In his latest salvo John Loftus writes:
“So let me put it to you again, Randal, when you conclude more than the probabilities allow you are being irrational.”
When I read that I get a mental visual of William Hung (of American Idol infamy) saying “So you didn’t like my rendition of ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’? Well let me sing it again!”
John’s principle, like Hung’s tribute to Queen, doesn’t sound better on repeated listening. Why not? Here are some problems.
The Wrong Principle: For starters, John has given us the wrong principle. And that is unfortunate because there is a legitimate principle in the vicinity. Indeed, I suspect there are a few legitimate principles. Here’s one of them:
A real probability principle: You should not believe p if you have reason to believe p is likely false.
Note the following. First my real probability principle captures the same intuition that Loftus seems to be striving vainly for. Second, note that it applies to itself. I have no reason to believe my real probability principle is likely to be false so its okay. Alas, the same cannot be said for John’s principle.
John’s principle fails to do what he wants it to do. Here’s the lesson: there are perfectly good principles in the vicinity which capture the intuition John was appealing to. The problem is that these real principles are not of interest to him for the following reason: they are fully congruent with Christian doctrinal beliefs.
In “John W. Loftus and a Swede named Mario” I pointed out that it is very unlikely that your friend would have a Swede named Mario for a neighbor. But once your friend tells you that he has a Swede named Mario for a neighbor you believe it. The prior low probabilities are out the window. As I concluded in that article:
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.
In the same way that the testimony of a trusted witness can ground belief in the truth of one’s neighbor so it can ground belief in the truth of a metaphysical system of belief.
For those who are interested, I have another two articles critiquing John’s essay in The End of Christianity on the alleged “wild improbability” of Christianity:
You will find that John gave no response at all to these extended critiques of his “wild improbability” claims. John had some personal issues at the time that inhibited his blog productivity in August. But since then he has posted dozens of articles on his blog and yet has never acknowledged these critiques of his claims. Sadly, that is a well established pattern: John ignores critiques and keeps repeating the same errors. Feel sorry for me: I’ve been listening to Hung’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” for way too long.
John’s self-reference problem (again): As I noted earlier, John’s principle requires that he show it to be probably true. He has made no effort to do so. But presumably if we do not know the probability that the claim is true then we ought to withhold our assent to it because the probability that it is true could still be low in which case we shouldn’t believe it. So if we believe John’s principle we should not believe it!
John’s skepticism (again): Finally, as I already noted John’s principle is stated in a way that lacks any constraint. This means that we are supposedly obliged to do probability calculations for every belief we might form. For example, as I look out the window what is the probability that I am awake rather than asleep, perceiving correctly rather than incorrectly, et cetera. I must do a probability calculation for every one of those propositions before I can believe even one of them.
Or we could just curl up in the fetal position and call it a day because John’s wacky principle undermines our ability to know anything.
Conclusion: When rationality becomes a club (in two ways)
Fortunately John’s principle is a piece of wackiness, it is like a frothing Old Yeller ready to be put down, except that it never was a loyal companion to begin with.
John’s rhetoric shows us how language like “rationality” and “reason” and “faith” is often used these days. These terms are used as shameless rhetorical devices to exclude others, to club them rhetorically (you’re irrational because you don’t conform to my half-baked principle!) even as you exclude them from the club of insiders (We the enlightened “skeptics” and “free thinkers”).
Whether you’re a Christian or an atheist or anything in between, this kind of discourse is disingenuous and harmful to the free society because the minute you marginalize others with this kind of rhetoric you don’t have to listen to them. And that means you don’t learn from them. And when they keep babbling their irrational nonsense maybe you should shut them up. After all, they are irrational and they’re not in the club.