“Why I Became an Atheist”: A Review (Part 4)

Posted on 07/20/14 53 Comments

This is the fourth installment of my meandering review of John Loftus’ book Why I Became an Atheist. For part three click here.

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In chapter 2 of Why I Became an Atheist Loftus addresses the topic of faith and reason. Here he endorses what he calls the “hard rationalism” of 19th century mathematician William Kingdon Clifford. It should be noted that Loftus’ use of the term “hard rationalism” is misleading. Clifford was a strong evidentialist. But this is quite different from being a “rationalist,” a term which is typically used in epistemology to refer to a position that emphasizes the priority of a priori and deductive means of knowing (Spinoza, for example, was a famous rationalist). Given that fact, I will refer to Clifford in this review as an evidentialist.

Clifford famously summarized his central evidentialist thesis, which we will call “Clifford’s Maxim”, as follows: “It is wrong always, everywhere, and for everyone, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence.” (Cited in Loftus, 40) Loftus’ motivations for endorsing Clifford’s Maxim are clear: he believes it to be an effective bludgeon against religious belief. As he says, “No religious belief system is capable of meeting the high standards required for belief, so no reasonable person should accept any religious belief system.” (41) This is a revealing quote, for it demonstrates that Loftus is no less ideologically motivated in the epistemology he adopts than is any Christian epistemologist. Each is influenced in their epistemological theorization by their desire to achieve certain ends: the Christian epistemologist wants an epistemology that will render Christianity justified while Loftus wants an epistemology that will help “debunk” Christianity (whilst leaving atheism unscathed).

Loftus fails to follow Clifford’s Maxim

Before we turn to a critique of the Maxim, it is worthwhile noting that Loftus shares one thing with the “religious belief systems” he aims to critique: he too is unable to meet the high standard of Clifford’s famous maxim.

This was clearly evident in part three of my review where I pointed out that Loftus made an extraordinary claim about Christian apologists embellishing or fabricating their conversion accounts in response to atheist deconversion accounts. When I asked Loftus to provide evidence for this claim, he refused to do so, apart from a vague and undocumented reference to “anecdotes” he had heard. Since vague and undocumented anecdotes provide insufficient support for any serious claim, Loftus is guilty of violating Clifford’s Maxim. (Nor is that the only place that he fails to provide evidence to support his claims. Loftus’ repeated proof-texting of his sources, a practice I also described in part three, provides additional examples of his flouting of Clifford’s Maxim.)

Perhaps Loftus should worry less about trying to “debunk” Christianity and a bit more about getting his own epistemic house in order.

Clifford’s Maxim terminates in skepticism

Now let’s turn to specific reasons to reject Clifford’s Maxim. I’m going to proceed in my critique based on the common, and I think proper, interpretation of the Maxim as an unrestrained evidential demand for any and every claim one might accept. In other words, the claim is that for any proposition you might believe, in order to be rational in accepting it, you must be able to provide reasons or evidence to explain why you think it is true.

With that in mind, the first problem with the Maxim is that it immediately leads to an infinite regress of justification which terminates in skepticism. To wit, if every belief must be justified with evidence, then if I am to accept p, I must first have evidence for p: we can call this evidence p-1. However, according to the Maxim, I must then have evidence for p-1. We can call this evidence p-2. But then I must have evidence for p-2, and so on ad infinitum. Since nobody can possibly complete an infinite regress of justification, it follows that we can never justify our initial commitment to p.

And so, if we are committed to observing the demands of Clifford’s Maxim then nobody can be justified in their beliefs. In short, it is not just “religious belief systems” that are incapable of meeting this standard. Nobody escapes the vice-grip of this absolute evidential demand.

Clifford’s Maxim is self-defeating

If nobody can meet the demands of Clifford’s Maxim, then that includes Clifford himself. And we see his defeat right in his defense of the Maxim itself. This brings me to the second point: Clifford’s Maxim is ultimately self-defeating. If one ought only to accept a truth claim based on sufficient evidence, then one ought to accept Clifford’s Maxim only on sufficient evidence. So that begs the question: does Clifford himself provide sufficient evidence for his principle?

The short answer is: no. In fact, Clifford provides absolutely no evidence for his Maxim in his famous essay, “The Ethics of Belief”. However, that is not for want of trying. The most notable line of putative evidence Clifford attempts to provide is the well-known example of a ship-owner who gradually persuades himself, contrary to the available evidence, that the ship he owns is seaworthy. Eventually this self-deception leads to the sinking of the ship and the loss of many lives. Clifford thinks that scenario provides evidence for his Maxim.

But it doesn’t. The evidence of this story does clearly support the conclusion that the ship owner was epistemically derelict, and we ought not to be like him. But it hardly follows that the problem was that the ship owner failed to accept Clifford’s Maxim.

