Monday, February 13, 2012

Melting Ice Waiting for Delivery

A few days ago I had one of those fundamentalist-type Skeptics email me with one of those tired canards that flies in a circle, stating that they saw no reason to study in depth something they already knew would turn out to be untrue. Then they added another canard I've heard before, but as best I recall, not written about: He declared that we need higher standards of evidence for the Gospels than we do for a historical work like that of Tacitus, because there is no fact "on which a person would base his whole mode of life and world view." In other words, for this reason, suddenly all standard and otherwise universally accepted tests are useless, and we need to arbitrarily raise the bar of evidence.

And indeed, arbitrary it is: Epistemic rules don't suddenly become less effective or valid because the object of their study is more earth shaking than something else. This, of course, is merely variation on Carl Sagan's arbitrary ECREE dictum -- something formulated not as an objective standard for epistemology, but as a flippant pseudo-rebuttal to what Sagan had already decided were absurd claims. In turn, ECREE is merely Hume reanimated from the dead, when in reality he should remain politely dead.

But there's another side as well; flip this objection over, and you'll see a lot of beetles underneath. It is rightly recognized that yes, Christianity is something on which one may "base his whole mode of life and world view." But the key word is MAY. One wonders what this objector has specifically in mind, and then, why they fail to see that it is a non-objection.

For example, do they suppose that being a Christian means dropping some view they hold with respect to (say) abortion, or homosexuality? That's not true. There are plenty of professing Christians who hold to pro-choice views, or who side with gay marriage arguments.

Do they think it means they must become young earth creationists? Also not true. All it would fence off for them is hardcore materialism -- the Christian spectrum includes everything else in between.

Do they think it means they'll have to give up something like booze or cigarettes? Well, yes -- Christians do continue with such vices.

More than that, there are more than a few atheists who think there are coherent arguments for being pro-life, or against gay marriage, or for not being into booze and cigarettes, and there is even reportedly an agnostic (David Berlinski) in the intelligent design movement. So it cuts both ways.

Believing in the Resurrection of Jesus may make it harder to hold on to views like pro-choice ones, of course; I'd say it requires a great deal more gymnastics to stay pro-choice and be Christian than otherwise. But that's hardly the point, because the original objection implies that the problem is that someone doesn't want to adopt a new "mode of life and world view." Well -- obviously, in practical terms, you don't have to. You may make an unwitting fool of yourself in the process, of course. But there's no magic barrier forcing you to change the way you think or act in the present.

So, from both sides of the aisle, this "mode of life and world view" objection is merely another of those excuses certain critics make as a way of arbitrarily raising the bar of evidence in order to ensure that it will never be hurdled to their satisfaction.

The tropical prince is still waiting for that ice.


  1. I have /some/ sympathy for this skeptic's complaints.

    For one, it does seem that, in some cases, the greater the potential cost involved in a decision, the greater epistemic certainty one needs (or desires).

    For instance, imagine that you pull out of your street and start driving to work. A niggling thought enters your mind, "did I lock the door?" You tell yourself to stop needlessly worrying and keep driving.

    But imagine it differently this time. You're driving along as before and the doubt creeps into your mind. Only this time, the radio is on and it is announces that a group of burglars has escaped the nearby prison. You decide that you aren't certain enough that your door is locked, and so you turn back to check.

    In both scenarios, the evidence that you had for the door being locked was the same. But the potential costs (having your house robbed) differed, causing you to have differing levels of satisfaction with the evidence.

    What this demonstrates to me, is just that the more you love your life in this world, the more reluctant you will be to accept Christianity, for the costs it involves will makes you feel like greater evidence is warranted.

