Pick your poison: Either God is imperfect or “true morality” is uncomfortably immoral

Michelangelo, The Fall and Expulsion from Garden of EdenThis post was birthed out of an exchange with Prayson Daniel at his blog, With All I Am. I would like to thank him for posing the question in a way which caused me to think through the various ramifications of a free will theodicy.

The setup is simply this: there appears to be a logical contradiction between the concept of a wholly perfect God and the introduction of pain and suffering as the result of free will. The options which are available to dispose of the contradiction all lead to either accepting that God is in some sense imperfect, or to accepting that “true morality” is defined by a formulation of God’s nature which does not comfortably align with our sense of morality.

The Argument

Definitions

  1. Holiness: The collective qualities which define God’s nature. To say that God is perfectly holy is to say that he is perfectly moral, perfectly loving, perfectly righteous, perfectly just, perfectly merciful and perfectly praise-worthy.
  2. Omnipotent: Having complete or unlimited power.
  3. Omniscient: Having infinite awareness, understanding, and insight.

Premises

  1. A perfectly holy God wills the world to be that which is most compatible with his holiness. Alternatively it can be said that when given the ability to actualize one world from a finite set of possible worlds, a perfectly holy God will actualize the world which accords with his holiness better than the others.
  2. An omnipotent God can achieve any world which is logically coherent (e.g., God cannot make a square circle).
  3. An omniscient God knows everything about the world; past, present and future.
  4. A perfectly holy and omnipotent God will not violate the freedom of his created free agents (because it is a moral imperative and because freedom of will is necessary for genuine love).
  5. A perfectly holy God cannot intentionally introduce evil, pain and suffering into a world where it did not previously exist (because that would be contrary to his nature).
  6. An omnipotent God can end evil, pain and suffering at any time.

A definition of the free will theodicy

  1. God is perfectly holy (#1) and omnipotent (#2), and thus #4 applies.
  2. God has created free agents with the ability to sin or not sin at any time. This is typically explained as being necessary because the resulting world is more compatible with God’s holiness than the world without free agents.
  3. Pain and suffering was introduced by the created free agents as a natural consequence of their sinful act and God knew this would happen (#3). The consequences may also include a fallen creation which produces “natural evils”.
  4. God can end evil, pain and suffering (#6) but has not yet done so because he knows that the current state is for the best (#3) and so has sufficient reasons for allowing it to persist (as required by #1).

Putting it together

God has allowed evil, pain and suffering for some time (#9). Therefore, the world in which evil, pain and suffering endures must be more compatible with God’s holiness (by #1 and #2) than the world in which evil, pain and suffering do not endure. God cannot introduce evil, pain and suffering (#5) and cannot influence the created free agents to do so (#4). Therefore, God is completely incapable of using his own volition to attain the world which is most compatible with his holiness. This contradicts God’s omnipotence.

Possible Objections

Objection #1: God is not omnipotent
OK, you’re more than welcome to accept that. Just make sure you incorporate it into your entire theological framework and understand all the consequences. Review objection #3 to see how this is sometimes employed.

Objection #2: God is not perfectly holy
Ditto above.

Objection #3: God is not omniscient
Ditto above, and…

To be clear, this objection hinges on the presumption that omniscience includes foreknowledge and some would deny the possibility of foreknowledge. This view belongs to a growing trend called open theism, most notably led by Greg Boyd. It would seem that this view exists almost exclusively to solve this problem, though it also helps make sense of some passages in the Bible where God seems to change his mind. However, this doesn’t solve the problem on its own – review the argument to see why. Accepting this would still seem to require accepting at least one of the other objections, namely objection #1 or objection #6. If this is combined with objection #1 (God is not omnipotent), then it could be that it wasn’t just that God didn’t see this coming, but he also couldn’t stop it. That does, however, also make it difficult to accept premise #5 (future perfection). As to how this could be combined with objection #6, review the discussion there.

Objection #4: Man does not have free will, or God sometimes does violate man’s free will
Fair enough. Now lets apply this to the circumstances at hand and understand the implications. The problem we’re trying to resolve is how evil, pain and suffering were introduced. This solution only resolves that problem if we also agree that it was God who directed agents to sin and thus introduce evil, pain and suffering. To be blunt, under this objection God is the author of sin and its consequences. If God is the author of sin, then either God is not morally perfect, or “true morality” as defined by God’s character, does not preclude the willful introduction of sin and its consequences (which may or may not include eternal damnation for most). Either God wanted this world despite the fact that it was contrary to his will, or he wanted the world because it is compatible with his nature. The latter option takes us to the next objection.

Objection #5: God can introduce evil, pain and suffering because it is not in conflict with his holiness
Let’s unpack this a bit. The inference behind this objection is that if God’s nature leads to the introduction of evil, pain and suffering then that world must be the best world. When all is reduced, every act of evil, every instance of pain and every period of suffering that has ever scarred the history of mankind occurred because it was consistent with God’s nature. The fallen world is exactly what God wanted.

Yet, if God can end pain and suffering at any time (premise #5) then he could have conceivably done this at the instant it first appeared, or he could have prevented pain and suffering from being the consequence of sin in the first place. He didn’t, but, according to the doctrine of a future perfection, he will. Why will he do this in the future? Presumably because that brings about a better world. So this objection seems hold a logical contradiction: the world without evil, pain and suffering is not better than the fallen world, yet God will bring about the world without evil, pain and suffering in the future because it is better.

That said, I see how one could argue that the period of pain and suffering is a prerequisite for the future without pain and suffering (i.e., an Irenaean theodicy, or “soul building”). In that case, the better world is the one in which there is a duration of pain and suffering that is followed by the elimination of pain and suffering. This doesn’t explain, however, why sanctification is necessary in the first place. If the agents were perfect before their fall and God authored their fall as part of his sovereign plan for sanctification, then that would imply that the agents weren’t really perfect to start with even though that is the ultimate goal. So either he cannot create agents with a perfected disposition from the start (meaning he is not omnipotent) or he prefers that the perfected disposition be acquired through pain and suffering (which is uncomfortably immoral).

Objection #6: Omnipotence does not include the ability to introduce evil, pain and suffering
More explicitly, this objection asserts that God’s nature makes it logically incoherent for God to have attained the world that is most compatible with his nature. In other words, perfect holiness includes the mandate “thou shall not violate a free agent’s will”. As a result, God’s omnipotence is NOT defeated because the act which would have resulted in the best world is logically incoherent and thus not a member of the set of capabilities which define omnipotence. The world with free agents and the potential of evil, pain and suffering is the best God could do within the constraints of logic. Problem solved.

Not so fast. If God’s omnipotence does not include a capability that is required in order to attain the better world, can we still say that he is both omnipotent and perfectly holy? If the combination of God’s nature and a separate agent’s free choice could have resulted in the better world, then it would seem that this combined agency is more capable (or more holy) than God, which entails that God is either not omnipotent or is not a perfectly holy being. If you question whether that assertion is true, then it’s time to move on to objection #10.

This objection can also be combined with objection #3 (God is not omniscient) to sustain God’s moral perfection. This combination suggests that it is not only logically incoherent for God to have introduced evil, pain and suffering, but it is also the case that God did not know that the free agents would sin and bring that world about. However, if that is the case then it does seem quite odd that he’s let it persist for so long (rather than stopping it immediately), especially if you also want to accept premise #5 (future perfection). It almost seems as if you have to toss in objection #1 as well (God is not omnipotent).

Objection #7: God’s omnipotence is realized through his creation of free agents
The goal of this objection is to show that God’s omnipotence is not defeated because he actually is able to bring about the best world by relying on his omniscience regarding the behavior of the created agents. Since he knew what the agents would do, he was able to attain the best world as a result of his creative action. All this really means, though, is that God is indirectly responsible for the introduction of evil, pain and suffering. He is the CEO and the responsibility eventually falls back in his lap, which puts us back at either objection #4 or objection #5.