Consider an analogy. Let’s say that Dave is a hypochondriac who offers the following Maxim: “It is wrong, always everywhere and for everyone to leave their home without a gas mask.” Dave then offers a scenario as support for his Maxim. According to Dave’s scenario, a man leaves his house without a mask at the same time that the Black Death was ravaging the neighborhood. As a result, Dave ominously concludes, the man contracted the Plague and died.

It should be obvious that Dave’s scenario does not support Dave’s Maxim, for there are far simpler and more plausible lessons to draw from the scenario.  For example, it is far more reasonable to draw the lesson that you ought to wear a gas mask out of the house when there are known airborne infectious diseases about. But the story most definitely doesn’t support the extreme conclusion that one ought always to wear a mask outside of the home. Thus, Dave’s Maxim is not supported by the scenario.

In parallel manner, Clifford’s ship owner story does not provide support for Clifford’s Maxim. Instead, there are far simpler and more plausible lessons to be drawn. In particular, the story reminds us about the dangers of unchecked motivated reasoning and confirmation bias. In other words, the story of the ship owner warns us about allowing our cognitive biases to run unchecked in a quest to secure “evidence” for the position in which one has a vested interest.

Now that is ironic, isn’t it? As we have seen, Loftus has a commitment to see that Christianity is “debunked” and to develop and defend an epistemology to serve that precise end. As surely as the sea captain was motivated to vindicate the sea worthiness of his vessel to vindicate his interests, so Loftus seeks to vindicate Clifford’s Maxim, showing it to be epistemically “seaworthy,” to vindicate his conclusion that “no reasonable person should accept any religious belief system.” (41)

And just as the sea captain’s motivations led him to overlook problems with his ship, so Loftus’ motivations have led him to overlook the manifold number of problems with Clifford’s Maxim. Like the ship owner blinded to the problems with his boat, Loftus is blind to the problems with the Maxim. The result is an epistemology that is not seaworthy.

Clifford’s Maxim is false

Thus far I’ve provided two important defeaters for the Maxim. Now we turn to our third and final defeater: many beliefs do not require supporting evidence. Instead, they can reasonably be held in the absence of evidence just so long as there are no strong defeaters for them.

Before I get to some of those beliefs, let’s begin with Loftus’ own commentary on the Maxim. He says, “It is always right to question all that we believe.” (40) Frankly, I wish Loftus would take the time to question that bit of advice because it’s absolutely terrible. There are many truth claims that we presently have no ground to question. Here is a very brief excerpt from my long list of such truth claims:

    1. It is wrong to rape infants.
    2. Do unto others as you’d have them do unto you.
    3. 2+2=4
    4. Nothing can be red and green all over.
    5. The world was not created yesterday with apparent age.
    6. I am not a brain a vat.
    7. I am not the only mind.

Loftus said that we should “question all that we believe”, so if we take him at his word we should question these claims. But that is absurd. We have no reason (certainly I have no reason) to question (1)-(7).

Don’t think, however, that I am claiming (1)-(7) are for that reason indefeasible (i.e. that we couldn’t possibly be wrong about them). It is conceivable in each case that a person could be wrong. However, the mere fact that a truth claim is defeasible is not grounds to question it.

The proper way to understand (1)-(7) is that each is held as a properly basic belief. It is not that we have weighed the evidence for (1)-(7) over-against various other possibilities and reasoned, based purely on evidence, that (1)-(7) are the most reasonable options. Each of these beliefs is grounded on pre-theoretical assumptions which provide a background framework for assessing evidence. Few if any people are able to provide philosophically viable evidence to support (1)-(7). And yet, it hardly follows that few if any people can reasonably believe (1)-(7).

Thus, Clifford’s Maxim is false, because (1)-(7) do not depend on it.

And from this it follows that we ought to reject the account of reasonable belief that John Loftus adopts, and which frames the entire discussion of his book.

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For further discussion of the problems with Clifford’s Maxim see Peter van Inwagen, “It is wrong, always, everywhere and for everyone to believe anything upon insufficient evidence,” in Faith, Freedom and Rationality, eds., Jeff Jordan and Daniel Howard-Snyder (Rowman and Littlefield, 1996), 137-54.

For more on my view of epistemology, listen to my debate with Chris Hallquist on the topic “Is Belief in God Rational?”

  • David

    This article reminded me of the chapter in Tim Keller’s book the Reason for God in which he offered a similar criticism of strong rationalism. I have sometimes wondered by what means Jesus expects people to believe in him. You have written elsewhere about how testimony can be properly basic absent of defeaters. I would have to assume that this is the way God expects the message to be received by say a tribe in the middle of nowhere who is visited by a missionary. The tribe doesn’t have access to any of the historical evidence or Lee Strobel’s The Case for Christ — they simply accept the missionary’s testimony about Jesus.

  • Luke Breuer

    Randal, have you discussed [I think it was] Augustine’s idea that belief must precede knowledge?

