Yetter on Vallier on the Reasonableness of Theism

Richard Yetter-Chappell responds to Kevin’s post here. I’ll quote the bulk of it:

Some kind of minimal deism (motivated by the cosmological argument) seems reasonable enough.  But (as I’ve previously noted) it’s a pretty big leap from there to theism, and an even bigger leap to the particular historical and theological claims of religions like Christianity.

…A major worry about appealing to the consensus of philosophers of religion is that this can plausibly be entirely explained by selection effects: it would be odd to specialize in philosophy of religion if one considered it a settled issue.  And if (nearly) the only people who bother to enter the field are those who are antecedently inclined to take religion seriously, their consensus on this point can hardly be taken as evidence that the rest of us ought to do likewise.  So, the crucial question is instead whether further exposure to the philosophy of religion would cause other atheists (who currently judge religious belief to be irrational) to revise their view of the rationality of religious belief.  And I haven’t seen any reason to think that’s the case.

Moreover, I don’t think we need to rely on the indirect evidence of “expert testimony” here, since the first-order arguments are fairly straightforward to assess.  Cosmological and fine-tuning arguments don’t support anything stronger than minimal deism.  The ontological argument is obvious sophistry, and the modal version is question-begging.  The design argument was defeated by Darwin; in its place we have the problems of evil and divine silence: the world justdoesn’t look anything like we’d expect it to if overseen by an omni-max god.  In short, it seems to me, we seem to have every reason to reject theism, and no good reason to accept it.

Things get worse when we bundle in the quirky historical and theological claims of particular world religions.  We know, from the fact that at best all but one of them is false, that holy texts are not in general reliable sources of evidence.  Moreover, the particular contents put forth are often bizarre enough (fitting poorly with everything else we know of the world) to cast yet further doubt on them.  Much of Christian theology (original sin, eternal damnation for honest non-believers, etc.) seems not just bizarre but patently immoral.  It doesn’t seem like the kind of thing someone could end up believing as the result of a careful and unbiased assessment of the evidence.

I’m posting this because I saw similar types of responses in the commends to Kevin’s previous post. And I wonder if Richard and Kevin are actually disagreeing here. I suspect–and I invite Kevin and Richard to correct me if I’m wrong–that Kevin is talking about reasonableness, but Richard is talking about epistemic justification or epistemic rationality.

Kevin claims that religious belief and theism, or at least certain instances of them, are reasonable. “Reasonable” is a technical term in public reason liberalism. Just what constitutes reasonableness is a big topic the PR liberals debate, but they all build into the concept of reasonable that reasonable beliefs are to be respected by liberalism. A reasonable objection has to be defeated; an unreasonable one doesn’t. A reasonable lifestyle has to be accommodated; an unreasonable one doesn’t. A reasonable claim has to be heard; an unreasonable one doesn’t. Etc.

In addition, PR liberals tend to hold that the category of the “reasonable” is broader than the category of the epistemically justified or the epistemically rational. Many beliefs that are not epistemically justified or that would be epistemically irrational to hold (because they are held in violation of the correct epistemic standards, whatever they are) are still reasonable. The standards of reasonableness are less demanding than the standards of epistemic justification.

So, perhaps Kevin is claiming that religious belief is reasonable, which is all he needs for his project in political philosophy, without making the stronger and unnecessary claim that religious belief is justified. Perhaps Richard means to deny that religious belief meets even this lower epistemic standard; I’m not sure.

  • Dayman fighter of the Nightman

    If consensus in the relevant field determines reasonableness, then we need to determine the relevant field. For religion and god claims, I think the relevant field is not philosophy of religion, but philosophy in general. Philosophy of religion is not (or should not be) anything over and above various fields of philosophy like metaphysics, epistemology, ethics, etc. but remains a field unto itself as a vestige of ideas that had historical significance. Much like how religious freedom shouldn’t really be anything over and above other freedoms (speech, association, etc.).

    Even if the majority of philosophers of religion are theists, the majority of philosophers are atheists (according to the Bourget and Chalmers survey). Like Richard said, selection effects plausibly account for the theist philosophers of religion. I am a non-religious graduate student with very little interest in taking a course in the philosophy of religion, especially since it would mean forgoing a course in something like metaphysics or ethics. All (or most) philosophers know of the arguments for Jebus, but only the philosophers of religion feel like spending (wasting) time on them.

    So if consensus in the relevant field determines reasonableness, philosophy in general is the relevant field, and 73% atheist is a consensus, then Christianity is unreasonable. If not, then I dunno.

