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Maintaining Personal Religious Convictions—Some Approaches

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W K Clifford (1879) proclaimed “it is wrong always, everywhere and for anyone to believe anything upon insufficient evidence”.

Martin Smith of Glasgow University, Scotland, thinks he has found some reassurance for the theist who is interested in personally reconciling their religious beliefs within their own mind, when confronted with various kinds of criticism. He has nothing, though, for the evangelical interested in spreading their religious beliefs to other people.

If Smith’s views are right, religious beliefs from the believer’s own perspective need never exceed the authority of available evidence. Religious belief perhaps exceeds the authority of available evidence in Clifford’s view, but that need not trouble a religious believer.

One arm of Smith’s argument rests on what Wittgenstein wrote in On Certainty—inquiry has to stop somewhere. Certain things have to be accepted without inquiring into—the so called “hinge propositions”, which have to be free from doubt:

…the questions that we raise and our doubts depend upon the fact that some propositions are exempt from doubt, are as it were like hinges on which those turn. That is to say, it belongs to the logic of our scientific investigations that some things are indeed not doubted.

If a proposition supports or undergirds our practice of inquiry in this way then it can be accepted without the need for evidential support. A belief in the existence of the external world plays this kind of role vis a vis ordinary empirical inquiry. Well, Gödel proved the same thing mathematically, but while it is true that a set of propositions cannot be self contained, it does not mean that all sets are equally useful. Geometry is an example. Euclidian geometry seemed to be appropriate for notions of a flat earth, but others were discovered, not so generally useful in everyday life, but valid still, and useful in special circumstances. The point is that we have an external world to apply them to, to test them objectively.

Belief can be criticized as being factually false, or as being unjustified or irrational. Plantinga described the first as the de facto criticism, and the second as the de jure criticism. The second might be a valid criticism, though the belief is true. The belief is simply held on poor grounds. Prominent examples of de jure criticisms are:

  1. Freud who argued that religious belief was wish fulfilment—the wish in adulthood for the security and protection of the father of childhood.
  2. Marx who thought religious belief was a delusion induced by a ruling class to keep hoi polloi quiet.
  3. Nietzsche who said religious belief was the resentment of the oppressed, buttressing the weak and self righteous.

In each case, though the reasons for belief were soundly criticized, the belief could still be true. An argument then emerges that the justificatory status of religious belief cannot be argued while suspending the question of its truth—so Alvin Plantinga (2000). Religious belief, if true, is necessarily justified, and so the de jure argument is futile. Smith tells us Plantinga goes on dubiously to maintain that religious belief is justified, irrespective of whether it is true!

God and the External World

Anyway in developing the argument, Smith sees parallels between belief in God and belief in the external world, and thinks neither belief can be defended. Essentially, he says both require a prior belief in them, and so any empirical evidence for either really begs the question.

Though a priori defenses of God were once generally accepted, now only a few diehards find any value in them. To defend their belief in God, theists now cite quasi empirical evidence, such as having felt the presence of God, or some other supposed experience of Him, types of revelation, direct experiences the theist interprets as being direct evidence for believing in God. It places no credence on faith, if faith is believing without evidence. Many ordinary religious believers claim evidence for their convictions. Faith then is simply a conviction, immovable once established on the basis of some evidence.

An atheist would be unpersuaded by any such religious experiences. Unusual and moving experiences like these can be accepted as genuine, but provide no evidence for God. They are wish fulfilments caused by insecurity, delusion or mundane, human foibles. The theist argument begs the question—such experiences could not be attributed to God without already believing in God. Question begging is not a sound method of arguing, and nor is evidence which begs the question.

Catholic Cardinal, John Henry Newman, found that such skepticism about religion goes too far, for, if true, it is equally true of the real world. Examples of empirical evidence for it also seem to assume it, and are also begging the question. So belief in an external world may be just faith.

To illustrate, Smith asks us to imagine a real world skeptic who sincerely believes there is no external world. For him, all reality is generated by the mind. He would not be persuaded by perceived evidence because, though the perceptions are real, they are not evidence for an external world, but are always explained as phenomena of the mind. So arguing from such evidence simply begs the question just as it did in arguing for God. The externality of the experiences assumes they are from the outside world, when they are entirely sensed internally. As begging the question in argument is invalid, and so is evidence for God which begs the question, then the same is true of evidence for the real world that begs the question. It is just as false, Smith thinks.

The question of whether the external world exists cannot be solved without first settling the question of how the relevant evidence is to be interpreted, but we cannot settle the question of how the relevant evidence is to be interpreted without first settling the question of whether the external world exists.

The dispute is a dispute over a world view. A world view is a secular expression for a set of views held by someone which lets them think coherently. It is what religion offers to the religious. So the disagreement is equivalent to one between religions. The opposing world views offer no common ground as to how evidence should be evaluated.

So far, Smith has been arguing, as philosophers do, and as Descartes did, from the viewpoint of a single mind surveying the landscape to decide whether it was real or just a figment of the observer’s mind. Such views are therefore subjective ones. The real world skeptic’s argument necessarily is subjective because he accepts only his own mind as producing the sensations experienced. The one who accepts the external world accepts that there are other minds in it, who can arrive at common answers to problems by comparing each of their experiences. When they agree about some event in the real world, they can accept it as objectively true. Objectivity is a social agreement about a common observation.

That the real world skeptic cannot accept evidence for the external world does not mean it is not real evidence, but Smith says its problem is that it is not “transparent”. Not everyone can appreciate it. But the believer in objective truth can easily test the real world skeptic’s sincerity by asking him to prove his conviction that the real world is simply some sensation in his mind by asking him to jump in front of a tube train, or from a multistorey car park. If they refuse to do it, then they are showing their conviction is not sincere.

That is the point at which the evidence becomes transparent even to the real world skeptic. To maintain skepticism thereafter is simply to be a fraud or a madman. Smith’s real world skeptic argument is invalid, so it is not counter to the criticism of the arguments of believers. Believers in God cannot turn round to their tormentors and say, “OK, then prove yourself by doing so-and-so”, though they try to use Pascal’s wager instead. The point of the real world case, is that it immediately resolves the issue, whereas Pascal’s wager, like most religious arguments, is deferred until we die. We have to buy the religious pig in a poke to get a chance of knowing the answer, but the odds remain on us knowing nothing after death, as we knew nothing before we were born.


Written by mikemagee

4 August, 2010 at 9:39 pm

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