    • http://www.randalrauser.com/ Randal Rauser

      Sure. You might say my entire epistemological approach as developed and defended in such books as “Theology in Search of Foundations” and “Swedish Atheist” is an unpacking of that claim. And the crucial thing to keep in mind for Augustine (and others) is that this isn’t merely religious special pleading. Knowledge generally must begin in faith. Of course it must. You can’t pull yourself up by your own bootstraps. You must begin in trust.

      • David_Evans

        I can accept “You must begin in trust”.

        If I want to investigate the external world I must begin by provisionally trusting my senses. “Provisionally” because I might discover that they deceive me, e.g. that I am colour-blind or astigmatic.

        Similarly if I want to engage in the scientific enterprise I must begin by provisionally trusting scientists to tell the truth. “Provisionally” because I may discover that a particular scientist was not telling the truth.

        For none of that does “faith” seem like the right word. People do not usually say “I have faith provisionally”.

        • http://www.randalrauser.com/ Randal Rauser

          Faith is most commonly defined as belief with trust. Given that fact, what you describe is faith.

          You are correct to note that people don’t say “I have faith provisionally”. But you are mistaken to infer from this fact that they don’t in fact have faith provisionally. They certainly do.

          Jim might say he has faith in Brian to accomplish a task. But if Brian begins letting Jim down, he will stop having faith in Brian. Thus, Jim’s faith in Brian is indeed provisional, whether he says it or not.

          • David_Evans

            My experience, which may be quite untypical, is that Jim is much more likely to say “I trust Brian to do X”, than “I have faith in Brian to do X”. People I know, if they are speaking seriously, tend to reserve “faith” for religious contexts.

            And certainly that’s how it is used in phrases such as “faith-based”, “faith community” and “a man of faith”. If I used those phrases and did not mean “religious faith” you would think me deceitful.

        • Luke Breuer

          You accept an is-truthmaker: particle-and-field reality. Therefore, you can gain is-knowledge. I discuss this in Si enim fallor, sum: “if truly I err, I am”. So you can have being in the is-realm. But unless you have a solution to the is ? ought problem, you acknowledge no ought-truthmaker other than yourself or your society—the source is finite, whatever it is. This would seem to indicate that you are permanently bounded in terms of ought-knowledge, and that it will always be relative, with the possibility of being tragically deceived, like many of the Germans under Hitler.

          • David_Evans

            “like many of the Germans under Hitler.”

            And like many on both sides of the crusades. And like Martin Luther http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/On_the_Jews_and_Their_Lies

            I could go on. The point is that thinking yourself to be in touch with a transcendent source of ought-knowledge is no guarantee that you actually are

            • Luke Breuer

              The point is that thinking yourself to be in touch with a transcendent source of ought-knowledge is no guarantee that you actually are

              You could have just said:

              Thinking you are right does not guarantee you are.

              There is a word in Judaism and Christianity: humility.

              • David_Evans

                Oddly enough, atheists also have the concept of humility. Some, I feel, have more of it than some Christians.

                • Luke Breuer

                  You have avoided whether there is actually a truthmaker for ought-knowledge (that is, whether ought can even be knowledge).

                  • David_Evans

                    Sorry, I was distracted by your mention of Hitler.

                    I do not know whether ought can even be knowledge. For what it’s worth, I suspect that our moral judgements derive from our evolutionary history. I tend to follow Sam Harris (and Aristotle) in his view that the best basis for morality is human flourishing (and the flourishing of any non-human species that we feel should be part of the moral community). Unlike Harris I don’t think we can prove it. If ought is knowledge, it is knowledge of the human situation, not absolute knowledge.

                    • Luke Breuer

                      I suspect that our moral judgements derive from our evolutionary history.

                      Our is-knowledge does not “derive from our evolutionary history”?

                      human flourishing

                      The problem isn’t so much with stating this much, but in the details. How do you define “human flourishing”? What do you do when resources are scarce? Who takes the hit to stop a cycle of violence? How are moral ideas falsified? And so forth. I’m reminded of when I was doing quadcopter work (hardware, software, flying) and some people would suggest really stupid things for what could be done. I don’t say this to demean them so much as point out that unless you can implement and test an idea, you have no idea whether the idea is in any way valid.

      • epicurus

        And Whoo hoo! There is now a copy of TSF at Vanguard College Library. They house Taylor’s library if I’m not mistaken. Now I can stop searching overpriced Amazon sellers!

        • http://www.randalrauser.com/ Randal Rauser

          Good to hear!

      • Luke Breuer

        Any idea why Theology in Search of Foundations, Kindle edition is $97.49? I did check it out from my library’s interlibrary loan system and got through ~60 pages (I enjoyed the bit about Ellen Charry & sapientia ? scientia). I have re-requested it!

        Have you read any of Emil Brunner’s Truth as Encounter? I’m fascinated by the idea that truth can only be communicated from one mind to another, which I think Brunner would agree with. I’m making my way very slowly through his book.