    As a utilitarian (or possibly a prioritarian), if I thought Christianity were true, I would favor whatever policies and legislation would minimize the number of people burning, screaming, weeping, and gnashing their teeth for eternity.

  • Jameson Graber

    I recall Vallier using the phrase “culpably irrational” or something like that. The argument should thus come down to whether or not having religious faith is a moral failure of the intellect. For some people that might not even have much of a meaning, but I think the concept is implicit in many of our arguments.

  • Hi Jason, as I note at the very end of my post, I don’t think that epistemically unjustified religious beliefs should be used to promote (otherwise unjustified) laws or policies.

    I guess this conclusion is overdetermined insofar as both (i) religious belief strikes me as very epistemically unwarranted, so probably can’t meet even “lower” standards so long as they are genuine epistemic standards at all; and (ii) I share Jess’ doubts about PR liberalism.

    • MARK_D_FRIEDMAN

      In response to your post: How exactly should the world look if it were ruled by an omni-max God? In this world, would people retain their free will?

      • Magnets… Just Magnets

        What about a world exactly like ours minus all the suffering caused by natural disasters? So yes murder, terrorism, and genocide, but no tsunamis, earthquakes, and famines. This preserves free will but eliminates unnecessary suffering. Unless you think the gays’ actions cause natural disasters.

        I myself think that the problem of evil is not a great argument against god, since generally theists are divine command theorists and not utilitarians, like Richard or myself, so the existence of mass suffering may not be that much of a problem for them.

        • MARK_D_FRIEDMAN

          First, you seem to suggest that I believe that gays cause natural disasters. Is that really what you mean? If so, you are an idiot.

          Your idea is not a bad one, but still eliminates the need for humans to solve these problem for themselves, by advances in detection, engineering, improved agricultural techniques, etc. Undertaking this task is a part of our humanity.

          Moreover, and probably more importantly, a world free of natural disasters would be one that is plainly operating outside the normal laws of science. It would be akin to God announcing to the whole world: “Hey, I’m here, and on your side, so you might want to worship me.” In other words, such a step would be the end of religious faith, something–assuming as we are for purposes of this argument that God exists– that would not, I expect, be part of God’s plan.

          • Magnets… Just Magnets

            “First, you seem to suggest that I believe that gays cause natural disasters. Is that really what you mean? If so, you are an idiot.”

            First, you seem to suggest that I seem to suggest that you believe gays cause natural disasters. Is that really what you mean? If so, you are an idiot.

            No, I’m confident you don’t believe that, because people who frequent this site are generally much smarter and better than that. What I meant is that there are people (Pat Robertson, Michelle Bachman, and Westboro Baptist Church) who do believe that, so to them, a world without natural disasters would mean a world without the free will of sinners to incur god’s wrath.

            “Moreover, and probably more importantly, a world free of natural disasters would be one that is plainly operating outside the normal laws of science.”

            Except that theists think god is the lawmaker authoring the laws of nature, and an all-powerful one at that. So he could write laws of nature without natural disasters.

            I agree with the rest of what you said. Don’t be so quick to infer accusations of homophobia. I’ve never seen anything even close to homophobia on this site.

          • MARK_D_FRIEDMAN

            I’m not sure how even God can author laws of nature that are internally contradictory, without very smart scientists eventually noticing. Typically, scientists figure out that given background conditions x,y, and z, [something] will occur. Given enough time, observations, and the right theoretical framework, scientists would figure out (for example) that given atmospheric conditions x,y, and z, a non-destructive tropical storm occurs. Given conditions x1, y1 and z1 a hurricane or tornado should occur. Except it doesn’t. So, something funky, indeed seemingly miraculous, is happening. Maybe…its…God.

          • Sergio Méndez

            How do you know that a world witthout natural disasters will imply “internally contradictory” nature laws?

            “Typically, scientists figure out that given background conditions x,y, and z, [something] will occur. Given enough time, observations, and the right theoretical framework, scientists would figure out (for example) that given atmospheric conditions x,y, and z, a non-destructive tropical
            storm occurs. Given conditions x1, y1 and z1, a hurricane or tornado should occur. Except it doesn’t. So, something funky, indeed seemingly miraculous, is happening. Maybe…it’s…God.”

            Or maybe scientists don´t know the whole set of factors that cause the hurricane, and there is no miracle at al.

