Friday, February 6, 2009

The Appeal to Mystery

There are more things in heaven and Earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy, Horatio. Shakespeare’s Hamlet.

Oh dear - your cult’s belief system is patently nutty. Not only do you have little in the way of argument for it, there also seems to be a great deal of evidence against it. If you want, nevertheless, to get lots of people to believe it, what do you do?

Why not appeal to mystery? By appealing to mystery, you can portray your critics as arrogant, unspiritual know-it-alls who think they have the answers to everything. You will appear humble and spiritual by acknowledging that, when it comes to the deepest questions, we must acknowledge our powers of reason have their limits. You can neutralize your opponent's use reason, and make yourself look good and them look bad all, at the same time!

There are several versions of this move, including:

(i) “Well, YOU explain it, then!” Find something that science and reason cannot explain or answer. Build an answer into your belief system. Then, whenever it’s pointed out that you have no supporting argument, say, “Well, YOU explain it.” This puts your accuser on the defensive – they now have to do all the work. As they will fail to provide an explanation, your theory will appear to “win” by default! (N.b. this is the fallacy known as ‘argument from ignorance’.)

(ii) “Beyond reason to decide.” When the Christian Stephen Green recently complained to the Advertizing Standards Authority about the atheist bus posters, the ASA said the adverts were allowed because the claims made (“There is a God” and “There is no God”) lay beyond the ability of reason to decide. The idea that religious claims are in principle beyond the ability of reason to decide is popular. So, as a cultist, try claiming there’s a supernatural being X who created the universe, and then, when people say your belief system is irrational, point out that their rejection of your belief must be just as irrational, because whether or X exists is something that it is in principle beyond the ability of reason to decide. So theirs is a faith position too! Keep saying this over and over and there’s a good chance no one will notice that actually such claims are not necessarily beyond reason to decide. Take the claim that the universe was made by a supremely powerful and evil being. This claim is straightforwardly falsified by observation – the world is just too nice a place for it to have been created by such a being. Even the religious will reject the claim as just obviously false, given the evidence! Yet, when it’s pointed out to them that there’s way too much pain and suffering in the world for this to be the creation of an all-powerful all-good God (i.e. the exact same type of objection), they typically say, “Ah, but this is something that’s necessarily beyond the ability of reason to decide!”

These moves are designed to render religious beliefs immune to rational criticism. But the truth is that, just as a detective who does not yet know who dunnit may still be able rationally to rule out certain suspects, so atheists unable to explain why the universe exists may still be able rationally to rule out certain answers. As even a religious person will typically admit there’s overwhelming evidence the world was not created by an evil God, so they must also admit there could be overwhelming evidence it was not created by a good God either. But then it’s not something it’s necessarily beyond reason to decide.

37 comments:

Toby said...

The mystery move is one of the most grating that theists make.

Although not quite the same, I am reminded of Anthony Flew's questions "What would have to occur or to have occurred to constitute for you a disproof of the love of, or the existence of, God?". If the theist is unable to come up with an answer then there's little point in continuing the discussion. Ref Theology and Falsification.

The Atheist Missionary said...

Thanks for that link Toby. Flew sums it up perfectly.

Martin said...

There are many repulsive elements to the way Stephen Green presents his arguments, but when he says of the ASA: "As they know there is no evidence for the proposition that 'there is probably no God', they have let their secularist friends off the hook." I find that as an atheist I have a great deal of sympathy for Green's point.

My reasoning is as follows. The "probably" word is being used by some, most notably by Richard Dawkins, to lend his point of view some sort of scientific credibility. For me, God is a delusion. When I spot delusions, say the Tooth Fairy, Father Christmas, homunculi working the TV, there's no probably about it. They are things I once believed and now definitely don't.

Dawkins seems to be suggesting that millions upon millions of believers are out there, scientifically attempting to prove the existence of God, and he is leaving open the prospect that one day, one might really be able to do it. But those believers are not even pretending to do science, they are just doing "belief".

I know that Dawkins prefers "almost certainly" to "probably" no God, but that is just a difference of degree. Two cheers to Dawkins for correctly identifying a delusion, but the third is withheld until he can explain how you can "almost certainly" not be deluded about something.

Kyle said...