        I wonder whether you have any comments on rationalism, and to what extent it may be describable by Paul’s ‘law’, especially in Galatians 3, with the law being given three descriptions:

             1. phroure? “we kept in custody”
             2. sygklei? “being shut up”
             3. paidag?gos “tutor”

        This gives me the impression of:

             1′. guarded from those on the outside
             2′. forced to stay inside
             3′. being trained up

        It seems like rationalism can do the same things. Furthermore, it is finite, just like the law. At some point, you bump your head into finite things. Rationalism locks us away from the infinite-personal God (I am recalling Israel’s rejection of personal relationship with YHWH in Deut 5).

        • http://www.randalrauser.com/ Randal Rauser

          “Any idea why Theology in Search of Foundations, Kindle edition is $97.49?”

          Absolutely none. Just so you know, writers have no say in the price points of their books (unless they’re self-published.) I do know why the hardback is the cost of a small house: to sell to research libraries.

          I didn’t read “Truth as Encounter” but I read Brunner’s “Reason and Revelation” fifteen years ago.

          I don’t have any thoughts on your final question and I would be careful about drawing any direct links between a first century epistle and an 18th century epistemology.

  • David_Evans

    Perhaps a more defensible version of Loftus’s “It is always right to question all that we believe.” would be “It is never wrong to question anything that we believe.”

    Still hard to defend. However at least one of your examples is contestable. “Do unto others as you’d have them do unto you.” is bad advice for a masochist.

    • http://www.randalrauser.com/ Randal Rauser

      Thanks for reposting this David.

      I appreciate your point but I don’t think the Golden Rule is, as you say, “contestable”. Instead, I think the lesson here is that the Golden Rule requires a minimal understanding of what constitutes goodness and well being. The masochist (or psychopath) doesn’t falsify the Golden Rule. Rather, each demonstrates the necessity of minimal proper function in order to grasp it.

      • David_Evans

        That is true. There are other cases where the application of the Golden Rule is not simple. If I were a judge about to sentence a man to prison, the argument “But, Your Honour, if you were in my place you would prefer to be released and not to be imprisoned” should not sway me.

        • http://www.randalrauser.com/ Randal Rauser

          I think the point I made obtains here too. If each individual is being objective in his assessment of the situation, he will recognize that standards of justice must apply to everyone equally for civil society to function. And thus, each, if he finds himself the defendant, could appreciate the decision of the judge as the right one.

          It is because the defendant is self-interested and not objective that he fails to grasp it is for his good as well as that of the wider society that he be sentenced for his crimes.

      • Luke Breuer

        agáp? ? “do unto others”

  • Landon Hedrick

    Hi Randal,

    I have a couple of comments about your criticism of Clifford’s Maxim: “It is wrong always, everywhere, and for everyone, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence.”

    (1) You claim that this principle leads to skepticism, because in order to have sufficient evidence for some proposition P (call that evidence Q), you must also have sufficient evidence for Q. But in order to have sufficient evidence for Q (call that evidence R), you must have sufficient evidence for R. And so on. Since we allegedly can’t complete an infinite regress of justification, the result is that we aren’t justified in believing P.

    First, notice that Clifford’s Maxim says nothing about what it takes to be “justified” in believing things. But I take it you’re thinking Clifford is putting forward an evidentialist view about epistemic justification here. I’ll work with that assumption.

    Second, you seem to be assuming that evidence must consist of other beliefs. If our evidence for P is just other beliefs, then such beliefs must themselves be justified in order to confer justification on P. But one could hold an alternative view of evidence, whereby experiences themselves can constitute evidence. If I have a perceptual experience whereby it seems to me that I have hands, that experience might reasonably be thought to be evidence for the proposition that I have hands. However, notice that in this case, it would be a mistake to require evidence for this experience. (Experiences, presumably, do not require justification in the way that beliefs do.) Are you just assuming that evidence must consist of beliefs?

    (2) You write “Clifford’s Maxim is ultimately self-defeating. If one ought only to
    accept a truth claim based on sufficient evidence, then one ought to
    accept Clifford’s Maxim only on sufficient evidence.”

    You go on to say that Clifford himself doesn’t provide evidence for Clifford’s Maxim. I don’t understand why you think this provides grounds for thinking that the maxim is self-defeating. Even if Clifford fails to provide evidence for Clifford’s Maxim, that doesn’t mean that there is no evidence to be had for Clifford’s Maxim.

    The maxim could be self-defeating in the following way. Suppose the maxim is true. In that case, since there is not sufficient evidence that it is true, it is wrong to believe the maxim. I take it this is what you have in mind. But this assumes that there are no philosophical arguments in support of (this interpretation of) the maxim. If the maxim just amounts to a version of evidentialism in epistemology, you’ll find able philosophical defenders of that view in Earl Conee and Richard Feldman (though their evidentialist view is much more nuanced). So it isn’t obvious that the truth of Clifford’s Maxim leads to the self-defeating position that we shouldn’t believe Clifford’s Maxim.

    Perhaps you weren’t meaning to claim anything so strong. Maybe you just meant to make the following point: Clifford and Loftus fail to give us good evidence to believe in the maxim. Consequently, it would be wrong for us to believe it (unless we’re familiar with some evidence for it). This would still be a good criticism of Loftus.

