Every morning on the way to the campus of the University of Melbourne I pass by the United Faculty of Theology, and I often wish that someone would come out and engage me in a debate. Partly because I am an ornery fellow who loves a good stoush, but also because I am genuinely puzzled by religious belief. Recently two things happened: one was that I had a series of discussions about Alvin Plantinga’s Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism (EAAN; which is in effect the claim that if we believe that evolution is true, we should not believe that atheism is true). I ended up arguing that in fact Darwinian thinking should lead us to deny that any supernaturalism is something we can reasonably be expected to have evolved to know reliably.
Earlier this week, in a class on argument mapping, I encountered (actually, I proffered it for analysis) an argument of C. S. Lewis’ much beloved of many apologists:
Creatures are not born with desires unless satisfaction for those desires exists. A baby feels hunger: well, there is such a thing as food. . . If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world. [Mere Christianity, Bk. III, chap. 10, “Hope”]
Now I was born with a desire to be Superman or something like him, so I presume that means there is some world which I am made to be Superman in (thus proving the existence of multiple worlds; another Lewis, David Lewis, would have been pleased). It is a not terribly sensible argument, and it presents what I think is the sole and only warrant for believing in God or gods or the supernatural: wish fulfilment.
This term is taken from Freud, but I don’t mean by it what he meant by it. I mean simply this: humans are disposed to think the world will behave the way they want it to; that their desires have some causal power beyond what they can make their limbs and mouth do. If I want there to be a God, then there has to be a God. Once you adopt that belief, you have to explain it, which is what Lewis’ argument from desire (I would call it an argument to satisfaction) attempts to do. It is precisely backwards.
Both Plantinga’s and Lewis’ arguments rely upon the state of our beliefs having some influence on how the world is, rather than being the other way around. Plantinga’s EAAN moves from “we did not evolve to know that the supernatural does not exist” to “we cannot know that the supernatural does not exist” and to an implied “the supernatural exists”. Lewis’ argument moves from “I desire something this world cannot satisfy” to “there is another world in which I can satisfy that desire”. Both move from “I have some cognitive state” to “this is evidence the world is as my state intends”. Let us call this the intentional argument strategy.
If wishes, however, were horses (or more fashionably, Ducatis), then beggars would ride. However much we may desire that the world is some way, like desiring there to be life after death, if there is no independent evidence for that belief, we are not warranted in believing it. Our beliefs should follow the evidence, not act as evidence for their content (unless, of course, the content is that we have those beliefs). This is not restricted to religion. Many scientists think that their theories are evidence for the truth of their theories, and many philosophers think the same. But if the world is not teleological, and we are not “made for” anything, then we do not have warrant for these beliefs.
So what reason is there for believing in a religious claim? Why did Lewis come to believe in Christianity, and not, say, Shinto or African animism or Makiritare traditions? Did he consider each of these in turn and reject all but Christianity? Why is it that adherents convert to religions that are culturally influential, if they are warranted beliefs? The answer is that the warrant is cultural, that people turn to those traditions they see around them and which they are taught are acceptable options, most of the time. The reason why people are Christians is, to a first approximation, because that is their native tradition. The reason why some other religions have influence is because there are those promoting them culturally.
In the absence of arguments that are decisive in warranting belief, and let’s face it, none have ever been raised that survived critical examination, the sole reason people adopt a belief is that it suits them to do so. Either it has cultural advantages or it serves their psychological disposition to believe it, if these are not the same motivation. One would be a lot more impressed by such arguments from intention if there were not such a strong correlation between the traditions one was exposed to as a young person and the traditions selected in later life. Had Lewis become Shinto, I might think his reasoning was more independent of what he wanted to believe.
A preacher once unironically said this:
Things and actions are what they are, and consequences of them will be what they will be: why then should we desire to be deceived? [Bishop Joseph Butler, Fifteen Sermons, Sermon VII, §16.]
Butler was arguing that evil deeds are evil no matter how we would prefer they are guiltless or that we might become guiltless. It’s a good point. It applies also to there being a God. Things are as they are, and no amount of wishing they were otherwise will aid us. We know that, brains in a vat and other kinds of radical skepticism notwithstanding, we have warrant for believing in the world about us. This, if anything is warranted belief, is warranted. Belief in anything other than the observed, experienced and physical world is not. I am not saying that one is irrational if one does believe in non-physical realities so long as that doesn’t commit you to believing in false facts about the physical world, but the beliefs are just beliefs. They carry no weight.
People who are committed to this fallacious inference from intentionality often wish to claim that the reality around us is constructed. We are “worldmakers” as philosopher Nelson Goodman put it. Well I do not think that we are such world makers that we can reasonably deny the primacy of the world we actually experience. To take that step is to abandon the idea of warrantable belief entirely. Think what you like about gods, but deny that there’s a table in front of me now, and I will doubt your ability to believe anything based on warrant. Warrantable beliefs must be reasonable and evidential. If you deny evidence altogether, then we can have no sensible conversation.
If in thinking that evolution gives us no reason to believe in the external world, one thinks this means we cannot deny the supernatural, unexperienced, world, something has gone very very wrong in the argument. The notion of warrant has lost its flavour and is now just over-used chewing gum for the philosophical palette. Stick it under the table, and get something fresh. The intentional argument strategy is the strategy of the juvenile.