Tuesday, May 22, 2007

God and the testimony of the senses

There are various ways to respond to the argument set out in my previous blog, some of which have already been mentioned.

I suspect the most obvious objection (already touched on) is this. If we take

(ii) there is a (good) God

to provide grounds for

(i) our senses are a reliable guide to reality,

what our senses then strongly confirm is that (ii) is false (the problem of evil). Therefore, it is far more reasonable to start with (i) than (ii). You might still call (i) a faith position, but it does not involve nearly as much faith as (ii).

In addition, as has also been mentioned, it is controversial whether (i) must be accepted on "faith". Arguably, there are good grounds for accepting it over, say, the evil demon hypothesis. For example, we might suggest this: that it is a real world we experience rather than an illusion provides the best explanation of what we experience; therefore it is more likely to be true. The two hypotheses (a real world vs. a demon-conjured illusory world) may be equally consistent with what we experience; it doesn't follow that they are equally probable (this is an application of inference to the best explanation).

11 comments:

The Barefoot Bum said...

I think your phrase "demon-conjured illusion" is a bit vague and misleading. We can examine the premise more neutrally if we take out the prejudicial "illusion":

(D) Our perceptual experiences are caused by a 'demon'

In order for a demon to conjure our perceptual experiences, it must still keep track of true universals and the state of objects. Our ontology is still true: It is merely true about the demon instead of the demon's reality, i.e. about what causes the demon's own experiences. But why should we care about the demon's reality? It affects our perceptual experiences only indirectly if at all.

Our project as thinking, feeling beings is to predict and optimize our own experiences, not the demon's.

John said...

If we take

(ii) there is a (good) God

to provide grounds for

(i) our senses are a reliable guide to reality,


There seem to be an awful lot of co-premises missing in there. At the very least it would require something like:

(iii) A (good) God would ensure that our senses are a reliable guide to reality.

There seems to be very little support for that assertion. If the reliability of the senses and of reason can be inferred from the goodness of God, where does ignorance and error come from?

Furthermore, (i) and (ii) are not equivalent basic assumptions. At the very least we have direct experience of our senses, we have no such direct experience of God. No a-priori argument can establish the necessity of a first cause, let alone a good God, therefore we must (tentatively) assume (i) in order to even claim (ii).

Of course (i) can never be immune to philosophical doubt, but a tentative assumption of (i) allows us to establish firm a-posteriori arguments for the reliability of our senses without the need for a good God.

The Barefoot Bum said...

Sorry... I was very sloppy here: "In order for a demon to conjure our perceptual experiences, it must still keep track of what we conclude are true universals and the state of objects.

Nutcasenightmare said...

There's a problem with the Inference to the Best Solution: it depends on what's considered 'most' probable. We may think the idea that demons control minds is improbable, but for the demon ruling my brain, it thinks the existence of ice cream is IMPOSSIBLE. (Coz in Demon Land, it's too hot to freeze anything)

Therefore, our senses aren't really that reliable. My senses can only tell me of THIS world I'm experiencing, the one with Earth and ice cream, whether it's real or virtual. But as Barefoot Bum said, why should we care what the demon thinks? (sorry demon that I didn't mean to hurt your feelings) What You Sense Is What You Get, and I'm going to be living MY world for quite a while.

The Barefoot Bum said...

Having some expertise as well as strong philosophical opinions about probability and statistics, I have to agree with Nutcase's objection that "probable" is not the correct word in this context.

I prefer to reserve the word "probable" for when there is a clear Frequentist interpretation of the statistical population, "plausible" to label a purely Bayesian interpretation, and "simplest" (or "preferable") to label a decision based on Occam's razor.

Eric said...

This whole question really turns on what we mean by the term "faith." In an earlier post (2/28/07) you spoke about the "reasonableness" of certain beliefs, with some being more probable than others. If we grant this scale, it raises problems for both sides of the argument.

First, according to the theist, all beliefs, wherever they fall on this scale, will require faith to accept. So it appears the theist has made faith a precondition of any belief. Is this the case? I don't know, but it certainly isn't the way we normally use the term. The theist will have to show, with further arguments, why nonfoundationalist epistemologies (e.g. coherentism) presuppose faith committments.

Second, if you're an atheist, you must be basing your judgement that one belief is more reasonable than another on some standard according to which the probability of such beliefs is evaluated. But won't this standard itself necessarily presuppose the basic sorts of beliefs the theist is calling into question, thus making the argument that one belief is more reasonalbe than another viciously circular?

Stephen Law said...

Eric

Well yes, if in order to be reasonable, each belief/standard must be justified by appeal to yet another, then we face a regress problem and a blanket scepticism looms.

However, in our dispute with the theist, we atheists can, I think, bracket such general sceptical arguments, because after all, so does the theist, typically.

They aren't sceptics. But if they aren't, how can they consistently use general sceptical considerations to argue that all our beliefs, and thus our atheist beliefs, are unjustified, and hence "faith positions"?

