"The trouble with the world is that the stupid are cocksure and the intelligent are full of doubt." -- Bertrand Russell

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Helping Theist Arguments

Edit: Ironically, I made a conceptual error in my comments here. Please see my comments here addressing that issue.
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Sometimes, when I talk to theists, I am surprised at their ability to provide me with challenging arguments. I really value those moments when a theist says something to me which actually stumps me.

Other times, theists aren't able to stump me or surprise me with their arguments. It's not because they're dumb people, but rather because a lot of religious people have never spent any time trying to defend their religion. Perhaps for them, religion is about inspiration, mystical experiences, or values. When this happens, I can't do anything but feel bad for them. Feeling sympathetic to their plight, I tend to put aside my own opinion and try fix up their own arguments. If anything, it gives me something more interesting to argue against. And I value critical thinking more so than my own opinion; in some sense, I feel morally obligated to help them provide a more rational defence of their own religion.

This happened recently on the r/Christianity subreddit and I wanted to provide it here as an illustrative example.

First, the context. The OP was entitled "I'm a recovering Mormon. I understand it isn't true. Please sell me on your brand of Christianity with your best arguments." A user named tmgproductions posted:


The Mormons put WAY too much emphasis on "knowing things by the spirit". That does play a part, but should NEVER be the reason you choose a religion. The scriptures tell us that the heart is decietful. The Mormons should know this. I'm glad you've realized this.
BUT you need not discard Christianity all together. I'm wondering what you have realized are lies exactly. I think there are many valid reasons to accept Christianity. I've put most of them here. I think one of the best arguments for Christianity is that it is the only religion that doesn't make God out to be the creator of death/suffering/disease. If you have any questions let me know.

To which I replied:

"I think one of the best arguments for Christianity is that it is the only religion that doesn't make God out to be the creator of death/suffering/disease."
Really? The only one?
First, let's suppose that this is the case; i.e. that Christianity (in all its forms) does not make God the creator of death/suffering/disease. I don't understand why attributing that particular characteristic to God makes Christianity more believable.
Second, there are plenty of religions which do not attribute the existence of death/suffering/disease to God. Buddhism, for example, does not assert that suffering is due to God; rather, Buddhism holds that human suffering is due to the transient nature of the world and to our longings as humans. I see no reason why Jews need to attribute death/suffering/disease to God either; they can make the move of saying that these things represent the absence or lack of good, as opposed to the existence of anything that would entail a Creator.
 tmgproductions:
First of all, Buddhists do not believe in God. Second, Jews believe in the same God as Christians.
The problem with suffering is - why would a perfect God design an imperfect creation? I personally cannot accept that. I do not believe the Bible paints it that way. The Bible declares that God created a perfect creation, by Him calling it "very good". I don't believe a perfect God would call our current world of death/disease/suffering/cancer,etc "very good". But I don't think God created the world as we see it today. I think today's world is the result of man's rebellion against God - which introduced sin, which introduced death/disease/suffering. This turns the blame from God to man.
Myself:

