Doxastic biases and arguments for religion (and other things)

Helen De Cruz has the results of a fascinating survey on how various arguments for and against the existence of God are treated by philosophers… according to their general stance – atheist, agnostic, or theist. Basically it considers not whether people think the arguments are right (a common mistake scientists make about philosophical arguments) but whether they think they are strong. An argument is strong if, given that the premises are true, the conclusion is made very probably true or correct. Of course a philosopher can think that a strong argument is nevertheless incorrect or that its premises are false. If you give a strong argument that the universe doesn’t exist, I might go looking for the error in your argument given the (ahem) reality check I can perform on it, but I might appreciate the subtlety and expertise of the argument the way a high diver might appreciate a flubbed difficult dive that almost worked.

What De Cruz discovered, though, is more interesting: there is a difference in the way that atheists, agnostic and theists treat the different types of argument (e.g., arguments from miracles, evil or morality). In one sense this is unsurprising: one would not be an atheist if one thought many of the arguments for God were strong, and one would not be a theist if one thought the arguments against God were strong. But she shows that atheists think arguments against God are stronger (note again: not right) than agnostics and they than theists. Likewise, theists think arguments for God are stronger than agnostics and they than atheists. This raises an interesting question, first raised by Jennifer Faust [pdf]: do we evaluate the strength of arguments based on our prior doxastic biases? This means, do we choose to accept arguments (which are supposed to be neutral and rationally compelling) based on what we already are inclined to believe?

There is ( as my correspondent Jocelyn Stoller has shown me) a stack of literature about the height of a large oak tree on cognitive bias, but this is somewhat more restricted a problem. It goes to the role of reason itself. We are told that a reasonable (or rational, but that word is too loaded) person will be convinced by a strong or sound argument that is based upon shared premises. This is the basis of teaching critical thinking and logic. Our entire educational system rests upon it. Is it true?

It seems that when one is already committed strongly to (has a high degree of confidence in, or subjective probability assigned to) some prior belief, any argument that challenges this conclusion will be deprecated, even if the argument is strong and the premises agreed upon. So theists call those who dispute arguments for God cognitively deficient and atheist return the favour in reverse (citations in Faust’s paper). This is in general what I think of as the “my opponent is not fully human” strategy: if you just can’t see that what I believe is true, there must be something wrong with you. You are irrational, or have some spiritual, psychological or moral lack. This is what Christians so often state outright that unbelievers are unable to experience the full range of human emotions and moral actions, and the atheists (less often) declare that Christians are child-abusers and ignorant unreasoning fools. Agnostics, being a group defined not only by what they don’t believe but also by what they don’t think they can declare on, are not so exclusivist, or so I would like to think. If you aren’t an agnostic, there must be something wrong with you.

We also see these doxastic biases in debates to do with politics – climate change, abortion, welfare and all the other high-emotion arousal topics of human social interactions. People are rarely argued into or out of their commitments. I was one of the Christians argued (by Barth, Thielicke, Lewis and Schaeffer) into religion (and I argued myself out of it as well), but I was a very rare exception. Most people were born into their religion, or converted through high emotional arousal. In that respect religion is a lot like one’s choice of operating system.

What does this mean for a rational society? What does this mean for reasoning? On the face of it, we might be despondent about either possibility, but I like to think of it this way: we are not computers or Turing machines. We are organisms that evolved in a jury-rigged fashion, and we do things well enough to get by. Our cognitive skills are natively quite good, but they have some biases that are either fit in the past, or are side-effects of capacities that are fit. In evolutionary contexts we tolerate a lot of false positives and false negatives when they don’t result in our being dead before we pass them on to Junior.

Consequently the acquisition and teaching of logical reasoning is not something we do natively. Kant thought otherwise:

Everything in nature, whether in the animate or inanimate world, takes place according to rules, although we do not always know these rules. Water falls according to laws of gravity, and in animals locomotion also takes place according to rules. The fish in the water, the bird in the air, moves according to rules. All nature, indeed, is nothing but a combination of phenomena which follow rules; and nowhere is there any irregularity. When we think we find any such, we can only say that the rules are unknown.

