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.
As promised, here is the second fine-grained analysis of the results of my survey. The analyses have been done by Robert O’Brien, a medical statistician from Miami University. The statistics are fairly technical, and below this short summary you can find the complete statistical analysis.
Here I report how philosophers rate the arguments against theism in my survey. I presented 8 arguments against theism (see here for an overview of the arguments and general info on the survey) and asked participants to rate how strong they found them, ranging from very weak to very strong.
What I was interested in is how religious belief (theism/atheism/agnosticism) affects the assessment of these arguments. Initially, pooling all arguments together, it seemed like PoR had little effect, but when considering each argument separately, it turns out that PoR does influence the assessment of individual arguments. There were also gender effects.
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 seek to support belief in the existence of God, and 8 arguments that seek to support belief in metaphysical naturalism. My initial analysis indicated that religious belief (theism, atheism or agnosticism) reliably predicts the extent to which people will evaluate these arguments. However, in my analysis I examined only the effects of religious belief on the total overall assessments, not the arguments individually. In this post, I will report some fine-grained analyses on how philosophers evaluate individual arguments, as a function of their religious belief, gender and whether or not they specialize in philosophy of religion. Since the statistics are quite detailed, I will make this a two-part post, starting out by the positive arguments. The analyses have been conducted by Robert O’Brien, a statistician at the University of Miami.
I have some good friends down there, and I think the are doing some valuable work.
The Houston Baptist University philosophy department is pleased to announce a new Master of Arts in Philosophy degree, requiring 30 hours, and beginning fall semester 2012. The MAPhil degree is intended to offer students training in the critical and philosophical skills that are useful for their further academic study and also for their growth as followers of God. MAPhil graduates may continue their education at the doctoral level. Both alumni scholarships and merit-based GRE scholarships are available.
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Consider Rowe’s argument, which is essentially:
- E is an evil for which we have been unable to find a justifier despite serious investigation.
- Therefore, probably, E has no justifier.
- If some evil has no justifier, then theism is false.
- Therefore, probably, theism is false.
And then consider this anti-evolutionary argument:
- F is a major inheritable feature of an organism for which we have been unable to find an evolutionary explanation despite serious investigation.
- Therefore, probably, F has no evolutionary explanation.
- If some major inheritable feature of an organism has no evolutionary explanation, then evolutionary universalism is false.
- Therefore, probably, evolutionary universalism is false.
Here, evolutionary universalism is the claim that all major inheritable features of organisms have their presence explained by means of evolutionary explanations. (There are many ways of spelling out “major” that still leaves (5) plausible in some cases.)
It is an interesting sociological fact that many atheists think 1-4 is a good argument and 5-8 is a bad one, and that many creationists and intelligent design advocates think 5-8 is a good argument and 1-4 is a bad one.
But I think both are bad.
- P(the universe has low entropy | naturalism) is extremely tiny.
- P(the universe has low entropy | theism) is not very small.
- The universe has low entropy.
- Therefore, the low entropy of the universe strongly confirms theism over naturalism.
Low-entropy states have low probability. So, (1) is true. The universe, at the Big Bang, had a very surprisingly low entropy. It still has a low entropy, though the entropy has gone up. So, (3) is true. What about (2)? This follows from the fact that there is significant value in a world that has low entropy and given theism God is not unlikely to produce what is significantly valuable. At least locally low entropy is needed for the existence of life, and we need uniformity between our local area and the rest of the universe if we are to have scientific knowledge of the universe, and such knowledge is valuable. So (2) is true. The rest is Bayes.
Classic Paley-style design arguments go like this: There is some complex biological feature C which is such that
- God would have good reason to produce C, and
- C is extremely unlikely to occur through a random combination of elements.
It is concluded that probably God produced C, and hence probably God exists. The standard story is that Darwin undercut Paley-style arguments by providing a plausible explanation that does not involve God.
I shall suggest that the story is not so simple, and that, in fact, a very powerful Paley-style design argument may continue to go through.
The reason I say “suggest” reather than “argue” is that my argument is based on a crucial simplifying assumption. I shall assume a physics with a classical Hamiltonian dynamics satisfying Liouville’s Theorem. (To some readers this may already give a lot of my game away.) The justification is two-fold. First, for aught that we know, the correct dynamics of the world, whether deterministic or not, is such as to support some analogue of Liouville’s Theorem. Second, Darwin’s work appears to be consistent with classical mechanics, and was developed when classical mechanics was king. Thus, if Darwin’s work refutes classic Paley-style design arguments, this refutation should be consistent with classical mechanics.
Now, begin by posing this question: The standard story claims that Darwin naturalistically explained the explanandum of a Paley-style argument in a way that undercut that arguments–what is that explanandum?
Over on my personal blog, I have, for the last six weeks or so, been reflecting on Jordan Howard Sobel’s 2003 Logic and Theism: Arguments For and Against the Existence of God, and I have been invited to continue my series here at Prosblogion. Earlier posts have discussed, among other things, a variety of ontological and cosmological arguments. We join the discussion in chapter 7, Sobel’s critique of teleological (design) arguments.
