Torgo has requested clarification on one point of my critique of John Loftus’s essay on the alleged improbability of Christianity. Torgo begins by quoting a section of my critique which was summarizing the core problem with Loftus’s argument:
“From the perspective of a Christian John is like that analyst calculating the enormous implausibility of the ostrich riding man before the fact. But the Christian is like the man who has just witnessed the otherwise unexpected event. Once a person believes an event has occurred approximate calculations of the probability of the event are no longer relevant.”
Torgo then commented:
“Perhaps you could clarify this point. It seems question begging. Loftus is questioning whether the Christian God is real, or whether beliefs in him are true, not whether any given Christian has a belief in God. You can’t say “God exists” has a probability of 1 just because a given Christian believes it. Also, all things being equal, the likelihood that a guy went by on an ostrich is 1 after we witness it. But claims about a God are not empirically justified, at least not by empirical means alone and certainly not by ordinary empirical means, such as seeing the ostrich. But again, perhaps I missed your point. Can you restate it?”
The problem begins with Torgo’s read on the point of Loftus’s essay. To quote Torgo again: “Loftus is questioning whether the Christian God is real, or whether beliefs in him are true, not whether any given Christian has a belief in God.” Actually that is incorrect. What Loftus is doing in the essay is attempting to provide a defeater for Christians against the truth of their various beliefs. The argument is that each of the beliefs a Christian holds is improbable and thus unlikely to be true, so cumulatively the set is VERY unlikely to be true. And if a belief is very unlikely to be true then you ought not hold it. Therefore, Christians should not hold the belief that Christianity is true (or mostly true).
John’s argument could possibly work but for two devastating problems which I pointed out. The second problem is that by this same method other full-orbed worldviews like naturalism are also extremely unlikely to be true (or mostly true). That argument was a tu quoque. (Note: this is an example of the legitimate tu quoque argument form rather than the fallacy.)
The first problem was that John is aiming his argument at Christians, in other words people who already believe Christianity to be true (or largely true). As a result, his improbability argument is a misfire from the get go. It is directly analogous to pulling out the napkin in an attempt to convince Charles that he doesn’t have a Swedish transexual neighbor named Mario right after he has informed you that he does.
The problem at this point seems to be that Torgo thinks Christians somehow get a free pass from here on out. Because they believe Christianity is true that’s all there is to it. End of story. But that is emphatically not my claim. To make it clear how the argument does work let’s spend some more time with Charles. This is how the conversation has gone thus far.
Randal: “Hey Charles, whassup bro?”
Charles: “Hello Randal.
Randal: “So what’s new man?”
Charles: “I have a new neighbor. He is a Swede and his name is Mario. However, he was born as a girl.” Charles shifts in his seat uncomfortably. “She grew up Maria. Anyway now he’s Mario. He’s a retro-gamer who has the highest official score at Galaga, and this is really interesting: Mario spent three months doing research at the McMurdo Station in Antarctica. Oh, and you’ll like this Randal. He has an unrestored 1966 Mustang with a 351 Windsor in storage.”
Now it should be obvious, as I said, that pulling out a napkin and doing probability calculations is not the way to present a defeater to Charles’ beliefs about this neighbor named Mario. But that doesn’t mean I can’t challenge his beliefs. However, what I need to do is not present a general probability calculation but rather provide some sort of defeater for the belief. Here’s an example of what that might look like:
Randal: “Uhh, you know Charles, have you been taking your anti-psychotic meds that the doctor prescribed?”
Charles: “No, I don’t need those things. What does he know?”
Randal: “Hmmm. Listen, Charles buddy, um, I looked in your neighbor’s apartment window yesterday and there was no furniture in there at all. It looked completely empty.”
Charles: “That’s strange. Mario moved in last week.”
Randal: “Hmm, yeah, that is strange. Oh, by the way, remember last year when you said that there was a Finn named “Luigi” living above you?”
Charles: “Yes…” (He’s starting to look troubled.)
Randal: “Remember how you started talking about Luigi right after you quit taking your meds?”
Okay, let’s not torture poor Charles anymore. You get the point. The point is that probability calculations are relevant before a person holds a belief, not after. Once they hold it a challenge to it must proceed differently by demonstrating some defeater to it. In this case the defeater is clear: based on Charles’ past history of psychosis, the very unusual description of the neighbor, and the empty apartment, the most plausible explanation is that Charles has hallucinated “Mario”.
And that’s why John W. Loftus’s argument is a misfire. If he wants to defeat Christianity he cannot do so by presenting some calculation about the improbability of Christian claims. Rather, he needs to show how those claims are likely to be false. As it stands, his argument is about as threatening as a water gun aimed at somebody already swimming in a pool.