by Brian 31. August 2009 06:20

I watched Knowing with Nicolas Cage the other night and even though there were quite a few "why is he doing that?" moments in the movie, I enjoyed it. The classroom scene caught my attention though. John, an astrophysicist played by Cage, asks his MIT students whether the universe is "determined or random." Based on the way the scene plays out you are basically told the universe is either one of the two. If determined, every effect is the result of a chain of antecedent causes and when contrasted with randomness as depicted in the movie, you get the idea determined events are telic - that is, there is some sort of point or purpose to the chain. On the other hand, John having recently lost his wife believes the universe is random and hence pointless and absurd. "S#@! just happens," as John points out. Fair enough, this is better-than-average Hollywood philosophy - if but only slightly.

If quantum indeterminacy is ontic (that is quantum events are ontologically vague) then the universe at the micro level may in fact be "random" in the sense that future states are not wholly determined by past ones. When combined with the nonlinearity of reality one can conceive of a flexible and open universe. If on the other hand, quantum indeterminacy is merely epistemic (that is, we cannot know the outcome of a quantum event even though it could only have a specific one) then effects are wholly determined by their chains of antecedent causes. In this case then the universe might not be random even if it appears that way to us.  For example, I recently read that a gas molecule after a mere 50 collisions would have a state measurably affected by the presence of an electron at the other end of the universe (an extremely weak force across a vast distance still having an impact.) It's unlikely even the super-intellect of the aliens in the movie could predict the 50-year chain of tragic events based on initial states.

Knowing (the movie) subtly paints a false dilemma. We are told the universe is either determined, without freewill, perhaps heading towards telos (the end of some cosmic goal) - or, the universe is random, flexible, evolving and pointless. But there is an escape between the horns of this dilemma. The universe may be open and flexible AND have a purpose. Christian theology has room for this alternative. John Polkinghorne in Science and Providence puts it this way: We live in "a world of orderliness but not clockwork regularity, of potentiality without predictability, endowed with an assurance of development but with a certain openness to its actual form." This seems to me to be the way the world really is. There is room for the ecbatic "stuff happens" within the telic where "God intends."  


by Brian 30. August 2009 18:59

One notion seems to stand out amongst the web of freethought philosophy today: Traditional Christian belief is held dogmatically and it is irrational to accept such ideas without empirical evidence. My response to this...being dogmatic is sometimes a good thing! According to The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th edition 2000) Dogmatic means:

1) Relating to, characteristic of, or resulting from dogma
2) Characterized by an authoritative, arrogant assertion of unproved or unprovable principles

In a popular college text on logic[1], Copi et al writes:

One who accepts an unscientific explanation is dogmatic; the account is regarded as being absolutely true and not capable of improvement; An unscientific explanation is taken simply as true, revealed from on high, perhaps, or because 'everyone knows it is so.' An unscientific belief is held independently of anything we should regard as evidence in its favor.

The word dogma has its origin in:

Dogma - 1541 (implied in dogmatist), from L. dogma "philosophical tenet," from Gk. dogma (gen. dogmatos) "opinion, tenet," lit. "that which one thinks is true," from dokein "to seem good, think."

Three schools of thought have existed for over two millennia: those who claim to know the truth (dogmatists); those who are doubtful and suspend judgment regarding truth (skeptics) and those who believe truth is unobtainable (dogmatic skeptics.) Formerly, one holding a firm position on a matter or a philosophical tenet was called a dogmatist. Now it refers to those who authoritatively proclaim their view without evidence - especially, scientific or empirical evidence. Copi takes it a step further and suggests the perceived origin of an unscientific belief is from 'on high' or from what we sometimes call 'common knowledge.' Some freethought writings broaden the meaning to include 'irrational' and 'uncritical' thinking. In all fairness, others are using the term to describe those who rampantly assert philosophical naturalism and neo-Darwinism. So this is not to criticize any particular group for their use of the word. Instead I want to look at dogmatic thinking and how it relates to the Christian worldview and worldview in general. When used to stereotype the Christian thought process, dogmatism often implies one or more of the following characteristics:

  1. Uncritical Thinking - forming a set of belief by an epistemically unsatisfactory means excluding anything we should regard as evidence
  1. Inflexibility - holding a set of belief with an unwillingness to change his or her view in light of contrary evidence
  1. Pontification - prescribing a set of belief in an authoritative or arrogant manner

Now at face value, uncritical, inflexible and pontificated assertion is clearly not attuned to what most of us view as rational. We tend to disdain the inveterate individual who refuses to consider the so-called 'facts' as we see them. Inflexibility in the face of contrary evidence potentially leaves one mired in false belief. The problem however is Christians are often stereotyped as dogmatic without much thought being given to the matter at all.

Uncritical Thinking:
What we see is a double play against the dogmatist where belief is formed without evidence and stubbornly held in light of contrary evidence - although what is contrary to one is often disputed by another. And the sort of evidence we are talking about is the empirical or scientific kind. Empirical evidence is obtained by means of observation and sense experience. Whereas scientific evidence goes further by employing such methods as the hypothetico-deductive and tests for falsification - keeping in mind there is no universally adopted methodology of science. It seems the general consensus among the freethinkers is one ought to take an evidentialist construal of rationality. According to this view, a belief is epistemically permissible or justified if and only if it is derived from other justified belief, supported by evidence or is properly basic. Otherwise, one is flaunting their epistemic duty, behaving irrationally and not thinking critically.

In "The Ethics of Belief," William Clifford claims it is: "wrong always, everywhere, and for anyone, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence." Is Clifford right in saying this? Do I need evidence, perhaps even scientific evidence, to fulfill my epistemic duty as a rational thinker? It seems the obvious answer is no. First of all, to say one either forms belief based on scientific evidence or one forms belief uncritically is a false dichotomy. There are many things rational people believe without scientific evidence. In fact the philosophical presuppositions of science itself are not founded on scientific evidence, yet scientists are not labeled dogmatic for believing them:

  • The uniformity of nature where science presupposes physical laws apply beyond the range of direct observation and verification
  • The existence of a theory-independent external world where science presupposes it to be objectively real and not an illusion fitting the theories we devise
  • The orderly nature of the external world where science presupposes future like-causes will result in similar effects
  • That 'nothing' cannot cause 'something'
  • That simple and elegant scientific theories are preferable and more apt to reflect reality [2]
  • That scientific activity ought to be practiced with integrity and honesty

Although these presuppositions are widely accepted and reasonable enough, they are not derived from scientific evidence but are formed on the basis of induction and experience. And of course rational people believe all sorts of things without empirical evidence as well: 

  • Belief formed by our memory of past experiences
  • Belief formed through introspection
  • Belief formed by the testimony of reliable people
  • Moral beliefs such as honesty being a virtue; racism a vice, etc.
  • Belief about other's minds, feelings, and thoughts
  • Belief about the future based on induction

Whether or not any of the above classifications are epistemically justifiable is independent of the veracity of any particular instance. That is to say; simply because you may have a false belief does not necessarily mean an epistemically unacceptable means was used to arrive at it. Even those who apply scientific methods make mistakes! As strict verificationism is widely rejected in contemporary philosophy,[3] the evidentialist will likely argue justified belief does not require evidence if it is properly basic or derived from other justified belief. Since Christian faith at its foundation is not derived from other beliefs, and according to the freethinker is not supported by evidence, then it must be either properly basic or unjustified. Although I believe there is in fact a good deal of evidence supporting theism in general and Christianity in particular, we may omit this facet of the argument for the sake of simplicity as it is not necessary to justify Christian belief.