Or maybe not. Could it be that God is not ultimately responsible under this scenario? To examine this we need to take a closer look at point #8 in the free will theodicy. That point claims that the created agents have the ability to sin or not sin at any time. This means that, conceivably, they could have never sinned.

If we accept the possibility that the agents could have never sinned then it is possible that the fall never occurs, in which case the best world (the fallen world) is not realized. This brings us back to the very last claim of the argument, that “God is completely incapable of using his own volition to attain the world which is most compatible with his holiness. This contradicts God’s omnipotence”. To consider whether that claim holds up, please see objection #10.

Conversely, if we accept the possibility that the agents would necessarily sin at some point, then it would seem that they do not actually have free will on this particular matter. In that case, who is responsible? It would be the one who’s will was directing the agent’s will. Presumably that agent is God himself, which again puts us back at either objection #4 or objection #5.

Objection #8: Molinism to the rescue
Ah yes, Molinism. The view popularized by William Lane Craig as the answer to reconcile free will with God’s perfection and sovereignty. But does it also answer the problem of evil? Let’s examine its application to our situation here.

In Molinism, the created agents have complete free will while giving God the power to know all possible choices that the agents will make, such that God can then direct the world in such a way that those agents will make the choice which aligns with God’s will. Neither free will nor God’s sovereignty are sacrificed. If I review the argument above, however, it appears to be just as applicable to Molinism as to any other free will theodicy. God is still perfect and agents are still free. Molinism offers no help to resolve the problem of evil and must still confront the argument by appealing to one of the other objections. In fact, Molinism looks to be a complicated variation of objection #7.

Objection #9: It’s a mystery, or God is not bound by logic
This is perhaps the most popular answer to the problem. Logic be damned, God is both perfect in all regards and is not responsible for the introduction of evil, pain and suffering. We can have our cake and eat it too by invoking “mystery”. Obviously this gets you out of the dichotomy I proposed up front but in its place you’re left feeling unsettled, like you’ve just cheated and you know the victory is a fraud. Surreptitiously, cognitive dissonance begins its ascent.

I also contend that the statement “God is not bound by logic” typically implies a misunderstanding of logic. This infers that logic is a set of arbitrary rules which we happen to follow, like gravity or inertia. This is misguided. Logic is the description of relationships between symbols, which are the constituents of thought itself. If logic is discarded then comprehension itself is also discarded, which makes the statement meaningless. This kind of response is what eventually leads to negative theology, in which case you’re essentially admitting that you don’t really know anything about God.

Objection #10: God’s perfection is not defeated if he wills something other than the best world
Here we are rejecting the very first premise in the argument – that a perfectly holy God wills the world to be that which is most compatible with his holiness. To evaluate whether this is the case, consider the following: If God does not will the world which is most compatible with his holiness then we can conceive of a being who is identical except that this being wills the better world. The new being would be more holy than God, thus God is not perfectly holy. In short, perfection wills perfection and a being which wills anything less is not perfect.

One way to attempt to resolve this is to assert that it is logically incoherent for a perfectly holy God to will the introduction of evil, pain and suffering (see objection #6) and that, as a result, the hypothetical “better God” given above is not logically possible. This maneuver, however, has now moved the definition of the “best world” away from God. We are now saying that the best world is defined by something other than that which God wills. God’s nature no longer defines what is “best”. That is no small concession and implies that God is subject to some external ideal – that God is not the ultimate authority. It makes little sense to take this step when the whole reason for considering the possibility in the first place was to sustain the concept of God’s perfection.

What now?

It appears to me that the solution which is most capable of holding up under logical scrutiny and salvaging the orthodox definition of God is a combination of objection #4 and objection #5, where God is ultimately responsible for evil, pain, suffering, et al, as the natural product of his nature. This is exactly what Calvinism offers. God’s power and sovereignty win out. Despite the seemingly violent opposition to the moral law which is “written on the hearts of men” (Romans 2:15), a significant number of us are simply “objects of wrath prepared for destruction” (Romans 9:22). To mitigate this, many Calvinists (including Calvin himself) will tack on objection #9.

This isn’t new. The debate has raged for centuries and, as of late, Calvinism has experienced a resurgence. I counted myself as a Calvinist for a period of time, though not because of this argument – just because it seemed most biblical. As I contemplated the implications of Calvinism, however, I eventually found that I couldn’t sustain it. It seemed so contrary to the goodness of God, a goodness which pervaded my theology and tugged at my heart. The implications of Calvinism truly did act like a poison which ate away at my conscience. So I came to decide that I simply didn’t know whether I was an Arminian or a Calvinist and that it didn’t matter. The conflict seemed interminable because both sides had scripture to back them up. I chose to resolve the problem by continuing in ignorance on the matter.

I started this post by offering a dichotomy: either accept that God is not perfect, or that the morality he defines feels strangely immoral. This is, of course, a false dichotomy. There is another option available to those who are willing to wade into the waters of blasphemy. What if these ideas aren’t from God? Maybe the foundational concepts that we are wrestling with are man-made. Maybe those who introduced them hadn’t coordinated and analyzed the consequences of their ideas as deeply as the rest of us have throughout the centuries. Maybe these issues are so difficult to resolve because there isn’t a grand conductor orchestrating a coherent backstory that brings it all together. Maybe we’re trying to mash together a bunch of random musings that were never meant to fit. Doesn’t this all make a lot more sense if the truth is that we’ve just created an artificial problem to which there isn’t actually a solution?

How will you answer that question? For me, from my current perspective, the answer is a bittersweet “yes”. Bitter because it pushes away the God that I thought I knew, but sweet because it feels like truth.

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A few comments on Plantinga’s “Where the Conflict Really Lies”

I don’t plan on commenting on every book I read but I was compelled to address what appeared to me to be some glaring omissions and one audacious claim in the argumentation found in Alvin Plantinga’s “Where the Conflict Really Lies: Science, Religion, & Naturalism”. There were three particular assertions that caught my attention: (1) that evolutionary theory says nothing about whether it is unguided, (2) a logical proof that determinism is false, and (3) that unguided evolution cannot yield reliable beliefs (aka “the evolutionary argument against naturalism”, or EAAN).

There is no reason to believe that evolution is unguided?

WhereTheConflict

Ignoring the theological implications and biblical creation accounts, Plantinga says that “The scientific theory of evolution as such is not incompatible with Christian belief; what is incompatible with it is the idea that evolution, natural selection, is unguided.” I agree that it is not necessary to assert that evolution is unguided. There is no way that we can show that some supernatural agent is not overseeing the genetic changes which drive evolution. Fair enough. However, Plantinga goes on to say that “But that [the idea that evolution is unguided] isn’t part of evolutionary theory as such; it’s instead a metaphysical or theological addition.” What struck me is that Plantinga seemingly makes this claim without engaging with the foundational reasons why evolution is generally defined to be unguided. Instead, he chooses to review the arguments which show how complexity could arise by an unguided process. Yes, those arguments don’t prove that the process is unguided but that is beside the point. The task at hand is to find the best explanation for our observations. Is the best explanation that evolution is guided, or is the best explanation that evolution is unguided? When I survey the data, I see compelling reasons for inferring an unguided process. For example:

  1. The vast majority of species that have ever existed are now extinct. Natural selection occurs by killing off creatures with the less favorable property. Competition and death are fundamental components of the evolutionary process.
  2. It is far more likely that a mutation is neutral or deleterious than beneficial.
  3. What were once beneficial adaptations can become deleterious in the face of a changing environment.
  4. Artificial selection (for example, in dogs) has produced in hundreds of generations a degree of variation that is only comparatively realized in nature over thousands of generations.

