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 http://dx.doi.org/10.1007/978-1-4020-8377-8_7.
*Yes, I know Vulcans had to train to be impassive. But not logical.