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religion - and arguments from authority

William Hawthorne comments here:

I did not argue from

(1)Many of the brightest philosophers believe in God


(2) Therefore, God exists,

or even to

(2*) Therefore, belief in God is reasonable.

What I suggested is this. The fact that many of the brightest philosophers believe in God should give us pause before we join atheist apologists (like Dawkins) in dismissing theism as delusional.

And in general, I would argue that if many extremely brilliant people have thought about p carefully, subjected p to rigorous logical analysis, and have come to believe that p, this should give us reason to refrain from lazily dismissing p as childish or delusional. A more thorough investigation would be called for.

So I have not committed a fallacious appeal to authority.

For evidence that many of the brightest philosophers reject naturalism and endorse theism, visit the following webpage:

In fact, when it comes to Christian philosophers in particular, Leiter made the following observation:

"...while Robert Adams and Alvin Plantinga and William Alston were something of anomalies in their generation, the large number of overtly Christian philosophers, who are fairly prominent philosophers as well, in the younger generation (e.g., those under 50 roughly) is quite large, and includes, among others, John Hawthorne (Oxford & Rutgers), Dean Zimmerman (Rutgers), Keith DeRose (Yale), Michael Rea and Fritz Warfield (Notre Dame), Robert Koons (Texas), Michael Bergmann (Purdue), and Mark Murphy (Georgetown)--and that's just off the top of my head. To be sure, religious philosophers are probably still a minority in academic philosophy in the U.S., but my sense is they are less of a minority than 25 years ago."

Stephen Law responds:

I inclined to agree with William that we ought not to dismiss Christian religious belief as childish or silly out of hand (though I imagine he himself probably rejects belief in the ancient Norse pantheon more or less out of hand, despite the fact that many smart Norse people believed in it).

Mind you, that doesn't mean we are not justified in dismissing religious belief as childish or silly after fairly careful thought. My view is that we are, in fact (though I won't attempt to justify that claim here).

Against this, some (not William, though) might argue - "But the fact that many leading philosophers believe immediately gives us good grounds for supposing it's not that childish or silly. If they believe, well, there must be something to it, surely?"

I don't accept this. There's something weird about religion - something that imbues it with the power to convince even very smart people to believe ridiculous things. The spectacular rise of young earth creationism over the last half century or so (which has spread from a tiny band of crackpots to 100 million Americans - many college educated) illustrates my point. Indeed, it illustrates how religion has the power to convince even contemporary PhD-qualified scientists that the theory that the entire universe is 6k years old is both rational and scientific.

Just what explains this extraordinary power is open to question. But that religion possesses it is surely not.

There doesn't appear to be any corresponding, equally strong, non-truth-sensitive power residing in other scientific belief systems, or indeed, in atheism (though you might want to argue otherwise).

I do realize of course that within science etc. there are non-truth-sensitive belief-forming factors in play - e.g. ego, research funding, etc. My point is there is nothing of remotely comparable scale: religion stands head-and-shoulders above these other factors in getting smart people to believe stupid things.

If that's true, then there's an important asymmetry here: the credibility lent by a leading philosopher or scientist who signs up to an atheistic or non-religious scientific theory is greater than the credibility they would thereby lend to a religious belief.

[I should stress, though, that I am not fond of arguments from authority in this context, and am not offering one here.]

William Hawthorne suggests that many leading philosophers etc. are religious, and that the percentage is going up. That's not my impression, nor that of Colin McGinn, who, in this interview, suggests that very few leading philosophers are religious, and that their numbers are declining.

Hard to know who's right here. McGinn suggests the claim that many leading philosophers are religious is just "good PR" by the religious. A half page list of names, some of which we recognise, might look impressive, until you remember just how many professional philosophers there are in the UK and US.


Anonymous said…
Religious belief is only partially a failing of the mind. It is a far greater emotional failing than a mental one. A person with the right emotional state is capable of believing almost anything.