    Also, on the point about "knowing that something isn't true already". I think we all have various "BS alarms". For instance, if someone approached me and said "look, the white house is run by aliens. I have the proof in this book I've written, it's really compelling," I'd be pretty confident that they were nuts. Of course, I'd wonder why, if his case was as strong as he claimed, nobody was discussing it - that no serious research was done on it. But he tells me, "look I explain all that in the book. I've taken all those arguments seriously, please just give it a look." I think I'd still say, "look mate, I smell "BS", ain't gonna happen."

    Here, it is /possible/ that he REALLY has explained all my potential objections. But his position is so outside of my notions of what's credible that I'm not going to invest time to listen.

    What I find interesting is that, for a lot of fundy atheists, this seems to be where religion has fallen for them. It is so way out of the ballpark in terms of what they see as being credible that they aren't prepared to seriously reason with us.

    Now they are obviously wrong about the credibility of our position. But the trick is, how do you get them to see that? Reasoning obviously isn't going to work - we're so silly-looking in their eyes that they won't listen. Somehow we have to put religion back on their credibility map. How exactly we do that is something I'm thinking about.

  2. Hmm. I really don't relate to that because I run through things like, "did I lock the door" before I'm out of the driveway, and if I have any doubts I check right then. :P So I guess I'm not so sympathetic.

    The aliens thing -- it'd have already occurred to me that if it were true, there'd be ripple results which weren't present. IOW I don't just say I smell BS (though I do!). I just reason it through on the spot (and it doesn't take long to do it). Maybe that's what you'd actually be doing too.

    How to get it on their map? Well, if they haven't made up their minds already...I'd think reason would work. I certainly don't see that emailer as someone who truly is using reason to arrive at their conclusions.

  3. Well the "did I lock the door" scenario is only an example of course. The issue of whether practical stakes affect what evidence is required for a person to be rationally justified is a serious debate in the philosophy literature. Here is a case pulled from a paper (

    "Case 1 (low stakes): Karen is deciding whether to transfer money to her grandmother on Friday or wait until Saturday morning. Karen has a good memory and she remembers transferring money on Saturday just two weeks ago. It is not particularly important that the money gets transferred by Saturday morning. Her grandmother has enough money for her purposes already.

    Case 2 (high stakes): Karen is deciding whether to transfer money to her grandmother on Friday or wait until Saturday morning. Karen has a good memory and she remembers transferring money on Saturday just two weeks ago. If Karen does not transfer the money by Saturday morning, her grandmother will not be able to pay for a life-saving surgery."

    Intuitively it seems clear that in the low stakes case, Karen's memory that the bank offers a transfer service on Saturday morning is enough to justify her in thinking that she can transfer the money on Saturday. But, intuitively, it seems clear that her memory would not be enough to justify her thinking that in the second case. It would be neglectful not to double check.

    As for the other thing, I think you're right that we form our "BS sensors" after spending time thinking about particular matters. I guess my point was that, if you formed your BS alarm poorly, it's going to be very hard to reason you out of it. If you've reasoned to the conclude that religion is ridiculous (and obviously I'd agree that it would be shallow reasoning that would lead you to this conclusion), you're not going to listen to anyone who tries to reason otherwise. You just "smell BS" and walk away or ridicule. It is a self-perpetuating trap. So I suppose my point is that, while the skeptic's position is unjustified, we can't really expect reasoning to help him. At least, not alone. We need to reach him another way.

  4. I get all that...I just don't relate to it at all. If I were "Karen" I'd have put the receipt for the money transfer in my wallet, taken it out again later for personal bookkeeping, etc. Or done whatever as appropriate (eg, an electronic transfer). My actions are pretty much alike whether high or low stakes.

    Poorly formed BS alarms seem to be a major problem these days, that much is affirmed. I blame a lot of that today on the way electronic communication affects the brain.

  5. Yeah there are a lot of forces at work that contribute to poorly formed BS alarms (or credibility maps, if we want to phrase more nicely). The soundbite nature of online communication, shallow portrayals in the media of important topics, the loss of appreciation for scholarly authority, crude narratives of what modernity is and what it entails, etc.