Friday, August 28, 2009

The Faith Debate Pt. 6

Justin Martyr posted a new response to me over on his blog. He basically thinks that his personal experience of God is the same as his personal experience that he ate an egg sandwich.

I disagree. First of all, if we wanted we could take a poll and establish about how many people eat egg sandwiches for breakfast. Let's say that it is .1%. So the initial probability is about .1%. But how often do people hallucinate eating some breakfast? I would suppose that it would be much less than .1%. How many people are mistaken about what they ate for breakfast? I would suppose very few, especially if they were given time to recall, and if they vividly recalled their breakfast this morning. Therefore, you could conlude that they had an egg sandwich, because it is the most probable explanation for the data.

Now, why is this different from subjective assertions? For the reason that I outlined in my last post:

Seeing a tree is not quite the same as feeling the 'inner witness' of the Holy Spirit. For one thing, we can all see the tree. Even if someone was raised in a place where there were no trees, you could still show them a tree (though they would not know what to call it). Furthermore, dowsers, psychics, and alternative medicine gurus often truly believe that they have powers, but we obviously know that they are wrong, so subjective beliefs about objective reality are simply irrelevant and not valid guides to it. I suppose you could say that the psychics, alternative medicine gurus, and dowsers are lying for money, but I don't think that's true. Have a look at "The Enemies of Reason" with Richard Dawkins and see for yourself whether these people are worrying about financial gain (or are insincere). Better yet, take a look at all the studies on placebos that have been done.

The inner witness of the Holy Spirit is not quite like seeing a tree because most people who were not raised Christian do not have it. The cultural context in which someone grows up and lives in almost always predicts what their inner feelings about religion are. And of course most culturally specific beliefs (meaning not held by most human beings the world over, but only in certain cultural contexts), at least the ones concerning religion, are false. The fact is that if you had been raised in India, Saudi Arabia, or Europe (before the 4th Century) you would very probably not have any inner witness of the Holy Spirit. Maybe an inner witness of Allah, or Krishna, or Hercules, or Aesclepius, but almost certainly not the Holy Spirit. Since we can see that subjective feelings about God are strongly correlated with culture, and most cultures have to be wrong, then this type of feeling is not a valid type of evidence for God because it is usually wrong.

15 comments:

Steven Carr said...

'He basically thinks that his personal experience of God is the same as his personal experience that he ate an egg sandwich.'

So why are you wasting time talking to somebody who can say things like that?

Why not have a rational debate after somebody has shown they are qualified to take part in rational debate?


You may as well talk to somebody who claims they just know that their dog understands every word they say.

If somebody claims to have a feeling of great peace and claims this is a personal experience of the creator of the entire universe, just walk away slowly from them, avoiding eye contact.

It is as pointless talking to them as it is talking to somebody who claims to have experienced enlightenment and knows that karma exists, because of their inner feelings.


There is literally no rational argument being presented by these people.

Rabbitpirate said...

I have no doubt that Justin had some sort of very convincing personal experience that he sees as perfectly valid evidence for his faith in God. I also accept that many other people have had similar experiences, I do not doubt this for a second.

The problem is that he seems unable to accept that there is a very real difference between an actual personal experience of God and a personal experience that you "attribute" to God.

As AIG said people all over the world have the kind of experiences that Justin is on about and they attribute them to what ever diety is popular within their culture.

If Justin had had the exact same personal experience but had been raised in a Hindu country then he would have attributed it to a Hindu god. Does that mean the Hindu gods are real as well?

If someone attributes a personal experience to a diety is that all that is needed to make that diety real? Why are the personal experiences of Christians more valid than those of Hindus?

His arguement seems to support the idea that religion, any religion, is perfectly rational without evidence, and yet if presented with that idea directly I expect he would disagree. His arguement does nothing to single out the personal experiences of Christians as the only valid ones.

Steven Carr said...

And, not even Justin tries to claim that he knows that somebody died 2000 years ago as an atonement for sin in the way Justin knows he had an egg sandwich.

Christianity would still remain totally unfounded, as not even Plantinga dares to say that Christians know Heaven and Hell exist on the basis of their personal experiences.

Personal experiences which are utterly banal and everyday, being the common property of mankind in general, rather than being exclusive to people visited by the Holy Spirit.

There is no more logic in Justin's approach than there is in the claims of people that they just know that their dog understands every word they say.

Justin Martyr said...

Hiya AIG Busted!