    • http://www.randalrauser.com/ Randal Rauser

      Hi Landon. Good to have you commenting again. It’s been awhile!

      Let me work through your comments.

      “First, notice that Clifford’s Maxim says nothing about what it takes to be “justified” in believing things.”

      Interestingly, I originally included a section in this little essay where I discussed just this point, but I eliminated it for the sake of length. Since you brought it up, let me say a bit more here.

      You’re correct to note that the Maxim doesn’t specify what “sufficient evidence” is. One could take a very broad understanding, so broad that the Maxim ends up as a tautology akin to an ethical maxim like “It is always proper to do the right thing.”

      So by a mere tweak you can move the principle from interesting and false to uninteresting and true. The challenge is to articulate it in a way that results in interesting and true.

      I agree that I assumed justification would be propositional in nature. There’s a good reason for that: because that’s what I think Clifford and Loftus were both after. Of course, I’m quite happy with the alternative (I am a moderate proper function foundationalist, after all). But allowing experience to initiate a sequence of justification tends to undermine the anti-religious ends for which Loftus has invoked the Maxim.

      “Even if Clifford fails to provide evidence for Clifford’s Maxim, that doesn’t mean that there is no evidence to be had for Clifford’s Maxim.”

      Sure. Agreed. But at this point I’m dealing with Clifford’s essay. Loftus thinks it is sufficient to justify acceptance of the Maxim. My point is that if you accept the Maxim then based on the arguments Clifford provides, you ought to reject it. I concede that this rejection would remain technically provisional pending further investigation.

  • Alejandro Rodríguez

    There’s a position in defense of evidentialism called “infinitism”:
    Basically, it argues precisely for this infinite regress of evidence that you claim refutes evidentialism. I think that it is not a good argument, but I would like to see what is your opinion on it.

    • http://www.randalrauser.com/ Randal Rauser

      Peter Klein is the only major philosopher I know defending that position. I haven’t read his essays so I am reluctant to opine. However, my two cents is as follows: no finite person can complete an actually infinite regress of epistemic justification. This would entail that we either are all unjustified, or that justification does not, in fact, require completion of an actually infinite regress of justification.

      • Luke Breuer

        Or justification happens as t ? ?, perhaps via accepting truth from God, which is perhaps hinted at in John 17:3.

        And this is eternal life, that they know you the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.


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  • D Rizdek

    It is not that we have weighed the evidence for (1)-(7) over-against various other possibilities and reasoned, based purely on evidence, that (1)-(7) are the most reasonable options. Each of these beliefs is grounded on pre-theoretical assumptions which provide a background framework for assessing evidence.


    I think the reason many think they have no reason to question these truths is because they are the sorts of truths that were questioned and resolved…almost before we were conscious that we were questioning and resolving. I am vividly reminded of how “without reason” children are. My wife and I provide considerable care for our grandchildren…now ages 5 and 3. We are a primary source of the explanations and “truths” of the world around us.

    Let’s go one by one and discuss what we are teaching our grandchildren:

    It is wrong to rape infants.

    While our 5-yr old grandson has no idea what rape is, he certainly had to learn that it is wrong to hit, kick, spit at and tease a helpless baby sister. IOW he questioned it…a lot. +We had to teach him with example, words, books and discipline NOT to do that. We are drumming it into his head..indoctrinating him to behave himself with others. We teach him that it is wrong to do things to others when they do not want it done to them. We teach him the golden rule. THAT is why, when he gets to be 14 or 18 or 22, he will understand without question that raping babies is wrong. It WILL be a truth for him that he accepts without question. But I do not believe it would be automatic if we had not taught him how to treat others.?

    Do unto others as you’d have them do unto you.

    See above. As I said, we spend considerable time teaching that to both grandchildren. They do not in any way shape or form see it as as intuitive. We hope that if we bring them up in the way they are to live, they will not depart from it.


    Yes, even that is NOT intuitive to our grandchildren. They both have to be taught that when they’ve eaten all the cookies there are no cookies left…2-2=0. They have argued the point…continuously and with enthusiasm. We repeat the reasoning, demonstrate the fact, read books about it, find websites that help make it clear and play games based on learning that. Math is by no means self-evident…to them.

    Nothing can be red and green all over.

    Again, that IS something that has to be taught. The very concept of “all over” is not intuitive. They ask what that means. They would ask why something cannot be red and green all over. We have to explauin such logic. We have to demonstrate…the most obvious (in our opinion) things.

    The world was not created yesterday with apparent age.

    That seems intuitive, but there is definitely no reason for a tiny child to think that. In fact young children assume things pop into existence already working with no thought as to how it came to be or got to a given stage.

    They are learning that things take time. They have to learn the cycles of life. They have to learn about erosion and rock, strata and soil formation. They have to learn that plants grow at slow rates, that water evaporates at a relative slow rate and depends on conditions, the natural water cycle, that certain animals and plants do certain things at certain times of the year and not all the time and that things are born, grow and die. NONE of these things are intuitive to a very young mind.

