Wednesday, November 20, 2013

What is the Reason You Believe?

“The argument is that, if your belief depends only on geography and family history, then it has no more chances of being true than the god of the muslim guy, or the hindu guy, or the christian guy who lives right across the border.”

         I would like to analyze this statement, and see if it comports with reality. First, we have to ask what is meant by “depends.” I think that perhaps the most charitable meaning we can give this is to say it is being used as “reason.” So, the claim can be interpreted to mean, “If the only reason you have for your belief is geography and family history. . . .” But then “reason” becomes ambiguous, for surely we cannot mean reason as in “rational justification.” This is because most people don’t formulate an argument to the effect of, “I have my geographical and familial situation such that I am pre-disposed to believe in Christianity, therefore, I believe Christianity.” Instead, “reason” tends to mean “explanation” in these cases. So, the claim can be clearly reformulated to read: “If the only explanation of your belief is geographical and familial history. . . .” If this is not a correct understanding of what is being said by this part of the statement above, I welcome a correction. I believe that alternative understandings of this part of the claim will be shown either to be completely or usually false, so that the claim will only affect a minimal amount of Christians (if any). This is why I felt it charitable to read it in the stronger way.

            “Then it has no more chances of being true. . . .” In interpreting this part of the claim, we must be careful. Chance is not ontological; it is epistemological. Since someone who has an explanation for their belief in Christianity other than the above (like Christians in Muslim contexts, or ones who come from atheistic backgrounds, etc.) will have many things open to their epistemology, we should locate these epistemological challenges to be relevant to those whom the first part of the statement addressed. If we do not, then the second part becomes patently false (at least, it would be a non-sequitur). This part of the claim states that for those whose only explanation for their belief is geographical and familial concerns, they do not have any more justification for holding their belief as true over and against other beliefs contrary to their religious beliefs.

            So, the entire statement would read (in condensed form): “If the only explanation of your belief is geographical and familial history, then it has no more chances of being true over and against other religions, and one is not justified in holding his religious belief.” So is this true? Not at all. For explanations don’t preclude there being rational reasons to believe! So suppose there is the Christian whose only explanation for belief is that he was born in a Christian country to a Christian family.[1] Why can he not have arguments for Christian belief? One can argue that these arguments or reasons are all false or unjustifiable, but it will have to be because the skeptic has examined all of these reasons and concluded they are false, which is a completely different project than the one outlined before. It also doesn’t help to say that many people don’t have these reasons, since many do, and hence it will not work as a principle. It also won’t work to go back to “reason” as rational instead of explanatory. This is because a relative very few take their family history and geography to be rational arguments supporting their belief (much less do they make it the only such argumentative basis). Even if we find some who do, most do not (this is true even if they have no such arguments: most do not retreat to arguing from family history). So perhaps the skeptic can make a synthesis: “If the only explanation of your belief is geographical and familial history, and you have no rational justification (whether by lack or by defeat) for your belief, then it has no more chances of being true over and against other religions, and one is not justified in holding his religious belief.”

            Is this modified statement, which affects only those who, a) have no rational arguments or evidence to support their beliefs, or b) those whose every argument and line of evidence has been at least significantly undercut so as not to count as justification, actually true? I think not. This is going to be the point of Alvin Plantinga’s reformed epistemology. Basically, the idea is that even if “regular people” don’t have any rational arguments to support their belief that God exists, they can still be justified in doing so. How? Well, if God exists, it is reasonable to think he accounts for belief in God by placing a sense of the divine into every man. Indeed, something very much like this is the testimony of Scripture (cf. Romans 1).

            “Wait a minute!” you exclaim. “You can’t just suppose God exists to show that they are rational!” I’m not quite supposing God exists. What I (and Plantinga) am doing is attempting to show that theists are rationally justified, in the absence of defeaters, in believing God exists. If belief in God is a properly basic belief, which I think it is, then the “man on the street” is perfectly justified in holding them.