The exercise of our own faculties takes place also according to certain rules, which we follow at first unconsciously, until by a long-continued use of our faculties we attain the knowledge of them, and at last make them so familiar, that it costs us much trouble to think of them in abstracto. Thus, ex. gr. general grammar is the form of language in general. One may speak, however, without knowing grammar, and he who speaks without knowing it has really a grammar, and speaks according to rules of which, however, he is not aware.

Now, like all our faculties, the understanding, in particular, is governed in its actions by rules which we can investigate. Nay, the understanding is to be regarded as the source and faculty of conceiving rules in general. For just as the sensibility is the faculty of intuitions, so the understanding is the faculty of thinking, that is, of bringing the ideas of sense under rules. It desires, therefore, to seek for rules, and is satisfied when it has found them. We ask, then, since the understanding is the source of rules, What rules does it follow itself ? For there can be no doubt that we cannot think or use our understanding otherwise than according to certain rules. Now these rules, again, we may make a separate object of thought, that is, we can conceive them, without their application, or in abstracto. What now are these rules ?

He thinks that the laws of thought and understanding are the laws of logic, a view that was most popular in the mid-nineteenth century. The problem is that we are trying to run a computer program on an abacus made of straw, or more exactly a discrete Turing machine on a wet chemical network of noisy signalling. It is, in short, a skill that must be learned and practised rather than being, Spocklike*, something that we do natively. Like any such skill that is not native, whether it is plumbing or reading, it takes a lot to impart this skill to developing children. I suspect it is nearly impossible to teach it to an adult who does not already have it.

We do not, I think, start by following logical rules of reasoning unconsciously as Kant thought. Nor is logic like the grammar of language if by that he means we know the rules without being taught explicitly. Reasoning is a social skill that has to be taught (like, pace Chomsky and Pinker, language). This is why fields of philosophy like philosophy of religion are so barren: mostly what is happening is not reasoning but cheerleading. A philosopher, who appreciates subtle arguments and enjoys deconstructing and examining them, will find a Plantinga or a Swinburne fascinating, but they are unlikely to convince that philosopher. Arguments about religion, like those about climate change, evolution or choice of Windows over Mac or Linux, are fruitless in ground level doxastic change.


Faust, Jennifer. 2008. Can religious arguments persuade? In Ethics of Belief: Essays in Tribute to D.Z. Phillips, edited by E. T. Long and P. Horn: Springer Netherlands:71-86

*Yes, I know Vulcans had to train to be impassive. But not logical.

75 thoughts on “Doxastic biases and arguments for religion (and other things)

  1. Fantastic post! I wonder (being sort of in the middle of re-entering biology, and having a lot of fun with it) how we perceive science itself when we are introduced to it. I started telling people I wanted to be a marine biologist when I decided “diver” was too immature a career goal, at age 6 or 7, but I didn’t know what marine biologists did for many years after.


  2. Mercier & Sperber have an interestingly different view about reasoning — it comes naturally, but is designed for producing reason’s for one’s pre-existing views (confirmation bias) and evaluating *other people’s* views (epistemic vigilance). They find that a lot of psychology data fits their theory (children exhibit the pattern at an early age, and it stubbornly obtains in adults):


    1. I think they are coming at the issue from a different tack, where “reasoning” is a cognitive rather than formal process. In philosophy, to reason is to follow a logical argument critically from premises to conclusion, and if it works, to accept (“believe”) the conclusion as true as well as warranted. In cognitive science, to reason is to adapt one’s belief set individually to the environment. These aren’t quite the same thing, although they are related. I am not critiquing the cognitive aspect here – although as you say there is a hell of a lot of confirmation bias involved (which makes sense, evolutionarily – it takes time and trial and error to change beliefs – if you can live with the ones you have, don’t change them), Instead I am asking if reasoning in the logical, formal, or philosophical sense is effective, and if so, at what.


  3. John, you write “In philosophy, to reason is to follow a logical argument critically from premises to conclusion.” That strikes me as a rather narrow notion of reason. Is a philosopher not reasoning if she makes an intelligent judgment as to the relevance of an issue or identifies a pattern in a trandisciplinary body of phenomena? Is it possible to make sense of or, for that matter, give a damn about philosophy if it was essentially three thousand years of logic chopping? Philosophers should be logical, just as historians should be mindful of literal truth; but do these norms define the respective subjects or even cast a great deal of light on what’s important about ‘em?