So what is a properly basic belief? One strict interpretation says: A properly basic belief is one that is self-evident, evident to the senses or incorrigible. It is known in an immediate way or where one cannot be mistaken (for example: '2+2=4' or 'I feel pain!') Most would agree with these qualifiers for proper basicality including the epistemologist Alvin Plantinga who developed his three-volume series on warranted belief. In his third volume "Warranted Christian Belief" Plantinga expands on the strict interpretation which he sees as insufficient and untenable. First off, the strict interpretation is itself not properly basic, nor is it derived from evidence, therefore, why should we believe it! Second, the strict interpretation does not accommodate the various ways rational people regularly form belief such as those listed above. Plantinga offers a definition for proper basicality with respect to performing your epistemic duty along these lines:

A belief P is properly basic with respect to justification for person S if P is the result of S having fulfilled his epistemic obligation and not produced in S on the evidential basis of other propositions.[4]

Fulfilling your epistemic obligation has to do with S honestly deliberating on P taking into account any known defeaters[5]. In other words, you do your level best to assess the veracity of P based on your background knowledge, experience, etc. along with an honest consideration of known counter beliefs. Say for example; of sound mind I consider the proposition "God created the universe." I do this in light of my experience and background knowledge; the untenable position of a universe beginning to exist without cause or reason; the weaknesses of philosophical naturalism; the awe inspired by my observation of the diversity and grandeur of life, etc. If after taking all of this into account I conclude the proposition "God created the universe" to be true, then I have fulfilled my epistemic obligation and this belief is justified for me. This is so even if empirical evidence is unavailable to me at the time. I may also be wrong in this case, but it is irrelevant to the issue of epistemic justification and the criticism of uncritical thinking. And of course I'm not trying to argue Christians (myself included) come to every belief via this route. Although God does reveal himself in nature [Psalm 19:1, Romans 1:20], "no one can say Jesus is Lord except by the power of the Holy Spirit." [1 Corinthians 12:3]...this is a topic for another post. What I am saying is Christian worldview develops and evolves over time and there is ample opportunity for one to fulfill epistemic obligation and avoid the criticism of uncritical thinking.

Now the freethinker will likely take issue with this and say something like: "Given this model one might be justified in believing just about anything." And in fact with respect to epistemic justification this is true as there is an endless sea of scenarios one might conceive where beliefs are justified. Therefore we might consider going further into the concept of warrant. Warrant is that which turns mere true belief into knowledge. In fact Plantinga's project goes on to show not only is Christian belief justified (which is trivial) but that it is also warranted. Yet such further refinement is probably unnecessary for our purposes. The real challenge herein is best delineated by what Plantinga calls the de jure and de facto objections. The de jure objection has to do with the criticism of uncritical thinking; being irrational; flaunting epistemic duty, etc. The de facto objection has to do with veracity of a belief; arguments for and against the truth of a proposition, etc. The bottom line: the de jure objection against Christian belief does not hold as we have seen. As Plantinga argues; there is no valid de jure objection to the Christian faith apart from a de facto objection. In other words, those who level a de jure charge against Christian belief do so irrationally or they smuggle in a de facto element in the process.

Finally there is what is known as the presumption of atheism. This view attempts to trump justified Christian belief by asserting the burden of proof is on the theist and one's epistemic duty is to presume atheism in the absence of evidence. The idea is often expressed by the statement: "extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence." If theism is an extraordinary claim founded on something other than evidence, then presumably we are to reject it in favor of atheism. Again, granting the false assumption there is no evidence, this tactic fails on several fronts. First of all, the atheist claim to know God does not exist is an extraordinary claim requiring more justification than the claim to know God exists.[6] Given this sort of reasoning we should perhaps presume theism! Furthermore the evidentialist needs evidence to assert the atheist-claim according to their own standard for epistemic justification. Given the lack thereof, the atheist must rely on proper basicality to justify their foundational position on God's nonexistence. Finally, absence of evidence is not necessarily evidence of absence. For example, if you suddenly found yourself without a wallet in a busy public area, you would not likely rule out the existence of a thief merely due to a lack of evidence. There may not be a thief in this case (you may find later you had misplaced your wallet) but you would not initially rule out the possibility of theft on philosophical grounds. Absence of evidence is only evidence of absence where one can show a reasonable correlation between the absence of specific evidence and nonexistence.