Of course, some theists will say that they need not be sceptics because e.g. their belief that their senses are a reliable guide to reality can be justified by appeal to their belief in a good, non-deceiving God, which for them is basic. But then I just explained a problem with that move in this post.

Of course, some theists may bite the bullet and say they are blanket sceptics, which is why they believe all beliefs are "faith positions" - because all beliefs are equally, totally unreasonable. But that's not what those wielding the "atheism is a faith position too" claim usually have in mind.

Eric said...

Professor Law,

Thank you for your response! I would like to comment on some of the things you said.

"However, in our dispute with the theist, we atheists can, I think, bracket such general sceptical arguments, because after all, so does the theist, typically."

I think a theist would first respond by questioning the difference between "bracketing" and "accepting on faith." The former may be provisional, but does the duration of its acceptance affect the fact that what is bracketed is accepted without any dispositive argument, and isn't the acceptance of that for which there is no dispositive argument a species of faith? Also, while it may be the case that both the theist and the atheist bracket sceptical arguments, they do so for different sets of reasons, so one would have to examine those reasons to see if one set is more tenable than the other before concluding that since one side brackets, the other side can too.



"They aren't sceptics. But if they aren't, how can they consistently use general sceptical considerations to argue that all our beliefs, and thus our atheist beliefs, are unjustified, and hence "faith positions"?


The theist doesn't take skeptical arguments seriously, but I think it's because she has concluded (correctly or not) that they don't necessarily follow from her ideas about how human beings attain knowledge (this is of course highly controversial, but it is generally the theist's position, as I understand it). But I don't think the question of the soundness of theist's arguments with respect to this conclusion is relevant, since the theist is conceding at the outset that she makes use of faith committments, and the issue is whether the atheist does also. The atheist's position, however, with its committment to accepting only what can be rationally demonstrated (I'm of course simplifying the contrast here for the sake of brevity) does fall prey by its very nature to such skeptical arguments in a way that the theist's position does not (I'm not saying that the theist's position is not vulnerable to sceptical arguments; rather, I'm suggesting that the atheist's position is more obviously vulnerable). It may be the case that the theist hasn't adequately answered the sceptical argument, as your earlier posts suggest. But it would still be the case that the atheist hasn't either (if my criticism of the "we both bracket" riposte can be sustained), and it seems to me that this is the theist's basic claim. In fact, I get the impression that the theist is performing a reductio by trying to show that the atheist's committment to only those propositions that can be rationally justified necessarily ends in skepticism about our most basic beliefs, so that a committment to reason leads us to the conclusion that reason can't even get us off ground as far as rational argument is concerned. This is why I think the theist, who is decidedly not a sceptic, can use sceptical arguments without being inconsistent, if what she is doing is indeed a reductio.

The Barefoot Bum said...

The obvious question raised by Eric's latest post is precisely what constitutes "rational justification".

This term is often assumed to mean specifically deductive justification, with the obvious consequence that the foundational axioms or premises, themselves not deduced, are either held on "faith" or depend on an ill-defined notion of "self-evident".

The issue takes on a different complexion if we consider evidentiary justification: If we consider particular complex statements as foundational, and justify belief in an axiom or premise on the basis that one can deduce the foundational statements as theorems.

In this case, we accept the evidence of our senses as foundational; our ontological beliefs are then justified by virtue of the ability to deduce the evidence from our ontological hypotheses.

It's not at all clear that it is justified to label as "faith" taking the evidence of our senses as foundational. These subjective beliefs obtrude into our consciousness; the element of any sort of choice—seemingly essential to the theistic conception of "faith"—is entirely missing.

I think the bracketing argument is pretty good to counter the theist argument that atheists have more faith than theists; bracketing easily shows that we have at least less faith. But eliminating the bracketing entirely can, as I hope I've shown, demonstrate that the atheist lacks the element of consciously choosing to accept a belief as true, an essential component of theistic "faith".

RC Sharma said...

Our sense organs, undoubtedly, the primary and most important sources of information. But perception by our senses is not always infallible. Senese might be defective. A jaundiced man sees that milk is yellow, his conclusion is VALID yet not true.

There might be inconclsive observation too. You see a fully clad child of two months. Is it male or female?? It is indeterminate percetion, and you need more information.

I see hill having smoke and can safely conclude that the hill has fire. But is that smoke I see really the SMOKE or mist??

But god cannot be perceived as a physical object. It is only an idea. Whatever Plato or successors claim, ideas or objects. A recipe book gives an idea of an exotic dish, not the DISH.

RC Sharma said...

Sorry, a major mistake in my previous post:

But god cannot be perceived as a physical object. It is only an idea. Whatever Plato or successors claim, ideas or objects. A recipe book gives an idea of an exotic dish, not the DISH.

is to be taken as
But god cannot be perceived as a physical object. It is only an idea. Whatever Plato or his successors claim, ideas are not objects. A recipe book gives an idea of an exotic dish, not the DISH.