    Maybe I’m just channeling my old Medieval Philosophy prof, who always insisted that ratio not be confused with intellectus.


    1. Hmm, I’m not sure I do what you think I have done. I said that reasoning in philosophy is to follow an argument. Of course there is also understanding, pattern recognition, and belief revision etc. Moreover your final comment indicates you think I asserted that reasoning of this kind is all there is to philosophy, which I neither said nor think. Physicists and biologists, too, if they work at it like anyone else, can be logical.


  4. We have extrinsic reasons for thinking that theists and agnostics are biased in favor of theistic arguments in ways that atheists are not biased in opposition.

    For one thing, converts to religion essentially never cite arguments as the reason for their conversion; rather, they recount emotional crises, or emotional experiences that they construed in revelatory terms, and they credit these with their change in belief. This is true even with the conversion stories of people like philosopher William Lane Craig (recounting the “deep valley of despair” traveled through until he sat next to a pretty Christian girl, which led to his spiritual awakening) or evolutionary biologist Francis Collins (who apparently thinks that “seriously consider[ing] the evidence for and against belief” involves consulting religious texts, C.S. Lewis, and the advice of a local Methodist minister).

    On the other hand, apostates, in explaining their loss of faith, characteristically do cite straightforward, cognitive reasons for their loss of faith—say, their increasing appreciation of science, say; or the fact that it just dawned on them how self-contradictory were the religious ideas taught to them when they were younger.

    Meanwhile, ask agnostics whether they would like to believe in an all-loving god (or better yet, a delightful eternal afterlife reunited with their friends and family), and most will probably say, Well, of course.

    And then ask, well, anyone (atheists included) whether they particularly like the idea that they and all of their loved ones will be annihilated at death. I’m going out on a limb here and say that most will probably say, Not so much.

    In other words, almost everyone—including most atheists—would prefer that theism (nice theism, of course) were true. Which ironically suggests that if anything, the atheists in these polls are probably overestimating the quality of the arguments for God!


    1. Actually I find that I like a world in which God doesn’t play any kind of role much more than I liked the world in which angels and demons controlled my every move and I was on the precipice of eternal hell. And I do not estimate the arguments as particularly strong in either direction. But then, I am an Epicurean…


      1. The questions I asked weren’t actually related to whether God plays a role in the world. And I implicitly deprecated the idea of Hell (with the qualification that the theism be “nice”).

        In any case, as I said “most people”—among whom I think you’ll agree Epicureans are few and far between.


        1. Michael — Is there some general reason we should be any less, or somehow differently, skeptical toward the stories formerly pious folks tell about what supposedly caused their apostasy than we are towards the stuff the pious tell about the source(s) and/or inner goings-on of their condition?


          1. Sorry Rob, didn’t mean to leave you hanging; just didn’t see your comment.

            No, I don’t see any general reason to treat either as more reliable than the other. And in fact my argument relies on taking the testimonials of both pious and impious witnesses at face value.


      2. Hmm:
        1. Most Christians do not believe that angels and demons completely control every human move.
        2. Many ancient and modern Christians do not hold to Augustine’s/Calvin’s compatibilism.
        3. Many ancient and modern Christians do not hold to an inescapable hell, but yes, most official modern Christian doctrine says that hell is inescapable.


        1. Most don’t – I did. When that hermeneutic bubble burst, however, I lost access to the priors that made the rest of Christianity viable for me, and so I fell back on my acceptance of the physical world. I have never seen a need for anything else (not even modal realism!); and I am much happier for it.


          1. Hmm, what appears odd to me is that you say Barth helped to temporarily convince you into Christianity, but evidently your former Christian rigidness did not emulate Barth’s flexibility, too bad (at least from my perspective).

            Also, perhaps I misunderstand modal realism, but does rejecting modal realism imply rejecting all multiverse hypotheses with an infinite number of verses?

