Monthly Archives: July 2014

Theism, Atheism & Confirmation Bias

Thomas Nagel once commented: “I want atheism to be true. . . It isn’t just that I don’t believe in God, and, naturally, hope that I am right in my belief. It’s that I hope there is no God! I don’t want there to be a God; I don’t want the universe to be like that.”

Some theists (most notably James S Spiegel), in a bout of apologetic zeal, have attempted to gain some mileage out of such comments: “See! Atheism is wishful thinking! Nagel doesn’t believe in God because he doesn’t want there to be a God!” This may well be true, but allow me to balance Nagel’s comments with some of my own. I am a theist and I want theism to be true. It isn’t just that I believe in God and, naturally, hope that I am right in my belief. It’s that I hope there is a God. I want there to be a God; I want the universe to be like that.

So I guess we’re even.

Moreover, I don’t think I’m alone in such sentiments. I’ve lost count of the number of theists in general – and apologists in particular – who claim that if atheism is true then it’s bad news for humanity. Typically the claim is that if atheism is true then our lives have no meaning or value or purpose, and that there is no objective morality. I’m not convinced that there would be no meaning to our lives if atheism is true, but I’m sympathetic to the claim that morality appears difficult to ground objectively in an atheistic universe. In any event, whatever we make of such claims the point is that it suggests that most theists do not want atheism to be true.

Thus I suspect that there’s a fair bit more wishful thinking going on than protagonists on either side care to admit. And that’s OK: we’re merely human. We aren’t the impassable, emotionally cool, wholly rational agents we may often paint ourselves as. We’re a complex of rational, emotional, psychological, historical and cultural factors that make us what we are, and, crucially, that greatly influences – maybe even determines – much of what we believe.

Seemingly our capacity for self-deception is great indeed. The heart is deceitful, as the prophet says, in an observation that was way before its time. None of us should kid ourselves that wishful thinking or what is commonly referred to as “confirmation bias” has no jurisdiction or influence in our own minds. I regularly come across apologists whose only familiarity with atheistic thought is what they read in apologetic works – where, of course, it’s being critiqued and rejected. Alternatively it’s not uncommon to find popular atheists mocking a great mind such as Alvin Plantinga despite never having read a single significant work written by him. Or take the phenomenon of atheist versus theist debates, who you reckon won often depends on who you agreed with before the debate ever took place. For instance, it’s my view that William Lane Craig pretty much comprehensively defeated both Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris when he debated them, and yet there are many atheists whose contrary opinion is just as adamant.

The phenomenon of wishful thinking – believing what we wish to be true, or gravitating towards what we hope is true – isn’t a new one but it is only relevantly recently that the scientific investigation of the phenomenon took off, influenced largely by the work of the social psychologist Ziva Kunda. Kunda argued that our prior emotional dispositions influence how our minds process information. We are more likely to be critical of bad news than good news. When we read an argument for something we already hold we seem to do so much less critically than when we read a piece of work which runs contrary to some cherished belief of ours. In the latter instance our sceptical dial is often cranked to the max. When it comes to information or evidence which agrees with our worldview or coheres well with our current noetic system we are much more likely to accept it.

There are numerous studies which affirm the phenomenon of confirmation bias. In one study it was discovered that people scoring low on IQ tests tended to give more credence to articles criticising the useful and validity of such tests than those who scored higher. We like to think we’re smarter than perhaps we are; when the evidence contradicts us so much the worse for the evidence!

Another study looked at the correlation between climate change denial and political persuasion – why those who are right-leaning free-market advocates are less likely to believe in manmade climate change than leftists. John Cook, of the University of Queensland, concludes: “For supporters of an unregulated free market, regulating polluting industries to reduce global warming is so unpalatable that they are far more likely to reject [the idea] that climate change is happening.”

There are numerous theories as to why we are so prone to wishful thinking and confirmation bias. For those who have studied long and hard and come to a conclusion about some matter it can be disconcerting when we are presented with some piece of strong evidence which we have heretofore overlooked. It’s not easy to let go of years of work, to acknowledge that one was wrong all this time. How often, for instance, do academics change their minds about significant matters? We like to think we are right. It makes us feel good about ourselves. Contrary evidence can be disconcerting, confusing, and worrying; it may make us feel very bad.

One thing I find fascinating about so-called “deconversion stories” is the amount of pain and upheaval losing one’s faith can bring. In many cases it’s a loss of an entire social life and support network. Many take years to finally accept that they no longer believe, living in self-denial before making the break. Of course the same can be found in conversion stories. Mortimer Adler, who converted very late in life, speaks of years of rejecting religious commitment primarily because it didn’t suit his life and would require a radical change in how he lived.

