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:
- It is wrong to rape infants.
- Do unto others as you’d have them do unto you.
- Nothing can be red and green all over.
- The world was not created yesterday with apparent age.
- I am not a brain a vat.
- 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?”