            And apart from rejecting rigid Christian views that I also reject, why is your agnosticism happier than your former theism?


            1. I read that last as “an infinite number of verses [as in drinking song]“. I think I remember that night. It was at Cantor’s Hotel, if memory serves. “This is the song that never ends…” I recall David Lewis doing most of the singing.

              I was at one time quite influenced by Barth’s ideas regarding salvation. That was not my period of evangelical rigidity. Nor was Barth a reason to stay, once I had called into question the basic foundations of faith. Barth required some basic acts of faith. If they were undercut, then the rest did not follow, either evangelical hardline theology, or the more open ended theology of the Kirchliche Dogmatik. One way or the other, once that bubble is burst, you can’t reconstruct it rationally.


              1. No, another way to saying what I meant by “rejecting all multiverse hypotheses with an infinite number of verses” is “rejecting all multiverse hypotheses with an infinite number of quasi-universes.” Let me ask this again, does rejecting modal realism imply rejecting all multiverse hypotheses with an infinite number of quasi-universes?

                Hmm, if by “rational” you mean “reasonable,” then I suppose that I constructed a reasonable model of theism.


              2. I don’t have an opinion about physical multiverse hypotheses. Modal realism is about possible worlds, which is a logical-metaphysical argument. I’m not a modal realist, but that’s like a car driver not being in favour of electrical cars – I don’t know enough to be authoritative.


            2. Oh, and on happiness – I have a whole world of troubles that no longer matter to me. Much simpler and less stressful. Not worrying about whether I am saved or not (because the question no longer makes the slightest sense to me) means I can worry about important things, like the nature of rational argument and whether species have essences.


              1. Well, I understand that worrying about being saved or not while believing in Augustine’s vision of hell would be unnerving and unproductive. And to save you further trouble in your philosophical quests, I let you in on the fact that species have essentials that depend upon the definition of the species. Hmm, I guess that makes me relativist in regards to species essence. : -)


              2. I also wanted to add that even many Christians who believe in inescapable Augustinian hell do not worry about itfor themselves day in and day out.


    2. You are projecting. I am an atheist who knows lots of other atheists. We have had many occasions to talk about atheism and religion and during those discussions I have never heard any of them wish for eternal life with or w/o friends and family. We have a tendency to be pragmatic about this being our one and only life, followed by our inevitable death.


  5. Why does this study come across as “DUH”, “no kidding”, or “isn’t that what you would expect”. How could it be surprising that people see arguments that support beliefs opposing their own as weak. “Believing is Seeing.” Now some of this has to do with the starting premises within an argument in that they each set of beliefs starts of with divergent views on the basic premises and so we tend to assess the strength of the argument based on them. Probably more significantly I feel it is the fact that humans are not inherently logical/rational (or more specifically; reason and logic are only one of a plethora of methods (emotion, intuition, group think, etc.) we humans use to make decisions about our world) that will subconsciousness bias our beliefs about opposing arguments. I suspect that even the most disciplined and rational mind will be biased towards their own belief to some degree.


    1. Several things are interesting about this study beyond DUH. One is that these are philosophers, or at least philosophically trained people. They are either well trained in supposedly reasonable thinking, or they are those who can do this already and survive a philosophy degree. Another is that we might expect all kinds of things but an empirical study is to be welcomed, as it may disconfirm what is supposed to be obvious. The third is that the effect is marked. I would not have expected atheists and agnostics to vary as much as they do.

      Of course we still have issues, and a proper study, rather than one self-selected, better defined options, and so forth, would be preferable, but I will take whatever data is available.


  6. Admittedly my Duh comes from my own bias that the results of this study should be self evident to any reasonably rational mind. I definitely wasn’t saying that the study has no value for it confirms my belief that philosophers are indeed merely human and subject to all the same types of biases and irrationality as everyone.