          • MARK_D_FRIEDMAN

            There are forces (gravity, friction, magnetism, etc.) that in combination determine all physical events (excluding perhaps free will, which is a different issue). Scientists formulate “laws” to describe the uniform and regular operation of these forces. The same laws that describe the forces that cause natural disasters also describe how (for example) planes, cars and trains can run safely. I don’t see how scientists can know physical laws generally, but not the ones that cause hurricanes. If you can’t see this, I don’t think there is anything further I can say to help you.

          • Sergio Méndez

            We are talking about God. He could have created a universe with a whole different set of rules, forces and laws, in which natural disasters simply don´t happen. How is that internally contradictory?

    • Jason Brennan

      Hi Richard, I’m also skeptical of PR liberalism.

      That said, for Kevin, who works in the Gaussian version of PR liberalism, reasonable religious beliefs serve primarily as defeaters for coercive law, not as justifiers of coercive law. So, I think your worry won’t arise much.

      • Kevin Vallier

        Hoo-rah!

  • martinbrock

    A reasonable lifestyle has to be accommodated; an unreasonable one doesn’t.

    A specialist may define “reasonable” so that belief in Jesus’ resurrection, based upon evidence in the gospels, qualifies as “reasonable”, but this specialist must expect his usage frequently to confuse, in the way that using “particle”, rather than the more specialized “quantum”, in a discussion of Quantum Mechanics confuses people understanding “particle” in its classical sense. A quantum is not a classical particle.

    In my way of thinking, I must accommodate a community of Orthodox Jews requiring its members only to consume kosher foods, even prohibiting the consumption of other foods by anyone within the community’s boundaries, assuming that the community has definite, geographic boundaries.

    I must also accommodate a community of apostates from Judaism who regularly eat pork and lobster, even a community requiring its members to eat only lobster on Sundays, even a community permitting no one within the community’s boundaries to eat anything but lobster on Sundays.

    I must accommodate these communities, because their members have a right to their subjective preference, even a right to call their preference “reasonable”, regardless of the usage of academic philosophers. In this sense, I accommodate any usage of “reasonable” that doesn’t violate the principle of free association. I similarly accommodate any usage of “up” and “down”, even a usage that is the opposite of my own.

    Having said all that, I can easily disagree with Yetter-Chappell. First, the ontological argument is not sophistry, but like the ontological argument, it doesn’t lead very far down a road to theism. It implies little more than a naturalistic pantheism of the sort that Dawkins calls “sexed up atheism”, essentially identifying “God” with “the Universe”, not even implying Aquinas’ panentheism.

    I’ll label myself a naturalistic pantheist, and I have no problem with either “pantheism” or “sexed up atheism” as a name for this understanding. I’m even willing to incorporate this pantheism into a broad class of ideas labeled “theism”, even if academic philosophers use “theism” more narrowly.

    Darwin didn’t defeat the argument from design either. He rather argued that the Earth’s biosphere is an information processing system able, without input from another information processing system, to design living forms. Some evolutionary biologists dispute even this conclusion, supposing that evolution by natural selection on the Earth incorporated organic molecules formed outside of the biosphere and deposited on the Earth by comet impacts or the like.

    Regardless, calling Darwin’s process “design” and the aggregate of its material constituents “designer” is no less reasonable than calling the aggregate of neurons in my head “designer”. Whether the biosphere has anything we might call “consciousness” is a separate question. I don’t suppose that it does, but I do suppose that if it does, its consciousness does not comprehend Hebrew or speak from burning bushes.

    Finally, the problem of evil is a problem only if God has no use for what men call “evil”, so I don’t suppose it’s a problem at all. Ancient theologians constructing ancient theology did not construct an omnibenevolent God, and even if they had, their construction would not rule out a God permitting what men call “evil”.

    I even suppose that ancient theologians understood this point. I suppose the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil itself represents the Torah allegorically and that authors of this story, as an introduction to the Torah, portrayed the Law marking man’s passage from an idyllic, blissfully ignorant state of nature into artificial humanity with all its talk of “good” and “evil” and all the blissless misery flowing therefrom.

    • People’s Knees

      “Having said all that, I can easily disagree with Yetter-Chappell. First, the ontological argument is not sophistry, but like the ontological argument, it doesn’t lead very far down a road to theism. It implies little more than a naturalistic pantheism of the sort that Dawkins calls “sexed up atheism”, essentially identifying “God” with “the Universe”, not even implying Aquinas’ panentheism.”