"What would have to occur or to have occurred to constitute for you a disproof of the love of, or the existence of, God?". If the theist is unable to come up with an answer then there's little point in continuing the discussion.

All sorts of things in philosophy fail this test.

For example: Free Will, Universals, Morality, Realism or anti-realism about science.

Do you really think that just because one cannot say what would have to occur to constitute a disproof of free will, that there is little point continuing the discussion?

There are many people who take very different views on free will, but this still think the discussion is useful and important.

Toby said...

Do you really think that just because one cannot say what would have to occur to constitute a disproof of free will, that there is little point continuing the discussion?

Sort of. If I say that I believe human beings have free will, but am unable to spell out exactly what would be a disproof, then it is worth discussing. You may be able to show me something that I would accept as disproof; e.g. perfect understanding of deterministic physical laws that our brains are subject to.

If I say that we have free will and nothing you can say will convince me otherwise, there is little point in continuing.

I see the theist's move more like the latter.

To follow Stephen's God of Eth example: Can I conceive of evidence that would show an all good God exists? I may not be abe to spell it out, but such things as no uneccessary suffering, scientific discoveries backing up clear prophecies in the Bible, Stephen Green's arguments being logical, etc, would start to weigh as evidence for the Christian God.

Sam Norton said...

Is the claim that no appeal to "mystery" can ever be valid?

It seems to me that an atheist can reject the attitude of a reductionist empiricist by appealing to something like "mystery", when pointing out that, eg, aesthetics and literary criticism fall outside of the parameters of knowledge that the reductionist empiricist would accept.

We all accept that there is such a thing as the smell of coffee but I'm not sure that it's something that can be reduced to empirically justifiable belief. What would Proust have to say about it?

So I think the situation is more nuanced. Clearly it's possible for someone defending religious faith to resort to "mystery" in an intellectually unjustifiable fashion. Yet it also seems obvious that some rejection of "mystery" is intellectually incoherent itself, and only driven by an irrational hatred of faith.

Billy said...

Sam,
Don't you mean theist?

It is still a religious argument from ignorance.

Do you take unexplainable mystery as a given or do you require some evidence for a position?

Kyle said...

Stephen,

How does this differ from something like:

"You can't explain why God would allow so much suffering therefore it is irrational to believe that he exists."

Stephen Law said...

Kyle, how does what differ from it?

Of course, the fact someone cannot explain why God would allow so much suffering is not what leads me to conclude that God does not exist. Nor is that the notorious "problem of evil".

Sam Norton said...

Billy - I do mean atheist. I'm arguing that the "mystery" argument can be used for well or ill by atheists and theists alike. I agree with Stephen that some theists use it in a bad way; I disagree that all theists use it that way (or that they are necessarily obliged to use it that way); I also think that it can be used in a good way by atheists.

So, I don't think it's a "religious" position, to respond to your first question. And as for the second, yes I do think there are things which are necessarily beyond our comprehension; and most of the time I do think evidence is needed (the times when I think it isn't are when we are dealing with something purely conceptual, so we can talk about logic or paradigms etc, so evidence is not at issue).

Geert Arys said...

Kyle,

You ask
How does this differ from something like:

"You can't explain why God would allow so much suffering therefore it is irrational to believe that he exists."


No, it is a falsification of "God is the embodiment of Good.", not "God does exist".

The argument of evil does not work against an indifferent God, for instance.

Say, if in biology I would state "All species are perfectly altruistic with their own kind". A falsification of this would be "How do you explain my dog fights other dogs for territorium?"

Billy said...

Sam,

Thanks for clearing that up. I was unsure what you meant, because I have heard that argument from theists in the past.

anticant said...

STEPHEN: “Your cult’s belief system is patently nutty”.

ME: According to whose criteria? WE may think so, but THEY won’t. Reason is a tool more favoured by atheists than by theists, but how much weight can in fact be placed upon it? What are its limits?

STEPHEN: “Why not appeal to mystery?”

ME: ‘Mystery’ is merely a portentous word for the unknown or unproven. Some of what is not known now will be discovered and provided with scientific proof in due course. Other things may always remain unknown. This does not make them ‘mysterious’. The whole ‘mystery’ scam, as it is exploited by priestcraft, resembles the scene in the Wizard of Oz where Toto twitches away the curtain.

