16 March 2015

Pre-thoughts on the Rauser/Schieber debate

The audio and/or video for the recent debate and discussion between Randal Rauser and Justin Schieber isn't available yet, but on his blog the other day Randal did a short podcast in which he reflected on the debate and summarized his thesis. With the rather huge caveat that for all I know Randal's more detailed arguments fully address my objections or that Justin had similar thoughts to mine, I wanted to offer some quick thoughts based just on the outline that Randal posted. You can listen to the clip (it's relatively short) on Randal's site here.

First, a point of agreement with Randal: his thoughts on debates echo my own. I think they tend to be rather unproductive, that the audience is rarely comprised of 'fence sitters', and that they often exacerbate an adversarial attitude between believers and non-believers. I suppose the only difference between Randal and I is that in the last six months or so I've come to feel the same way about lengthy internet debates. I definitely think there's value in irenic discussion and spirited debate, but protracted debates in the comments sections of blogs never bring out the best in anyone, myself included. We're all passionate about our beliefs, but it's good to know when to bail out and, if necessary, let the other guy have the last word.

Anyway, Randal outlines what he describes as a "modest thesis" with three major arguments:
  1. One does not need evidence for their belief in God to be rational.
  2. Atheists/naturalists/skeptics are often hasty in dismissing transcendent agents as plausible explanations for events, and this reflects a bias against such possibilities.
  3. Theism provides a better account of our moral intuitions than atheistic naturalism.
The first two arguments are connected somewhat, but the third is distinct as an offering of an evidential argument for the existence of God. Randal may not believe that evidence is required to hold a rational belief in God, but he clearly believes that evidence can bolster the case.

I'm going to tackle these arguments in order, and talk about some of the red flags that popped into my head as I listened.

(1) Evidence and belief in God

My first thought was that Randal's statement was a bit peculiar — what exactly does he mean by "rational" (rational to whom, or according to whom?) and, more importantly, what does he mean by "evidence"? I take him to mean that one's own phenomenological experience provides sufficient evidence in itself to believe in God — something like William Lane Craig's 'inner witness of the Holy Spirit', a perceived miracle, or an answered prayer. I think by "evidence", Randal meant what we would take as empirical or scientific evidence — that is, evidence that can be independently corroborated by other people. I take Randal to be saying that even if one's phenomenological experience can't be corroborated by others (which is the case, by definition, since we don't have access to each other's phenomenological experiences), that the trust we have in our own experiences and our intuitions about those experiences provides sufficient grounds to reasonably believe that perceived supernatural experiences are authentic.

I hope that's a charitable understanding of his argument. Assuming it is, a couple of issues are apparent.

The first problem is that this position essentially eliminates anything particularly special about the particulars of the claim. Randal could claim that he was visited by the spirits of his Nordic ancestors (note: I don't actually know if he's Nordic), that Cthulhu visited him and reveal a cataclysmic prophecy, or that he was given by God himself a New New Testament of Jesus Christ that ought to supersede the Christian Bible. Regardless, since no one else has access to Randal's phenomenological experience, no one can definitively refute his claim. There's nothing particularly special about Randal's actual beliefs — the Holy Spirit, Christian miracles, or whatever. By claiming that his beliefs do not need to be supported by evidence that can be independently corroborated, he has insulated his beliefs from further inquiry.


(2) Atheists hastily dismiss transcendent agent explanations, indicating a bias against them

I think that non-believers dismiss transcendent agent explanations not because of a bias against them, but precisely because we hold them to the same standard as any other type of evidence.

Let's think for a moment about what exactly is being claimed when it's claimed that a transcendent agent acted in some causal fashion. First, this is a supernatural being that cannot be directly observed empirically, but nonetheless has both a mind and the capability of causally affecting the physical world. Second, this agent did, in fact, transcend whatever 'boundary' there may be between the natural and supernatural worlds and produced an observable effect in the natural world. And finally, this effect was made specifically to one person, or perhaps to a relatively small group of people (such as everyone in a church); i.e., it is revelatory in nature.
Our materialist understanding of science gives us a powerful, useful, and reliable way of modeling the world around us. We understand how particles and forces interact, how causes work, etc. Even our minds, at least while we're here on Earth, appear to require electronic activity in our brains. So when someone claims that an observable or even phenomenological experience was caused by a supernatural agent, they are in fact making an empirical claim. We should, at least in principle, be able to examine such claims using the tools of science.
Doing so, we can ask a few sensible questions:
  • What exactly is a transcendent agent? 
  • In what ways can a transcendent agent causally affect the physical world? What limitations are there, if any?
  • What is the mechanism by which the agent "transcends" their supernatural nature and affects physical objects and forces?
It will not be a surprise that theists are generally apprehensive about modeling a transcendent being in such a specific way. But you can't have it both ways: either this being causally affects the physical world and can in principle be examined using the tools of science, or the being cannot in principle be examined using the tools of science precisely because it does not causally affect the physical world.

