avoid having to take expected values where there are infinite payoffs in view.
Theorem. Assume Axioms 1-5. Suppose that X and Y are gambles with the following properties:
- P(X=+∞)<P(Y=+∞)
- P(X=−∞)≥P(Y=−∞)
- X* and Y* have finite expected values
Then: X<Y.
It follows that in the lottery case, as long as the probability of getting a winning ticket without buying is smaller than the probability of getting a winning ticket when buying, you should buy. Likewise, if choosing to believe has a greater probability of the infinite payoff than not choosing to believe, and has no greater probability of a negative infinite payoff, and all the finite outcomes are bounded, you should choose to believe.
Proof of Theorem: Say that an event E is continuous provided that for any 0≤x≤P(E), there is an event F⊆E with P(F)=x. By Axiom 5, without loss of generality {X∈A} and {Y∈A} are continuous for any (Borel measurable) A. (Proof: If necessary, enrich the probability space that X is defined on to introduce a random variable U uniformly distributed on [0,1] and independent of X. The enrichment will not change any gamble orderings by Axiom 5. Then if 0≤x≤P(X∈A), just choose a∈[0,1] such that aP(X∈A)=x and let F={X∈A&U≤a}. Ditto for Y.)
Now, given an event A and a random variable X, let AX be the random variable equal to X on A and equal to zero outside of A. Let A={X=−∞} and B={Y=−∞}. Define the random variables X_{1} and Y_{1} on [0,1] with uniform distribution by X_{1}(x)=−∞ if x≤P(A) and X_{1}(x)=0 otherwise, and Y_{1}(x)=−∞ if x≤P(B) and Y_{1}(x)=0 otherwise. Since P(A)≥P(B) by (7), it follows that X_{1}(x)≤Y_{1}(x) everywhere and so X_{1}≤Y_{1} by Axiom 3. But AX and BY are probabilistically equivalent to X_{1} and Y_{1} respectively, so by Axiom 5 we have AX≤BY. If we can show that A^{c}X<B^{c}Y then the conclusion of our Theorem will follow from the second part of Axiom 4.
Let X_{2}=A^{c}X and Y_{2}=B^{c}Y. Then P(X_{2}=+∞)<P(Y_{2}=+∞), X_{2}* and Y_{2}* have finite expected values and X_{2} and Y_{2} never have the value −∞. We must show that X_{2}≤Y_{2}. Let C={X_{2}=+∞}. By subdivisibility, let D be a subset of {Y_{2}=+∞} with P(D)=P(C). Then CX_{2} and DY_{2} are probabilistically equivalent, so CX_{2}≤DY_{2} by Axiom 5. Let X_{3}=C^{c}X_{2} and Y_{3}=D^{c}Y_{3}. Observe that X_{3} is everywhere finite. Furthermore P(Y_{3}=+∞)=P(Y_{2}=+∞)−P(X_{2}=+∞)>0.
Choose a finite N sufficiently large that NP(Y_{3}=+∞)>E(X_{3})−E(Y_{3}*) (the finiteness of the right hand side follows from our integrability assumptions). Let Y_{4} be a random variable that agrees with Y_{3} everywhere where Y_{3} is finite, but equals N where Y_{3} is infinite. Then E(Y_{4})=NP(Y_{3}=+∞)+E(Y_{3}*)>E(X_{3}). Thus, Y_{4}>X_{3} by Axiom 2. But Y_{3} is greater than or equal to Y_{4} everywhere, so Y_{3}≥Y_{4}. By Axiom 1 it follows that Y_{3}>X_{3}. but DY_{2}≥CX_{2} and X_{2}=CX_{2}+X_{3} and Y_{2}=DY_{2}+Y_{3}, so by Axiom 4 we have Y_{2}>X_{2}, which was what we wanted to prove.
One of our graduate students, Matt Wilson, suggested an analogy between Pascal’s Wager and the question about whether to promote or fight theistic beliefs in a social context (and he let me cite this here).
This made me think. (I don’t know what of the following would be endorsed by Wilson.) The main objections to Pascal’s Wager are:
- Difficulties in dealing with infinite utilities. That’s merely technical (I say).
- Many gods.
- Practical difficulties in convincing oneself to sincerely believe what one has no evidence for.
- The lack of epistemic integrity in believing without evidence.
- Would God reward someone who believes on such mercenary grounds?
- The argument just seems too mercenary!
Do these hold in the social context, where I am trying to decide whether to promote theism among others? If theistic belief non-infinitesimally increases the chance of other people getting infinite benefits, without any corresponding increase in the probability of infinite harms, then that should yield very good moral reason to promote theistic belief. Indeed, given utilitarianism, it seems to yield a duty to promote theism.
But suppose that instead of asking what I should do to get myself to believe the question is what I should try to get others to believe. Then there are straightforward answers to the analogue of (3): I can offer arguments for and refute arguments against theism, and help promote a culture in which theistic belief is normative. How far I can do this is, of course, dependent on my particular skills and social position, but most of us can do at least a little, either to help others to come to believe or at least to maintain their belief.