For once I agree with the inimitable Donald Rumsfeld: "The message is that there are known knowns - there are things that we know that we know. There are known unknowns - that is to say, there are things that we now know we don't know. But there are also unknown unknowns - there are things we do not know we don't know. And each year we discover a few more of those unknown unknowns."

STEPHEN: “Well, YOU explain it, then!”

ME: The assumption that there must be an explanation for everything strikes me as bullshit. Some things must simply be taken for granted.

First and foremost, that we experience ourselves as existing in a real universe – whether or not this experience is fact or delusion. I see no necessity to ‘explain’ the universe, or to provide a reason for its being: it just IS.

STEPHEN: “Take the claim that the universe was made by a supremely powerful and evil being. This claim is straightforwardly falsified by observation – the world is just too nice a place for it to have been created by such a being.”

ME: Really? Where have you been lately, Stephen? The world is rapidly getting more and more ghastly – largely thanks to the actions of religious fanatics of various stripes. If the world was in fact created by a supernatural being, I find it far easier to believe that this being is evil than that it is good.

jeremy said...

It's one thing to say, "There are be more things in heaven and Earth than are dreamt in your philosophy" ... but I think it should be equally concerning that there might be more things in your philosophy that there are in heaven and Earth!

Theists take note.

wombat said...

Anticant - "‘Mystery’ is merely a portentous word for the unknown or unproven"

Up to a point but it does carry a lot of implications with it as well - that the mysterious is both unknown and in some way special. As opposed to, say, the number of species of jellyfish there are in the world. In the case of the supernatural its the "special" aspect with comes to dominate.

wombat said...

Martin "I know that Dawkins prefers "almost certainly" to "probably" no God,... "

It seems to me to be a bit like the distinctions made in courts of law "on the balance of probability" and "beyond reasonable doubt"

The second is, I think, enough to convict of a very serious crime, like murder. Radical skepticism on the part of jurists would not be permitted, even though it may philosophically or mathematically justifiable. I know of no case where the defence has rested on the unreliability of induction, for example.

CodewordConduit said...

I think that when it comes down to it, there are obviously certain aspects of the world that we each perceive that cannot be neatly labelled and filed away in a box marked "truth".

However, the theist and the psychopath both use their untested, highly personal revelations to justify any subsequent behaviours.

These behaviours, when benign can be very easily accomodated.

Unfortunately, many so-called "personal revelations" can lead the individual to justify acts that cause the subjugation, physical pain and death of others - even if these others do not wish to impugn the antagonist's freedom to believe and human rights in any way.

I believe that when the effects of one's physical behaviour are directly physical, "metaphysical" justification is absolutely no justification at all.

However, people should be free to think and express their thoughts using whatever justification they like - others can choose whether or no to take them seriously.

But the second those thoughts become actions with negative physical consequences to others; the justification must employ the reasoning that the majority upholds - if the perpetrator does not wish to spend a large proportion of time behind bars.

Stephen, I've been rather remiss and haven't introduced myself properly. I'm Sarah and I just love telling people what I "reckon" :) I've read quite a lot of your posts on here and honestly couldn't agree more with your perspectives (especially on the indoctrination of children). Cheers for all of your input and some fascinating reading.

anticant said...

Sarah, if punishment for wrongdoing perpetrated by self-justifying theistical bullshitters was guaranteed, I would agree with you.

But what prospect is there that perpetrators of mass murder such as Bush and Blair will spend any time at all behind bars?

CodewordConduit said...

Anticant,

This is where the unfortunate reality of "might equals right" comes into play.

One day... The Revolution!

(Until then, we have an obligation to spread reason, evidence and all sorts of lovely stuff throughout the population - if "self-justifying theistic bullshit" becomes the minority position, proponents of such can no longer use "might" to win by default.)

FrodoSaves said...

Stephen,

I think you could package these exposés as a series of 'How To' guides for aspiring cultists. I'm not sure if that would land you in a legal gray area, but if you're like L. Ron Hubbard and want to make a quick buck, don't write it off.

Anyway, thanks to you, Frodologists worldwide will now be appealing to mystery.

Much obliged for the tip!

Frodo be with you.

Timmo said...