    Neither would the idea that a world cannot be created to look old. It is not logically impossible once the idea of a God is accepted. They would have to understand the conept of honesty which they don’t have now. And it involves understanding that a God is not…among other things…dishonest. They would have to be taught why it would be dishonest for a God to create an old looking earth…it is by no means intuitive. I even see that it is not automatically considered dishonest, any more than a zoo keeper preparing a living area for, say, gorillas or chimpanzees. IF the zookeeper never claimed they didn’t make it look old on purpose, she is not lying. Genesis does not say the world was not made to look old and how can we question if a God chose to do that for whatever reason.

    I am not a brain a vat.

    The conclusion that we could not be brains in vats had to be learned. I believe that toddlers go through the “school of hard knocks” and quickly learn that there really is an outside world that they are intimately associated with and that outside world is independent of their beliefs because it causes bumps, scrapes and booboos. A tiny child just learning to walk might not even know about being bumped on the head…until they stand up under a table. This will happen once, perhpas twice, but eventually there will be no question in their mind that tables are hard (whether they knew it beforehand or not) and it hurts when their head comes into contact with that hard table (whether they knew it was beforehand or not). Their experiences might not prove that to a “world class philsopher,” but they gain enough evidence for themselves that allows most of them to navigate safely through life…getting fewer and fewer bumps and scrapes as they learn more and more. That is why adults don’t even bother to question it now.

    I am not the only mind.

    Wow, that definitely has to be taught. When a baby is born, as far as it is concerned, it IS the only mind. Not withstanding their sweetness, babies are about the most selfish creatures on earth. NOT in a malicious way, but in a matter of fact, “give me what I want or I’ll make your life miseable,” sort of way. Even at 5, we are still trying to get across to our grandon that we aren’t here just to serve him and that he has to become independent. Years and years ago, when OUR son was little, he woke up one amorning and asked, “who had that truck dream.” That told me he had not yet acquired the idea that HE dreams HIS dreams and even if we are in them, we didn’t have them. That gave me a glimpse of who little tiny children understand about who they are, and that there are other minds.

    All of these things YOU now see as not worth questioning were, at one time for you, me and everyone else, definitely worth questioning. We questioned them incessantly. In fact questioning each of those and embracing the evidence for each was necessary to develope into a productive member of society. YES, there had to be a developing ability to reason in order to put all the experiences together into a consistent worldview, but nonetheless, the reasoning had to be accompanied with experience.

    • Kerk

      I disagree. I too spent a lot of time around little children, and they exhibit strong and clear understanding of the concept of fairness without anyone having to explain it to them.

      Most of these propositions, presented by Randal, are known by human beings intuitively. What you teach them is not the essence, but the formulation. You shape the substance into a concrete form.

      • D Rizdek

        I’d have to see more to be convinced. Maybe I’ll do some searching. It doesn’t seem to be my experience. I’ll see what others say.

      • D Rizdek

        I found some websites on children intuition

        This site : http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/babies-do-the-math/201101/brainy-babies

        suggests babies do “math.” So that would conincide with Randal’s idea that 2+2=4 is intuitive. But I question the article myself based on my experience. In the comment section (link at bottom), she makes claims that babies 3-4 months of age can “intercept” objects tossed to them. I have NOT seen any evidence of this, so I kind of doubt the other things she claims.

        This site: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/05/01/science/insights-in-human-knowledge-from-the-minds-of-babes.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0

        is quite ambitious at what babies are thought able to do from birth. I quote from that site:

        “Wondering whether your bag of four oranges puts you over the limit for the supermarket express lane? A baby would say, “You pick up the bag, the parts hang together, that makes it one item, so please get in line.” I mean really? THAT is what she imagines a baby to be thinking? I think they simply fail to realize what the baby has been doing with its time up until they do their tests.

        This site http://www.thedailyawe.com/2012/05/are-all-children-intuitive-why-were-born-with-the-gift-and-sometimes-lose-it/

        suggests children have intuition where her 4-yr old opened up a discussion on reincarnation!

        Read everything this woman’s child can do: http://wisdom-magazine.com/Article.aspx/914/

        This site


        tells us how to deal with highly intuitive children

        I think this site: http://www.bhcmhmr.org/poc/view_doc.php?type=doc&id=12759&cn=462

        is a little more realistic than some of the other sites.

        This site: http://www.ted.com/conversations/10040/are_we_born_with_past_memories.html

        suggests infants are born with past memories.


        The site below will likely be seen as supporting your and Randal’s views. But I don’t agree with its conclusions. I think they’ve just failed to see when it was happening.


        • Kerk

          Wow! That’s quite an extensive research you did there. FYI, I was actually ready to acknowledge that this view of mine is indefeasible. And then instantly add, that so was yours, because how would I ever prove that we know something a priori? I’d need to show how a fetus has some kind of knowledge, which is ridiculous.