If you were certain that you were about to die in the next five minutes and someone offered you a cure in the form of 'magic water' which had some spell cast on it by a celtic druid. Would you drink it?
You are well aware that there is no such thing as 'magic water' and in almost all other circumstances you would i'm sure refuse. What have you got to lose? You have nothing to gain.

Religion serves most people as a soothing balm to be applied liberally to areas of uncomfortable existential angst. They are not able to accept reality as described by the best evidence we have so they subscribe to gibberish which offers relief.
anticant said…
It doesn't matter whether religious beliefs are 'true' or not, or whether there are supernatural beings.

What really matters is the real-life impact such beliefs have, not only on the conduct of believers but on the lives of everyone on earth. A cursory glance around the world today shows that far from promoting peace and human brotherhood, strongly held religious beliefs sow discord, strife, wars and misery.

We would all be far better off without them.
Anonymous said…
My impressions are that philosophers who believe in god, let alone religion, are in the minority by far.

Perhaps other peoples experiences are different, but those are my impressions.
Anonymous said…

I have to wonder if believers Really believe what they say they do. If you really believed that you are going to see a family member again when they die and that they are going to be in paradise in the interim why would the faithful be soo upset by the death of a loved one. They should be happy for them. Death would be a reward to be relished.
Why would a believer fear death at all?

I suspect that when faced with grim reality that cannot be believed away, the shaky house of cards subconsiously collapes and the terrible loss is felt by an unshielded rational mind.
Stephen Law said…
Interesting point Celtic Chimp. There are two kind of criteria by which me might establish what people believe. There's (i) what they say, and (ii) their behaviour.

Sometimes, these contradict each other. That is sometimes (not always) the case when it comes to religious belief: they say they believe in eternal life, etc. but their behaviour appears to contradict this. They fear death just as much non-believers, they mourn their lost relatives just as much, they cheat and steal just as much. That does at least raise a question mark over the depth of their "belief".
Celtic Chimp: "[wrong] belief is only partially a failing of the mind. It is a far greater emotional failing than a mental one. A person with the right emotional state is capable of believing almost anything."

If you take out the specific reference to religion I agree strongly with this. My question is: how do you cultivate the emotional development required in order to ascertain truth?
scott roberts said…
In estimating the percentage of philosophers who believe in God, are theologians included?
Stephen Law said…
Philosophers of religion yes, but other theologians no.
scott roberts said…
Shouldn't they be? Otherwise, the percentage has no significance. If someone has an interest in philosophy, and believes in God, they are more likely to find a congenial home in a theology department than in a philosophy department. Which is to say, the fact that most members of philosophy departments are not believers more likely has a social explanation than indicating something about philosophical acumen.
Stephen Law said…
Hi Scott

I don't lend any of these percentages much significance. Like I say, I don't put much trust in appeals to authority in this context.

The fact that most theologians are true believers counts for almost nothing, in my opinion. After all, most Islamic theologians believe Islam, most Buddhist theologians (if that's the right word) believe in Buddhism, etc. They don't appear to be terribly reliable indicators of the truth.

Philosopher-believers might *look* like they lend religious belief a bit more credibility - but, if I'm right, they don't really.

Do many atheists tout philosopher-atheists and scientist-atheists to lend their belief credibility? I don't think they do much, do they?

In my experience, this sort of appeal to authority seems more attractive to the religious. To me, it looks as if some religious folk, faced with a momentary recognition that actually, it *is* all pretty bonkers, quickly reassure themselves with the thought that what they believe can't be *that* mad as Professor so-and-so believes it.

But of course, I'm biased...
Martin Cooke said…
Re "the power to convince even PhD-qualified scientists that the theory that the entire universe is 6k years old is both rational and scientific." But (i) modern physics shows there to be something weird about time; and (ii) Cartesian scepticism is not easily refuted, and so a BIV-controlling computer (cf. the Matrix) being switched on 6k years ago (with its program running the scientific story) need not be outlandish (e.g. were there any reason at all to entertain the idea).