            Well, why can’t the adherents of other religions say the same thing? Well, they certainly can! However, we must keep two things in mind. First, there is a major difference between knowing something is true and showing something is true. You don’t have to do the latter in order to enjoy the former. Suppose you believe 2+2=4, and you encounter a person who insists, via a complicated and complex formula and set of reasoning, that 2+2=941.6, on one day per millennium. As it so happens, you need not refute this person in order to know that 2+2=4, and therefore, whatever is contrary to it is false. Now, you would certainly need to interact with that man if you wanted to show that his view was false. So you do not need to refute every other religion before saying you know your religious beliefs are true. Second, properly basic beliefs are subject to defeaters. This is how you can show someone their beliefs are false (or, conversely, be shown that your beliefs are false).

            In either case, it seems this claim will not work against anyone—unless God does not exist. That may be so (though I don’t think it’s even possibly so, but that’s another argument), but it will be those considerations that do the work. Even then, since epistemology is person relative, if the subject does not know those defeaters, then she can still be rationally justified in holding her religious beliefs (until such time as she has a defeater, of course).

[1] It’s seriously doubtful whether this is ever the only explanation in that this explanation is neither necessary nor sufficient for Christian belief. It’s not a necessary condition in that someone can become a Christian without ever hearing about a “Christian nation” or being in a “Christian family.” It’s also not sufficient in that there are individuals for whom conversion never takes place, despite being born into a Christian family and in a Christian nation.

Wes Morriston's Dilemma against God as the Objective Source of Morality

It has been brought to my attention that Wes Morriston (and others) have objected to the moral argument (or, at least, God’s being the ground for objective moral values) by means of the following argument: if God’s nature is goodness, then the properties that make up his nature are good. If this collection of properties is good, we can then ask: is God good because he has these properties, or are the properties good because he has them? If God is good because he has these properties, then there is some standard of goodness outside of God. If the properties are good because God has them, then it seems objective morality loses its objective meaning. What is the answer here?

First, and most importantly, I think Morriston’s dilemma just assumes that God’s nature is not identical to the good. The dilemma implicitly asks about the explanation for God’s nature; the only explanation of God’s nature is that it is necessary.[1] To those who are unfamiliar with modalities, this may seem like a very unsatisfactory answer. However, that’s what being necessary sometimes entails (consider the man who insists there must be some other answer for why 2+2=4 other than that it’s a necessary truth: he would be misguided). But let us return to the issue at hand. If God is identical with the good, then to ask this question just assumes the falsehood of the theist’s claim. God is not some abstract collection of properties, but rather a concrete entity whose very being is good. It is its own standard, for it is necessary.

Second, I’m not even convinced this is a true dilemma. The way I would refute the dilemma in the first note above would be to insist that it is predicated on a false premise (kind of like asking “either you’ve told your parents you’re gay or you haven’t”; it appears as a solid dilemma, but it assumes things that may not be true). However, it is not yet clear to me that there is no third option. Why can we not say, for instance, that another option is, “God has these properties because he is good”? In order to know whether or not this is a good response, we ought to list all three options, and see if they differ from one another.

1.     God is good because he has these properties.
2.     These properties are good because God has them.
3.     God has these properties because he is good.

Since (1-2) are Morriston’s (as far as I know), in the interests of charity, we ought to infuse them with the same meanings he did. That means (1) means that we find God is good because his properties conform to some independent standard of objective morality. This also means (2) entails that the properties of God’s nature are good because he wills them to be so (or infuses these moral properties with objective meaning that they lacked, which destroys objective morality). But it’s not clear (3) means or entails either of those things. (3) just means that these properties (like being loving, being just, etc.) are entailments of what it means to be goodness itself.

