In the past I have had my great frustrations with John Loftus and his Outsider Test of Faith. Shall I count the reasons? For starters, it is arbitrarily imposed upon people who hold a set of claims that are “religious” as a means to test those claims when a more consistent application would present it as a means to test the basic worldview assumptions of all people. Further, Loftus treats it as a one-off test. (If my beliefs pass this test then I’m okay). In fact, our beliefs should be subjected to ongoing review. For an illustration of how important this is, think about a meat-packing plant which receives one scheduled visit from government inspectors. Imagine that inspectors told the plant that they had passed and as a result the inspectors would never return for another visit. The plant is supposedly good for all time. Once you knew that they were no longer subject to scheduled or random government inspections, how quick would you be to buy their deli meat?
So how does one go about being objective in their worldview? Well for starters, one needs to consider whether that worldview provides an explanation for the things one encounters in the world. This is important because the human tendency is not to explain recalcitrant facts but rather to explain them away.
But here’s our first difficulty. How can one draw up an objective list of what one sees in the world? This is not as easy as it might sound because inevitably the set of beliefs we already presuppose prior to this empirical inventory will shape the kinds of facts we are willing to acknowledge at the outset. A racist decides to evaluate his beliefs in the moral and intellectual superiority of his race. But every time somebody of another race shows kindness, intelligence or capability, he interprets his experience by tacitly assuming they have an agenda, or perhaps are “the exception that proves the rule”. So all the abundant counter evidence gets screened out. And we shouldn’t fool ourselves when it comes to our great ability to fool ourselves.
Another difficulty, perhaps an even greater one, is in deciding just how to interpret experience. In Philosophical Investigations Ludwig Wittgenstein gives an example with the picture of a stickman walking up a steep hill. Or is he sliding down the hill? Who decides? Either way, it is an interpretation. And then there is the Psychology 101 example of the duck. Or is it a rabbit? You can bet that Daffy and Bugs will disagree on that one.
Levels of explanation
Let’s also keep in mind that various phenomena have levels of explanation. This is crucial to remember because often people fall into the erroneous assumption that to have provided one level of explanation is to have provided explanation all the way up (or down).
For example, take the experiences of a mystic like Teresa of Avila. In 1560 she reported a visit from an angel which is captured in Bernini’s famous marble scuplture (imagine carving that billowing fabric out of marble). She later wrote: “In his hands I saw a long golden spear and at the end of the iron tip I seemed to see a point of fire. With this he seemed to pierce my heart several times so that it reached to my entrails. When he drew it out I thought he was drawing them out with it, and he left me completely afire with a great love of God.” Oliver Sacks has offered a neurological account of her experiences. Is that an adequate account all the way up? One can’t assume that it is any more than one can assume that a neurological account of tasting peppermint is an adequate explanation all the way up for the conscious experience of tasting peppermint.
Drawing upon background information
And then I have this question: to what extent can or should one bring in other facts or background information in interpreting the world? If I go to a magic show you can bet that I am not going to add immediately to my inventory of facts to be explained the purported fact that people can be sawed in two and yet survive. And that certainly seems legitimate. But when is it appropriate to draw on background information in taking our belief inventory? Is it okay to dismiss claims to a resurrection a priori because obviously just as people cannot be sawed in two by a magician so they cannot be resurrected?
A word on agnosticism
Finally, let’s remember this: agnosticism with respect to various purported facts can be the most reasonable response in some cases. In other words, it is okay to recognize that some purported facts are recalcitrant to our available explanations. And we recognize that eventually something’s gotta give, but we may not know at the time whether that thing is the putative fact or our interpretive framework which finds it inexplicable.
By the same token it is also important to remember that agnosticism is not always justified. Sometimes the evidence for a putative fact is such that we really need to revise our worldview in light of it and that means turning a critical eye on our agnosticism. Sometimes not believing is nothing more than irrational intransigence.
Triumphalism out the window
All that provides merely some preliminary qualifications. But they should be sufficient, I hope, to warn us against naive triumphalism regarding our worldview. Instead we need to go from here to evaluate carefully, diligently, and continually, putative facts as they come to us.