Regarding death, I'm reminded of Winston Smith (of Orwell's 1984), trying to convince his torturer that he believed that 2 + 2 = 5. Maybe he came to convince himself, in his life-or-death efforts to look convincing (and what Darwinian could fault him for that?)... We might believe almost totally in God and yet feel great worries in the face of death, quite rationally (as our actions are rationally determined not only by our credences but also by the magnitudes of the possible consequences).
Stephen Law said…
Hello Enigman

You say:

"But (i) modern physics shows there to be something weird about time."

I don't understand what you are getting at here - can you explain?

"...and (ii) Cartesian scepticism is not easily refuted, and so a BIV-controlling computer (cf. the Matrix) being switched on 6k years ago (with its program running the scientific story) need not be outlandish (e.g. were there any reason at all to entertain the idea)."

Even if you're right about that particular BIV philosophical hypothesis (and I don't think you are), it's not the scientific hypothesis I am talking about, which *is* very outlandish, wouldn't you agree?

Possibly, you're "going nuclear" here - i.e. playing the general philosophical scepticism card when faced with an argument that's not going your way (see link on going nuclear to the left).
Anonymous said…

how do you cultivate the emotional development required in order to ascertain truth?

Excellent question. The short answer would be I have no solid answer.

I suspect though that it is states of relative emotional neutrality - not euphoric or depressed - that would yield the most reliable view of what deserves believing and what does not. This I would also suggest is a reasonably well accepted idea, after all, people who are depressed are not considered to be entirely rational. The same would be said of someone who was frantically happy. People who are calm and relaxed and measured are certainly perceived as more reliable than those of an extremely excitable nature. Of course, just because it is perceived this way does not mean it is true. It does seem to be a fairly reliable principle though.
If this idea is accepted then the emotional nature of religious experiences makes them unreliable as a source of information. If someone had truth revealed to them by an animated shovel in their heads, I suspect most people, religious or not, would view that truth with the utmost skepticism. When it is God who reveals truth by this most dubious means, it is viewed as rational. It seems often to be the case also that the very emotional nature of the experience is suggested as evidence of the reliability of the experience. Have you ever heard something along the lines of ‘It was too powerful an experience to be explained as an ordinary dream’?
The assertion is that the very power, the sheer emotional force of the experience validates its source as something extraordinary and perhaps external to the individual experiencing it. This makes no real sense though. Many people have had incredibly powerful experiences – positive and negative - on drugs. In these situations, because a cause is readily apparent we have no problem attributing these experiences to the drugs. If someone was unaware that their cup of tea had been spiked though, they might, with the right presuppositions attribute these kinds of experiences to Gods or Devils. Would you say it is true that many people feel closest to God when experiencing an emotionally distressing event, like the loss of a loved one, or being on an airplane that crash-lands? Many people throughout history have had truth revealed to them by God and the fact that these truths rarely converge when experienced in different faiths should be compelling evidence that this from of truth or information is very unreliable.

Some of the most basic assertions in religions are logically inconsistent. Most religions I am aware of exhibit two things in common. They contain some from of prophecy and they claim free-will. These two ideas can not co-exist. If you believe the future is known, you have condemned yourself not only to a deterministic universe but a determined universe. In such a universe, free-will obviously cannot exist. It takes a certain amount of self-distraction from these kinds of problems to believe despite them. If you don’t like this particular example, there are many more. Most people ultimately believe regardless of the evidence. God is good but the world he made is not. God is forgiving and merciful but he punished the wicked very harshly. God is good yet he also made the wicked……etc. etc. Belief that God is good when such unanswered questions remain is an emotional decision, not a rational one.

If you take out the specific reference to religion I agree strongly with this.

Fair enough, read as though that specific reference were not there. Do you think though that religious belief should be exempt from the statement?
If so, why?
scott roberts said…

I agree that the numbers, no matter how calculated, don't mean much. But there remains the question of whether or not theologians should be counted as philosophers (systematic theologians, that is), which you are answering in the negative. I think they should be, for the simple reason that I have found Christian and Buddhist philosophies to be better than secular ones. Of course, what "better" means is not easy to say: more comprehensive, more consistent, in short, more rational. And, of course, demonstrating this requires a book, so I am not going to try here.

