Why they don’t believe: Jeffery Jay Lowder
Next up in our series is Jeffery Jay Lowder, cofounder of Internet Infidels and editor of The Empty Tomb: Jesus Beyond the Grave. Currently Jeff blogs at “The Secular Outpost“. Jeff is very smart, very wise and very thoughtful. But you don’t need me to tell you that. Jeff’s words speak for themselves.
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Tentative, Bayesian Nonbelief
In my life, I’ve identified as a non-denominational Christian, theist, agnostic, atheist, and atheist plus metaphysical naturalist, in that order. As a teenager, I read everything I could find about science (especially creationism vs. evolution), philosophy of religion, and apologetics. I once even talked with a Jehovah’s Witness who came to my door and paid him for a copy of a Watchtower book against evolution! With great reluctance, my research led me to three conclusions. First, the traditional arguments for God’s existence were failures. Second, a literal interpretation of Genesis was contradicted by the overwhelming evidence for common descent. (Aside: I didn’t view this as a problem for Christianity per se, since I became convinced that evolution and Christianity were compatible. I only viewed this as a problem for Christian fundamentalism.) Third, although I would not have put it this way at the time, what I was learning in biology about the role of pain and pleasure made much more sense on the assumption that we live in an indifferent universe than on the assumption that the God of traditional theism exists.
I have never been one of those atheists who believes that all theists are stupid or irrational. In fact, I remember discovering Richard Swinburne’s trilogy on theism in college and buying new copies of all three books as an undergraduate, despite the high cost. While unconvinced, I was (and still am) thoroughly impressed with his intellect, fairness, respect for his opponents, and especially the sheer rigor of his Bayesian approach to evidence. I remember thinking at the time, “This guy’s reasonable, extremely smart, and treats his philosophical opponents fairly.” His appeal to probability really resonated with my background in mathematics.
Years later, I discovered the work of Paul Draper and had a very similar experience: Draper took the same Bayesian approach as Swinburne but explained a much broader set of data. Apart from his novel arguments for metaphysical naturalism (there are many), one key lesson I learned from Draper was the importance of trying avoid partisanship as a philosopher. I already strove to maintain a personal library that favored positions I reject.
But Draper taught me another, more important lesson. He taught me that, if I want to be a philosopher of religion and not an apologist (or atheologian), I should do more than just study the arguments for position I disagree with. I should try to write papers defending arguments I disagree with and criticizing arguments for positions I agree with, as a way of testing arguments and evidence. Following that advice has caused me to spend a lot of time thinking about how to construct a moral argument for theism which actually works. My gut tells me that certain facts about morality may favor theism and others may favor naturalism, but actually showing this has turned out to be much more difficult than it looks.
My research has led me to the conclusion that metaphysical naturalism, which entails atheism, is more probable than theism. This conclusion follows from three facts.
First Fact. Metaphysical Naturalism Has a Higher Prior Probability than Theism. In other words, prior to examining the evidence about God’s existence, naturalism is more likely to be true. Allow me to explain.
Metaphysical naturalism and (metaphysical) supernaturalism are symmetrical claims and so have equal prior probabilities. Metaphysical naturalism and theism, however, are asymmetrical. Theism is more specific than supernaturalism but is not entailed by supernaturalism. Therefore, it follows that, before we examine the evidence, theism will have a lower prior probability than supernaturalism. (There are more conceivable ways to empirically discredit theism than there are conceivable ways to empirically discredit supernaturalism.)
Second Fact. Evidence about God Does not Favor Theism Over Naturalism.
I believe there are several specific facts which favor naturalism over theism: the fact that science can explain so much without explicitly appealing to the supernatural, the hostility of the universe to life (which is compatible with the universe having life-permitting conditions), mind-brain dependence, common descent, the biological role of pain and pleasure, and so forth. This is so even if there are other arguments which favor theism over naturalism, such as the beginning of the universe, the life-permitting conditions of the universe, consciousness, religious experience, moral agency, and so forth. I, for one, find most of these “theistic facts” completely unconvincing. (The argument from moral agency is the one exception.) Let’s assume (but only for the sake of argument) that all these theistic facts really are evidence favoring theism. Even so, when we compare the naturalist’s facts to the theist’s facts, it seems that that the theist’s facts don’t outweigh the naturalist’s facts. (At the very least, it’s far from obvious that they do.)