  7. Hi John,
    Thanks for this great discussion on the results of my survey! I know there are some issues of self-selection (I tried overcoming those by posting widely, e.g., also at Philos-L, but given that participation is voluntary, there is no way to eliminate it). The high percentage of theists and of philosophers of religion (this correlates quite strongly, by the way, I’ve included a short discussion of this in the original post at NewApps and Prosblogion) clearly indicates that some self-selection is at work. Nevertheless, I think we went from no data other than intuitions to some interesting data – many people were surprised about the results for the cosmological argument, for example. This was something I did not see coming. Other things were indeed less surprising, such as the assessment of the argument from evil. Interesting also are differences not only between how theists and atheists value the arguments overall, but how they differ in valuing particular arguments. Intriguingly, atheists find the argument from religious experience relatively stronger than theists – i.e., it’s on second place of argument for God’s existence in the case of the atheists, but only on place 5 for theists.


    1. I wasn’t being critical: within the boundaries of the possible, this is a fine study. I should have discussed the detail, but I had other fish to fry and used your piece as a starting point for a rant…

      One thing that surprised me was that agnostics did not score lower than both theists and atheists. After all, the reason we are agnostics is that we deprecate arguments in both directions as being weak, surely?


  8. This means, do we choose to accept arguments (which are supposed to be neutral and rationally compelling) based on what we already are inclined to believe?

    Often it seems to be the social support group, more than prior belief, that affects what we accept.

    We are told that a reasonable (or rational, but that word is too loaded) person will be convinced by a strong or sound argument that is based upon shared premises. This is the basis of teaching critical thinking and logic. Our entire educational system rests upon it. Is it true?

    I’m inclined to think that’s a misunderstanding of education. And I say that as an educator.

    It seems that when one is already committed strongly to (has a high degree of confidence in, or subjective probability assigned to) some prior belief, any argument that challenges this conclusion will be deprecated, even if the argument is strong and the premises agreed upon.

    The obvious conclusion is that one should eschew strong commitment to belief. And that’s why the attempt to characterize knowledge in terms of belief, as is commonly done within epistemology, is so seriously mistaken.

    In my experience, a strong argument with agreed premises is challenging. And not just challenging to me, but to others. At least, that is my experience. Where there is disagreement, and in particular where there is disagreement even after presenting strong argument, the disagreement is usually over the premises. It’s important here that premises are not merely meaningless pencil marks on paper. The premises encompass the meanings of the various terms used, and the disagreement over premises is often in the form of disagreements over meanings.

    Getting back to that education issue – it seems to me that the importance of strong arguments in the classroom is not to convince the student of the conclusion, but to expose the student to the fine nuances of meaning that are being assumed by that argument. For it is the meanings, the mastery of concepts, that is most valuable to the students. The beliefs can be written in his note booked, temporarily remembered in a cram session just before the exam, then forgotten. But the meanings and concepts will stay with the student for far longer, and are at the heart of the knowledge that the student is acquiring.


    1. Neil, I do agree with you on several points here. I was using Helen’s piece as a springboard to confound rationalist expectations. I think most education that is not teaching simple techniques by imitation is about analysis, but there is a reasoning component too, and that must be learned, however imperfectly.

      I think, however (and we’ve had this chat before) that it goes to strengthen the view that knowledge is a species of belief, because knowledge is subject to the imperfections, vagaries and exigencies of belief, in this case as in others. It is hard to get knowledge, and simple mechanical logical procedures won’t get it for you, contrary to the 19th century ideal.


  9. John, I agree with you that reasoning and critical thinking are skills that have to be taught. Problem is, I don’t know how to teach these skills effectively and neither to a lot of other instructors.

    I used to think that a first year course in logic should be mandatory for all university students. That course should be taught by philosophers who are supposed to be the experts. Now you tell me that philosophers have the same biases and prejudices as everyone else!

    What should we do now?


    1. Well several things. Glad you asked…

      1. Do not despair. The evidence – Helen’s piece as well as other studies – is that philosophers do tend to be better at critical reasoning upon graduation than most. I suspect this is the result of a selection process, but as a class we can generally see better reasoning skills among (analytic) philosophers than comparable professions [I have a feeling some of the hard sciences will also be quite good].

      2. There are techniques that show a considerable impact, as much as >1SD, on critical thinking. One that the project I am involved in at present is investigating, is the use of peer instruction for argument mapping techniques.