One of the features of the question as to whether or not God exists is that it’s more than an academic question. If, say, the Christian God exists that fact would be something of a terribly inconvenient truth for many people. It would mean a change of life for many that they would not be willing to make. Of course it can be equally convenient for a theist to hang onto belief regardless of what evidence comes against it. For many people their belief in God is a comforting one. Believing that when they die they will go to heaven gives them strength to face their demise. Their entire social life may revolve around church. So, if faced with conclusive evidence against their beliefs understandably they won’t easily let go of them.

Some scholars have argued that wishful thinking and confirmation bias might even have been of biological or evolutionary advantage in some cases, at least when it comes to matters which aren’t of immediate survival concern (wishful thinking that we aren’t being chased by a tiger when in fact we are wouldn’t have lent itself to human thriving!). Believing certain things that make us feel good, or rejecting beliefs that threaten to make us feel bad, anxious or depressed, certainly has a stress reducing effect. Ryan McKay and Daniel Dennett argue for the evolutionary advantages of wishful thinking and confirmation bias along these lines.

Whatever the science of the matter the fact appears clear: we are very prone to such biases. The Scottish philosopher David Hume once remarked that reason often becomes a slave to our passions. Perhaps when our heart doesn’t want to accept X our head will try extra hard to resist X, even if that means ignoring the evidence for it almost entirely. In his influential essay “The Will to Believe,” William James said “If your heart does not want a world of moral reality, your head will assuredly never make you believe in one.” The point is that our will is not neutral when it comes to belief formation.

But of course how we feel about X doesn’t determine the truth of the matter. So what are we to do? What steps can be taken to lessen the influence of biases in the formation of our beliefs? Perhaps simply being aware of how prone we are to biases can help weaken their influence over us. Alternatively we can make a conscious decision to read a certain number of books or articles which run contrary to our cherished beliefs. If you’re an atheist and your only knowledge of Christian philosophy comes through articles on Internet Infidels, then make it your purpose to read some Christian philosophy directly. Read Plantinga’s influential essay “Reason and Religious Belief,” for instance. Are you a young earth creationist? Then perhaps read Richard Dawkins’ book “The Greatest Show on Earth.” Don’t just stick to Ken Ham’s summary dismissals. Write articles and essays and submit them to sceptical friends for criticism. Another Christian might give you glowing praise for your article on the evidence for the resurrection but a sceptic will force you to face arguments, evidence and issues that your Christian friend probably won’t. Or perhaps play Devil’s Advocate against yourself or those who agree with you.

Above all conduct yourself with a dash of grace and a dollop of humility. The person you critique may indeed be the victim of cognitive biases or wishful thinking, but it might easily be the case that somewhere in your own mind you too are a victim.

Stephen J. Graham.

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The Most Powerful Theistic Argument?

JW Wartick, a graduate in Christian apologetics from Biola university, has written an article that appeared retweeted in my Twitter feed this week in which he seeks to outline what he thinks is the most powerful theistic argument. You can find the full article here:

For Wartick the most powerful argument for theism is “The Argument from Religious Experience” [ARE], and he seems to think it’s head and shoulders above the rest. Wartick rightly points out that – like most arguments – the ARE can be stated in different forms. Here is the form Wartick provides, (actually this is a revised form after realizing his initial argument was question-begging):

1. Generally, when someone has an experience of something, they are within their rational limits to believe the experience is genuine.
2. Across all socio-historical contexts, people have had experiences they purport to be of a transcendent realm.
3. Therefore, it is rational to believe there is a transcendent realm.

Now, to be fair to Wartick he has only written a blog article so there isn’t time or space to flesh out all the details. However, even allowing for this fact the argument strikes me as desperately weak at best, if not fatally flawed. I want to raise five problems with what Wartick presents.

Firstly, in an article concerning what is the best theistic argument it’s odd that Wartick doesn’t actually outline what this exclusively theistic argument is. He prefaces the argument he does give with these words: “Here’s a way to formulate [the ARE] to merely defend a transcendent reality.” This, then, is not an argument for theism. Even if the argument he presents is a good one (it’s not, see points 2-5 below) an atheist could affirm every single step and remain just as much an atheist as he was before. Buddhists, for instance, are typically atheistic and would affirm this argument’s conclusion. Other atheists might agree that believing in a transcendent realm is rational even if they themselves don’t believe it. What use, to theism, is an argument that could easily be affirmed by an atheist? Take the Kalam cosmological argument by way of contrast. If valid and sound the KCA brings us to an immaterial, timeless, spaceless, incredibly powerful personal creator of the universe. Wartick’s argument doesn’t even give us the actual existence of a “transcendent realm”, it simply concludes that it’s “rational to believe” such a thing exists. Now, Wartick might say this is only one formulation of the ARE, but then why in an article outlining “the most powerful theistic argument” does he use such a weak formulation? Why not state what this powerful theistic argument is? As it is the reader is left totally in the dark. Moreover, it’s rather bewildering why Wartick concludes with “I think my overall point stands: The ARE is the strongest argument for theism,” when in fact he hasn’t even presented any argument for theism at all.