Among others, these are all characteristics of evolution which, to me, infer an unguided process. The first observation demonstrates how wasteful, vicious and “immoral” the process is. If you want to argue that we have no reason to believe that God wouldn’t create through such mechanisms then that’s fine, but at least admit that it is not how we expect an all-loving, all-powerful, super-intelligent being to act and is among the least attractive of the possible methods (e.g., special creation). The second observation highlights how the process seems to be driven by a small fraction of changes in a probabilistic paradigm, which is almost by definition the opposite of a guided process. The third observation demonstrates that the result of selection does not always lead to a long-term benefit. Again, this seems to contradict an intelligence behind the outcomes. Lastly, the final observation reveals how inefficiently slow the changes are accumulated in nature, whereas a known intelligent agent (humans) has succeeded in utilizing the exact same underlying mechanisms to realize dramatic changes in a short period of time.

On the flip side, one could argue that the amazing outcomes of evolution – the eye, flight, the brain – are all pointers toward a guiding intelligence. I understand this view; it is truly amazing what has been wrought. I feel the draw of the design explanation when I consider the remarkable intricacies of life, but I also recognize that this pull arises because the design hypothesis is easier to relate to our experience (i.e., our intuitions are biased toward that model). This is not the place to rely on intuitions, however, so we must turn to the evidence. In a twist of irony, Plantinga has already included arguments which explain how these wonders may result from an unguided process. So the counter to the argument for guided evolution has been presented and acknowledged. As I see it, this means that the reasons for thinking that evolution is unguided weren’t addressed at all and the reasons for thinking that evolution is guided were found to also fit the unguided paradigm. I cannot agree that this conflict is merely superficial.

Determinism is logically impossible?

Though it is a minor side-note in the book, it immediately caught my attention. What an audacious claim – a logical proof that determinism is false! This warranted a closer look. The argument is as follows:

  1. A natural law is of the form “If the universe (U) is causally closed, then P.”
  2. Also take the conjunction of all natural laws to be “If U is causally closed, then P.”
  3. If determinism is true then the conjunction of all natural laws (If U is causally closed, then P) and a specific past state of the universe (PAST) necessarily entails the future (F).
  4. Using N to mean Necessarily, the above statement is equivalent to: N [if (if U is causally closed then P) and PAST, then F].
  5. Becomes:  N [if (either U is not causally closed or P) and PAST, then F]
  6. Becomes:  N [if [(PAST and P) or (PAST and U is not causally closed)], then F].
  7. This takes the form N if (p or q) then r, which means that both p and q entail r, hence
  8. N [if (Past and P) then F] and N [if (PAST and U is not causally closed) then F].
  9. The right hand side of #8 is obviously false because there is clearly a possible world that (i) shares its past with the actual world, (ii) is not causally closed (because perhaps God acted) and (iii) does not share its future with the actual world. Therefore, determinism is false.

I will admit that it took me several reads to follow this argument. In the end, however, I think I see the slight of hand (whether or not this was intentional, I do not know). It was my attempt to translate this into software code that clearly revealed the problem for me. Here’s the code:

function CreateFuture(Universe, Past) {
  if(Universe.CausallyClosed) {
    P = Universe.NaturalLaws;
  }
  return DoPhysics(P, Past);
}

My fellow software engineers will immediately recognize the bug in this function: if the universe is not causally closed then P is undefined and an attempt to use it to generate the future yields unpredictable results. This is the key to the problem with the proof. In step 5, Plantinga expands the proof to cover both branches of the conditional and infers that both branches are still bound within the definition of determinism. This then, of course, leads to the obvious result where the future created with defined natural laws may be different than the future created with undefined natural laws. Plantinga groups these outcomes together under the definition of determinism and declares that the internal inconsistency shows that determinism is false. This is completely invalid, however, because determinism is only defined to be the branch where the universe is causally closed. All other branches (or possible worlds) are something other than determinism. I am honestly a bit baffled that Plantinga chose to include this in the book.

Despite my rejection of this proof, I should note that I am not a strict determinist. I would consider myself something of a quasi-determinist. Quantum indeterminacy has shown us that we can’t (yet) predict all possible states, but the quantum effects adhere to a predictable distribution such that the macro-world, and even the molecular world, behaves according to the physical laws to the extent that we have accurately described them. In the absence of supernatural intervention the natural world is, for all practical purposes, deterministic.

Naturalism cannot yield reliable beliefs?

The central thesis of the evolutionary argument against naturalism (EAAN) is that, without a guiding force, there is no reason to believe that the evolutionary process would result in a belief forming system that yields true beliefs. As I read through the EAAN, I was eagerly anticipating Plantinga’s response to the following objection: evolutionary theory claims that well before any creature was conscious there were sensory systems that triggered responses which selected the population. Selection is dependent on beneficial interactions with the external world. If those interactions do not consistently and properly map to the outside world then they are less likely to be beneficial. Consciousness and belief formation are extensions of this rudimentary system. As such, the evolutionary processes which led to sensory response systems, and therefore also to consciousness and belief formation, are likely to produce reliable reflections of the outside world.

Finally, in chapter 10, part 5, section C he gets there. He introduces the objection with “Isn’t it just obvious that true beliefs will facilitate adaptive action?” and eventually follows-up with “Yes, certainly. This is indeed true. But it is also irrelevant.” Then comes the explanation: “We ordinarily think true belief leads to successful action because we also think that the beliefs cause actions, and do so by virtue of their content… But now suppose materialism were true: then, as we’ve seen, my belief will be a neural structure that has both NP [neuro-physiological] properties and also a propositional content. It is by virtue of the NP properties, however, not the content, that the belief causes what it does cause.” After providing several examples of how the content of beliefs result in action, he finishes with “Going back to materialism…If the belief had had the same NP properties but different content, it would have had the same effect on behavior.”

Plantinga immediately recognizes that materialism would deny that it is possible for two beliefs to have the same NP properties but different content. Then things get messy. He digresses into a brief discussion of how this isn’t the place to address how counterfactuals and counterpossibles should be used in argumentation. Then he closes the response with “..it doesn’t matter to the adaptiveness of the behavior (or of the neurology that causes that behavior) whether the content determined by that neurology is true.” Wait a second – isn’t that where we were before this whole objection was raised?

Is it just me, or did he completely misrepresent the naturalistic ontology of belief and then dismiss the objection to that misrepresentation without offering an explanation? It seems as if he has superimposed dualism onto naturalism and then argued against this bastard child. What really confuses me is that in the pages leading up to this he clearly defined the materialistic view as one in which belief content can be reduced to NP properties. Somehow, when it came time to address the big objection, this reduction no longer applied and content was now something completely separate from the physical. How did this happen? I re-read those pages several times and I just don’t get it. Am I in over my head? Did I miss something? I can’t help but feel like I did; but, then again, I’m far from being the only one who has seen problems with this argument. This turn of events left me bewildered and I can’t give any regard to the EAAN until this is resolved.

Closing Thoughts

This was my first encounter with any of Plantinga’s books, though I was familiar with his work and was well aware of his reputation as one of Christianity’s greatest thinkers. The writing generally lived up to the standard; the text was lucid and, in most cases, the arguments were easy to follow. It was a worthwhile read. In the end, however, I was severely disappointed that his key claims – the “apparent conflict” between theism and evolution and the “deep conflict” between naturalism and science – ultimately omit or dismiss the most relevant objections to those claims. Perhaps even more alarming was that he chose to publish a clearly flawed proof that determinism is false. Collectively these observations have done nothing but tarnish his reputation in my eyes. I had hoped for something more.

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My Epistemology – Part 2: Truth

Plato and AristotleTruth has always been especially important to me but I’ve come to realize that I had only valued it superficially. Obviously this is demonstrated by the fact that I  never critically examined the underpinnings of my faith, but it is perhaps more apparent in that I never stopped to consider how one might best discover truth in the first place. From what I can tell, I simply defaulted to common sense. If something seemed to consistently meet expectations, then it was probably true, or at least close enough. If people were sharply divided with rational but contradictory views, then the truth was probably found somewhere in the middle. Now that I have begun to unearth my philosophical foundations it has been interesting to see that my approach to truth hasn’t changed much. The difference is that for the first time in my life I can explain what I’m doing. I have carved a path to truth and no topic is off limits.