Okay, let's slow down and look at what you said. First, you said:
"I think one of the best arguments for Christianity is that it is the only religion that doesn't make God out to be the creator of death/suffering/disease."
Now you're saying:
"Jews believe in the same God as Christians."
I'm not going to take issue with calling the Jewish God the same deity as the Christian God (even though the Jewish one has many differences from the Christian one -- not being Triune, for example.) Nonetheless, your claim was that this property of God was unique to the claims of Christianity. Since Judaism and Christianity are not the same religion, but -- by your own words -- they share the same conception of God, this claim about God is not unique to Christianity. Therefore, on these grounds, one cannot distinguish between Christianity and Judaism solely on the basis of the claimed properties (or the claimed lack of properties) of the deity in question.
You also claim that:
"Buddhists do not believe in God."
It's more accurate to claim that there are some Buddhists who believe in the existence of at least one deity and those who do not. Tibetan Buddhists are polytheists, while some other Buddhists merge Western monotheisms into their beliefs. Still other Buddhists are atheists.
Regardless, the claim I was attacking was that one could distinguish between religions on the basis of the lack of a particular, claimed property of God. Specifically, you were talking about a religion explicitly NOT asserting that God originated suffering. If a religion fails to assert the existence of a god, it would also fail to assert that God created suffering. That means that your claim about Christianity, if taken literally as you wrote it, would be true of any religion that failed to assert the existence of any gods. What I was trying to point out was that you should modify your argument here, because I don't think you wrote what you meant to write.
If I can be so bold as to propose what you really meant to say, I'd say that what you wanted to say was:
P: "I think one of the best arguments for Christianity is that it is one of the religions that asserts God (who is asserted to exist) is not responsible for death/suffering/disease."
However, I don't understand why P is a good argument for Christianity. One could also say:
P': "I think one of the best arguments for Judaism is that it is one of the religions that asserts God (who is asserted to exist) is not responsible for death/suffering/disease."
Additionally, you need to tell my why this is true:
Q: "We should believe religion R if R asserts both that God exists and that God is not responsible for death/suffering/disease."
It might be possible to overcome these two objections, but these are the two basic objections you will need to overcome if this argument is to succeed.
You did give an account as to why as to why God creating suffering poses a problem for anyone who asserts a certain kind of God. But that argument only works to distinguish Christianity from Western monotheisms whose conception of God includes God as the originator of human suffering. What you actually need to do is to give an account as to why this assertion about an asserted deity distinguishes Christianity from all other religions.
tmgproductions (who seems to be rather confused now):
I appreciate your diagnosis, but I apologize that I fail to understand the overall question here. I already admitted this: "I think one of the best arguments for Christianity is..." Notice, I didn't say THE best argument, I said "one of the best". In other words, to me one of the necessary qualities of God is that He is not the designer of death/suffering. Perhaps I should have gone into more detail, that I only see this in the God of Abraham as evident in the Bible. Jewish and Christian histories (and Islam) share this same God.
My understanding is that this is a God who created a perfect world for us that we then rebelled against. Therefore, the world we live in today is not the intended creation for us, it is a mere shadow of what it was meant to be. To build on that, I don't think a loving God would then leave us alone to rot on that dying world. Therefore the idea of Jesus as messiah fits perfectly with what I would expect of a just and loving God.
Myself:
Well, I thought that what you were originally proposing was an argument for Christianity, that would distinguish Christianity from other religions. What I outlawed was several ways in which the argument you named appears to fail (and why it's probably not even a good argument.)
The argument you named doesn't do the task that I thought you were trying for; i.e. distinguishing Christianity from other religions. On the other hand, your new argument does seem to do this. If I understand you correctly, you would advocate this argument:
  1. A loving and perfect God created the universe.
  2. The universe is presently imperfect.
  3. If (1) and (2), then the universe must have been made imperfect by Mankind (and not by God.)
  4. Therefore, the universe must have been made imperfect by Mankind (by Modus Ponens from (1)-(3)).
  5. If (1) then God would not have left us to suffer in this imperfection that Mankind created (as per (4)).
  6. Therefore, God would not have left us to suffer in this imperfection (by Modus Ponens from (1) and (5).)
  7. If (6) then God must have sent a savior (Jesus) to save us from the imperfection of our world.
  8. Therefore, God must have sent a savior (Jesus) to save us from the imperfections of our world (by Modus Ponens from (6) and (7).)
This argument has a number of serious problems, and there seem to be a number of unfounded assertions. However, at the very least, it argues in a way that distinguishes Christianity from other religions (it picks out things that actually are unique to Christianity and argues in terms of those.)
tmgproductions:
I think you got it basically right.
  1. A perfect God must exist due to the very nature of intelligence in the universe, uniformity of nature, ultimate morality, and the fact that laws of logic & science work.
  2. A perfect God could not make an imperfect world.
  3. The world is not perfect (i.e. suffering/disease/hunger).
  4. Therefore, we destroyed a perfect creation.
Any religion that lines up with this thinking is now in the running for my consideration. Christianity then offers the best and most logical outcome to those foundational aspects.
Myself:
Fair enough. Your (1)-(4) look a lot better than what you had before.