Since Toby mentions it, Flew's article is part of three-way discussion between himself, Hare, and Mitchell. It's a very interesting symposium, and it shows up in anthologies all the time, going all the way back to at least 1953. I found a pdf version of the whole discussion here:

http://people.stfx.ca/wsweet/Flew-Mitchell.pdf

I also wouldn't wield the falsification club too eagerly. Consider:

What would have to occur or to have occurred to constitute for you a disproof of the existence of minds other than your own?

I doubt there is anyone who can seriously accept solipsism. But, is there anyone who can even begin to lay out conditions under which they would be willing to accept solipsism?

anticant said...

Bertrand Russell relates somewhere that a lady wrote to him declaring that she was a Solipsist, and expressing surprise that there were so few of them. To which Russell replied "Dear Madam, I am surprised at your surprise".

georgesdelatour said...

Susan Sontag refers critically to "piety without content". Her point is, the major religions of the world make specific and detailed claims about their God or gods, and their specific and detailed wishes for humanity. But now these gods have come to seem absurd and implausible. So some religiously inclined people disperse their god idea into a nebulous, content-free spiritual cloud, as a defensive measure. This vague, ill-defined god is too vague for an atheist to attack. But it's also too vague to correspond to the specific god described in the scriptures of Islam or Judaism or Christianity or whatever.

Take any of the arguments we're discussing here, and replace the word "god" with the word "Zeus". Zeus is a deity with a very specific biography (alleged biography, at least). Supposedly he was born in Crete, for instance. Okay, nobody believes in him today. But all the other gods people do believe in today - Yaweh, Allah etc - also have very specific earthbound biographies. They apparently intervened miraculously in specific societies at specific times - although they've recently been rather quiet. Arguing for these specific gods, with their specific biographies, is very different from arguing for the wispy, amorphous cloud god who only ever shows up in philosophy debates.

Sam Norton said...

Obviously Susan Sontag would read Pseudo-Denys as a postmodern Christian. I'm sure his God would also qualify as being 'too vague to attack'.

Anonymous said...

Stephen says: "Take the claim that the universe was made by a supremely powerful and evil being. This claim is straightforwardly falsified by observation – the world is just too nice a place for it to have been created by such a being."
I find this unconvincing. The provision of a sufficient measure of good to allow deluded creatures to think that seems to me to be just the sort of thing that would appeal to a viciously evil omnipotent being.

Stephen Law said...

Sam

Not sure that situation is any more "nuanced" than I suggested.

Give me a concrete, clear example of a non-bullshit appeal to mystery used by a theist in response to rational argument against his or her faith.

Of course a legitimate thing to say is "I don't know - it's a mystery to me." Theists can say that, and sometimes do.

That's not bullshitting. That's just an honest admission that yes, they face a very serious objection.

I'm objecting to appeals to the use of "mystery" in order to try actually to immunize belief against rational criticism. So they can walk away having "disarmed" the objection. I am not aware of any examples of this that are not bullshit.

Incidentally,"the situation is more nuanced than you suggest" combined with a rather vague and hard-to-pin down comment, is very often itself a form of bullshitting. So be careful!

Stephen Law said...

Just so we are clear, I am not suggesting that all questions are rationally answerable! (anticant)

Sam Norton said...

Stephen,
Why is my original comment in this thread vague and hard to pin down? Looking at it again in response to your comment above it seems much more specific than yours! But I'm very interested in pursuing this further.

To begin with I'm happy to accept that appeal to mystery can simply be a cover for bullshit. What I am arguing is that a) it ain't _necessarily_ so, and b) appeal to something like mystery is not restricted to a religious perspective but is something present across all of the humanities.

You ask "Give me a concrete, clear example of a non-bullshit appeal to mystery used by a theist in response to rational argument against his or her faith." But I don't think we've done enough groundwork yet to make that a reasonable request. I want to know what would count for you as a 'concrete, clear example of non-bullshit'; my suspicion is that you've phrased that request in such a way as to make it impossible to fulfil. What are the criteria you're depending on? (In other words, are you being a reductionist empiricist, by which I mean that only things that can ultimately be cashed out in sense impressions or logic are counted as legitimately knowable?)