In any event we can but analyse what Wartick has given us, which the rest of this article will do.

The second point of critique is that the argument as presented isn’t even valid. Wartick realizes this, saying: “The argument leaves a few spaces to fill in for the sake of making it deductively valid, but we’ll just look at it as it stands now.” This is a curious statement indeed! The argument is invalid, but let’s consider its merit anyhow? It has no merit, it’s invalid! As it stands it’s little more than 3 dubiously connected sentences on a page. Claiming to be painting in broad brush-strokes is no excuse for presenting an invalid or incomplete argument. I don’t wish to be uncharitable but it smacks of laziness.

Thirdly, the argument turns on what strikes me as an incredibly vague term: “transcendent realm.” What does this term mean and what does it refer to? Wartick never tells us, and again it’s such an important phrase that the lack of space is no excuse not to define it. Later in the article Wartick claims that “when millions of people say they have experienced a transcendent realm, prima facie it is rational to believe them.” This is the so-called principle of testimony. Now, I’ve no problem with the principle of testimony itself but Wartick is flat-out wrong to claim that people say they have experienced a “transcendent realm” (whatever that means). The literature on religious experiences is massive, but it’s rare to find people claiming to experience a “transcendent realm.” Christians typically claim to experience the grace of God or the love of Christ. Hindus claim to experience some sense of oneness with “the Real.” Mormons experience a burning in their bosom. And so it goes on. It seems to me that Wartick is taking massively diverse experiences and sticking them all in a box labelled “transcendent realm,” a term suitably vague to cover the fact that many of the experiences contained therein have precious little in common with each other, with many downright incompatible. Of course this is all before we address the thorny difficulty in moving from what some person claims to have experienced to what – if anything outside their own mind – they did experience.

Fourthly, the argument’s conclusion is also vague. The first premise is singular – when a person experiences something then they can prima facie trust their own experience. Then in premise 2 Wartick refers to people who have had experiences of the “transcendent realm.” However, in the conclusion he simply says “Therefore it is rational to believe there is a transcendent realm.” But who are we talking about in the conclusion? Are we talking of the people who have had such experiences? Or are we talking of those who haven’t had such experiences? Again Wartick doesn’t tell us, and again there’s no excuse for not doing so. Presumably it’s the latter since this is intended as an argument with powerful apologetic potential. However, in addition to adding to the argument’s invalidity, this presents further problems for the argument. Which brings me to…

Fifthly, the argument is of very limited use for those who have never had such experiences (and of course the argument is hardly necessary for those who have!). In the comments section of his article Wartick states: “[the ARE] may provide evidence to those who have not had the experience by way of the principle of testimony.” [Emphasis mine]. This is not nearly good enough! Surely any apologetic argument has to do a little bit more than maybe provide someone with some evidence, especially if we’re talking about incredibly powerful theistic arguments. The problem Wartick faces if he tries to make his argument conclude to something more specific than some ill-defined “transcendent realm,” is that religious experience is so diverse that it’s understandable that the skeptic will stand scratching his head wondering who on earth to believe. If he believes the Muslims, the Buddhists, the Christians, and all the various species of these faiths, to take him to belief in a “transcendent realm” it seems that he will have to rule out most of these experiences when it comes to believing in something more specific – say, a triune God, unless Wartick would suggest that the experiences of the Hindu are in some way evidence for the trinity? Are we to accept the Buddhist’s experiences as evidence for a transcendent reality only to rule them out later if we narrow the argument to the existence of a personal God? That sounds like a dubious pick and mix approach to me.

The principle of testimony which Wartick draws on is fairly uncontroversial and unproblematic in the world of physical reality, but it’s incredibly difficult to apply to otherworldly contexts in which there is widespread disagreement amongst those who claim to have had such experiences. This is the only objection to the ARE that Wartick actually addresses, albeit doing little more than glossing over it. Wartick rightly points out that claim X and claim Y don’t “cancel each other out.” True, but who is the skeptic to believe? For the person lacking any such experiences it’s understandable that he should throw his hands up in despair and join Hume in a game of backgammon. This isn’t to dismiss everyone’s experiences as false – though Wartick would have to overcome powerful psychological and cultural explanations for religious experience before he could construct a plausible argument – it’s simply to point out that such an argument faces massive difficulties in the diversity of reports of religious experiences.