The objection to this -- that a religious philosopher (by which I mean a systematic theologian if the religion is theist) is starting from faith, not reason -- can be answered as Lessing did: "Revelation is not rational when revealed, but is revealed to become rational." That is, we all philosophize from unfounded assumptions. The question, then, is which produces the better philosophy -- which produces the more plausible, consistent, and comprehensive understanding of life, the universe, and everything --, and in my opinion, religious philosophy shows itself to be overall more plausible than secular philosophy. What I have doubts of -- given the content of some of your posts -- is whether your opinion comes from experience of working within some religious philosophy or other -- or whether it arises from an a priori rejection of them. All I can say is that having worked within both secular and religious philosophies, I find the latter preferable.

As to the fact that Christian philosophy, Islamic philosophy, and Buddhist philosophy can't all be right, I say, yes, and I don't think any of them is completely right. They all, in my opinion, have flaws, some more serious than others, but I find the flaws in secular philosophy to be fatal, while those in religious philosophy have some hope of being corrected.

So it is not just a matter of having arbitrarily chosen one set of starting points over another. It is a matter of comparing where one gets to from the different starting points. Eliminating theologians from the competition is, of course, the easiest way to win the race.
Martin Cooke said…
Stephen, it's not a matter of going nuclear (although I like that image), but of interpretting the scientific models (e.g. the story told by the fossil record) in an objective and critical way, and of then judging the rationality of appeals to other authorities in that light (rather than in the light of an uncritical and too-literal interpretation of one's own favourite authorities), as follows.

Relativity theory would, if taken in the obvious (or literal) way, be telling us quite implausible things about time (e.g. that time-travel is possible), and it also conflicts with the most natural way to interpret the quantum-mechanical foundations of chemistry (arguably), whence it would be rational to regard it as merely indicative of some underlying structure that would be locally well-modelled in some such a way (at least when not doing particle physics, in which case one would be advised just to accept it).

It's in the scope of such possibilities (for the underlying reality) that realistic thoughts inspired by refutations of scepticism might be relevent (e.g. we're not really ruling out all BIV-style scenarios, when we know a tree as a real tree, any more than we're ruling out it being made of 10-dimensional superstrings, in non-Euclidean spacetime).

I would therefore compare someone claiming to know that light is like waves and particles, but who does not know quantum mechanics, with someone who claims to know that the world is only a few thousand years old. Neither really know what they are saying (physicists don't really say that light is like a wave, because there is no ether, nor that it is like a billiard ball, rather they say that it is like neither) but they may nonetheless be rational to repeat (and believe, insofar as they can) such statements if they seem (rationally, within the appropriate worldview) to come from legitimate authorities.

My point about the BIVs was that there is a way in which the Bible might be regarded as not wrong about creation (which would, I agree, have indicated its illegitimacy), since if there is a creator then she is (as transcendent to her creation) like the scientist behind a BIV world. The fact that most people would not interpret the Bible in that way does not make their faith in it irrational, no more than someone's failure to interpret wave/particle talk correctly makes their faith in physics irrational.
Ophelia Benson said…
A minor quibble -

"The spectacular rise of young earth creationism over the last half century or so (which has spread from a tiny band of crackpots to 100 million Americans - many college educated) illustrates my point."

Is that right? Was it a tiny band of crackpots fifty years ago? Are you sure it wasn't the case fifty years ago that a large percentage of Americans would have answered 'yes' to a YCE question if they had been asked? To put it another way, I don't think there's ever been a time when the vast majority of people in the US were not creationists.
Anonymous said…
Hawthorne said out of one side of his mouth: "I did not argue [that] [m]any of the brightest philosophers believe in God, [therefore] belief in God is reasonable," and then out of the other side of his mouth, he states: "The fact that many of the brightest philosophers believe in God should give us pause before we join atheist apologists..."