      3. We live in a world of fallibilist epistemologies and propaedeutics. Learn to compensate… The world of perfect techniques and knowledge is over that way.


  10. “do we evaluate the strength of arguments based on our prior doxastic biases?”

    Evaluate how weak it is and where the faults may lie I think by working out where they come from, how they are formed. One of the first things that passed through my mind when I started reading you’re blog was what makes me so strongly willing to accept an evolutionary perspective on culture?

    I spent a great deal of time looking at the archaeological arguments where it first appeared on my radar and carefully worked out how it had developed .

    I have a tendency to suffer problems with anxiety and low self esteem , such a thing is useful here however as my tendency is to run strongly with the notion that I am wrong and constantly look for ways of proving that ‘fact.’

    But I was also lucky in that I was trained in a tiny class by a top class historian who had failed his p.h.d. He was one of two academics (the other was his former student) I have met in a class room who allowed you to explore you’re own ideas, make you’re own mistakes and engage critically with what you actually thought and believed rather than simply reflecting his position. Most unusual in the way he encouraged and tolerated difference.

    Its massively helpful in regard to sorting out you’re own biases rather than being forced to potentially accept someone else’s uncritically in order to jump through academic hoops and get that piece of paper to hang on the wall.


  11. p.s I deal with my own atheist bias toward studying the history of the church by carefully reading historians who I know have a very different bias.


  12. I am a product of my environment and that is one that taught me to be critical and question myself, the staff of and the institution I was working in and I was strongly encouraged not to accept the views of experts or believe everything they had to say.

    I have no faith when it comes to people pointing at a piece of paper on the wall and asking me not to question what they are saying (an event which did literally occur more than once) in my experience on it’s own it means very little.


  13. I have been thinking. Points do not really exist, so then there could be no points of time. And if there are no points of time, then there is no spacetime continuum. But then again, if there is no spacetime continuum, then how could I be thinking this?


        1. So tell me Dr Zeno, when did you start thinking this?

          Around 2001 in State College, PA, USA. : -)

          Thanks. Very constructive and helpfull.


      1. I referred to my first memory of thinking about the evident paradox of so-called non-dimensional points in the spacetime continuum. In some sense, the present is a literally infinitely small or non-dimensional point in the spacetime continuum, so that could make the present look nonexistent. But a reality check and empirical observations of sequences of events tells me that the present exists, regardless that I cannot completely define the present. Is that a little clearer?


  14. p.p.s John I am reading Jack Zipes Fairy Tales and the Art of Subversion at the moment. The introduction offers a useful way of looking at some aspects of this.

    Academic cheer-leading does not look very different in some regards and it often uses directly borrowed methods from this form of narrative, which even at it’s most die hard and utopian subverts itself and raises empirical questions as such things “test the correlation between real social practices and imaginative possibility that can be realized but are thwarted in our every day interactions.” Discontent leads to further narrative some will seek to subvert some to affirm but as long as discontent is felt with the learning process the fairy story and the cheer leader is not going to go away.

    I would certainly want to temper Jennifer Faust’s argument in some ways by looking at other forms of belief and language use (fairy tales or wonder tales are by and large secular, a point often seriously misunderstood by scientists and some philosophers)


  15. I am interested in your comment regarding agnostics vs atheists and theists. There seem to be two aspects to agnosticism (as you state or at least imply); “Agnostics, being a group defined not only by what they don’t believe but also by what they don’t think they can declare on, ….”. One aspect is one’s belief, or lack of it (for agnostics), and the second is given by the second part of that quote and a dictionary definition of agnostic(noun) as “a person who holds that the existence of the ultimate cause, as God, and the essential nature of things are unknown and unknowable, ….”.

    I may be confused here but it seems to me that one can completely agree with the second aspect, yet at the same time believe completely that there is no such thing as a god. I would have thought that the whole point of a belief (or faith) is that it doesn’t need proof or evidence.

    So my question is, is it possible to be both agnostic and atheist at the same time; is agnostic even on the same continuum between theist and atheist.


  16. If we want to understand the limits of reasoning and rationality we need to explore how a human mind reconstructs outside reality, how we create systems of meaning and how we get attached to these systems.

