April 28, 2011
This series is an atheist’s review of an important skeptical anthology aimed at Christian beliefs called, “The Christian Delusion: Why Faith Fails” (TCD), that is likely to be popularly discussed across the web. I’ll be reviewing the book in light of just about every other response to TCD on the web (pros and cons) and responding to new Christian objections as I find them. I think this will be the best that I personally can contribute to improving the online dialogue between Christians and non-believers on popular battleground issues.
It seems that in order to deflect away from the primary skeptical charge of special pleading that atheist John Loftus’ “Outsider Test for Faith” represents, Christian reviewers seemed to unanimously reach for any and all philosophical obstacles to throw in the way. “Why are we just being critical of Christian beliefs?” so many of them asked. Why not ALL beliefs? To the extent this isn’t a disingenuous diversion from basic critical thinking in regards to the Christian faith, we’ll explore one often used example that many Christian reviewers made use of.
Jayman777 objects:Reppert notes that most Westerners are raised to believe in an external world whereas someone born in India may believe that the external world is just an illusion. Should we not subject our Western beliefs to the OTF ["outsider test for faith"]? Loftus begs the question when he asserts that the existence of the external world is experienced every moment we are alive. He tries to rely on the consensus of scientists but scientists merely assume the existence of the external word, they do not demonstrate it. This issue is a philosophical issue and Loftus cannot skirt it with appeals to probability (how could you calculate a probability in this case?).
Paul Manata raises the same objection:Or, more troublesome, the counter example shows that we should have the same level of skepticism towards, say, the philosophical belief that the world is maya as we should have towards the philosophical belief that the external world exists and is mind independent.
David Marshall didn’t even seem to formulate his coverage of this issue into an actual argument against Loftus’ position:
I think Loftus is confusing a particular movie with the scenario it illustrates. It is certainly the case that some intelligent people DO take the scenario that the world is some sort of simulation seriously. One atheist philosopher, another told me, put the odds of the world being unreal at about one in five. (Don’t ask me how he calculated this — taking the rationality of his own brain for granted, still!) I believe in the reality of the external world — that’s why I’m blogging. But Keller and Craig are right to say we can’t prove it — nor do Loftus’ arguments manage the trick.
So he pokes fun at one atheist for pulling ratios out of his/her existential arse, notes two Christians can’t prove it, and then notes that Loftus can’t either. So what? Is this where superstitious Christians are “just supposed to know” that magically their belief in a god gets them around this problem? I want my “get out of philosophical problem free” card, too, please!
After John Loftus confronts jayman777′s review, jayman777 replies:I am not denying that there is an external, material world. I am saying that your defense for the existence of an external world fails. That we perceive a world in front of us is no surprise to the Indian in Reppert’s example and thus gains your position no advantage in the debate. Unless you can provide a better argument, Reppert has shown that your own beliefs fail to pass the OTB ["outsider test for beliefs"]. If you are going to muster a better argument, I think it will have to be a philosophical argument.
Yup. And this isn’t hard to do. I let Loftus’ somewhat lame answer slide as I read through the chapter, but atheist Richard Carrier addresses this more directly in his book, Sense and Goodness without God (page 52):On the other hand, if the [Cartesian] demon were really this consistent in giving us results, through which we satisfy our every goal and desire, there would hardly be any intelligible difference between what we call “reality” and the world the demon is inventing for us [or in this case an illusionary world]. As noted in II.2.1.2 (“Meaning, Reality, and Illusion”), such a construct would be reality, in every sense of the word we normally use. And since we observe some methods to work better than others, and indeed some work best of all, a Cartesian Demon would have to be arranging it this way, constructing reality for us solely in accord with a fixed plan it has chosen. In that case we have just as much reason to pursue the relevant methods for discovering that plan, and to abandon the bad ones, so we can gain the reward of a successful life experience from this mischievous demon. In other words, there is no reason to trust that any Cartesian Demon theory is true, and even if it is, nothing significant changes for us regarding method.
That passes the Indian OTB since the persistent distinctions in our collective illusion are common ground.
I noticed one commenter on Loftus’ blog said:
I don’t think it is possible for us to know if we are brains in a vat or in the Matrix. How could we possibly know? That is also the consensus of contemporary philosophers. See David Chalmers.
I’d like to see the references on that just out of curiosity.