I think this has been a pretty high quality debate so far with a lot of interesting back and forth. I have learned from it. But I don't feel that you grappled with the essence of my last post - the point that your arguments would have to attack at what I labeled step three, and that is too late. Your arguments have the potential to be a defeater of belief (although I argue otherwise), but not of the proposition that faith is rational without evidence beyond personal experience.


If you want to write a new response to my last post which does grapple with that point I'd be happy to respond. But otherwise I will pass because I feel that my last post stands unchallenged.

AIGBusted said...

Hi Justin,

If you want to label my argument a defeater for the belief based on personal experience, fine with me. But remember, I'm debating on your terms because I don't buy into Plantinga's epistemology in the first place.

Steven Carr said...

There is no 'defeater' for people who cannot interpret their own experiences, and assign their mundane, commonplace experiences to imaginary gods.

If people cry out 'Oh God!' during sexual ecstasy, this is as valid a 'proof' that God caused those personal experiences of ecstasy as Plantinga's arguments that people know God is there because they have read the Bible.

To say that God did not design people to experience the ecstasy of his love during sexual intercourse is begging the question....

Justin Martyr said...

Hiya AIG Busted,

That's why I put my last post into Bayesian terms, since you do subscribe to Bayesian decision theory.

AIGBusted said...

Justin, I was puzzled by your claim that I did not address your arguments. I did, only it was implicit and not explicit.

Here's the reason I went through the trouble of explaining how one would calculate the odds of having an egg sandwich for breakfast: With god, we have no reason to think that the Christian god is a priori more likely to exist than any other god. With egg sandwiches, we know that some fairly high percentage of the population eats them everyday, so our backround knowledge is more favorable to that hypothesis than the god hypothesis, which can only be calculated on the basis of logical possibility.

"In light of my experience of eating an egg sandwich, I update my prior. The posterior probability that I had an egg sandwich is now high. I form the belief that I ate an egg sandwich for breakfast."

Yes, but your sense experience of eating the sandwich is not quite like whatever "inner witness" you feel of God, so this isn't a good analogy to God belief.

"That belief becomes my new prior going forwards. It could be swayed by new lines of evidence. For example, my wife may point out that we didn’t have any eggs in the house. Or she may confirm the belief by yelling at me for not throwing the egg shells in the trash!"

And I reject that on grounds that I've previously laid out.

Justin Martyr said...

Ah, but now you are using a priori reasoning for when I can and cannot use my personal experiences to update my priors. That does not jibe with Bayesian decision theory. If you want to do Bayesian decision theory correctly then the sequence would be thus:

1. indifference
2. religious experience which leads to updating a prior
3. Defeater = an argument based on other religions. Update the prior "downwards"
4. Defeater defeater, such as those I presented in my first few posts. Update the prior back up.

Now, on Bayesian terms we are left with the following irreducible points. The first is that any criticism of faith based on personal experience would have to come at step 3, and on Bayesian decision theory, the strength of one's prior determines one epistemic duty to seek out new evidence. Thus you can't even argue that Christians have to go to step 3. In the case of my own personal experience of God, my updated prior was about 50% and I felt I had a duty to learn the truth so I studied philosophy and apologetics. But if my updated prior were 99% then there would be no such duty.

Now, if you wan to defend an a priori theory of knowledge against Bayesianism, then go ahead. But your first post in this debate suggests you were happy with Bayesian decision theory.

AIGBusted said...

Ah, but now you are using a priori reasoning for when I can and cannot use my personal experiences to update my priors. That does not jibe with Bayesian decision theory.

Why not?


If you want to do Bayesian decision theory correctly then the sequence would be thus:

1. indifference
2. religious experience which leads to updating a prior
3. Defeater = an argument based on other religions. Update the prior "downwards"
4. Defeater defeater, such as those I presented in my first few posts. Update the prior back up.

Now, on Bayesian terms we are left with the following irreducible points. The first is that any criticism of faith based on personal experience would have to come at step 3, and on Bayesian decision theory, the strength of one's prior determines one epistemic duty to seek out new evidence. Thus you can't even argue that Christians have to go to step 3. In the case of my own personal experience of God, my updated prior was about 50% and I felt I had a duty to learn the truth so I studied philosophy and apologetics. But if my updated prior were 99% then there would be no such duty.

Now, if you wan to defend an a priori theory of knowledge against Bayesianism, then go ahead. But your first post in this debate suggests you were happy with Bayesian decision theory.