    To me, this is a question of the interconnected nature of thought, emotion, perception, memory and imagination (within a social neuroscience and developmental context).

    I am working on a two-part comment reviewing some of these issues, in relation to this post, which I will attach shortly.


  17. Sorry,
    I’m not sure whether the term “strong” is really that unambiguous. I learned to know what you call a “strong” argument as a “valid” one. That is, an argument is valid if the conclusion follows necessarily, given that all premises are true.

    What if the respondents were just compounding their answers because they’d value as “weak” both arguments they regarded as invalid and arguments they doubted the premises of?

    Intuitively, I’d have guessed that atheists generally tend to doubt the premises of theists and vice verse. If they therefore responded that the opponent’s arguments are weak, then “strong” would not be synonymous with valid.


    1. A valid argument is one that preserves truth from premises to conclusion. A strong argument is one that mostly does – it might be a Bayesian likelihood that is strong, or it might be a probability that is inferred, or it might be some doxastic strength of another kind.

      A valid argument cannot conclude that a conclusion is false if the premises are true. But a strong argument can do, because the inference is probabilistic. What counts as a strong argument can be rather subjective, depending on the evaluation by the inferrer of the strength (likelihood) of the premises, and the degree to which the argument preserves that strength.


      1. John,
        thanks for clarifying. But it seems as though the concept of the strength of an argumend does indeed compound two different things, namely the likelihood of the premises and the degree to which the argument following on the premises preserves that.

        P.S.: So what was doxastic again?.


  18. I don’t really know quite what to make of this post, especially coming from a broad-minded philosopher. I have several quibbles.

    A general point: philosophers of science seem to (unsubstantiated generalisation!) grumble that scientists don’t learn enough about the philosophy of science. Yet the reflected form of the grumble, that philosophers don’t learn enough about the science of philosophy doesn’t seem to enter their heads! Isn’t that an amazing bit of blindness or bias? (And I don’t mean that philosophers of science don’t learn about the science of philosophy, but all philosophers.)

    Of course people don’t make decisions rationally using strong or weak arguments! Knowing a bit of the science of philosophy would tell any philosopher that!

    In science, the power of the scientific method is that it allows a scientist to develop hypotheses however s/he wants, whether it be by deep thought about patterns in data or smoke signals from his spirit guide during dreams, but science provides a rigorous framework for testing those ideas by measuring them against The Real World.

    Of course nobody investigates skeptically evidence that supports their expectations in the same way as they would look for problems in evidence against it. When my car starts first time in the morning, I don’t ask “what is right with it now?”, I just drive away. Would you expect philosophers to be any different?

    On confirmation bias: the only motivation to develop detailed arguments in support of one’s conclusion is when one expects those arguments to be tested, either by other philosophers, or, perhaps, in a law court. But for personal belief – why bother? Why would anybody expect otherwise?

    There’s a hint of a snarky “they don’t understand us” in your description of strong and weak arguments as though us non-philosophers Don’t Get It. Perhaps we do. An argument that is strong but founded on untrue premises is, for practical purposes, valueless to most of us, while philosophers give it undue value as it is judged on its efficacy for mental and verbal gymnastics, not on value. It’s a mental analogue of bodybuilding – huge muscles which are only for show to other afficionados. For example, as an atheist, I couldn’t give a toss about strong or weak arguments about the nature of gods or any that start “if gods exist…” because there aren’t any gods, so as t’internet says “Your Argument Is Invalid”. At this point I hear a gentle background burble of “you don’t get it!” but I say “fact, no gods, evidence none, nature of religion easy to explain sociologically and psychologically, prove some basis to your religion to at least a minimal degree of plausibility before you expect me to waste my time on your nonsense”. Otherwise one is expected to refute everything, such as nonsense about Obama being born in Kenya, psychic phenomena, homeopathy, etc. Show me!