Pause for what? For further investigation to determine whether there is a truth value to such a belief simply because people believe there is a god? What will we do with this pause?

If anything, I suggest we psychologically study the beliefs: why people have them, what has the benefit been of holding faith-based beliefs, are they evolutionary beliefs, what is an alternative (if any), what function do these beliefs have in an individual's and collective's daily function and overall health, etc.

To actually imply we need to study the truth value of such beliefs, however, demands we empirically study the unfalsifiable because people believe in a god, which is just absurd.
Will Hawthorne said…
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said…

I suggest we psychologically study the beliefs: why people have them

I have been wandering around some theistic blogs trying to get some notion as to how an adult can actually believe this stuff.

The only answer I can come up with is that a decision is made at some level to believe (personally I think it is fulfills some emotional need). For most, once that decision is made, all critical thinking on the topic stops. They distract themselves with the minutia of their ‘journey’ and what God is telling them through various means. Examining that ‘evidence’ is where the thinking is done. The question of the truth of it all is considered answered. They know God. They are rendered completely immune to reason. Any difficult questions I have asked on Theist blogs are usually answered with something along the line of ‘I don’t know the answer but I know that God is with me’. Frustrating. Makes you value the theist who at least attempts to investigate their own faith. Those are the rarer breed though as far as I can tell.
Stephen Law said…
Interesting point from Ophelia. Anyone got any figures?
Martin Cooke said…
chimp, is an emotional decision not good enough? Is it that we should have a greater respect for objective standards? But if Materialism is true, then we have all our standards as a result of evolution. Why should we value our innate notion of truth so highly, if we know that it is as much a product of evolution as our innate notion of space (the former is not that healthy, cf. Tarski)?

At the level of making a rational decision, if I know that I've evolved to propogate the genes for me, why should I not go with my gut instincts, my emotions, especially about the transcendent? There may be survival disadvantages in going with my emotions about the physical (although surely not that many, or we would not be so emotional about things), but the transcendent? More important than such abstract philosophical truth would surely be political reality, e.g. tribal loyalty and bravery etc.

But, if there is a God, then truth is extremely important. No believer wants to face God having believed in the wrong things! So, there is (i) a paradox involved in caring about the truth of atheism, and (ii) an argument for indulging theistic tendencies, which goes: if Materialism then why not indulge, and if Monotheism then one would be right to.
anticant said…
If it turns out that there is a God after all, and I find myself standing before him, her or it, I shall say "Oh, God, how COULD You?"
Martin Cooke said…
A funny thing about scientific truth, though, is how it conflicts with our ordinary notion of truth, e.g. the time of relativity and time as directly known: Atheists naturally take it that the real one would be that of the scientific theory, and yet our common notion of truth (the one that atheists think that theists are ignoring) is not the scientific (Tarskian) one, but the one that connects our words to the world as we know it in our lives, as very well modelled by the scientific theory, but a theory amongst theories that, for another example, give the world not 4 but 10 dimensions just because we can describe different kinds of particles equally well as one kind spinning round different axes. So there is some indication that we should be wary of what such theories (produced by such experts in such ways) say about those 4 dimensions; but I suspect that atheists will just take it that science has shown that time is just another dimension like the spatial ones (so it is not just theists who swim in implausible details).
White Goodman said…
It's interesting in this regard to note some facts about two books compiling spiritual autobiographies of theistic philosophers that came out in the 90's:

-Philosophers Who Believe (Kelly James Clark, Ed., InterVarsity Press, 1993)
-God and the Philosophers (Thomas V. Morris, Ed., OUP, 1994)

First, both books virtually advertise themselves as PR for Christianity and theism in their intros. This corroborates McGinn's suspicions a bit, it seems.

Second, many of the philosophers confess in their essays that it wasn't the arguments and evidence that brought them to believe (Adler and Swinburne are a couple of the exceptions). For example, William Alston just felt that he needed God.