(1) looks like some version of TAG (the Transcendental Argument for God). TAG is known to suffer from a variety of problems, but I agree that you need to start by arguing for the existence of God in some manner. Since there are counter arguments to all known arguments for the existence of God, if you're going to use an "off-the-shelf" argument, this one works fine enough. As an atheist, if I were to debate with you, I'd likely attack (1) using both my own arguments and the problems others have identified in TAG. Nonetheless, for present purposes, I'm willing to grant you (1) and move on (we can argue about TAG some other time.)
Now, (1)-(4) is not currently in a valid form, but it would be easy enough to put it into a valid form:
1') A perfect God must exist due to the very nature of intelligence in the universe, uniformity of nature, ultimate morality, and the fact that laws of logic & science work.
2') A perfect God could not make an imperfect world.
3') The world is not perfect (i.e. suffering/disease/hunger).
4') If (1')-(3') then we destroyed a perfect creation.
5') Therefore, we destroyed a perfect creation (by Modus Ponens from (1')-(4').)
Now that we have this argument in valid form, let's suppose that I grant you (1')-(5'). How do we get from (5') to Christianity? What you would like is an argument that gets you uniquely from (5') to the divinity of Jesus, but I don't see an easy way to do that.
 tmgproductions:
You see Christianity is the only religion that answers the problem. That's the uniqueness. I'm not claiming to prove God. I'm not claiming to prove the divinity of Jesus. But given my starting assumptions about God, Christianity does the best job of answering the inherint problems of the world. To be logically consistent, if I'm going to accept a creator God, a perfect creation, a human race that rebelled and destroyed that creation based on writings in the Bible... then why would I reject its claims about Jesus?
Myself:
Well, if you were simply asserting (without proof or argument) that God exists, then you wouldn't have written (1). So it's not that you're assuming that God exists, but rather that you think your argument in (1) (some version of TAG) motivates us to believe that God exists. Then, you assert that suffering exists, which can only be explained by Mankind's actions (so you claim.) There are, of course, other theological responses to the problem of evil/suffering, so the uniqueness claim fails.
You ask:
"To be logically consistent, if I'm going to accept a creator God, a perfect creation, a human race that rebelled and destroyed that creation based on writings in the Bible... then why would I reject its claims about Jesus?"
Well, you haven't argued for the Bible -- only that Mankind's actions made the world imperfect. That this occurred by an account from the Bible or from some other source isn't clear. Additionally, the OT never makes explicit mention of Original Sin. Nonetheless, let's suppose I grant you all of these assertions. Why would you reject the assertions about Jesus? Well, why would accept them? I don't see how:
--A creator God
--A perfect creation
--A human race that rebelled and destroyed that creation
lead to Christianity as a conclusion. Maybe you're saying that Christianity is the best response to or the best explanation of these assertions. But in that case, you'd only be justified in being agnostic. You could only say that you think Christianity is more likely to be true than other religions, not that is definitely true.
tmgproductions:
I don't think this is as clear cut as agnostic or not. Every Christian experiences times of agnosticism. That is natural. I've found the times I've questioned God to be the times I have learned the most. Above and beyond the logical explanations and reasons I can offer here is the supernatural revelations through spiritual experience that even if my logic failed, I still can't deny. That doesn't mean I accept Christianity based on unverifiable questionable "experiences". It means that, mixed with my other reasons, have led to a totality that cannot be dismissed.
Lets look at it like scientists looks at evolution. All evidence seems to suggest that evolution is best explanation as to the variety of life around us. But it doesn't "prove it". My belief in Christianity is based on the what I feel is the best explanation for the world as I see it.
An evolutionist would not consider themselves agnostic would they? No. It is the only valid explanation for the evidence. That is how my Christianity works. It is the only valid explanation for the evidence.
Above and beyond experience, revelation, and intuition, I have recapped my overall reasons for believing here.
Myself:
"An evolutionist would not consider themselves agnostic would they?"
Well, it depends on what you mean by the word "agnostic". As a scientist, I can tell you that we are never 100% certain of the conclusions that we draw from empirical evidence. There is very little that I am 100% certain of, but many things which I am more than 99% certain of. There is a difference between absolute certainty (100% certainty) and just being pretty damn sure (certainty near 100%, but not equal to 100%.) I don't think scientists would describe themselves with the term "evolutionists" (that's usually a term that Creationists use to describe scientists who think Darwinian evolution is the best explanation) but they would say that they are pretty damn sure evolution is true.
I would call anyone who is pretty damn sure God exists, but not absolutely certain, an agnostic theist. This is to distinguish them from a gnostic theist, who would claim that they are absolutely certain God exists.
"It is the only valid explanation for the evidence. That is how my Christianity works. It is the only valid explanation for the evidence."
Well, perhaps this is the way you describe your own beliefs. But an inference to the best explanation (what's called an abductive inference) doesn't work this way. An abductive inference occurs in a situation where we have many explanations consistent with the facts, but there is one explanation which, in virtue of some property or epistemic notion (such as the principle of economy), that best fits the facts. Thus, an explanation that is arrived at through abduction is only sufficient, not necessary, for explaining a given set of facts (so any claims about uniqueness -- or about such an explanation being the only valid explanation -- fail.) Similar to inductive conclusions, abductive conclusions come with associated probabilities -- i.e. you could conclude that God is 99% likely to exist (for example) but not 100%.
Are you really sure that you want to rest your religions beliefs on an inference to the best explanation?
 tmgproductions:
But can't I turn that question right around on those who accept Darwinian evolution? Are you really sure that you want to rest your understandings of origins on an inference to the best explanation? The logical answer would be - yes, its the best explanation given my understanding of the world.