Moreover, objection (4) works differently. For the Wager now isn’t an argument for believing theism, but an argument for increasing the number of people who believe. Still, there is force to an analogue to (4). It seems that there is a lack of integrity in promoting a belief that one does not hold. One is withholding evidence from others and presenting what one takes to be a slanted position (for if one thought that the balance of the evidence favored theism, then one wouldn’t need any such Wager). So (4) has significant force, maybe even more force than in the individual case. Though of course if utilitarianism is true, that force disappears.
Objections (5) and (6) disappear completely, though. For there need be nothing mercenary about the believers any more, and the promoter of theistic beliefs is being unselfish rather than mercenary. The social Pascal’s Wager is very much a morally-based argument.
Objections (1) and (2) may not be changed very much. Though note that in the social context there is a hedging-of-the-bets strategy available for (2). Instead of promoting a particular brand of theism, one might instead fight atheism, leaving it to others to figure out which kind of theist they want to be. Hopefully at least some theists get right the brand of theism—while surely no atheist does.
I think the integrity objection is the most serious one. But that one largely disappears when instead of considering the argument for promoting theism, one considers the argument against promoting atheism. For while it could well be a lack of moral integrity to promote one-sided arguments, there is no lack of integrity in refraining from promoting one’s beliefs when one thinks the promotion of these beliefs is too risky. For instance, suppose I am 99.99% sure that my new nuclear reactor design is safe. But 99.9999% is just not good enough for a nuclear reactor design! I therefore might choose not promote my belief about the safety of the design, even with the 99.9999% qualifier, because politicians and reporters who aren’t good in reasoning about expected utilities might erroneously conclude not just that it’s probably safe (which it probably is), but that it should be implemented. And the harms of that would be too great. Prudence might well require me to be silent about evidence in cases where the risks are asymmetrical, as in the nuclear reactor case where the harm of people coming to believe that it’s safe when it’s unsafe so greatly outweighs the harm of people coming to believe that it’s unsafe when it’s safe. But the case of theism exhibits a similar asymmetry.
Thus, consistent utilitarian atheists will promote theism. (Yes, I think that’s a reductio of utilitarianism!) But even apart from utilitarianism, no atheist should promote atheism.
(I thought some Prosblogion folks may find this essay interesting, because it touches on and connects with several interesting philosophical and metaphilosophical issues, and also some interesting issues about the role of faith in the religious life. I don’t mention faith in the essay: that’s one of the “connected” issues that isn’t actually touched on. But it’s interesting to me to see how some theists can be very disturbed at the suggestion that they don’t know that God exists, while others shrug it off with some thought along the lines of “Well, that’s what faith is for.”)
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I know many people who claim to know whether God exists. In each case (individually), I suspect they’re wrong about their having such knowledge. In fact, I suspect that they are all wrong. That is, I suspect that nobody that I know knows whether God exists. So I suspect that delusions of knowledge about this matter run rampant among folks I know. Not a particularly nice suspicion to harbor, I realize. But I thought I’d express and explain that suspicion here, describing my grounds for it.
[X-posted at Newapps] As the third season of Game of Thrones has ended, this interesting reflection, written by Adam Brereton, contends that A Song of Fire and Ice by G.R.R. Martin and the TV series based on it simply don’t work, because they do not obey what Chesterton has termed “elfin ethics”:
according to elfin ethics all virtue is in an ‘if’. The note of the fairy utterance always is, ‘You may live in a palace of gold and sapphire, if you do not say the word “cow”‘; or ‘You may live happily with the King’s daughter, if you do not show her an onion.’ The vision always hangs upon a veto. All the dizzy and colossal things conceded depend upon one small thing withheld. All the wild and whirling things that are let loose depend upon one thing that is forbidden.
In GOT, however, this rule doesn’t apply: people who do break oaths (like Robb Stark) get killed in a horrible way, but people who are honorable, try to do the right thing and don’t break oaths (like Eddard Stark) also get killed in a horrible way. In this, Martin differs from other fantasy writers, like H.P. Lovecraft or J.R.R. Tolkien. We can expect something like the massacre of the Starks at the Red Wedding to occur on a biweekly basis. So, Brereton concludes
Westeros just doesn’t work. Unlike Tolkien, Lovecraft and Peake, it is not a consistent creation. Where does the good exist?…In Martin’s broken world, good only resides in individual acts, only as long they don’t get you killed, which more often than not they do.
The intuition that fantasy works should have some moral compass, or indeed, that fantasy universes should ultimately be just worlds, is compelling. Indeed, as Mitch Hodge argues in this draft paper, we even have a strong intuition that the world, au fond, is a morally just place. People intuitively regard the world as a just place: the good prosper, the wicked suffer.