Now one may try to complain that (3) entails an inability to understand what it means to be good. I’d like to point out that’s not a complaint that has anything to do with the dilemma, or even moral ontology. Moreover, this type of objection won’t work even against moral epistemology. This is because one cannot search for explanatory grounds beyond the foundation or ultimate explanation of some thing. It will lead to a circular definition in literally every case. This is true even of “completely secular”[2] truths and things. Try the laws of logic, the problem of induction, the nature of free will, literally anything. Once you have reached its ultimate explanation, by definition there are no further explanations. So, what happens when one queries as to the explanation of the ultimate explanation for a thing? One can only get the response that the explanation is ultimate, so that there is no explanation for the ultimate explanation’s explaining what it does explain! To complain that it is circular and therefore unjustified is silly.

I know what you’re thinking. So, your defense is that it is circular? Not quite. My defense is that God is the ultimate explanation of morality, and that the so-called dilemma assumes that he is not. Now we must keep track of the dialectic. The one who posits the dilemma is using an internal critique against Christianity (I cannot stress this enough). This means someone like Morriston is saying, “All right. Let’s assume God’s nature is identical to the good. Here is what follows . . . .” I then provide the answers I have provided above, including that there is nothing untoward about ultimate explanations “acting” this way. Notice the response that, “Well you need to give us some non-circular reason to believe that God is identical to the good,” is completely an external critique, and thus irrelevant to our present discussion. To be sure, we will want to show the skeptic why we think God is the foundation of objective moral values, but that is a separate discussion. It is one in which I will not engage until the skeptic involved in this type of a conversation acknowledges the point that these dilemmas have no force as an internal argument.

What if they say that this response of moral definition is an external critique? Then I would respond that it therefore has nothing to do with the dilemma above, and therefore, it can be safely ignored until such time as the skeptic grants that the dilemma is false. But once we reached that point, the burden is then on the skeptic to show that, as a matter of fact, God is not the objective standard of morality (and we’ve already seen the complaint of circularity against ultimate explanations isn’t very helpful or powerful).

But back to the main issue. Is there anything that can be done to salvage Morriston’s dilemma? It seems there may be. Maybe one could insist that (2) intends that God’s nature entails these specific properties, and so (3) is just another way of stating (2), and the dilemma is not false after all. But notice what happens then: it becomes quite unclear that the consequence that supposedly follows from (2) really follows at all! After all, if God’s nature is good and so entails these properties (like being loving), it is difficult to see how these objective moral values are no longer objective. So there it is. This dilemma can be safely retired.

[1] This is why I say this objection cannot be pressed without implicitly endorsing some modified version of the Principle of Sufficient Reason: it assumes there is some explanation for God’s nature being the way it is. The explanation finds itself in the necessity of God’s own nature.

[2] If God exists, there are no such entities as “purely secular” things or concepts. So I’m just using common terminology.

Monday, November 18, 2013

Bridging the Gap in Communicating about Morals

We have already studied the ideas of internal and external critique. These concepts are key to understanding the dialectic of a particular topic. The purpose of this article is to bridge a communication gap between the skeptic and the Christian. On the one side, the Christian is saying that there is an issue with a skeptic’s claiming that God is not really good, or the problem of evil eliminates (or renders extremely unlikely) God. The problem, she says, is that evil is an objective moral value, and the skeptic doesn’t (in these hypothetical cases, anyway) believe in objective moral values! On the other side, the skeptic is saying that, on their view, God is still bad. It’s my assessment of this issue that both sides are talking past each other, and that both sides are correct, in particularly relevant ways. I think the application of the distinction between internal and external critiques will be helpful here.

