Wednesday, June 2, 2010

"You Assume Other People Exist, I Assume God Exists"

For some reason, I keep coming across this argument for faith now. I'd like to explain here why it's a bad argument.

The argument generally goes something like this, as articulated by a couple commenters on XGH's blog:

"We all proceed under assumptions that cannot be properly scientifically tested. You assume other people exist. I assume God exist. Neither of us is bothered by the fact that absolute truthiness of either of those propositions can ever really be known. We simply proceed with our lives, you and me both."

or:

"The simple point is that there are some certainties in life that come prior to reason [such as the existence of the external world/other people]. Faith is one of them. Just because you can't prove it doesn't mean that it's not so."

The problem with the argument is that it's just a bad analogy. The real comparison would be, "You assume your direct empirical experience with other people is what it seems to be, rather than an elaborate hoax or dream. I assume God exists."

In other words, we have a great reason to assume the external world or other people exist--namely, our sensory experience. It's just that we can doubt these things with an extreme form of doubt, and we assume they are what they seem anyway. We're not making up an external world from a blank. Similarly we can have good reason to accept the results of a scientific experiment if it works--it's just that we can always doubt it based on the induction problem. In contrast, there's no empirical experience that provides a basis for faith in God.

To make this point clear: for the analogy to work, the believer would need to have direct empirical experience with or evidence for God, and then say, "Well, I could doubt this experience/evidence as the work of an evil demon, but I will assume it is real just like I assume the external world is real." This is not the case, unfortunately, which means that there is just no connection between the faith case and the other cases.

Without this connection, one would need some reason to put faith in the category of "things accepted even though they can be doubted." Otherwise, the argument basically goes, "You have what I am calling an unprovable belief [because it could theoretically be doubted], so I can believe anything." Literally. There's no discrimination between one belief and another--faith is automatically approved because something else can't be saved from Cartesian doubt, with no justification for putting faith in the same category. (Notice how they always say, "And faith is the same," without explaining why.) If that's true, rational discussion has been thrown out the window since all beliefs are fair game without justification, and it's pointless even to bother thinking about it or trying to justify faith (or anything else).

4 comments:

G*3 said...

I’ve also come across this sort of argument many times, one which boils down to, “We can’t prove anything with absolute certainty, therefore one is justified in believing absolutely anything.” This is like saying that fiat money is all intrinsically worthless, therefore a penny and hundred dollar bill have the same value.

You might try pointing out to them that using the same logic you would be justified in claiming that there’s a little purple elephant standing on their keyboard.

MKR said...

I agree with this:

The real comparison would be, "You assume your direct empirical experience with other people is what it seems to be, rather than an elaborate hoax or dream. I assume God exists."

But I think that in the next paragraph you go wrong, or at least you make your argument weaker than it could be:

In other words, we have a great reason to assume the external world or other people exist--namely, our sensory experience.

I think that you give away too much to skeptics about the "external world" and "other minds" here. To affirm that which the skeptic doubts is not necessarily the best response. What the skeptic doubts is not, e.g., that there is a book on the table here next to me, but rather that the so-called "external world" (the what?) exists. It is not, e.g., that my friend Dan is sitting across the table from me, but whether any of the human "bodies" that I see have "minds" in them (thereby assuming that I do not experience human beings but only bodies). In each of these cases, you need to accept a certain metaphysical interpretation of common experience before you can understand what the skeptic means to doubt. The best answer to the skeptic, I think, is not to try to show that we do know that the external world exists or that human bodies have minds but to cast doubt on the intelligibility of his doubts.

Still, as I said, I agree with you that being skeptical about theism is not comparable to being skeptical about the so-called external world or other human beings. It is the theist, not the skeptic, who is introducing a conception that is of questionable intelligibility. The skeptic about theism is not introducing a new "godless" conception of the world (as the previously mentioned skeptics want to introduce a conception of the world as "external" or of human beings as bodies with minds possibly attached), but simply taking for granted that we already have a workable conception of the world and doubting that we have any basis for adding something extra-worldly to that conception.

JewishGadfly said...

"I think that you give away too much to skeptics about the "external world" and "other minds" here. "

Maybe. I'm not trying to prove that any of the above exist, though. Rather, my point was more what you are getting at in the last paragraph--that there is some basis for assumptions of a real external world or other minds in our direct experience, whereas faith in God is an out-of-the-blue add-on unrelated to any experience.

(Of course, it occurs to me that their argument does depend on definitions. If one is an idealist and a behaviorist, there really are no doubts about the external world or other minds. I am neither, though.)

James Jordan said...

Certainly the better argument is that when an atheist says "Show me your invisible God!" we reply back "Show me your invisible subatomic particles!" Nobody has ever seen a subatomic particle, so by the atheist logic with respect to religion, it is wrong to believe in them, since they say its "wrong" to believe in a God they can't see.