Dogmatism

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.

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About the author

I am a Christian, husband, father of two daughters, an owner of ISC, lead architect of MapDotNet, armchair apologist and philosopher, writer of hand-crafted electronic music, and a kid around anything that flies (rockets, planes, copters, boomerangs, hot air baloons, lawn furniture)

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