The second half of the request also needs work. The sorts of examples that I would give, eg from Augustine or Pseudo-Denys are not formulated "in response to rational argument against his or her faith" (and I'm not sure they'd count as theists according to your definition either). They are formulated by those individuals as a way of exploring the implications of their faith commitment, fides quaerens intellectum and so on.

I'm happy to disavow appeals to mystery that are simply meant to disarm rational criticism. But what I consider to be rational criticism is probably quite different to what you think it is.

What I am asking is for you to be explicit about the presuppositions. Then I can either say 'there are no examples that fit those presuppositions' (and say why I disagree with the presuppositions) or I can just give the examples.

Stephen Law said...

Hi Sam

"Why is my original comment in this thread vague and hard to pin down? Looking at it again in response to your comment above it seems much more specific than yours!"

Because it's not clear how any of it is relevant, exactly. They are suggestive comments. But I am left having to figure out exactly how they are supposed to relate to what I said. Ultimately, your comments are probably irrelevant - but because you do not make explicit exactly how they engage with mine, it's hard to be sure.

"To begin with I'm happy to accept that appeal to mystery can simply be a cover for bullshit."

Good.

"What I am arguing is that a) it ain't _necessarily_ so, and b) appeal to something like mystery is not restricted to a religious perspective but is something present across all of the humanities."

If you are saying every view has it's presuppositions, fine. That's irrelevant. Or if it isn't irrelevant, explain why.

You ask "Give me a concrete, clear example of a non-bullshit appeal to mystery used by a theist in response to rational argument against his or her faith." But I don't think we've done enough groundwork yet to make that a reasonable request. I want to know what would count for you as a 'concrete, clear example of non-bullshit'; my suspicion is that you've phrased that request in such a way as to make it impossible to fulfil. What are the criteria you're depending on? (In other words, are you being a reductionist empiricist, by which I mean that only things that can ultimately be cashed out in sense impressions or logic are counted as legitimately knowable?)

I am not committed to reductionist empiricism.

I am talking about something very specific, - appealing to mystery in order to disarm what otherwise appears to be a rational objection to your belief. So you can walk away having (at least largely) dealt with it.

Religious folk do this is a matter of course, as you know. Typically, it's bullshit. As I said, I am not aware of any example that is not bullshit.

Have you got one? A nice clear example.

"The second half of the request also needs work. The sorts of examples that I would give, eg from Augustine or Pseudo-Denys are not formulated "in response to rational argument against his or her faith" (and I'm not sure they'd count as theists according to your definition either). They are formulated by those individuals as a way of exploring the implications of their faith commitment, fides quaerens intellectum and so on."

If you defend using these appeals to mystery in order to deal with seemingly rational objections to your faith, then yes, that counts. Let's have an example.

If not, these examples are irrelevant.

"I'm happy to disavow appeals to mystery that are simply meant to disarm rational criticism. But what I consider to be rational criticism is probably quite different to what you think it is."

What is it then, and why is this relevant?

"What I am asking is for you to be explicit about the presuppositions."

I think I have done so, haven't I?

So, nice clear example, please...!

Martin said...

Thank you Wombat, my jury is out considering your evidence at this time. I don't know how long they will take, but they always prefer convictions over acquittals.

Re: "I doubt there is anyone who can seriously accept solipsism."

Many, many people are functional solipsists, but the very essence of their condition means they have no need to broadcast it as a fact. They just assume all the rest of us know their state already.

Timmo said...

Stephen,

I have an example of a non-bullshit appeal to mystery for you. Check out the last chapter of Plantinga's Warranted Christian Belief, the chapter on suffering and evil. In it, Plantinga considers whether our experiences of suffering and evil in life give us defeaters for theism. He has a nice discussion of human ignorance and Job in the book. You might not think that Plantinga has succeeded in resolving the problem of evil (personally I think his arguments are quite powerful), but it's not just bullshit spun in a sophistic attempt to evade rational objections.

I might also add that naturalists have a place for mystery, too, in their philosophies. Let's say the correct answer A to a question Q is a mystery for us just in case the A is cognitively closed to us in the sense that we are unable to grasp A (we lack the requisite categories, if you like). Well, Colin McGinn holds that the emergence of consciousness from brain processes is mysterious in precisely that sense: the explanation of the mind-body problem is a mystery for us.