Into the Matrix:
Manata says:In response to the claim that Loftus needs to take the outsider test for his belief that the external world is an illusion, Loftus says that before he takes that test the challenger must show him that his belief in a mind-independent external world is “probably false” (95-96). Loftus holds the position that the response to the person who claims that your belief could be false is, “So what? Give me good reason to believe that it is false” (96).
For this thought experiment, we’ll call one party Thomas Anderson and we’ll call the other party Trinity. Now, Trin and Tom both have something in common. As Carrier pointed out above, they share the pattern of what Tom calls “reality” and Trinity calls “the Matrix.” So they are both insiders as far as that pattern goes as I’m sure they would agree. However Tom is an outsider to what Trinity calls “the real world.” Even if Trinity is completely confident that what she calls the real world is in fact the real world, it may not seem to make much sense for her to take an OTF (Or in this case, it would be an OTB). We’re not dealing with faith here, just her holistic past experiences of actually being unplugged and discovering an apocalyptic world that is hosting a computer simulation for most humans. However, she can still take the test. She doesn’t need to get all indignant about it like Manata does. It’s just the fact she’s going to pass so easily because she’d be using all the same standards of evidence that Tom uses for calling the Matrix real applied to her very obvious experiences from outside of the Matrix. This is a technicality, but the point is, she can do it. There’s nothing logically impossible about it. And more importantly, for Tom’s sake, if she wants to make a more convincing argument without just unplugging him, she should be prepared to expose him to really good reasons for believing they are currently in a simulated world. She needs to be able to look at things from his perspective and not just pretend like her assertions are going to be credible based on Tom’s background knowledge. Her reasons would need to be based on reasonable standards of evidence in that context.
Why is that? Well, incidentally there’s another example from the animated anthology The Animatrix. Specifically, in “A Kid’s Story,” we find a young man named Michael Popper who doesn’t seem to have very credible reasons for thinking he needs to wake up from the Matrix. Is a vague mystical notion that reality isn’t as it should be, having bizarre existential conversations with a random person online, and being chased through school by some government agents a good enough reason to throw yourself off of a building believing you will wake up in the real world? Would Mike, the day before the story takes place, have a convincing case that passes an OTF if he were trying to convince another student that the Matrix is real? Probably not. As far as epistemology goes, being correct about the Matrix was an accident (which is what makes this segment of the movie kind of disturbing, since this is cultish thinking). He probably shouldn’t have believed it himself. Plenty of people have all sorts of mystical notions and convoluted escapist intuitions. And there are plenty of people online who are willing to feed your choice delusion. Getting mixed up with the authorities for some reason or another could happen by chance. If the Matrix is anything like the world we know, then there would be all sorts of people who believe all sorts of crazy things that go well beyond what is immediately evident to all. Responsible people know that and are willing to re-think their grasp on reality accordingly.
People like Manata can pretend like their convictions about Christianity are based on personal evidence that is much more like Trinity’s situation than Mike’s. It’s doubtful that’s actually the case. On the other hand, if I’m mistaken about that, it seems they could easily get into some convincing detail and they’d never bother appealing to anything like faith. They would also more readily respect how outsiders should view what they say and construct meaningful ways to bridge the gap of credibility to the best of their ability. And if for some inconvenient reason this simply can’t be done, they would respect those unfortunate circumstances like rational caring people do and they wouldn’t waste everyone’s time arguing with assertions. Rational, caring people conclude, “You know what? I wouldn’t believe me either if I were you.”
The point is, the OTF still applies in either event. Neither a Trinity, nor a Mike should have much to fear from it. Especially, to mince analogies, if they are backed up by a loving god who likely wouldn’t put them in inconsiderate epistemic circumstances to begin with. Then again, that’s why Christians have the problem of “divine hiddeness.” Maybe they should fear the OTF since they have everything to lose in the world of intellectual credibility.
In ordinary life, the less people can verify my own claims, and the more it would cost them if they believed me, the less I naturally expect them to take my claims seriously. I may still have to believe my own experiences (since the real world example I’m thinking of would be unverifiable mental/emotional states that impact interpersonal conflicts) since I personally can’t deny it, but I respect the fact I would be asking others to potentially go out on a limb. That can be a struggle, but that’s just how it is. Welcome to what we call reality.