Two problems are apparent, here, for the theist. The first is that the precise nature and causal power of the transcendent being is mired in ambiguity that stifles further inquiry. The second is that we have scientific accounts, from a variety of independent disciplines, that can plausibly account for the purportedly supernatural event. Craig's internal witness, for example, can be plausibly accounted for by groupthink, confirmation bias, and the sensed-presence effect [1].

It's at this point I have to step back and remind my readers of what's really the issue: whom, precisely, Randal is intending to convince. While Randal indeed may be able to consider his belief rational by shielding it from inquiry (effectively allowing him to justify a belief in anything he dreams up), we are also rationally justified in being skeptical of his claim of witnessing or experiencing a supernatural agent for the two reasons outlined above. It's absolutely vital here to note that we are under no obligation to disprove his claim; to justify a rational skepticism, we only need the presence of plausible alternatives which contrast the ambiguous and revelatory nature of the original claim.

Plausible scientific explanations like groupthink, confirmation bias, the sensed-presence effect, or even the psychology of possession are — in stark contrast to the causal abilities of supernatural beings — robustly documented and well-established empirical phenomena. Furthermore, these explanations have the added power of transcending cultural biases. In order to take Randal's Christian beliefs at face value, one must already be a Christian and accordingly share with Randal a number of assumptions about the nature of the world, of God, and the proper interpretation of the Bible (i.e., not all Christians agree on what kinds of holy spiritual experiences one can have, nor do they agree on the way God interacts with the world and his followers). But scientific explanations view these spiritual experiences as common humanistic phenomenon, not necessarily justifying the truth claims of any particular religion.

As long as Randal cares only about viewing his own beliefs as rationally defensible, as immune to being discredited by skeptics, I think his argument holds water. Indeed Randal may have had any number of authentic spiritual experiences. But since these beliefs are not rooted in evidence that can be independently corroborated and because they can be plausibly accounted for by scientific explanations, we non-believers are more than justified in being skeptical of the validity of his beliefs. If Randal wants to convince not just himself and (presumably) others who already share his assumptions but also to argue that others are wrong to be skeptical, then he's got his work cut out for him.

This in turn leads me to further question Randal's first argument. I think that part of being a good skeptical and critical thinker is avoiding the easy trap of privileging your own intuitions and biases above evidence that can be independently corroborated by others. I may, for example, have a memory of tripping and falling during a birthday party as a five-year-old child (I don't, but bear with me). I may have experienced genuine distress in reflecting on this event as I remembered how embarrassed I felt. But it could well be that the memory is false; false memories are, in fact, a common phenomenon [2]. So I attempt to corroborate my memory with others, like my parents, who were there; they do not remember me falling. Finally, they pop in a blurry old VHS cassette of the party, and there's no evidence that I fell. It wouldn't matter how real I had taken the experience to be; I would be forced to accept that it was most likely a false memory. In the same way, I feel that Randal is attempting to privilege his own perceived experiences, all of which are deeply entrenched in the particulars of his sociocultural upbringing, over plausible and more parsimonious alternatives which transcend those sociocultural boundaries. When he has to resort to defending a belief by shielding it from independent inquiry, he's failed to be rationally self-critical.

(3) Theism better accounts for moral intuitions

I won't spend as much time on this one, particularly because it was a frequent topic I've discussed here on The A-Unicornist. In his clip, Randal begins with the caveat "If we are moral realists"; i.e., that our intuitions give us objective, factual information about the world....

Except I would imagine that most atheistic naturalists are not moral realists, at least not in the sense Randal is describing: that morals are objectively existing truths that exist independently of human minds; "out there", so to speak, to be "grasped" by the mind. Instead, I think most naturalists agree that moral intuitions reflect a common embodiment — our shared biology, our shared needs and interests (solidarity), and our necessarily gregarious and social living. Moral intuitions evolved from more rudimentary traits of empathy, cooperation, and sympathy that can still be observed in our primate cousins. If atheists are moral realists, it's likely strictly in the sense of embodied realism [3].

As societies become more populous and diverse, our needs and interests change; accordingly, our moral intuitions also change. Most of us living today cringe at the notion of owning another person as a slave, subjugating them not as humans but as mere property. It is, indeed, one of the strongest moral intuitions many of have. And yet if any of us lived even just a couple hundred years ago, our intuitions about slavery would likely be quite different. We might see it as God's natural order, as a necessary evil, or even look aside with indifference. A theist might hastily dismiss this "shifting moral zeitgeist", as Richard Dawkins put it in The God Delusion, as moral relativism or moral nihilism. But our common embodiment and human solidarity allow for stable moral truths.

Furthermore, adding divine commandments — and with them, divine punishment and reward — adds nothing to our moral obligations. Avoiding a behavior for fear of punishment is not morality, but subservience. I do not need to be told, for example, that it offends God were I to cheat on my wife. In doing so I would rob myself of the intimacy and trust I share with her, risk losing the amazing life we've built together, and worst of all it would devastate her. I'm motivated to stay faithful not by fear of reprisal, but because I love her. A litany of such moral behaviors are motivated by our human empathy and solidarity, and do not need the veneer of a divine threat to keep us in line.

That concludes my thoughts on Randal's brief clip; I'm looking forward to hearing the full debate.

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