North Western Winds

Contemplating it all from the great Pacific Northwest

Reasonable faith

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I’ve just finished reading an essay by C. Stephen Layman called Faith has it’s Reasons and thought it would be fun to share some of it here. This may or may not have to do with me stumbling onto an ignorant hatefest on an atheist blog. I’m not saying all atheists are ignorant and that’s an important point in this post.

Layman rightly begins by pointing out that there are many instances in which we have to make decisions and we do not, and cannot, have access to all the evidence we would like to have. Still, we have to do something and no one could justifiably say that doing so can reasonably be called irrational. We rely on 1) the evidence we do have, 2) arguments about that evidence, and 3) testimony. The very first difficulty facing us is how much weight to give the different parts of the case before us. The other is how high a standard we will hold ourselves to. In civil law, for example, the evidentiary burden is set at “a preponderance of the evidence.” In a criminal trial, the standard is higher – it is to be “beyond a reasonable doubt.”

One of the interesting little games that goes in in discussions of politics and religion is over which of these standards applies. We tend to claim that our side has passed the higher threshold, and our opponents only the lower, if we grant them even that. Defensive parties will claim the higher standard as a bulwark to protect themselves, as the Federal Liberals are doing now on the issue of whether there should be an election based on what justice Gomery has discovered so far. The attacking party, the Conservatives in this case, will seek the lower bar. The Conservatives point out that we know enough to know that the Liberals no longer have the moral authority to govern. Whether Liberal pack A or Liberal pack B bears the burden of the blame is properly a Liberal party problem and not one that Canadians as a whole should have to bear. For what it’s worth, I find the second argument convincing.

Arguments are funny things, however. Unless we are talking about simple things, they usually don’t convince people – even intelligent people. Layman asks us to imagine ourselves giving an anti slavery speech to a group of slave owners and asks us if we think we will be able to persuade them when so many who took our view were unable to do so during the antebellum years. He suggests we would likely fail, and asks us to ponder why that should be so. They will allot different weights to different parts of our presentation than we do ourselves. Our opponents will likely hold us to a higher standard than we hold ourselves. They will also define the evidence differently. What is ‘justice‘? What is a ‘right?‘ We saw this in the Terri Schaivo case as well. I thought the burden of proof was on Micheal Schaivo and that he didn’t meet it. I also used definitions of ‘right’ and ‘justice’ that differed with those who took the opposing view.

Testimony is also tricky. There is no air tight formula for determining who is more credible. Expert testimony only goes so far, and experts can complicate things by contradicting one another. Yet we act on testimony all the time. Are we “irrational” when our brother says that that basketball is on the roof and we believe him even though we can’t see it? The use of problem solving Heuristics is commonplace in everyday life and in the sciences.

Layman then turns to the subject of religion, and which case is more compelling – theism or naturalism. The first thing Layman does is to suggest we be careful not to look at the question in an unbalanced way. That is to say, the same standard of proof must apply to both. We can’t ask “Is there enough evidence for God’s existence?” because that puts the burden on that theory, in effect holding it to a criminal standard, while giving materialism the benefit of the doubt.

Layman then lays out the following case, which I like.

Deontology (some things are morally right and some are morally wrong) is true.
Materialism is not compatible with Deontology because it is not compatible with free will.
Therefore, materialism is false.

Naturalists can attack either of these premises. They can claim that right and wrong are not absolute, but are based on consequences. This view is called (surprisingly) consequentialism. Utilitarianism, for example, is a form of consequentialism. This is probably the better attack, based as it is, on intuitive, religious, presupposition. How can one “prove” either side? My own view is that the consequentialist and utilitarian tracks are subsets of moral thinking, which is properly deontologist. I don’t know how I’d prove it, however.

There are also those who claim that materialism is compatible with free will. This is called compatiblism. I find this idea downright bizarre, and Layman makes my case here:

…the current trend among materialists is not to deny freedom and morality, but to claim that human freedom is compatible with causal determination. In other words, a given act may be both free and determined at the same time.. An act is free for a person if and only if he performs it because he wants to (all things considered). The phrase “all things considered” is an acknowledgement of the fact that a person may have conflicting desires. I may want to go to a party and to study for an exam. If I can’t do both, I will presumably do what I want, “all things considered.” Thus, for the compatabilists, ‘free’ contrasts with ‘coerced.’ When I am not coerced, but rather perform the act because I want to (all things considered), I act freely.

But we must ask: What accounts for the fact that I want to perform a given act, all things considered? On the materialist account, every event is the result of prior states of the physical world together with the operation of natural laws. The way the world is today, right down to the last detail, is a result of the way the world was yesterday. Now, I do not have control of the past. Nor do I have control of which natural laws govern the physical world. It thus appears that I do not have control of my wantings if materialism is true. My wantings are entirely the result of factors over which I have no control.

Layman admits there are counterarguments, but he finds them unconvincing. The result as he sees it is that materialism has a “problem of evil” at least as bad as that of conventional theism because it struggles to even admit that it exits. If we are not free, then ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ are empty containers and virtually all of us act as contrary to that. Most of us would speak to it too.

The point of all this is that the arguments for theism are at least as good as those for materialism, given that this is a case in which the standard is the “preponderance of the evidence” in a comparative case. Both sides ought to see they fall short of a more stringent and fulfilling standard. They can see and account for evidence given by the opposing view. Much, then, depends on the weightings and intuitions over deontology and on how one defines freedom. The fact that naturalism is commonly supposed as the objective, neutral view tells us more about our position in post enlightenment history than it does about true ontology.


Written by Curt

April 27, 2005 at 10:24 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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