In an attempt to overcome the weaknesses in the presumption of atheism position, there are those like Anthony Flew who have redefined themselves to be more akin to the nontheist. The new atheist no longer positively asserts the nonexistence of God but rather claims simply to not be a theist (a-theist meaning not-theist.) But this position is hardly a position at all and such a redefinition now qualifies babies as atheists. If the new mantra is: "I'm not making an extraordinary claim, I simply do not believe," then why would these nontheists prescribe their view to others; why all of the books, websites, debates and arguing? If one honestly has no belief in P and no belief in ~P, one is really an agnostic. And if you truly have no belief on a matter then you in fact have no knowledge on the matter[7]. "Not enough evidence, God! Not enough evidence!" was Bertrand Russell's famous reply, when asked what he would say if he found himself in the presence of God after dying. Yet when asked what evidence would be sufficient, he was unable to give a sustainable answer[8]. You have to wonder if it is a desire for evidence or an obstinate heart holding the nontheist in its grip.

Next time I will tackle the criticism of inflexibility.

[1] Introduction To Logic, Irving M. Copi, Carl Cohen, 11th edition, Pearson Education, �2002 (pg 494-495)
[2] Paul Dirac was vocal regarding the superiority of parsimonious, simple and elegant theories.
[3] Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview, Moreland, Craig, InterVarsity Press 2003, pg 368
[4] See Warranted Christian Belief, Plantinga, Oxford University Press, �2000, summarized from chapters 3 and 6
[5] Defeater: is that which undermines the positive epistemic of a belief (e.g. evidence, counter-argument, experience, etc.)
[6] A non-tautological universal negative is unprovable whereas an existential affirmative is provable (ontologically speaking).
[7] As wild as this claim may seem it is true based on knowledge being warranted true belief � you have to at least have some belief or disbelief in proposition P in order to have knowledge of P.
[8]  In an interview in Look Magazine Russell was asked "Under what condition would you believe in God" to which he essentially replied, "Well, if I heard a voice from heaven and it predicted a series of things and they came to pass, then I guess I'd have to believe there's some kind of supernatural being." Yet later he retracted his statement and said the supernatural being might only be a superior being - in effect leaving the question unanswered.

Pascal's Wager

by Brian 27. August 2009 07:09

An atheist coworker once boasted he wrote a paper in school successfully refuting Pascal’s Wager as a proof of God’s existence. At the time it seemed like a strange thing to brag about. I later learned the Wager is primarily considered a pragmatic argument for believing in God rather than an ontological proof. It is often cited by theists and nontheists alike and is certainly one of the most famous arguments in the philosophy of religion. But mere “belief” in God is hardly adequate, as even the demons believe. (James 2:19) So what is Pascal’s Wager and how useful is it in Christian apologetics?

The Wager comes from the Pensées, Blaise Pascal’s unfinished written work of his thoughts. The most relevant translated text follows[1]:

"God is or He is not." But to which side shall we incline? Reason can decide nothing here. There is an infinite chaos which separated us. A game is being played at the extremity of this infinite distance where heads or tails will turn up... Which will you choose then? Let us see. Since you must choose, let us see which interests you least. You have two things to lose, the true and the good; and two things to stake, your reason and your will, your knowledge and your happiness; and your nature has two things to shun, error and misery. Your reason is no more shocked in choosing one rather than the other, since you must of necessity choose... But your happiness? Let us weigh the gain and the loss in wagering that God is... If you gain, you gain all; if you lose, you lose nothing. Wager, then, without hesitation that He is."