This post is a continuation from Part 1, where I explored my epistemic roots; that is, how I acquire the evidence that informs my beliefs. Here, I hope to build upon that understanding to see how I might go about discerning truth.

Belief

In those difficult conversations where I revealed to others that I felt that I could no longer defend the Christian faith, I  discovered what appeared to be a common misconception about the typical way in which we form our beliefs [1]. The statements of others would often infer that I had made a decision; that somehow I had willfully chosen to discount my beliefs. I tried to explain that this transition wasn’t a choice, that it was simply the unintended outcome of seeking truth, but I’m not sure how often I was successful. I think that unless you have experienced it for yourself it is difficult to understand how somebody’s entire worldview can make a dramatic shift without intention.

So what is belief? Philosophers call it a “propositional attitude”. Perhaps this is more clearly understood as “a feeling about the truthfulness of a proposition”. Either way, you can see that there is nothing here about making a choice. Instead, beliefs are described as feeling and attitudes. It is usually the case that we do not think that we can choose how to feel, only how we respond to those feelings. So it is with belief. I can choose to keep my foot on the brake when the light turns green and insist to others that the light is still red but that does not change the fact that I perceived a green light and understood this to be correct. My belief is that the light is green but my actions defy my belief.

Most would agree that our beliefs are primarily by-products of the evidence we encounter. We acquire various forms of data and then with each new piece of information, poof, out pops a belief. Even when presented with a proposition that is entirely new and unique to us, our past experience of similar data leads us into a feeling about the truthfulness of the new proposition. We form these beliefs without even trying. Regardless of how this belief making machine works (a topic for another time), there is still an open question: when is a belief justified by the evidence? That is, when is a belief worth believing?

Justification

Justification is the process, or the output, of examining the reasons for a belief. The definition of belief which I gave above included a “feeling of truthfulness”. As I noted when I described intuition, this feeling of truthfulness can exist prior to, and even without, awareness of a robust justification. It is still possible, however, to stop, reflect and attempt to explain the foundations of the belief in question. Going through the process itself might even change your belief. That is the process I examine here.

External Corroboration

Working from the foundational reality developed in part 1, which asserts that I am one of many thinkers in an external world, I am inclined to think that there may be no better way to establish the reliability of evidence than through the corroboration of other thinkers. It is the only solution with the potential to overcome subjectivity and expand our data set beyond the narrow slice of the world that we experience. The mechanism of corroboration is clear and simple: compare your description with other descriptions. If they match, then the reliability of the evidence is bolstered. If they don’t match, then the reliability of the evidence is diminished.

Beyond this simple comparison, the value of external corroboration is heavily influenced by the independence of the data. There are many ways by which the division between two or more subjective experiences can be blurred by a set of common preconceptions, motives, conditions, suggestions, et al. Corroboration carries the most weight when it is clear that the observers are not biased into obtaining the same or similar data. For the same reason, corroborative justification is also strengthened by the addition of more corroborators. The strength of corroboration is in its power to overcome subjectivity.

Induction

David HumeCorroboration offers a solution to the problem of not knowing whether our own experience is reliable, but what are we to do when corroboration is unavailable or insufficient? This is a problem we solve on a daily basis. More often than not, our interactions with the outside world are not corroborated by somebody else. Instead, we regularly assume that the past can be viewed as generally representative of the present. This is how we operate by default. David Hume could find no rational justification for this assumption but I contend that this is not sufficient to discard our dependence on induction. Not only in the now, but also in the past, we have found that prior experience is an effective guide to current and future experience. So induction, by induction, seems reliable. Sound circular? It is, but I have no reason to believe that its circularity renders it useless. It has a proven track record and so I shall pragmatically accept it as a generally useful method of justifying my beliefs.

Even so, my acceptance of induction needs further qualification. A single observation, or a small number of observations, do far less to justify belief than do multiple observations. The weight of induction toward supporting a belief is correlated with the depth and breadth of inductive experiences. This is simply Stats 101; we should try to minimize our sampling error.

AnalogyHume as mosaic

It is likely that when we acquire new information we will observe similarities with other information and then use this relationship to build or reinforce beliefs. For example, you may have inferred that the subject of the picture on the right is David Hume; a belief that you almost certainly would not have formed were it not for the resemblance to the picture above. This is perfectly valid, though certainly not always reliable. It is not difficult to imagine cases where the inference from analogy would lead us astray.

As with other forms of justification, the strength of the support that an analogy lends to a belief is dependent on more than just the mere presence of similarities. Key factors also include:

  1. Frequency: Inferences made between many data sets that share common traits are usually more reliable than inferences made between fewer data sets.
  2. Congruence: Inferences made between data sets that share many common traits are usually more reliable than inferences made between data sets that share fewer common traits.
  3. Proximity: Inferences made between experiences that occur close in time and space are usually more reliable than inferences made between experiences that are distant in time and space.

Intuition

Can intuition itself contribute to the justification for our belief? In my discussion of intuition in part 1, I argued that intuition is predominantly a by-product of our experience. It has been well documented that the reliability of specialized intuition is improved with the accumulation of specialized experience. However, most of us also observe that our expectations are more likely to be met when those expectations arise from a belief that is supported by the evidence at hand. This is not only an introspective conclusion but it has been demonstrated experimentally on numerous occasions. The fallibility of our intuitive behavior relative to behavior which results from slow, methodical reasoning is well established. That said, we also recognize that in the course of reasoning we are sometimes unable to recall the information which has shaped our intuition. It appears that intuition may be able to clue us into something that lies just beyond the grasp of our memory.

So where does this leave us? In my view, yes, intuition can help inform our justification for a belief but we must be extremely cautious in doing so. We must recognize the supremacy of reasoning through readily available evidence and only allow intuition to inform the justification when (a) alternative evidence is lacking, and (b) we recognize that we have a wealth of experience which has shaped our intuition (specialization). Even then, intuition should not supersede or overrule evidence which offers clear and immediate feedback, nor should it be allowed greater influence. Furthermore, when we recognize the shortcomings of our evidence we should also seek to fill the gaps before defaulting to intuition. In the end, intuition is a tool of last resort for the purposes of justification. We successfully rely on intuition throughout the course of our daily lives but justification is not the domain of snap judgements, and that is where intuition is best employed.

Defeaters and Falsification

So far I have only discussed how evidence can be used to support a belief, but that is only half the story. Evidence can also be used to defeat a belief; that is, evidence can be used to show that a particular belief is not reliable. Philosophers seem to particularly enjoy lobbing defeaters back and forth. Defeaters are the missiles in the arms race of ideas. The scientific world has a corresponding notion for defeaters. Karl Popper felt that the problem of induction was insurmountable and needed to be formally addressed. To that end, he introduced falsification, which has become a key tenet of modern scientific inquiry. The premise is actually quite simple: use the evidence to build your theory and then do your damnedest to tear it down. If it survives, then your theory is solid. If it fails, then you need to revise.

Both of these concepts – defeaters and falsification – are very powerful. It takes only one example to tear down or remodel erroneous claims of truth. A belief cannot be justified when a valid defeater stands in the way. We simply cannot overlook and push aside those evidences which clash with our beliefs. Unfortunately, I fear that this happens far too often. Certainly I was not exempt, nor am I still. We are deeply invested in our beliefs and making a change is difficult and painful. But if it is truth that we seek, we must be willing to accept defeat.

Contextual Integrity

Information almost never comes to us in isolation. The data we acquire from books, web sites, videos, etc… all carry far more than a single soundbite. Even in our everyday sensory experience we are bombarded with information from multiple senses covering multiple points in space and time. It turns out that all of this extra information can be useful in assessing the reliability of any one part of the data. When we read an article, or a chapter, or a book, we can form many beliefs, each based on evidence from a small part of the content. The justification of that belief is largely dependent on the reliability of the evidence. The reliability of the evidence can be informed by the reliability of the entirety of the content from which the evidence was extracted. In short, the rule is that data which is coupled to other reliable data is itself more likely to be reliable, and data which is coupled to other unreliable data is itself more likely to be unreliable.

