Should you have faith in John W. Loftus?
Yesterday I received an email from my co-author (God or Godless, Baker, 2013), atheist John W. Loftus. He said in the email “I wrote something with you in mind” and then provided a link to the following article in his blog:
Good ole’ John.
Let’s go to the heart of what he says:
“Probability is all that matters. Accepting some conclusion because it’s merely possible is irrational. We should never ever do that.”
This is an interesting claim. Let’s call it John’s Belief Stricture (aka John’s BS). So according to John’s BS, we should only accept claims that are probably true. That raises an interesting question: is John’s BS probably true? If not, we shouldn’t accept it. How would we know when John’s BS moves from being possibly true to probably true? What is the threshold of probability that renders assent to it rational or justified?
It seems to me that John’s BS is probably just confused.
“The ONLY sense I can make of the way believers use the word “faith” is that it’s an irrational leap over the probabilities.”
Is that what he thinks John Calvin meant by faith? Thomas Aquinas? Augustine? Alvin Plantinga? Richard Swinburne? That is precisely as dull as a Christian writing:
“The ONLY sense I can make of the way atheists use the concept of “the good” is that it’s something they arbitrarily happen to like.”
Any Christian who would say that just shows his ignorance of what atheists actually say about the good. And any atheist who writes what John has written has likewise merely established that he knows next to nothing about what Christians actually say about faith. Perhaps if John is limited to surveying the belief of the Baptist seniors Bible study down the street from his house he might come up with something in the vicinity of what he wrote, but to make any claim beyond that is just silly.
That’s surprising for somebody like John who has written and edited several books on the topic of atheism and Christianity as well as running his successful blog for several years. How do you spend that much time on a topic and yet still remain that ignorant about it? Presumably you really have to work at it. (By analogy, think of an obese man who begins to jog ten miles a day and yet remains obese a year later. You’d think he must really be working at taking in piles of empty calories to remain that heavy. Perhaps he’s vying for a career as a sumo.)
I suspect that underlying John’s BS is the conviction that people ought not hold beliefs beyond what the evidence warrants (let’s call this the Evidence Belief Principle) and that “faith” simply is the flouting of the EBP.
With that in mind, let me offer some observations.
Get rid of the us-against them “believers” rhetoric.
The first thing John needs to do is get rid of his insulating rhetorical garbage in which he always contrasts himself and his fans against this amorphous group he calls “believers”. The fact is that everyone can be guilty of holding a belief beyond what the evidence warrants. You can have an irrational commitment in your favorite sports team, or the rightness of your nation’s foreign policy, or your own intellectual prowess (*cough cough*).
Not every belief requires positive evidence before it is accepted
Whether you accept John’s BS or the more plausible EBP it should be obvious that you cannot seek positive evidence for every belief. At some point you’re going to have to accept certain principled starting points and reason from them. This doesn’t mean that those principled starting points (what philosophers call “basic beliefs”) are immune to evidence. But it does mean that one’s acceptance of them is prima facie and retained absent defeaters.
Faith is inescapable
When you accept a principle like John’s BS or EBP and seek to reason in accord with it, you are having faith in it. Incidentally, I think you shouldn’t have faith in John’s BS and I offer two defeaters for it, the first here and the second in the next section. The first defeater is rooted in John’s observation that epistemic certainty, however fleeting, does seem to be possible. This requires us to say that John’s BS is hyperbolic. Hyperbole is okay on a Valentine’s Day card (“You mean everything to me!”) but not in a formal epistemological principle.
Before we turn to the next defeater let us not forget that people who accept John’s argument are also having faith in John as a reliable authority on those matters. I guarantee that when John writes something in his blog and someone posts “Right on John! I always accept your arguments!” he doesn’t reply “Have you sought independent evidence to confirm my reliability?”
John’s bigger problem
This brings us to that more serious defeater to John’s principle: it undermines our ability to believe almost everything we actually believe.
John is critical of people leaping from the possible truth of a proposition to believing the proposition. But then the same point applies to probability. If a proposition is merely probable then again, we ought not believe it. According to John’s epistemological advice, we ought only to believe that which is certain. He writes:
It’s probable that if someone jumps off a building he will fall to the ground. How probable is this? Well, since it’s possible he won’t fall (per our examples above) then we cannot say we are certain he will fall. But it’s “virtually certain” he will, like a 99.9999% chance (and I think that’s being very very generous).
Virtual certainty is not certainty and virtually true is not true. Thus, if John is consistent in the way he set up his epistemology then he can only believe truths that are epistemically certain (i.e. indefeasible and incorrigible). This means that John cannot believe that dropping a lead weight off a bridge will result in the lead weight falling. He can only believe it will probably fall. But things get even wackier. Consider this:
The universe is more than five minutes old.
Can John believe that is true? No. At best he can believe it is probably true. After all, as Bertrand Russell famously observed, it is possible that the universe was created five minutes ago with all its crumbling mountains, dusty books and half digested meals in our stomachs.
In fact, it is worse. John doesn’t even know that “The universe is probably more than five minutes old”. The reason should be obvious: John is not certain about those probabilities. So he can only believe “It is probably true that the universe is probably more than five minutes old.” But wait. How does he know that any of this is probably true instead of merely possibly true? He doesn’t. It seems like John doesn’t know much of anything. Talk about digging oneself an epistemological hole.
Now let me state with directness and as much charity as I can muster that epistemologies which make it impossible for a person to believe that they existed a day ago are a signal that the person who formulated the epistemology is not a reliable authority on the matter. Would you trust a mechanic if, after “fixing” your car, it ran so poorly that you couldn’t even get it off the lot?
What constitutes evidence?
Let’s close bo noting a rather large pachyderm in the room. To the extent where evidence is required for a belief, who decides what constitutes legitimate evidence? Let’s say that Bill is accused of murder but his parents adamantly maintain his innocence. You don’t know Bill but you do know some of the evidence and it looks incriminating. To what extent do Bill’s parents have evidence into Bill’s character that you lack? Conversely, to what extent might their personal relationship to Bill have clouded their assessment of the evidence? There is no easy answer. The fact is that personal acquaintance can both yield additional evidence and can skew the objective assessment of evidence.
Note as well that what we count as evidence is decided in part relative to the particular plausibility structure we hold. This is not to say that our plausibility structure is wholly immune to external critique. (It is possible to shift paradigms based on evidence.) But our skepticism against evidence is held relative to the set of beliefs we have. “Bill would never murder” is deeply rooted in the plausibility structure of his parents but not of yours, and so you assess the evidence differently than Bill’s parents.
I could go on, but I trust this is sufficient analysis to establish that when it comes to matters of epistemology, one ought not put their faith in the analysis of John Loftus.