Considered alongside his other writings, it is not exactly clear what Pascal meant by “reason can decide nothing here.” Even though Pascal disdained philosophical arguments for God’s existence, he embraced Christian evidences, such as evidence for Christ’s resurrection[2]. Nevertheless, the Wager argument stands on its own and is commonly expressed in the following payoff matrix:

  1. I believe in God
    1. God exists = maximal gain
    2. God does not exist = minimal loss
  2. I do not believe in God
    1. God exists = maximal loss
    2. God does not exist = minimal gain

According to decision theory, rationality requires you perform the action of maximum expected utility. Utility is computed by multiplying the mutually exclusive outcomes by the subjective probability of each of the two states’ obtaining and adding the values together. Taking an agnostic position; let us assume for the moment the probability God exists is 0.5 and assign somewhat conservative values[3] of maximal=100 (payoff/penalty if God exists) and minimal =1 (payoff/penalty if God does not exist)…

In the case of “I believe in God”:
(100 * 0.5) + (-1 * 0.5) = 45.5

In the case of “I do not believe in God”
(-100 * 0.5) + (1 * 0.5) = -45.5

It is clear from the above example that “believing” has a better payoff than “not believing.” And note the payoff for believing over not believing increases proportionally with the difference between maximal and minimal outcome values - assuming payoff and penalty are at equal and opposites ends. Sometimes the Wager is expressed using infinite outcome value in place of maximal due to the eternal nature of either states obtaining. This drives the payoff to infinite positive and negative utility leaving you with a no-brainer. But then infinite values raise issues in standard decision theory and can be avoided by instead selecting arbitrarily large finite values.

Common Objections
  1. The subjective utilities vary from person to person: This is illustrated by the attitude, “I wouldn’t be happy in heaven with all of those harp players anyway.” In other words, if Heaven is not appealing and Hell does not sound too bad, then the resulting payoff/penalties are not as divergent. If you also believe the existence of God has a low probability, then the payoff might even be greater if you choose not believe. However, assuming you are not much better off in Heaven than in Hell is a baseless and reckless assumption. From a Christian perspective; Heaven is eternal joy in the presence of God and Hell is eternal separation from God where there will be “weeping and gnashing of teeth.” (Luke 13:28) The disparity between minimal and maximal is more likely to be unfathomably great if Heaven and Hell exist. If you are going to take the Wager seriously then it would be wise to err on the side of caution and assume the disparity in outcome between Heaven and Hell is great. 
  2. Low probability God exists: Nontheists who believe the probability God exists is very low (near zero) will claim the payoff for believing isn’t very compelling. Although the subjective outcome values for maximal and minimal swamp[4] out low probability for all but the hardened atheist, it is true the Wager’s force is weakened by low probability. The argument is clearly more compelling to the honest agnostic. 
  3. Zero probability that God exists: The proposition “God does not exist” is not a self-evident brute fact with absolute certainty. Hence zero probability is not a valid objection. 
  4. The many-gods objection: This is based on the idea that there is a plurality of deities to choose from and where only one choice is likely to be true. This creates a disjunction between Christianity, Islamism, Judaism, Mormonism, etc. If Allah is the true God instead of the Christian God, then choosing to believe as a Christian is practically equivalent to choosing not to believe. In other words, the “God does not exist” column is subdivided into multiple wrong-choice columns. However, in a decision-theoretic context, we are justified in ignoring states which have a remotely small probability of obtaining[5]. In other words, given my background knowledge, I can reasonably reject Odin, Zeus and Shiva and limit my choices to a small number of live options. Given a limited number of plausible choices, the outcome values again swamp the payoff, compelling one to make a choice to believe – even if it is potentially the wrong choice.

A Christian Perspective
The standard payoff matrix does not reflect the Christian perspective. To begin with, mere belief in the existence of God does not result in a maximal gain. It is a relationship with God through Jesus Christ that matters. Furthermore, the idea the Christian potentially suffers a minimal loss in this life while the unbeliever enjoys minimal gain is backward in the general sense. As one who has been on both sides of the fence, I can attest to the fact the Christian life in the here and now has more to offer than the life of the unbeliever. Although I personally find it more demanding, it is also more rewarding. In light of this, the standard payoff matrix could be revised as follows:

  1. I accept Jesus Christ as Savior
    1. God raised Jesus from the dead = maximal gain
    2. Jesus did not rise from the dead = minimal gain
  2. I reject Jesus Christ as Savior
    1. God raised Jesus from the dead = maximal loss
    2. Jesus did not rise from the dead = minimal loss