On that note, I’m compelled to consider the role this plays with non-empirical evidence. It seems extremely common for non-empirical data to have contact with empirical data. It may be that it includes claims which can be investigated empirically, or that it directs us toward specific interpretations of information that can be investigated empirically. We simply cannot ignore these points of contact. They are more often than not our best windows into evaluating the reliability of data which cannot be examined by any other means. For an excellent critique of how this applies to Christianity, I encourage you to review “Christian Agnosticism & Touching Earth” at jerichobrisance.com.

Testimony

A Few Good MenMany of our beliefs are formed in large part on information that has been communicated to us by another thinker without us ever having experienced it for ourselves. The fact that this information is devoid of personal experience does not, however, restrict us from evaluating it with the same tools that I have already laid out. The information contained in testimony is subject to the same criteria to which we hold other evidence. Unfortunately, it is not that simple. There is an added wrinkle to contend with.

Whereas external corroboration can help us strip away the layers of subjectivity, testimony adds them on. Furthermore, we often have no way of personally investigating the claims. A cloud of doubt looms large over testimonial evidence. As I see it, there are some key defenses against these shortcomings. First and foremost, we can call on external corroboration to help us peel back the layers of subjectivity. This is perhaps the most important validation we can apply to testimony and is a primary reason why the scientific endeavor is considered so trustworthy. Scientific publications which have not been subjected to peer review are essentially disregarded. Another defense against the subjectivity of testimony is to evaluate both the historical and contextual integrity of the source. The evaluation of the contextual integrity was discussed in the previous section. The evaluation of the historical integrity is just a particular type of induction. It involves simply looking at the track record of the testimonial source and using that to inform the veracity of the new data. If prior testimony from this source has proven reliable then new data is also more likely to be reliable. If prior testimony from this source has proven unreliable then new data is also more likely to be unreliable. These tools, together with all the other methods of justification, can go a long way toward saving testimonial data from the subjective uncertainty that it inevitably bares.

The Absence of Evidence

It is often said that the “absence of evidence is not evidence of absence”. In other words, we cannot prove that something did not exist or occur simply by pointing to the lack of evidence. This can be true, particularly for testimony of historical events, but there are also many situations for which the absence of evidence does count. We can appeal to induction and analogy to define the evidence that we should expect and then see if it exists. For example, if somebody tells me that New York has been demolished by a giant lizard and then I go to New York and see that everything is just the same as it was before, then the absence of destruction serves as a solid defeater for the belief that New York was demolished by a giant lizard.

The problem is that we eventually encounter a point where the claim infers less evidence than we can reasonably acquire with sufficient certainty. When the expected evidence becomes impractical to discover, the absence of evidence loses all power. However, when that threshold is reached we notice that the claim itself has also most likely lost its power because it can no longer offer a justification. To assert that the absence of evidence is not evidence of absence is, more often than not, also an admission that a claim is lacking in evidence.

Investigative Balance

Though it sounds like a Fox News tagline, my discussion would be incomplete if I did not address the balance of the evidence used in a justification. When our beliefs first form, it is often the case that we have no control over the scope of the evidence that formed those beliefs. If we truly want our beliefs to be justified, however, we need to make an effort to ensure that the evidence is balanced. Even so, we need to distinguish between absolute balance and proportional balance. If our research has uncovered a body of evidence for which 90% favors a particular view, while 10% favors another view, it may be inappropriate to pursue a 50/50 balance by intentionally blinding ourselves to further evidence of the 90% while seeking out only further evidence for the 10%. In this attempt to be fair, we may in fact be injecting an artificial bias. The problem, however, is that we don’t know what we don’t know. We cannot foresee the actual balance of evidence that exists and so we are left with only one solution: gather as much evidence as is practicable from as many diverse sources as is practicable and proceed from there. The measure of practicality will of course vary for each person and situation. The key is only that we make an intentional effort to acknowledge and acquire data from multiple viewpoints. It is the best we can do.

Making the Casegavel

The evidence does not stand on its own. It is rarely sufficient to simply present the evidence as the sole support of a belief. Instead, once we have gathered all the evidence and established its reliability, we need to assemble everything into a coherent explanation. Reasoning is at the core of this process (see part 1 for a more extensive review of logical reasoning and its different forms). We must take the time to reason; to identify and consider the relationships between the evidence, evaluate the relative strength of separate evidences and look for the causal connections between the data. We must be able to tell the story that traces through all of the evidence to arrive at a belief. This is the step that completes the process of justification.

I could say a lot more on this. I could outline the basic structures of argumentation, how to use premises to arrive at a conclusion and I could discuss all the different logical fallacies that we need to avoid; but I’m not going to do that (though I strongly encourage you to review them for yourself if you are unfamiliar). Those are all certainly relevant and important to the process of justification, but it seems to me that they boil down to one idea: an argument turns sour the moment it claims a level of certainty that is not actually supported by the entirety of the evidence. Arguments needs to account for all of the available evidence and weigh the relative strength of the evidence.

The determination of an evidence’s strength is tricky. In laying out the various ways we can assess the reliability of evidence, I intentionally called attention to their contribution toward an increase or decrease in the reliability of a belief. I deliberately avoided language that would imply that justification would lead to absolute certainty. This tells you a little something about my view of truth.

Truth

In the previous sections I looked at the ways in which we can justify our beliefs. Now I must confront the relationship between justification and reality. What does it mean for a belief to be accurate? It is usually the case that beliefs are formed because they appear to match reality. Justification is itself our best attempt to correlate beliefs with reality. But how can we ever be certain that our beliefs truly do match reality? To be blunt, it seems that we cannot. When all is reduced, we are ultimately reliant on our own sensory experience (which is both limited and fallible) and on corroboration by other thinkers (where both their sensory experience and the transmission of their thoughts to us are both limited and fallible) to justify our beliefs. Absolute certainty, it would seem, is doomed.

Pragmatism, not post-modernism

What I am suggesting here is not the view that many would associate with post-modernism, a philosophical view in which we are inescapably mired in an uncertain world of subjective truth. Rather, it seems entirely possible to me that there is in fact absolute truth and that we can form beliefs which are thus true. It may not always be easy to justify those beliefs, and new information may alter our beliefs, but that does not mean that we cannot attain truth – it simply means we should openly acknowledge that our current set of beliefs might be wrong and that we should be willing to accept new evidence and new justifications, even if that means our beliefs might change. Truth is experienced as more of a journey than as a destination, even if the destination really does exist.

There is an important distinction between acting as if we cannot hold true beliefs and acting as if we cannot be certain that our beliefs are true. Of course, we are now meandering into the question of how we respond to our beliefs, which is a whole new topic, so I am going to end this part of the discussion with a brief endorsement of pragmatism. It seems that there is little value in dwelling on uncertainty. Rather, value arises from the consequences of the actions we take in response to our beliefs. When our beliefs are sufficiently justified and turn into to actions toward fulfilling an expectation, and that expectation is consistently met, then our belief was successful. I don’t see why we need anything more than that.
As an aside to those who are compelled to raise the problem of quantum indeterminacy against this view, I respond by noting that an expectation need not be deterministic; it is perfectly possible for one to hold an expectation that something behaves in an undetermined (but probabilistic, in this case) way.

The scales of truth

ScalesWe gather evidence, we form beliefs and we justify those beliefs with explanations of the evidence. If only it were that simple. The variety of evidence and differing interpretative explanations can be overwhelming. As a result, we encounter conflicting beliefs while at the same time acknowledging the value of their justifications. What are we to do? I have now come full circle. In my introductory post I outlined a prescription for my truth seeking journey which involved collecting data and then considering the conclusions about that data from both the Christian worldview and the naturalist worldview. By definition, I have immersed myself in conflict. There is little value in assessing the relative merit of each worldview by examining the areas where they agree. If I have dedicated this journey toward resolving those conflicts which are waring in my mind then I must have some way to deal with this problem.