Third Fact. The Ambiguity of the Evidence about God is Evidence Favoring Naturalism over Theism.
This is where the work of John Schellenberg comes in, especially his recent book, Wisdom to Doubt. The objectivity ambiguity of the evidence about God’s existence is itself evidence: evidence against God’s existence. It provides an excellent reason to agree with Schellenberg’s claim that reasonable or nonculpable nonbelief exists. As a form of so-called “divine hiddenness,” the fact of nonculpable nonbelief is more probable on the assumption that naturalism is true than the assumption that theism is true.
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In keeping with my practice, I’ve excerpted a few statements from Jeff’s comments that pique my interest. Let me stress as well that the point here is not to offer a “rebuttal” to Jeff’s story. Rather, the point is to use it as a springboard to further reflection.
“I’ve identified as a non-denominational Christian, theist, agnostic, atheist, and atheist plus metaphysical naturalist, in that order.”
First off, I am not happy with the direction here insofar as I believe Jeff has been led farther away from the truth. But nonetheless, I respect the gradual progression and in particular the move from atheist to “atheist plus metaphysical naturalist”. So many atheists think that it is simply a matter of kicking God to the curb of one’s worldview and getting on with their day. Jeff realizes that the thoughtful atheist is obliged to think through the very entities the theist invokes God to explain, and that obliges them to say something more. Most atheists have gravitated toward something like “metaphysical naturalism” in response to that challenge. I think metaphysical naturalism is a failure but I respect immensely those atheists like Jeff who recognize the challenge and get about the busy task of constructing a fully robust atheistic worldview.
“He [Draper] taught me that, if I want to be a philosopher of religion and not an apologist”
This statement has something I want to applaud and something I want to protest. The applause extends to Jeff’s commitment to objectivity and fairness, a commitment which pervades his research and writing. However, I’m not content to allow the word “apologist” be sullied in this fashion. While the term has often been claimed by those who have failed to aspire to objectivity, it need not be so. In my own work I’ve argued that we are all apologists if we value truth and aim to persuade others of what we think to be true. And this is fully compatible with the highest epistemic virtues. Those apologists who are mere salesmen (or salespeople) for their beliefs are not worthy of the name “apologist”.
“My gut tells me that certain facts about morality may favor”
The mature man is one who is not embarrassed to ride a scooter or listen to Abba or admit that his gut informs his philosophical reflection. By contrast, mere children are stuck on their regressive Harleys listening to Metallica and insisting that intuition plays no part in their reasoning. Jeff, I am happy to report, is mature.
“I, for one, find most of these “theistic facts” completely unconvincing”
Well I find Jeff’s naturalistic facts completely unconvincing. Indeed, I’m not even persuaded that “naturalism” is a meaningful position. Jeff believes that “the fact that science can explain so much without explicitly appealing to the supernatural” supports naturalism. That leaves me mystified.
Jeff believes that “the hostility of the universe to life” supports naturalism. Interesting. When I look at the scarcity of the Goldilox Zone I am more prone to find divine intention.
Jeff also believes that “mind-brain dependence” somehow supports naturalism. I can’t fathom why. Really. God made us a nephesh (Gen. 2:7). In what sense does this support naturalism? Indeed, as Thomas Nagel argued in Mind and Cosmos, if anything it would seem to point us in the opposite direction.
Common descent? But Jeff already said this is fully consistent with Christianity. (Keep in mind that there are, no doubt, versions of naturalism that reject common descent.) So I am at a loss to conceive of what advantage Jeff thinks is gained here.
As for “the biological role of pain and pleasure”, I’ll leave that one since I’m not sure what Jeff is referring to here.
Jeff’s final reason refers to Schellenberg’s defense of non-culpable non-belief. I’ve offered a rebuttal of Schellenberg’s argument in God or Godless. Granted it is brief, but I think it gets to the nub of the issue.
These are big differences between Jeff and myself. However, if I only had six Innis and Gunn beers left in my fridge, I’d offer Jeff three and we’d work these things out.