          So, we’re both at a standstill on that. It’s only a matter of whose view feels more correct.

          • http://www.randalrauser.com/ Randal Rauser

            Kerk (and D Rizdek), interesting discussion, but be sure you don’t conflate “innate” with “a priori”. The two are quite different.

            • http://www.randalrauser.com/ Randal Rauser

              To clarify: a priori knowledge may require an innate capacity or cognitive faculty (or potentia) but that is quite different from innate knowledge. Plato mistakenly conflated the two with his assumption that any a priori knowledge we had must have been possessed at birth from a prior experience with the forms (and thus innate).

              • D Rizdek

                Well, certainly humans are born with…a framework, hooks as it were, on which concepts can be hung as they are learned. That framework makes it possible IMHBO to learn that rape is wrong, our mind is not the only mind, do unto others, and 2+2=4.

                I am reminded of the horse discussed here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Clever_Hans

                Folks guffawed that the trainer had let on that his horse could count when all the horse was doing was picking up on imperceptible body language to determine when to stop pawing or whatever. I thought, wow, really? They complained that THAT was all he was doing? Seems to be that ability was far more amazing, and far surpassed counting as a valuable asset for a horse…both in its relationship to humans but probably more importantly in its dealing with other horses in a wild herd back before they were domesticated. IOW, the horse HAD the ability, the “hook” as it were on which to hang the training it got…whether from the trainer or from other horses in the herd, to pick up on very very subtle body language and respond..

                I don’t feel like that innate ability or cognitive faculty to learn these things passes as not having to have built those various ideas by reason accompanied with perceptions and evidence. I think they had to, at one time, BE questioned and ultimately established in the minds. But like Kerk said, I can’t prove any of that. I just feel it is right innately so surely it must be right and need not be questioned{:

                • Kerk

                  Delicious ending!

          • D Rizdek

            Well, perhaps I depended too much on my personal experiences with…3 children{:

  • Smith Franklin

    In chapter 2 of Why I Became an Atheist Loftus addresses the topic of faith and reason. Here he endorses what he calls the “hard rationalism” of 19th century mathematician William Kingdon Clifford.

    I am reading along, don’t ask me why, on my Kindle and on that Clifford is in chapter 3, not chapter 2. I’m just wondering if you are ready Loftus’s first edition or the second edition.

    • Smith Franklin

      I am the one reading the earlier edition. My bad.

  • Smith Franklin

    My question is how do you define what is and isn’t a proper belief? Is the Muslim belief that Allah is real a proper belief? What about the Hindu belief that Lord Brahma a proper belief?

  • Smith Franklin

    Wouldn’t it be more accurate to say that having a proper basic belief about something, in this case God, is just a case of special pleading. You can’t show that God exists so you want the belief that he exists to be accepted without question or evidence. Basically, it is just a case of saying, “Believe in the existence of our God because we say so.”

    • john (adj)

      I think when Randal says a belief is “properly basic” he means that it is reasonable for a person to believe it to be true. The belief itself does not have to be true.

  • Smith Franklin

    the Christian epistemologist wants an epistemology that will render Christianity justified while Loftus wants an epistemology that will help “debunk” Christianity (whilst leaving atheism unscathed).

    I think it is interesting that the Christian only has the singular challenge to render Christianity justified while the atheist has the dual of not only debunking Christianity but showing atheism to be true. In the post regarding Lee Strobel Randal and others asked for evidence the claim that Lee Strobel’s conversion was false but when they are asked to show that Christianity is true Christians just say that it is a proper basic belief. Apparently, it is okay to ask for evidence from atheist while not possessing the need to show that their position is true. A double standard here?

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  • http://counterapologist.blogspot.com/ Counter Apologist

    Intriguing for a few reasons. It seems that you’re rejecting evidentialism, or at least rejecting a non-Plantingian version of evidentialism where belief in god can’t be held as properly basic, which isn’t all that surprising.

    As far as your critique goes I think this smacks of being a bit off, there certainly are very defensible versions of evidentialism as an epistemology, and many other popular epistemologies.

    At least to me, for all my biases, this reads as an admission that playing by those rules, theism doesn’t turn out as something one can believe in. Well at least if you’re using a version of evidentialism that doesn’t hold that belief in god can be properly basic.

    You make a very interesting point that really resonates with me though – it’s about picking your epistemology and your accusation that John is picking an epistemology to reach his desired conclusion: atheism. The charge can be turned around just as easily to the theist I think, but that’s not really the point.

    The point is how important it is to pick which “game” to play, or rather the rules we’re going to follow to do an action. It can be applied to morality (ie. Divine Command Ethics vs. Social Contract Theory), or voting systems (First Past the Post vs. Instant Runoff), or epistemologies that bring us to some conclusion on the god question (Evidentialism vs. Reformed Epistemology).

    Picking one or the other inevitably results in some kinds of conclusions that we can’t avoid once we’ve settled on the system we’ll follow.