As I have suggested, it is apparent to me that our beliefs not only have content but also weight. Some beliefs seem especially true, some especially fragile, and many fall somewhere on the spectrum between. It also seems as if these weights are generally proportional to the breadth, depth and quality of the justification. From this I conclude that the best way to resolve conflicting beliefs is to, as best one can, carefully consider each belief on the virtue of its justifications and then “measure” its weight (this measurement is, of course, subjective even though we are trying to be as objective as possible). It is important to note that this is not an unjustified measurement (aka intuition) but rather a measurement which takes full accounting of the entire justification. Once each belief has been weighed, we can then compare the weights against each other and use this to decide which is most probably true. Some comparisons will decisively favor one view over another. Some will send us cautiously in one direction. Some will leave us caught in the middle of a tug-of-war. So be it. As new data comes in we update the justifications, reassess our weights and reevaluate our measure of truth; ad infinitum.

This is my process, my epistemology and my guide to truth.

The unexamined life is not worth living.
– Socrates
The truth shall set you free.
– Jesus of Nazareth

[1] Update – July 17, 2014
As a result of the discussions with unkleE in the comments of this post I have revised the language of the “Belief” section to allow for the possibility that we can sometimes choose our beliefs. In philosophical terms, I find “Indirect Doxastic Voluntarism” to be feasible but am skeptical regarding “Direct Doxastic Voluntarism“. The further caveat to this is that I suspect that this is a rare occurrence and that in nearly all cases we do not make intentional choices with a goal of acquiring a belief that we do not currently hold.
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My Epistemology – Part 1: Evidence

The ThinkerEarly in this truth-seeking journey it occurred to me that if I’m going to compare the interpretations of the evidence for and against competing worldviews then I am going to have to establish what it means to have evidence and how to relate that evidence to truth. When I first formulated my methodology I was working under the presumption that there is some common ground; that there would be a set of data upon which competing worldviews could agree. After all, those who hold to these worldviews share a common mechanism for gathering data (our five senses) and have the potential to access the same stimulus from the outside world (by putting ourselves in the position to experience it for ourselves). I later came to learn that this is known in the philosophical world as empiricism.

But is that a fair playing field? Have I biased myself toward a naturalistic worldview by assuming that our data is acquired from sensory experience? Empiricism clearly does not preclude arriving at a theistic worldview; certainly God could reveal himself to us solely through these means. However, when we consider religious experience and divine revelation it appears that there is a claim that the acquisition of information is not always dependent on our senses (at least in the original form, before it is relayed to others). Certainly we can still include this information in our data set; the question is how to treat it. Similarly, there is also the question of innate knowledge, in which logical reasoning and mathematics are sometimes placed. Could that really be a product of sensory experience?

Disclaimer #1: I have no formal philosophical training, so forgive me if I abuse the terminology and/or overlook well established points and counter-points. My goal is not to educate others on philosophy, but to work through and explain my own epistemology in its current state. This is armchair philosophy.

Disclaimer #2: I am trying to avoid using complicated and confusing language, but that is not always easy in these types of discussions. I apologize in advance if I have failed in that endeavor.

I think, therefore…

It is in this discussion that we find the relevancy of philosophy’s most famous dictum, Descartes’ “I think, therefore I am”. This simple statement is the end result of Descartes’ attempt to find the foundation upon which all other knowledge is built. I do not disagree with his conclusion. Ultimately, everything that we know is for us a thought and we cannot begin our formulation of reality from anything less. So it is from this first principle that I too will begin my own attempt to unpack my epistemology. Grab a cup of coffee. This is a long one.

Disclaimer #3: My hope in this discussion is to put aside the mind-body problem and focus on the nature of knowledge. That is, I am intentionally addressing the content of thought and ignoring the substance of thought. To accomplish this, I will treat thoughts as if they cannot be reduced to something else and exclude discussion of whether or not that is really the case. That is a topic for another day.

The foundations of reality

I think, therefore I am. In the course of thinking, I often acquire input that appears to come from something external to myself. We call this perception. I sometimes perceive other bodies who appear to operate in a manner consistent with my understanding of myself, and so I conclude that they also think and exist in the same sense. When another thinker informs me of something external to both of us and I go and experience it, I usually find general agreement with their description of the experience. So from this I conclude that there is an external world which I share with other thinkers [1].

On many occasions, I perceive things in the external world of which others have no information and I am often given new information about the external world that was likewise revealed to me by others (i.e., testimony). It is also the case that we sometimes discover objects whose state was known at one time, which was then left unobserved by all thinkers for some time and then perceived to be in a different state at a later time. From these, I conclude that there is an external world which exists and acts independent of all thinkers (I recognize that some views of quantum mechanics cast doubt on this conclusion, but these seem to misunderstand the definition of an observer).

To summarize, the most reasonable explanation of reality is that I am one of many thinkers experiencing a world that exists independent of our consciousness.

Becoming a thinker

NewbornIn my explanation of reality I concluded that we are thinkers existing in an external world. Furthermore, it is apparent that we are associated with a body and that this body has grown and developed over time, starting from birth. I, like others, have no recollection of the first couple years of my life. Why is this? One explanation is that we are still learning how to think. We are still training the faculties to process sensations, form beliefs and make choices. This seems correct.

In his book, The Cradle of Thought, Peter Hobson makes a strong case for the idea that the development of thought is deeply rooted in the interpersonal interactions that occur early in life. He draws upon an extensive set of clinical data with particular attention to the detrimental cognitive effects observed in those with autism, in children with mothers who have relational problems (borderline personality disorder) and cases where children are deprived of the full interpersonal experience. The gist of the theory is that engagement with others and the relational observations that occur in those interactions is the foundation for the development of perspective. Furthermore, it seems that a key method for assigning meaning to those relational observations occurs through the recognition of emotional cues during interpersonal engagement. These emotional cues arise from an innate mirroring reaction, which then triggers an internal emotional response. The resulting ability to assign meaning from multiple perspectives is then the groundwork for symbolizing and imagination, which are foundational to language and thought.

In short, coherent thought is dependent on our sensory experience. This says nothing about the underlying potential that must preexist; but that itself is not thinking. It is clear that we are born possessing the capacities for thought and that we have inherent tendencies and personality traits. Those, however, are properties of the mind and are again, not a form of thought; they do not constitute knowledge, there is no informational content.

One only needs to look at the outcome of the most extreme cases of neglect and deprivation (see one, two, three) to see just how critical our interpersonal experience is to our cognitive development. You can’t help but recognize the animal tendencies of these children and realize just how fragile the mind is and how dependent we are on the social aspects of our upbringing. If our sensory experience, and in particular our experience of other persons, is not the lone originator of comprehensible, conscious thought then it is at the very least a dominant influence in shaping it.

Innate knowledge

The previous section suggested that coherent thought itself arises from experience, but the debate over whether or not there is such a thing as innate knowledge has been raging for centuries. When it comes down to it, however, the contention between the rationalist and empiricist views typically centers around a fraction of all that we can know. There is no disagreement that the vast majority of our information is acquired through empirical means yet it is also fair to say that the disagreement is pervasive because it pertains to some of the most fundamental forms of thought. The types of knowledge which are most commonly asserted to be innate are logical reasoning, mathematics and grammar, so I will focus on these (and there are three categories of logical reasoning, and so I will address each separately).

Disclaimer #4: I think it’s questionable whether these should even be considered to fall in the domain of knowledge. These might be better categorized as capabilities rather than knowledge (of the “know how” variety). Regardless, I think it’s still worth examining their relationship to the empirical world.