Wartick’s example on this point concerns two people giving different descriptions of a murder suspect in court. The first describes the suspect as a “tall, dark male” and the other describes him as a “pale, short male.” Both descriptions could be correct from the point of view of the different people giving them. With this example I fear Wartick isn’t taking the differences in religious experiences nearly seriously enough. It’s more like having multiple witnesses: one claims he saw a tall man, another saw a group of teenaged girls, a third that a dog savaged the victim, a fourth that the man collapsed as if with a heart attack, and a fifth that he committed suicide. Wartick doesn’t deal with this problem except some waving and hand gesturing in the direction of “the relevant literature.” However, I wonder does Wartick believe the experiences of the following are veridical: Buddhists, Sufi Muslims, Hindus, Theravada Buddhists, Shamanists, Wiccans, Druids and Satanists. Do they all just experience God (or the transcendent realm or the Ultimate or the Real) from their own point of view, as his witness analogy would suggest? John Hick would’ve probably welcomed such a conclusion, but he was a pluralist – is Wartick?

In another article ( Wartick is much more modest about what the ARE can achieve: “it seems that we are justified in being open to the existence of things beyond the mundane, everyday objects we observe in the physical reality. If people from all times and places have had experiences of things beyond this everyday existence, then it does not seem irrational to remain at least open to the possibility of such things existing.” [Emphasis mine].

However this is now a long way from a powerful theistic argument. If in fact there is a powerful theistic argument from religious experience Wartick has done little to cast light on what exactly it is.

Stephen J Graham


Filed under Theism

Football, Atheism & The Problem of Evil

What do football commentators and atheists have in common?

Watching the World Cup I’ve noticed that commentators and pundits suffer from the same confusions that many atheists suffer from. Let me explain.

It’s half time in the match and the pundits are in the studio drooling, ready to share their wealth of footie wisdom with viewers. And in loads of games so far I’ve noticed that one particular irritating habit that seems to afflict even the most experienced and sensible pundit (say, the ones with an IQ above 80) is the tendency to add up all the chances a particular team had during that half – say 5 chances – and declare that the score could therefore be 5-0 by now. Arrrrgh!! No! no! no! no! no! Don’t they teach you anything about causation in Commentary College?!

“If Holland had taken all their chances they would have been 3-0 up by now.”

Whilst the average footie fan might be nodding in agreement, this claim should strike the more philosophical footie fan as patently fallacious. Let’s say Holland missed easy goal scoring opportunities at 5 minutes, then after 7 minutes and then again at 45 minutes, right before the end of the first half. Is it the case that Holland really should be 3-0 up by now? I don’t see how we can make that claim at all. If Holland had scored in the 5th minute the game will have turned out very different. The set of events leading up to Holland’s chance after 7 minutes is dependent on earlier events – which included the miss after 5 minutes. Had Holland scored in the 5th minute then the stream of events leading to the chance in the 7th minute would not have occurred. In fact, maybe scoring so early would have caused a change of tactics in the opposition such that it’s very possible that had Holland scored in the 5th minute they may have actually conceded several goals shortly after. We have no way whatsoever of knowing given the complicated matrix of events. Every writer of science fiction understands this point: you change something in the past then you change – often radically – how events pan out after that point.

What has this got to do with atheism? Well, it’s related to an approach some atheists take to the problem of evil. If only God had removed all the Ebola viruses or all the flu viruses, or all the hurricanes. He’s all good and all-powerful, right? Then couldn’t he quite easily remove some evils at least and therefore make the world a better place?

This sort of all too frequent comment makes the same mistake as the football pundits. It assumes that you can make some change and that everything else will just continue on as it would have without the changes. If Holland had scored in the 5th minute they still would have had the same opportunities in the 7th and the 45th – If God removed the Ebola virus everything else would be just as good and we have the added bonus of no Ebola virus. But of course, we have no way to know this at all. If we have two different worlds – W1 and W2 – and God removes the Ebola virus from W1 in 2002, then W1 is now a radically different world from W2. The changes that now occur in W1 makes it impossible to say whether this world is better than W2, and only a simplistic football commentator approach to causation and the interconnection of events could lead us to claim that it is. Just as its possible that Holland scoring in the 5th minute could have lead to their defeat, so it’s possible that by removing the Ebola virus from W1 actually leads to a worse world.

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