I have a question though. How do you determine that evolution is 99% probable. Where does that statistic come from? It sounds as if you are forced to leave a window of doubt open because you admit it can't be proven 100%. But how do you logically determine how big or little that window is?
To me, it seems like if you are going to believe something - then believe it. It's either true or false. 0% or 100%. Thoughts?
Myself:
Well, first of all, individual hypotheses are always confirmed or disconfirmed with some level of probability. That's the nature of statistics. Those probabilities are updated in the presence of new evidence via Bayes' Theorem. Darwinian evolution is a hypothesis and we scientists accept it with some degree of probability contingent on the evidence we've gathered in the past (and which will be updated via Bayes' Theorem each time we gather new evidence.)
When do we know if the probability is high enough to call something "true"? Well, we actually don't -- which is why what we should really do is to say that evolution is just very likely to be true. But that's a complication; when lay people say that something is true, they just mean that they're extremely confident that it's true. They don't usually appreciate this same level of intricacy as scientists when forming beliefs (in fact, this is why scientsts need to be trained to think in these terms.) For a scientist to say that something is true, as opposed to just being confident, we have a much higher standard. We technically have a next to impossible standard, which is why we talk in terms of probabilities in our communications to colleagues. But when talking to the public, we say that these things are facts because these sorts of complications just serve to confuse lay people.
I never said that evolution was 99% probable -- I purposely didn't give a number (I did give 99% as an example, but it was just supposed to be illustrative.) Maybe someone would be able to calculate the probability that evolution is true, contingent on the available evidence. Regardless, the relevant issue here is whether or not we allow for the possibility of being wrong. I am asserting that scientists do allow for this possibility, and, therefore, their certainty that evolution is true isn't 100% even if we cannot explicitly calculate the exact number.
I would say that there are all different degrees of believing that something is true. To some extent, this is related to the idea of Bayesian inference (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bayesian_probability).
You said:
"But can't I turn that question right around on those who accept Darwinian evolution?"
Yes, but it would be a lousy counterargument. Darwinian evolution is a scientific theory, not a religious belief. By their very nature, religious beliefs often demand a higher degree of confidence that scientific propositions. All us scientists say about Darwinian evolution is that we're pretty damn sure it's right, but if we were given sufficient evidence to the contrary, we'd change our minds. When you claim that your religious beliefs are like this, what you're saying is that you don't really know if your beliefs are really true -- but given the evidence, they're more likely to be true than other ideas. That makes your religious beliefs weaker than most religious people would like. It's fine if that's how you think about this, but I've met very few theists who did.
tmgproductions:
Well, maybe I'll understand this statistics issue later this year since I'm taking a graduate level statistics course. I guess to me something is either true or false. 100% true or 100% false. I guess thats the issue of absolutes. I mean technically evolution IS either 100% true or 100% false, there is no in between really. So when I hear someone say 99%, I think they might as well be saying 1%. I don't see a difference between calling it 99% or calling it 1% likely.
Now, about religion. I do not know of, or can fathom any form of evidence that would stray me from my religious convictions. Therefore I am comfortable saying I believe in them 100%.
Myself:
Well, there is a difference between:
  1. Whether a proposition P is true or false;
  2. Our degree of certainty about the truthhood or falsehood of P
When I say that I am (for example) 99% certain that P is true, that doesn't mean that P is 99% true. You are correct that P is either true or false (the law of the excluded middle) and can't be anything in between. But my degree of certainty about P depends on my own knowledge of the world, the available evidence, and what kinds of epistemology I'm willing to subscribe to. In science, we don't uncover truth; what we do is to figure out what is most likely to be true given the available evidence. It's similar in an American criminal proceeding -- the guilt of a suspect is only determined beyond any reasonable doubt, not absolutely determined (which is likely impossible.)
Religious beliefs are typically stronger than this; as you say, there is nothing that could ever bring you to disbelieve in the religion that you believe in. If that's the case, it's not merely an inference to the best explanation. In fact, it's not really contingent upon evidence -- at least, not in the same way as the beliefs of a scientist. For a scientist, a hypothesis can at best have a very high level of probability of being true, but MUST always have conditions under which it could be proven false (by which we really mean that the probability of its being true would be substantially lowered, so that belief would no longer be warranted. This is a principle called "falsifiability" and we want all of our scientific theories to have this property. Your inability to name conditions under which your religious beliefs could be disproven means that they are unfalsifiable, and, therefore, not scientific theories.) Only mathematical statements can be proven absolutely true or false, and then those are only absolutely true or false relative to a set of axioms.

Actually, if you're going to be taking graduate level statistics, I would have guessed that you already had taken undergraduate statistics. I would therefore guess that you would know what p-values are in the context of hypothesis testing. These p-values (that you always define for a hypothesis test) are related to the probability that the hypothesis you are testing is true. Whether you accept or reject the null hypothesis is then based upon how big the probability is that the given hypothesis is true. That's the way basic statistical tests work. More complicated statistical tests are based on similar intuitions (as is empirical reasoning more generally.)

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