Deductive Reasoning

One of the most common examples of deductive reasoning takes the form: “All men are mortal. Socrates is a man. Therefore, Socrates is mortal.” Somehow we recognize the truthfulness of this arrangement and perform this type of reasoning on a regular basis. The explanation, some say, is that this recognition is independent of our experience.

To examine this, let’s take a closer look at the example. How do we come to know what it means to say that “all men are mortal”? It goes without saying that we are not born knowing what it means to be mortal. Instead, we encounter “mortal” in different contexts and, from those contexts, we come to associate it with the class of things which die. The word “mortal” becomes a symbol for the collective experiences which have shown us that there are some things which die. So, when we say that all men are mortal we are effectively saying that men are among the things which have informed our definition of the symbol “mortal”; that is, the group “all men” is a subset of the set of things which die. In the same way, the statement “Socrates is a man” is equivalent to saying that Socrates is a member of the set of men. It is the relationship between these groupings which then yields the conclusion “Socrates is mortal”. To clarify, here is the logical progression as a sequence of Venn diagrams:

Logic as sets

Rationalists and empiricists agree that our association of labels and properties with objects in the external world arises through empirical means. Our recognition of similarities, or patterns, in that information is then equivalent to the grouping of those items together. In other words, properties are the result of pattern recognition on empirical data from a set of experiences. As we can see in the diagram above, logic is synonymous with the expression of sets and subsets. If logic is thus reduced to pattern matching on empirical data, then one might argue that it is pattern matching which is innate; and in fact this is widely accepted. The question then is whether pattern matching is a form of knowledge. I’m not sure how to answer that, but it’s not difficult to see why we might suggest that it is not. A strainer effectively performs pattern matching when it separates noodles from water but few, if any, would suggest that a strainer is applying knowledge in doing so. This view also infers that deduction does not reveal any new information. Since the properties are based on our experience prior to the act of reasoning, the deductive process is only raising our awareness to the associations that were already established through pattern recognition and the formation of properties.

Inductive Reasoning

Inductive reasoning is nothing more than deductive reasoning in reverse. The inductive version of the proposition given above would be “Socrates is mortal. Socrates is a man, therefore all men are mortal”. The reliability of inductive conclusions is dependent on having multiple supporting cases (i.e., adding more and more of the little pink circles – John is mortal and a man, Paul is mortal and a man, George is mortal and a man, etc…). Regardless, the view I presented for deduction still applies when considering whether inductive reasoning is innate; it all comes down to pattern matching on empirical data. Furthermore, if my description of how we come to form properties is correct (through multiple associative experiences) then deduction is only possible after induction has already occurred. Induction is effectively the process by which groupings are established in the first place.

Abductive Reasoning

Logical ThinkingAlso called “inference to the best explanation”, abduction is what happens when you arrive at the middle circle in the Venn diagram by way of a combination of the bigger and smaller circles. Going back to the example with Socrates, the abductive version would be: “All men are mortal. Socrates is mortal, therefore Socrates is a man.” As with induction, the reliability of such statements is dependent on additional data. In the case of abduction, this additional data would serve to constrain Socrates into more and more of the outer circles that overlap with the “all men” circle (e.g., Socrates and all men speak, Socrates and all men are mostly hairless, Socrates and all men use tools, etc…). This narrows the possible space into which Socrates fits and leads to the conclusion that Socrates is a man. As with deductive and inductive reasoning, this seems to be reducible to pattern matching on empirical data; albeit across many sets which don’t necessarily fully overlap.

As I end the discussion on logical reasoning I must concede that perhaps this is all a bit too dismissive. I am not blind to the allure of ascribing transcendence to the process which calls our attention to the associations between the data we have acquired. That said, I also see no reason to believe that logical reasoning cannot be reduced to simpler, less “thoughtful” processes that are fully empirical in nature. Perhaps the best explanation is that we have an evolutionary adaptation for generating patterns from sensory information and then matching them in ways which produce logical relations that accurately represent the outside world, so that our faculty for logical reasoning is still empirically derived yet also largely innate.

Mathematics

Some argue that there are certain mathematical constructs which have no empirical basis. I do not wish to dive into the details of those more complex elements here, but I will say this: the overwhelming majority, if not all, of the mathematical calculations that we perform can be reduced to counting. What is the first mathematical construct that a child learns? Counting. How do we learn to count? By associating numbers with the sensory experience of distinct objects. How do we learn to add? By counting groups of objects separately and then counting them when they’re together. I could go on to higher and higher levels of abstraction but the point is this: our development of mathematical knowledge is fundamentally based on empirical data. We learn to use numbers by seeing them as symbols for the empirical world, regardless of whether they represent quantities or magnitudes. This symbolizing fits the description of logical reasoning, where association is accomplished through pattern recognition. Does this mean that all knowledge of mathematics is empirical? I have no compelling reason to think otherwise, but I confess that I have not sufficiently investigated the opposing views and my authority for such a claim is limited.

Grammar

I have suggested that both logical reasoning and mathematics can be seen as a system of symbols representing relationships between sensory experience. Conscious thought is predominantly an act of symbolizing and most often takes place in the form of an internal dialog according to our primary language. In considering our remarkable capacity for language acquisition, Noam Chomsky proposed that humans uniquely possess an innate universal grammar. However, language acquisition theories are hotly debated and some claim that the Pirahã language serves as a counter-example to Chomsky’s theory. The chief competitors to his theory imply that both the structure and content of language arises from the relationships and patterns in the context of our experience (see the distributional hypothesis and the combination of distributional semantics with experiential data). It is clear to me that these alternative ideas bear strong parallels with the theories of cognitive development and logical reasoning that I have presented above. These theories all fit together very nicely and, when taken as a whole, describe the formation of knowledge through wholly empirical means. Regardless, the acquisition of language is truly remarkable and I can appreciate why one might be persuaded by the idea of a universal grammar. In fact, as with logic, I am inclined to favor something of a middle ground – a evolutionary adaptive faculty that specifically facilitates language (or group communication) without dictating the exact form that it takes.

Non-empirical information

So far I have suggested that all of our information, all of our evidence, is acquired through sensory experience. Many would argue that this is still not a complete picture. In the secular world, it is generally only information about our internal state which is postulated to be non-empirical. However, we must also consider the means by which some thinkers have claimed to acquire religious information. For my purposes here, I have identified six potential sources of non-empirical information (“know what”) to discuss: intuition, emotion, invention and, in the Christian realm, sensus divinitatis, divine revelation and the inner testimony of the holy spirit. I will address each in turn.

Intuition

Also known as “gut instinct”. There are, as always, varied philosophical positions on intuition. It seems fair, however, on all accounts to say that intuition is something like “the default strength of a belief”; it is our initial feeling of the truthfulness of a claim before we have taken the time to review the reasons for believing that the claim is true. But now it appears that I have gotten ahead of myself. My intent was to discuss my epistemology as a progression from evidence, to belief, to truth and here I am talking about belief and truth in a discussion of the evidence. This is actually a very important point. This infers that intuition is not some new source of information that can be used as evidence itself. It is instead our current default view on the evidence that we have already collected.

Some may disagree with me here. Some may argue that intuition can give us new information by informing us of the truthfulness of a claim in ways that are not accessible through rational reflection. I agree that this is possible, but I also contend that there are no good reasons to identify this as anything more than an alternative way to access the evidence we have already acquired. Conversely, there are good reasons for viewing intuition as a by-product of experience; namely that we can often explain our intuitions by reference to prior experience and feel that it is appropriate to do so. We can also recognize changes in our intuition as a consequence of experience. For now, I will say nothing more than to note that I will discuss our use of intuition later, when I tackle justification and truth.