First, the atheist is correct when he claims that this kind of criticism (the problem of evil, or God’s not being good) does not thereby commit him to objective moral values, and hence, God. Why do I say that? Because the atheist’s critique can be said to be an internal one for Christianity. The most common type of criticism in this form is to assume the truth of the claim/proposition/worldview and reduce it to absurdity (or deduce from it a contradiction). This is what, typically, the skeptic is doing here. He is assuming that God is good, takes the conception of God and tries to show that what God is doing is not compatible with a good God. It can be said to be a critique examining what would be the case were certain premises taken as true (a counterfactual discussion, if you will). That alone no more commits the skeptic to the claim that there are objective moral values any more than it commits him to God’s existence (since in order for one to assume God is good, he must assume God exists, for God cannot be anything if he does not exist). We should not attempt to rebut the skeptic by insisting he has agreed to God’s existence, and we should not attempt to rebut the skeptic by insisting he has, in this critique, thereby committed himself to objective moral values.

Now we get to the fun part. Second, the Christian is correct when she claims that the skeptic is borrowing objective morality from the Christian worldview in order to condemn God. “Wait a minute!” I can hear you exclaim. “That totally contradicts what you just wrote!” True, if I mean the two situations to be in the same sense (which I don’t). For many, if not most, of these skeptics (and certainly the ones in the imaginary scenario I am devising) believe in objective moral values (and over 99% of them certainly behave as if they do). Therefore, they really should feel the force of the moral argument for God’s existence from evil. That is:

1.     Evil exists.
2.     If evil exists, objective moral values exist.
3.     If God does not exist, objective moral values do not exist.
4.     Therefore, objective moral values exist (from [1-2]).
5.     Therefore, God exists (from [3, 4]).

Now under the current hypothetical dialectic, the skeptic is wanting to be a moral nihilist, at least on an objective scale, so he will have to deny (1). (2) is a matter of definition, and (3) can only be denied by the skeptic if he thinks God does not exist and objective moral values do exist, and that option is not open to him without revising his beliefs. Now what’s truly interesting is that this skeptic, unless he is psychopathic, perceives that there are objective moral facts about the world. He just so happens to think those perceptions are non-veridical. But why think that? And, what reason is available to the moral skeptic for rejecting intuitions regarding moral skepticism that does not also render his moral judgments moot? That is to say, if he thinks his moral intuitions lead him astray concerning moral facts, then why should we think anything of his moral intuitions regarding the consistency of God and moral facts about his actions? The major point to remember is that strong intuition counts greatly in one’s belief. It’s unlikely most people really disbelieve in objective morality. However, so long as they do believe it, they are thereby committed to just the sort of reasoning of which the theist accuses them. Only if they can show that God does not exist and objective moral values exist (or there is some metaphysically possible scenario in which that is true) do they escape the problem. If they affirm evil exists, they commit themselves to God's existence, and if they deny it, they undermine our reason for trusting their moral intuitions.

So, overall, and in most cases, the theist is correct against the skeptic. He is borrowing the Christian worldview in that there just doesn’t seem to be objective moral values truly grounded in anything objective—without God. Hopefully, this at least helps both sides to understand where the other is coming from.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Tactics to Avoid

I’m just offering a brief word about debate (especially internet debate). Sometimes people are really not interested in truth or Christianity. They’re just interested in tearing down Christianity, or arguing on the internet, or other things that I generally consider to be a waste of time. My advice: don’t get involved. Don’t stoop down to their level.

Here’s a particular example. Some skeptic makes varying wild claims against God, Christianity, and Christians. Many of them are one-liners, some of them are insults, and others are logically incoherent. When you attempt to answer the ones relevant to the conversation, their tactic is simply to repeat their claims, just more often. Maybe throw in a new claim on top of it, effectively ignoring the other one. At that point, the Christian seemingly has two choices, neither of which is palatable on its face. First, the Christian can attempt to chase every red herring, correct every misunderstanding, and generally repeat herself ad nauseam. That will result in going in circles until someone gets tired. Second, the Christian can refuse to engage in red herrings, explain only to the extent necessary for understanding, and refuse to go in circles. However, at this point, the skeptic will simply insist you’re not being genuine in your search for truth. The disingenuousness of this should not be lost on you. Don’t be manipulated by shoddy thinkers. Refuse to engage. End of rant. J