Third, not only in those biographies but also in much of the contemporary philosophy of religion literature, the vast bulk of it is not devoted to showing that theism is true or reasonable, but rather to the much weaker claim that theism has not been shown to be unreasonable. In other words, much of the literature is devoted to the project of showing theism to be a logically and conceptually consistent position. But while this may be necessary for showing theism to be reasonable, it's not sufficient; one also needs positive reasons to think a coherent account of theism is also true.

I think this sort of project of defending the coherence of theism and christianity is seen as sufficient by many theistic philosophers because of the influence of the so-called "reformed epistemology" of people like Alvin Plantinga and WIlliam Alston. For if the latter folks are right, then theism is "properly basic", or rational without propositional evidence. And if so, then their only rational task is to ward off "defeaters" to the proper basicality of theism and christianity.

In any case, if this sort of thing is the norm, then it's not clear what significance there is to the phenomenon of believing analytic philosophers.
Anonymous said…
I think religion and faith have very little to do with the paranormal and a lot to do with social convention.
A 5 year-old child asked me how the world started and where Humans came from. I explained to her a brief story about the big ban and evolution.
Later she told her religion teacher about that and she replied no, God made men.
A 5 year-old little girl was able to see something didn't quite work because then she came back to me to say: "God made us... and the monkey must have made God then". A 5 year-old child can see very clearly there is something that does not quite fit.
People do not really believe the logic (or lack of logic) in religious myths, but at some point they realise it may be useful from a social point of view.
I choose to be an atheist because I find we simply do not understand the natural laws of our Universe, therefore we can't even tell what God is. Any definition of God is going to be flawed, so how can I say I believe in something I don't even know what it is?

It is not by chance religion used to be and still is used to be equivalent to politics, power and control of the masses. Should we rather call it control with mutual consent then?

crabsallover said…
Hi Stephen,

we spoke at Andrew Copsons' bash on Monday about the Colin McGinn article about Atheist v Agnostic:

I think it may be partially relevant to the discussion in this thread.

Colin McGinn says
"agnostics are mistaken too: they suspend belief when it is rational to commit oneself on the question. If an agnostic asserts that only a state of non-belief about the existence of God is rational, the atheist takes the view that this is false: it is rational to hold positively that there is no God, not merely to be neutral on the question.

... The atheist thus claims to know that theists and agnostics are epistemically defective—that they have false and unwarranted beliefs about the question of God’s existence. He then has reason to wish to alter their beliefs so as to bring them into line with the truth. True beliefs are better than false ones, and he has the true beliefs while theirs are false.

It would be quite wrong, then, to describe an atheist as a “non-believer”"
End of Colin McGinn quote
Well argued, Stephen.

Religion is like a toxic and ADDICTIVE disease. It inflicts stupid, intelligent and foolish people alike.
I also add that those philosophers who believe in god are not acting in their capacity as a philosopher but in a personal capacity when making such statements.

They ought not to be called philosophers if they are so easily fooled.
Anonymous said…
“we are not justified in dismissing religious belief as childish or silly ”
Why, it might even serve to sustain humanity itself. If synthetic civilisation were to come crashing down. An emergency back-up structure, with no moving parts to wear out, and capable of almost instantaneous deployment. Who then would suggest, that an erroneous notion could have no redeeming qualities whatever?

“Just what explains this extraordinary power is open to question.”
Ethereal bonding agent?

“There doesn't appear to be any corresponding, equally strong, non-truth-sensitive power residing in other scientific belief systems”
Didn’t one science fiction writer devise just such a juggernaut? Perhaps, after noting how easy it was to create narratives. He threw in some substance, in the form of sharpened semantics and mind control techniques. Then topped it all off with a hidden sought-after secret (the Mcguffin).

“there's an important asymmetry here”
Not what is believed or not believed, but rather the validity of the grounds for either.

“Hard to know who's right here.”
We almost all have to hang our hats on one peg or another. Unless we can somehow dispense with the need for a hat.

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