      I think proponents of the ontological argument rarely use ‘greatest conceivable being’ in that sense. Yes the pantheistic god exists, even atheists can agree, if that god is the universe, The All, the whole of existence, or whatever else you call it. Usually, though, theists use ‘greatest conceivable being’ in some normative sense, and they argue that existing is greater than not existing. They also usually relate this greatest to their “god is all good” talk. I think the ontological argument is dangerously close to sophistry, and even if it’s not, it still seems to rest on equivocation, question-begging, and a conflation of conceptual possibility with physical possibility.

      As to whether pantheists should identify more with theists or atheists, I think it could go either way. They use the same word as theists but believe the same thing as atheists.

      • martinbrock

        First, I intended “but like the cosmological argument”, and I’ve edited my post to reflect this intention.

        I agree that conventional theists try to get more mileage out of the ontological argument, in the direction of their particularly theology, than the argument allows. As Yetter-Chappell notes, theists also take too much comfort from other arguments for the existence of God. I only deny that the ontological argument is particularly sophistic for this reason.

        For a pantheist, the ontological argument is not a proof of God’s existence as much as it defines a God that exists definitively, so the existence of this God is analytic rather than synthetic knowledge. Conventional theists reject this “God”, of course, but they also reject the deism arguably supported by fine tuning arguments, and they reject evolution by natural selection as the information processing of an intelligent being, Gaia say, designing living forms.

        Conventional theists want a designer of living forms, but they’re not happy with Gaia. Michael Behe, for example, understands and acknowledges a pantheistic response to the argument from design, but he rejects it. That’s fine with me. At least, we share enough terms to agree that we disagree.

        Atheists believe the same things as pantheists but use different words. People who want to communicate with each other must share some words, and “God” is a very old word that has always supported diverse usage and still resonates with most people today. I suppose it’s a useful word for this reason.

        • People’s Knees

          Yes, pantheism is a good position to take for speaking the same language as theists. I sometimes call myself ‘pantheist’, both to communicate with theists and to annoy atheists. And I agree there are passages of various religions that are open to this interpretation, Hinduism explicitly, but Christianity also (“In Him we live and move and have our being”). The problem is most religious people are not satisfied with poetry but instead think they have literal truth claims. And most of their truth claims are false.

  • thor the happy

    Richard’s test of measuring the reasonableness of theism by counting converts from atheism is curious. Can we apply the same test to libertarianism? There is alot of smart nonlibertarians out there who have ‘reasons’ for their point of view.

    • Just to clarify, I didn’t suggest “counting converts”. Rather, in response to Kevin’s implicit assumption that we should accept the consensus of philosophers of religion about the epistemic claim that religious belief is resaonable, we instead need to know whether further information would lead other atheists to (not necessarily convert but at least) regard religious belief as reasonable.

  • M Lister

    I’m posting this because I saw similar types of responses in the
    commends to Kevin’s previous post. And I wonder if Richard and Kevin are
    actually disagreeing here. I suspect–and I invite Kevin and Richard to
    correct me if I’m wrong–that Kevin is talking about reasonableness, but
    Richard is talking about epistemic justification or epistemic
    rationality.

    It seemed to me that Kevin was conflating the two in the post- whether intentionally or not I don’t know. The problem is that the sorts of arguments Kevin gave are largely irrelevant to whether Christian belief, at least in many forms, can be a “reasonable comprehensive doctrine” in the Rawlsian sense that’s relevant for public reason arguments. What matters for that is (most basically) whether holders of a view can be cooperating members or not. The truth of a belief system, or how plausible it is, is only very loosely connected with that question. But Kevin’s arguments were mostly directed at whether it’s “reasonable” to believe that a fairly orthodox version of Christianity is true, and so whether those who doubt it, or at least those who think believers are making serious epistemic errors, are being “unreasonable” themselves. That question is at least largely distinct from the question about political philosophy, at least in the Rawlsian wring of Public Reason liberalism. (I take this as a major plus for the position myself.)

    (I think that there were also serious problems in that post about what “respect” was doing, both in that there again seemed to me to be a conflation of political and epistemic notions, and that the arguments offered mostly seemed to be for the epistemic notion, and not very good, for the reasons Richard notes, among others. These arguments are, again, only minimally relevant for the politically relevant notion of respect, so it was pretty unclear what the post was supposed to be about.