    So we start arguing about which epistemology to use, and justifying that seems to be a rough time. Well I can only think of an appeal to the general success of an epistemology and Occam’s Razor to speak in favor of Evidentialism over the theistic version, but that’s not really an argument I want to have ATM.

    I’m just wondering if you think that this is the key point that we’re arguing on. And by “we” I mean theists vs. atheists in general.

    • http://www.randalrauser.com/ Randal Rauser

      Hi CA, good to hear from you.

      First, regarding your comments on evidentialism.

      You write: “there certainly are very defensible versions of evidentialism as an epistemology,”

      Well sure, everybody’s an evidentialist about at least some claims. But in this present context I’m reviewing Loftus’ book and his defense of Cliffordean evidentialism. So I don’t think it is my critique that is a “bit off”. On the contrary, I think that better describes your criticism. :)

      “this reads as an admission that playing by those rules, theism doesn’t turn out as something one can believe in.”

      Huh? I pointed out that if we play by Clifford’s rules then we can’t believe in anything.

      “I’m just wondering if you think that this is the key point that we’re arguing on. And by “we” I mean theists vs. atheists in general.”

      First off, there is nothing wrong, per se, with defending an epistemology that one believes is consistent with other things they believe to be true. Indeed, this is precisely how everybody should proceed. If I’m a theist, then obviously I should seek to develop an epistemology consistent with my theistic beliefs as surely as an atheist seeks to develop an epistemology consistent with his atheistic beliefs.

      But Loftus doesn’t think that way. Instead, he is trying the magisterial approach of declaring that there is only one way, his way. And thus far, he’s failing miserably.

      • http://counterapologist.blogspot.com/ Counter Apologist

        Thanks, it’s been a while. This is the first time I’ve had to interact with folks on these topics for a while, I’m somewhat envious of your position of being able to do this professionally (or at least tangentially related to your profession). It’s getting harder and harder to engage for me lately (yay for toddlers & day jobs!), and it’s nice to do so with you again.

        It’s been a while since I’ve read WIBA, and that was the first edition not the new one, so I wasn’t recalling a specific commitment to just a Cliffordean evidentialism. I generally understood the evidentialist objection to be one where one doesn’t start with the basic assumption that god exists (ala Reformed Epistemology).

        Still if that’s what is being done then I’ll retract the objection there. I do think there’s quite a bit of meat for an objection to theism based on evidentialism in general, but that’s it’s own topic beyond the scope of your review.

        What I’m more interested in is your last comment. You’re saying that we should develop an epistemology consistent with what we believe, whether we’re atheists or theists. But that seems to be putting the cart before the horse.

        In this scenario you have to pick whether you’re going to be an atheist or theist before you develop the method of what you’re going to use as your epistemology, which you would need in the first place to evaluate the question of theism vs. atheism.

        In this scenario it seems the only recourse left to evaluate which epistemology to use when one is forced to confront the theism vs. atheism question is to see which approach proves more fruitful/reliable in other contexts. Would you agree there?

        • http://www.randalrauser.com/ Randal Rauser

          You say I’m “putting the cart before the horse.” But I don’t really understand which cart and which horse you’re thinking of.

          We should always think holistically. And that means simultaneously seeking to reflect on, build and defend our worldview perspective in as many facets as we are able, including epistemology.

          Some philosophical perspectives that we adopt will underdetermine our metaphysical commitments. Others will be congruent with those commitments. In still other cases, those commitments may delimit or require certain options.

          I’m a proper function foundationalist because I find it to be the most satisfactory theory of how we know things. Many theists reject this view and many non-theists adopt aspects of it (e.g. the moderate foundationalist part). Technically speaking, an atheist could also adopt the proper function part, albeit with appropriate caveats.

          • http://counterapologist.blogspot.com/ Counter Apologist

            Well the horse/cart I’m thinking of is our worldview vs. the epistemology we use to evaluate aspects of our worldview.

            If you’re going to build your epistemology around your worldview then that is just going to reinforce your worldview.

            I can see how it is impossible to truly achieve full objectivity from one’s base worldview, but certainly it would serve us to try and be as objective as we could possibly be to minimize our assumptions as much as possible.

            Also while technically an atheist could adopt proper functionalism with the caveats it’s that caveat that makes all the difference: I do not assume there is a god.

            • http://www.randalrauser.com/ Randal Rauser

              You seem to equate “objectivity” with theory construction that is undertaken apart from what one believes to be true. That strikes me as a very strange way to define objectivity.

  • Smith Franklin

    In this chapter where Loftus talks about Plantinga’s arguments against Cliffords Maxin Loftus states that Plantinga “argues that there are countless things we believe (and do so properly) without proof or evidence…” . Loftus is not arguing that Cliffords Maxim should be applied to every litter thing but that it should at least be applied to religious belief. Why should Christian religious belief be exempted from evidence while other belief systems, such as Islam, be required to show via evidence that they are true.