According to this revised version, it seems obvious which route results in maximum utility. Unfortunately, there is a slight problem with this argument given the many-gods objection I mentioned. If God did not raise Jesus from the dead, then the Christian potentially suffers maximal loss given another ultimate reality obtains. For example, Allah sends me to Hell for believing in Jesus would result in a maximal loss, not minimal gain. The Bible comes at this from another angle within the context of the Law: (i.e. Judaic Law) “And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins. 18Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ are lost. 19If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are to be pitied more than all men.” (1 Corinthians 15:17-19 NIV) On the other hand, if you have narrowed down your live options to Christianity and atheism, then the revised matrix is sound and the pragmatic force of the argument remains strong.

The Bottom Line
Yet having shown greater utility obtained by believing in anything seems to have very little effect on most of us. Upon first hearing of Pascal’s Wager, I must admit I was unmoved. It may have pragmatic force, but it lacks epistemic force. Even given a valuable payoff, how successful have you been in forcing yourself to believe in anything solely based on the reward? What if I agreed to give you $1,000,000 to believe there are ruins of an ancient civilization on Mars where our NASA probe is about to land (which has some minimal plausibility) and a kick in the shin if you are wrong. Decision theory might dictate in this case you should believe. Yet it is obvious, utility alone cannot form an honest belief. As C. S. Lewis wrote: “If Christianity is untrue, then no honest man will want to believe it, however helpful it might be: if it is true, every honest man will want to believe it, even if it gives him no help at all.” There simply is no direct path from utility to honest belief. But do not lose heart; it seems Pascal’s Wager remains relevant to the Christian apologist. Although it is unlikely to convince a nontheist to submit his or her will to God, it ought to compel an honest agnostic to delve deeper into eternal matters and consider sources leading to maximum utility. Therefore,

The Wager should provide great impetus for the honest agnostic to seek out the Truth. The honest agnostic is equally committed to the belief in proposition P (God exists) and ~P (God does not exist.) However, many agnostics typically live their lives like atheists. They may claim no prevailing belief either way due to a variety of reasons; lack of knowledge or concern, doubt, etc., but their lives are lived as if God does not exist. So in effect, the agnostic has already chosen the route of minimal utility. Upon reflection, the Wager should awaken the conscious and pique the interest of the honest agnostic. After all, if you are galloping down the road to Hell wearing horse blinders, the Wager should compel you to take them off and look around a bit. Of course, some agnostics have already considered these matters and remain unconvinced.

Nevertheless, we should not strive to believe in the option of minimal utility. The simple truth is; theists and nontheists alike function to some degree on faith. No worldview is without epistemic tension. I know from personal experience anyone who claims to be an atheist with absolute certainty in their position is being dishonest – either openly or to themselves. The Christian is in the same boat. I have great certainty and confidence in my faith when I am so moved by the Holy Spirit. Other times my faith perseveres with a degree of tension. Given the reality of epistemic tension in all substantive worldview, it is not uncommon for us to pursue those things strengthening our belief and avoid those which undermine it. The authors we prefer are often the ones we agree with. The arguments carrying the most weight are often the ones reinforcing our view of things. Even though honest investigation requires one consider alternate sources and viewpoints, the Wager argument suggests we ought not to prefer sources leading to the minimal utility. So if you have already read Hume and Dawkins, now is a good time to pick up a Bible.

[1] 1910 Trotter translation

[2] Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview, Moreland, Craig, 2003, pg. 160

[3] The outcome values here have only relational meaning: In the case of maximal=100 and minimal=1, you are 100 times better off (however measured) if the maximal outcome obtains

[4] Overwhelming magnitude X, such that the resultant is primarily derived from X

[5] Ibid

About the author

I am a Christian, husband, father of two daughters, a partner and lead architect of EasyTerritory, armchair apologist and philosopher, writer of hand-crafted electronic music, avid kiteboarder and a kid around anything that flies (rockets, planes, copters, boomerangs)

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