Much of this chapter is devoted to Hume interpretation and to explaining Bayesianism. The latter seems to be one of several places where Sobel has not decided whether he is writing a textbook or a monograph. As for the former, the ‘analogical’ version of the teleological argument is, I think, not the strongest version and, although I haven’t conducted a survey of the various treatments, I would be surprised if Hume’s version turned out to be the best. After all, Hume is at most a half-hearted supporter of the argument; even he doesn’t think his argument is all that compelling. (Because the argument is contained in the Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, there are even some who doubt whether Hume means to endorse it at all.)
The first really interesting thing in this chapter is the discussion of whether the appearance of design in the biological world, or other facts about biology, might manage to make theistic evolution more probable than unguided evolution (pp. 272-277). Sobel makes essentially two points: first, with the possible exception of pre-biotic evolution (the development of the first life forms) there aren’t really any ‘gaps’ left for a God to plug, and, second, that given what we now know, evolution really doesn’t look planned or, at least, whoever was doing the planning could’ve done a better job of it.
The first point, I think, is completely misguided, but I am not inclined to blame Sobel because so many of his opponents are misguided in this way. Hume (according to Sobel) believed that some kind of indefinite and probably imperfect designer was needed to bring about life. ‘Intelligent Design’ advocates frequently claim that there is some feature of the world that must have happened by a supernatural entity interfering with the course of nature. Hume didn’t mean to be defending the religious tradition, but many of the ID folks are trying to do just that. Now, a frequently cited problem with ‘God-of-the-gaps’ arguments is that history shows that ‘gaps’ have a tendency to get plugged with perfectly naturalistic solutions. Some ID folks have tried to solve this by giving some kind of reason for thinking that some of the ‘gaps’ are special and unlikely to be plugged. For those who are trying to defend the religious tradition, however, there is a bigger problem: the doctrine of divine sovereignty. The God of western monotheism can never be a ‘God-of-the-gaps’: either he is Lord of all creation, or he does not exist. This is not, in itself, an argument against law-breaking miracles (though I’ve got some of those); it is just to say that, from the perspective of the religious tradition, we must attribute the whole natural order to God, rather than only crediting God with deviations from the natural order. In my view, then, the plugging of ‘gaps’ should not be troubling to traditional theists, though it might be troubling for non-traditional theists/deists such as Hume might have been. This, let it be stressed, is because even if there were unfillable ‘gaps,’ this would not help to support theism. I would even go so far as to say that such ‘gaps’ would be evidence against the existence of God, as traditionally conceived. (In addition to my paper, see Christine Overall, “Miracles as Evidence Against the Existence of God,” The Southern Journal of Philosophy 23 (1985): 347-353. Also, I recently stumbled upon this short news item which quotes Guy Consolmagno, the Vatican astronomer, comparing ID to Paganism, on the same grounds I’ve mentioned.)
Sobel’s second point is more interesting. Although Sobel doesn’t consider a theory that has God accomplishing his purposes through natural evolutionary processes without law-breaking interventions (this is the account I favor), he does point to some issues that should trouble evolutionary theists. The evolutionary process is brutal and seems to proceed by fits and starts. Many species die out; many animals have useless organs of various kinds; the system depends crucially on death and suffering. Wouldn’t we expect God to do better?
On the other hand, from an engineering/design principles perspective, evolution is really quite pretty: it’s a self-improving system. And not just self-improving like Bayesian learning for artificial intelligences; self-improving like going from ooze to the human brain. That’s quite an improvement! There are problems about a benevolent God accomplishing his purposes through death and suffering, and I don’t mean to minimize those. But they may be counter-balanced, at least to some degree, by the sheer impressiveness of the system. Furthermore, since Sobel is interested in considering non-traditional gods (p. 259), we might consider a designer who doesn’t care about pain and suffering and just wants to generate sophisticated and intelligent creatures from the simplest basic principles possible. Such a designer would, it seems, be very likely to choose a process like evolution.
It seems to me, then, that evolutionary theory has two effects on the debate at this point: (1) it rules out some, but by no means all, non-traditional gods, and (2) it introduces some new complexity to our treatment of the problem of evil. However, contrary to Sobel’s assertions (pp. 272-274), it has not undermined any argument for the traditional God which was any good to begin with.
[cross-posted at blog.kennypearce.net]
God created the world to exemplify certain values. Someone who propounds
a design argument for the existence of God probably needs to have something
to say about these values.
Scientists often propound particular models that instantiate a more
general theory. These models are sometimes intended to be more realistic
and sometimes less, but the hope is that by studying them and by noting the
divergence, if any, between model and reality we will learn something
about the relevant phenomenon. Some realistic models will be empirically testable and others will not, and scientists of course have a preference for testable models. Thus, an evolutionary scientist might offer a
more or less realistic model of the evolution of wings. The model may well predict what kinds of fossils we will find. If the model’s predictions are not borne out, this does not in any significant way affect the probability of
evolution in general, but studying the model is helpful, and if the model’s
predictions–assuming it makes some–match observations, so much the better
for the underlying theory.