No, Bayes' Theorem is fine. I think there may be a confusion here. According to Richard Carrier's paper "Bayes' Theorem for Beginnners"* the a priori probability that some hypothesis is true is "the probability that our hypothesis would be true given only our background knowledge (i.e. if we knew nothing about e)"

"e = all the evidence directly relevant to the truth of h (e includes both what is observed
and what is not observed)"

"b = total background knowledge (all available personal and human knowledge about
anything and everything, from physics to history)"

So your private experiences would seem to fall under the category of "e". They would not fall under the category of a priori knowledge. However, leaving this aside we still have the question of whether subjective, emotional feelings are valid evidence. You haven't made any valid argument to justify that they are. I have made valid arguments to justify that they are not.

*Carrier's paper can be located here:
http://www.richardcarrier.info/CarrierDec08.pdf

Justin Martyr said...

Carrier's summary seems fair so far as you have presented it. That fits neatly into the points I've been making

However, leaving this aside we still have the question of whether subjective, emotional feelings are valid evidence. You haven't made any valid argument to justify that they are. I have made valid arguments to justify that they are not.

Of course private experiences are allowed. Otherwise we could not form rational beliefs about what we had for breakfast. You want to argue that they cannot for faith in God even though you can in other circumstances, but on Bayesian decision theory. The only way you can do it is to argue that other religions lower the posterior probability that God exists. And that point alone sustains my case because if one has a strong enough subjective prior (after updating based on private experience) then one does not have a duty of rationality to seek out more evidence that will confirm or refute the theory.

Secondly, I've provided defeaters for your arguments in each of the first three posts I made in the debate. But again, I didn't need to. Consider this analogy. An atheist believes that objective ethical standards exist. Now I maintain that on atheism, ethics is a delusion foisted on us by evolution. But atheists do not hold their belief in objective ethics irrationally simply because they failed to consider possible defeaters which would revise their priors downwards. Thus, most atheists hold a false belief but they do so rationally because they have done their epistemic due diligence.

Steven Carr said...

JUSTIN MARTYR
Of course private experiences are allowed.

CARR
SO it is rational to believe that your dog understands every word you say, or that Angelina Jolie loves me?

You have not had a single experience in your life of the Holy Spirit, and you are begging the question to claim that you have.

Your experiences , as described by you yourself, are utterly banal and natural.

But it is the measure of the desperation of Christian apologetics that they have now retreated into closing off debate by claiming that they know they are right, because they feel that they are right, although they cannot produce any evidence for the veracity of their beliefs/

Justin Martyr said...

Hiya Steven,

I think we are getting somewhere.

Do atheists who believe in objective ethical standards hold their belief irrationally if they have not considered the possibility that it is a delusion fostered on them by evolution to help integrate them into the herd?

I would argue that they are not irrational. We have a duty of rationality to hold consistent beliefs but we are not omniscient and thus cannot be expected to deduce every consequence of the beliefs we hold or to anticipate every possible contradiction. Thus, assuming atheism is true, most atheists hold a belief that is false (objective ethics), but do so rationally.

Secondly, the charge of question begging lies on the atheist's side. I am not logically required to be indifferent between two beliefs, one of which holds that I am irrational. The burden of proof falls on potential defeaters to show that I'm irrational. They have to assume the burden of proof.

Thirdly, I've already provided defeaters for various arguments such as people of other faiths, or "born materialists" with no faith

Steven Carr said...

JUSTIN
Do atheists who believe in objective ethical standards hold their belief irrationally if they have not considered the possibility that it is a delusion fostered on them by evolution to help integrate them into the herd?


CARR
Well, there is the genetic fallacy in the very first paragraph.


Apparently, in Christian thought, the source of a proposition is relevant to the truth value of that proposition.....

If you can't make it as far as one paragraph without blunders in logic.....

Steven Carr said...

Do 'objective' values come only from God?

If football commentators castigate a head coach as 'rubbish' because his game plan is to get his quarterback to fumble the ball on every play, do we hear Christian commentators saying that because God has not given us a Big Golden Book of Football Plays, then football plays are 'subjective', not 'objective', and nobody can say that that really was a bad football play?

No.

Even Christians work out that you do not need a God to be able to decide if one thing is objectively better than another, even if it is hard to discern what actually is the best.

Or at least those Christians who have an opinion on football, who are perfectly well aware that fumbling the ball on every play is objectively bad play, even though God is not a Head Coach.