And, an appeal to that mystery in defense of naturalism about the mind is not altogether unreasonable. You might imagine the dialog:

S: The emergence of a mind from within a physical system is astounding and deeply counter-intuitive. It's unconscionable to hold that this is possible without some kind of explanation for it when there are other alternatives, like dualism.

N: I don't agree with that line of reasoning because there are good reasons to think that this kind of problem, the mind-body problem, that is, are mysteries for us. There is good evidence that minds are embodied in brains; the fact that we are unable to explain how this occurs is just a product of our permanent intellectual limitations. It's a mystery.

Would that really be so bad?

So, there are philosophically responsible appeals to mystery. The fact that some people try to raise smokescreens in this way doesn't invalidate the appeal in general.

Stephen Law said...

Hi Timmo

Yes Plantinga might be an example. Certainly that'd be one of the few I'd take seriously. If people can provide a cogent argument as to why something might not be understandable by us, that's fine - and not a bullshit move. We did discuss such a Plantinga-type move earlier in fact:

http://stephenlaw.blogspot.com/2008/09/problem-of-evil-plantingas-no-see-um.html


The McGinn type position is fine by me - don't have a problem with that as we are actually given an argument as to why certain things may be in principle unknowable. And of course I don't have a problem with the thought there are things that are in principle unknowable. I just object to that card being used as a get out of jail ticket, without justification.

Stephen Law said...

Thanks Sarah (codeword conduit) and apologies for being remiss in not replying!

CodewordConduit said...

No worries Stephen, delighted to officially make your acquaintance.

Regards


Sarah

katie said...

I know someone will jump down my throat for this, but I don't really see anything wrong with admitting that there may be some knowledge which is beyond our reach.

goat said...

Surly, if the appeal to mystery is another version of the appeal to ignorance, it is a fallacy, but if that is the case, then the appeal to mystery is not interesting in its own right, and it merits little discussion. The other possibility, that the appeal to mystery involves an assertion that certain claims are beyond rational decidability, certainly does merit discussion.

In that case, I wonder if the theists might have a more tenable position than you acknowledge. It seems that the statement "a supremely good and powerful being created the universe" is only superficially meaningful. It might well be that neither theologians nor atheologians know what would tell for or against that statement, and in that case I would claim that such a claim is beyond reason to decide. This is not because it is sacred or profound, but because it is unclear on what basis we could assign it a truth value.

I voice this concern because I suspect that the resolute atheist makes a mistake when she claims that there is a clear fallacy that the theist commits when claiming that "there is/isn't a God" falls beyond the scope of reason. It might well be that that claim is another version of the now-classic statement that theological claims are meaningless.

Verificationism, perhaps, has failed as a semantics for natural language, but the point that certain apparently controversial claims are meaningless, at least until further notice, is certainly a good one. Thus, when atheists declare certain theological statements false or fallacious, I wonder if they have ceded too much to the opposition.

Perhaps the atheist would better say, "I don't know whether the statement 'there is a supremely good being who created the universe' could be true or not, but it is your burden to show what it would mean if it were."

After saying that, the atheist has not adopted a position in a theological dispute, but rather she has dismissed the dispute as prima facie senseless. Therefore, the atheist has not acknowledged the theological dispute as a potential topic of rational discussion.

This seems much better in keeping with the position of the secular person, who does not view herself as a participant in theological debates, but rather as someone who rejects them.

Anonymous said...

The contributor "Martin" isn't pleased with Dawkins not completely denying the possibility of a God existing.

Here's why Dawkins is unwilling to lock down to 100%; it is b/c despite being an atheist he is also a scientist. Atheism is a metaphysical position to take the stance that there's no God; whereas science is a process that builds a narrative of what is DEMONSTRABLY true or not.

Atheism, because it is in the realm of metaphysics, makes claims to certainty that it cannot substantiate--it can only appeal to the fact you cannot see this creator. Science does not concern itself with certainty; it concerns itself with plausibility. Thus, Dawkins might therefore contend that while it is implausible a god exists we cannot prove it with certainty; it is something we would call an inherent unknown. Agnosticism would be perhaps the best position to take here, e.g. Acknowledge that there are simply some things that cannot be answered definitively and that's that.