    I agree with your last paragraph, though I am disappointed in Kant if he really thought that we unconsciously followed rules of logical reasoning (no, I have never sat down and read Kant properly, genetics is much more interesting!), because that is clearly an absurd view. We use our emotional framework to make most decisions, and any logical reasoning (that comes more slowly afterwards) has to be strong to overturn emotion. And how do we actually reason? Mainly by pattern-matching; the strength of the human mind is abstracting those patterns to make the pattern-matching more powerful than (for example) the simpler associative reasoning used by most other mammals. That is, we can extrapolate “event A and event B together frequently occurs with event C” (where C is of interest, food, sex, fight, whatever) to a more powerful “superclass(event A) and superclass(event B) frequently leads to superclass(event C)”.

    Philosophers who think this is not how their minds are working, who think they use reasoning to get to their conclusions are deluded. Reasoning is a post-processing exercise, it is a tool for demonstrating and testing conclusions, rarely is it the mechanism for deriving those conclusions.

    I have seen a post on Crooked Timber saying “Yay! Philosophy students are most intelligent!” (or words to that effect). That might be correct as far as the people are concerned, but the subject is still stuck pretty much where it was in medieval times. How so? Well, go and look at a description of the components and interactions of the mammalian immune system or any other bit of modern biology and compare that with the state of philosophy – what have you in comparison? – bickering about whether to push a fat man off a bridge to stop a train! But it’s not just biology that’s light years ahead of philosophy – where are your versions of digital electronics, space flight, reinforced concrete, code-breaking, sun block creams, pizza, movies, the periodic table, quarks?

    John Searle (like him or not!) did a good job a couple of decades ago trying to demonstrate the value of philosophy in the big wide world by engaging with real problems. Philosophy needs to do that if it is to emerge from its backwater of mental bodybuilding competitions.

    Oh, by the way, I am very much in favour of kids at school doing some basic philosophy, to learn how to think things through. Good reasoning is important, to help save us from bad decisions.


  19. “To me, this is a question of the interconnected nature of thought, emotion, perception, memory and imagination.”

    The one comment that stands out from my perspective. Belief is well examined in the areas I know about dis-belief is not and its often not discussed or discussed in detail would be interesting to know how that is dealt with from you’re perspective.

    Reception of texts or beliefs is difficult to tackle on a historical basis and always a danger zone. Fred, Gerald, barnacle goose questions.

    Even when you can answer parts, when you can determine the social shifts that lead to the destruction of the sites, events and rituals in which emotion memory and imagination are exchanged it is not enough. All this kills is the narrative, which in oral form requires constant uninterrupted repetition to hold in memory. The belief’s which we assume are reinforced and reproduce in such a manner go on repeating long after the narratives are dead.

    I thought biology and philosophy would help me here but they have internal agendas and problems when the subjects touch on these issues and they move in a different direction which I find distracting.

    Hard empirical evidence is somewhat thin on the ground.


    1. Are of course exceptions and some evolving thoughts in philosophy I can live with and its the politics rather than memory, emotional or identity questions with belief in biology. Militant secularists and fundamental Christians both have a particular point on which they are in complete agreement, that culture is potentially dangerous and narrative must be policed. The issue seems to be who gets to wear the sherrif badge.

      I would not view it as a static and flat example of medieval thought in biology but it is certainly a very old well worn issue.


      1. Jeb,
        If you are up for it, I would like to tailor my comments to you. It will help me to lay out a brief journey through the empirical findings that I believe shed light on the limits and forms of reasoning that have been discussed here from philosophical and other viewpoints. I am not sure that everyone here will consider the underlying neuroscience of “reason” to be of interest, but I think you might. And others can follow along if they want.

        I wrote: ” . . . To me, this is a question of the interconnected nature of thought, emotion, perception, memory and imagination (within a social neuroscience and developmental context). . . I am working on a two-part comment reviewing some of these issues, in relation to this post, which I will attach shortly.”


  20. Michael Drake: And then ask, well, anyone (atheists included) whether they particularly like the idea that they and all of their loved ones will be annihilated at death. I’m going out on a limb here and say that most will probably say, Not so much.

    Your question is loaded through your choice of words. I do not think that I and all my loved ones will be “annihilated” a highly emotive and negative term. I simply think we will all cease to exist and I mean all, loved ones, enemies, known, unknown and Uncle Tom Cobley and all. Quite honestly the thought doesn’t disturb me at all. That’s life!


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