Emotion

TearsThe potential categorization of emotion as non-empirical is not at all obvious. It is often unclear where our feelings end and our sensory experience begins. When we feel sad, is that a sensory experience? Clearly it is not the same as seeing, hearing, tasting, smelling or touching; but it is similar in that it informs us of our current state and has known physiological correlates (i.e., neurotransmitters and brain regions). It is also clear that emotions are greatly influenced by our sensory experience (and vice versa). Another example worth consideration is pain. Often pain is closely tied to our sense of touch and has its roots in some stimulus from the outside world, but pain can also be entirely internal, with deep ties to our psychology. Really, the only obvious distinction is that emotions do not tell us about the outside world, only about our internal condition.

I am obliged here to also briefly address morality. Regardless of whether there are objective moral standards, it is clear that our emotional response most often dictates the moral property that we assign to a situation. It is generally the case that a feeling of disgust, sadness or anger (among others) leads us to identify something as bad and that a feeling of appreciation, joy or love (among others) leads us to identify something as good. These feelings may arise directly or indirectly through empathy. If this holds, then we are informed by our morality in much the same way that we are informed by our emotions. You can superimpose an external moral standard, but that is a different source of information and a different topic altogether. When we limit our consideration to the question of a moral law that is “written on the hearts of men”, I find it difficult to see why this should be considered distinct from emotion. There may be some outliers, but in general they seem to be congruent. Again, this is a much larger topic that will warrant much more discussion.

In the end, it seems to me that the question of whether or not emotion yields empirical data comes down to the direction of causation: are emotions caused by the physiological correlates, or are the physiological correlates caused by the emotion? I have yet to do an in-depth study on the topic, but the data which I have encountered so far seems to best support the former – that emotional sensations are the output of physiological processes, which are themselves responses to stimulus. The most compelling evidence on this front is the efficacy of drugs which promote or inhibit these physiological processes. These drugs effectively alter emotional states and this implies that the emotion follows from the physiology. In short, emotion is a valid source of information about ourselves, and how we respond to the outside world, but is likely also rooted in the empirical world.

Invention

In Descartes’ dualistic worldview, he postulated that one category of idea was that which was his own invention. We might also call this imagination. Descartes placed sirens and hippogriffs into this category. The claimed distinction is that these ideas are not sourced by our experience, whether that be via our current experience or recollection from memory. It seems to me, however, that this distinction is artificial. Taking Descartes’ examples, it is obvious that the definition of these imaginary creatures is nothing more than a composite of properties of actual creatures that have been experienced by the inventors. I am hard pressed to identify any situation where this is not in some sense the case.

That said, we must also consider the underlying faculty which enables this melding of multiple experiences into a coherent description of something which has never been experienced. Does the act of combining disjoint experiences qualify as the creation of new information? If we return to the section on logical reasoning and consider the Venn diagrams and the formation of properties, we can see how mixing and matching of properties might naturally arise from the associations and pattern matching that connect our experiential data. In that sense, invention is not creating new information but rather reformulating existing information in a way that does not match the original experiences. This can be intentional or unintentional. Sometimes it can be productive, or entertaining, or misleading but, whatever it is, it is still empirical.

Sensus divinitatis

First, a definition is in order. The formal concept of sensus divinitatis was popularized by John Calvin, where he presented it as follows:

That there exists in the human mind and indeed by natural instinct, some sense of Deity, we hold to be beyond dispute, since God himself, to prevent any man from pretending ignorance, has endued all men with some idea of his Godhead…. …this is not a doctrine which is first learned at school, but one as to which every man is, from the womb, his own master; one which nature herself allows no individual to forget.

Anybody with any exposure to apologetics recognizes the relationship between the sensus divinitatis and the undisputed fact that nearly every human culture which has ever graced the face of the planet has believed in some sort of divine agency. The cross-temporal, cross-cultural belief in the divine would seem to support the notion that this innate sense does in fact exist.

However, when I go further and reflect on the nature of sensus divinitatis, it is not clear to me why this sense should be considered as something different than intuition. In my discussion of intuition, I proposed that our intuitions are by-products of experience. To evaluate whether this also applies to sensus divinitatis, I would like to revisit my brief summary of cognitive development. There we find two striking observations: First, it was proposed that thinking itself arises from interactions with other agents. That is, our cognitive development may very well be dependent on the detection of agency. The implication is that we may be prone to attribute unexpected observations to external agents even when none are present (regardless of the evolutionary argument, anybody with children can clearly see how this actually plays out). Second, cases of extreme neglect and deprivation result in distinctly unfamiliar and animal-like behavior. It is unfortunately very difficult to see where those individuals espouse a sense of the divine. Furthermore, with the recent increased prevalence of non-religious cultures we find that children who are raised in those cultures do not seem to attain a natural sense of the divine. So, while I cannot reject the possibility of a sensus divinitatis I also recognize that there are indications that it may be nothing more than a culturally reinforced intuition that arises, in part, from a tendency to assign agency. This alternative is reasonable and so the claims of sensus divinitatis are subject to scrutiny.

Divine revelation

BibleTo start this discussion I must first clarify that I am referring to a very specific form of revelation. Clearly the visions and voices claimed in Ezekiel, Daniel, Revelation and the like are empirical – supernatural, yes, but also empirical because they rely upon the senses of the recipient to convey the information. It is clear, however, that this is not always the means by which divine information is claimed to have been revealed. It would seem that numerous old testament prophets spoke on God’s behalf through something akin to “thought injection” and the doctrine of inspiration seems to imply that information was somehow transferred from God to the strokes of the author’s pen; whether you wish to see that as some sort of circuitous and mysterious process or blatant mind control.

I’ll keep my thoughts on this short and to the point. This type of divine revelation, where information from God is revealed through the injection of unique mental content, seems indistinguishable from the notion of invention that I discussed above. If Moby Dick, Battlestar Galactica and any other work of fiction can arise through an inventive composite of our experiences then we cannot deny the possibility that content in the Bible is any different. To contend otherwise, one must be able to demonstrate that the information is both true and could not have arisen from the experiences of the authors. Nevertheless, I cannot prove that there has never been divine revelation, nor can I explain why such an event would be impossible. In the end, we are forced to evaluate and judge the merit of such claims just as we would any other evidence. If Moby Dick had billed itself as a true story, would we not also afford it the opportunity to prove itself true?

Inner testimony of the Holy Spirit

The concept which most closely aligns with the “inner testimony of the Holy Spirit” is what many would call conviction. Unfortunately the dictionary definition doesn’t really capture the way we actually use the word. Conviction, as I understand it, goes beyond a strong belief and adds emotion into the mix. You may not be able to dissuade me that 2+2=4, but I wouldn’t consider it a conviction. I am convicted, however, that the lives of my children are precious, or that Hitler was evil. I hope that the difference is clear, even if it is just semantics.

So when we consider the inner testimony of the Holy Spirit, what we find is something like a combination of intuition and emotion. In those prior discussions I argued that both of these were empirical constructs. The resulting implication is that the inner testimony of the Holy Spirit may be explained on purely experiential grounds. The story is concise: religious experiences are deeply emotional. The recurrence of those experiences develops our intuition and associates that intuition with the emotions correlated with the experiences. The result is a conviction regarding the source of those experiences.

This story may be simplistic but it captures the essence of how we might see that the inner testimony of the Holy Spirit can be the result of prior experience. As with the claims of non-empirical religious evidence, however, I cannot prove that this interpretation is correct. I can only point out that the possibility is there. From there we must rely on a deeper exploration to uncover the truth.

I am

I am an empiricist in general and a skeptic of rationalism. It seems probable that both thinking itself and the content of our thoughts ultimately arise when innate pattern recognition and mirroring functions are applied to our sensory experience and to evolutionary predispositions and faculties which themselves were formed through empirical input. That said, I cannot rule out the possibility of other sources or that my empirical reductions may be incorrect. My challenge will be to operate under my current understanding of the evidence while simultaneously accepting the possibility that I am wrong and will need to revise my perspective. Regardless, I can at least explain my foundations for the acquisition of evidence – that all information is most likely dependent on sensory experience. Now I just need to figure out how to discern the truth from amongst all this data. That will have to wait for the next post.


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