    • Kevin Vallier

      Matt, I’ve said in a few places in print (or forthcoming) that i think the idea of the reasonable implies a degree of epistemic credence sufficient to generate genuine reasons for action, ones worth taking seriously as defeaters for or justifications for coercion. But that level of epistemic credence is rather low, just to the level of culpable rational errors. I don’t think we can make sense of the idea of persons as reasonable and rational without some sense of epistemic justification.

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  • John Halstead

    I have a few points

    1. Having read a great deal of PR Liberal material I am still yet to fully understand why it is that our policies must be acceptable to reasonable points of view where ‘reasonable’ means something less than perfectly epistemically rational. I have read Political Liberalism and many other pro-PR liberal texts and I have yet to find a single convincing argument for this position. Arguments for it frequently get sidetracked into discussions about the mechanics of PR liberalism if it works, rather than about whether and why it is true. (This has happened again here). I appreciate that Rawls did not even hold that PR liberalism is true, but that position is absurd.

    2. Rawls’ criteria of the burdens of judgement are, if you examine them, strict epistemic standards which exclude all religious belief.

    3. PR liberals do not really believe that coercion must be acceptable to the religious. e.g. they do not believe that abortion law must be acceptable to Christians. If they did, they would ban abortion. Or, if banning abortion is also reasonably unacceptable, they would have to have no policy towards abortion. One often finds PR liberals saying in response ‘well, it is unreasonable to deny abortion’. Well then, Christianity is unreasonable. It also has lots of other anti-gay, pro-slavery features, which must also be unreasonable. So, PR liberalism doesn’t get to count itself as specially philosophically tolerant.

    4. Such a lax standard of reasonableness implies philosophical anarchism. If we’re classing people as epistemically inept as Christians as reasonable, then loads of people are reasonable and state coercion is rarely, and more probably never, justified. This is surprising.

    5. PR liberals pump intuitions about the permissibility of appeals to the truth. The examples they use are invariably: “imagine if catholicism were true. That does not mean you may enforce it.” This makes it seem reasonable to stand back from the truth. But actually, imagine if something you actually believe morality requires were true, it was very important and people reasonably denied it. Imagine I know that a certain climate policy would save 1,000 lives. People reasonably deny this: climate policy is very complex after all. It is surely insane to say in response: I must not try to implement my policy. 1,000 people must die as a result of the disagreement of reasonable wrong people. If reasonable disagreement does not push us towards epistemic abstinence here, then it never does.

    Best, John

    • Kevin Vallier

      Lots of important questions here. I think Gaus’s Justificatory Liberalism makes dramatic progress in resolving ambiguities in the implicit epistemic ideas in public reason. Not much time to reply to your other (worthy) worries.

  • Thrica

    I wrote a response post here: http://thri.ca/blog/public-reason-liberalism-and-kuyperian-epistemology/

    In short, if the human condition is as the Bible says it is, Christianity does not need to be “epistemically justified” to be true. Nevertheless, this fact also means that Christianity and public policy constitute (you might say) non-overlapping magisteria.

    In other words, public reason liberals do not have to accept Christian claims on public policy, but Christians (at least as such) should not make claims on public policy.

  • Kevin Vallier

    I appreciate the attempt at reconciliation, though Richard seems less interested than I am. I think the idea of the reasonable does need to appeal to a minimal level of epistemic credence, one sufficiently strong to generate reasons worth taking seriously as counting for or against the public justification of laws. So you’re right I’m appealing to a technical term, but there is a common-sense element. That level of epistemic credence, however, is lower than what Richard seems to need to make his claims go through about the state of the philosophy of religion (which I think is wrong-headed, even from an atheist’s point of view, but more on that later).

  • CFV

    “The ontological argument is obvious sophistry”

    You dismiss the argument too quickly, I think. (For instance, see Gareth B. Matthews & Lynne Rudder Baker “The Ontological Argument Simplified” Analysis 70.2 (2010): 210-212).

  • steven johnson

    I didn’t notice an argument or any evidence as to why Christianity should be “respected” in Vallier’s post. Nor did he answer the question of what demonstrations of “respect” were thereby commanded. It is not even clear what epistemic arguments, re the Trinity/”God” or Christianity in general, are even relevant.

    Since you’re interested in explaining, what is Vallier’s project in political philosophy? I’m quite certain Vallier has zero interest in “respecting” Muslims, and that supporting Zionism is all the respect that Judaism needs. I’m become suspicious that the point is to insist that libertarians shut up about atheism so that the ramshackle coalition between Christian bigots, libertarians of some kind or other and regressive taxation, antilabor business can go on. But then you’d think someone would resent this?