A couple weeks ago Jonathan MS Pearce asked me to provide a short statement of belief for a new series he was initiating called “Why I am a Christian” which was inspired by my “Why they don’t believe” series. So I obliged and Jonathan posted it here. Take a look, read my statement and Jonathan’s response, and then come on back for some discussion. I’ll wait.
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Let’s take a look at some of Jonathan’s critical comments. He begins:
“So Randal has produced a large enough piece here but without, with all due respect, an awful lot of substance, philosophically speaking. By this I mean that he has kept his argument count to a minimum. He starts by claiming a properly basic belief in the correspondence theory of truth.”
I’m not sure what Jonathan means by “without … substance”, but I have an idea: It means I didn’t answer the question as an evidentialist. Apparently Jonathan wanted me to provide several arguments for Christianity, and when I failed to do this he complains that I “kept [my] argument count to a minimum.” Needless to say, if Jonathan just wanted me to provide a battery of arguments for God’s existence, I could have done so. Indeed, I already did in God or Godless. But Jonathan asked that I answer the question of why I’m a Christian. So for him to extend that invitation and then take the position that only evidentialist answers to that question have “philosophical substance” is question-begging and self-serving.
But Jonathan is undeterred. Though I failed to answer as an evidentialist, he decides to interpret my statement as if I were an evidentialist:
“[Randal’s] conclusion, which is pretty big, is reached by appeals to several things: the beauty of the world goodness and mercy in others, such as people helping others teleology, such as the eye that sees And that really is it. The problem for Randal is that, even given the brevity of such a task, this is simply not enough to derive a belief in God, for me at any rate. The beauty of the world can be explained in many ways (as I explained here), and many would conclude a subjective understanding of such beauty. I am not sure positing God to undergird it has any value. It also doesn’t very well explain all of the ugliness of the world: shit stained toilets in a slum; favelas where rape takes place next to burning litter; wolves tearing a caribou to death; a meteorite wiping out billions of organisms in a horrific explosion. Hardly beautiful.”
The problems with Jonathan’s summary are evident at the very beginning. I don’t, pace Jonathan, reach the “conclusion” that God exists by appealing “to several things”. By the same token, the world-realist doesn’t reach the conclusion that there is an external world by appeal to various things. Instead, perceptual experience provides the occasion for the formation of properly basic belief. Mutatis mutandis for belief in God (or, in the case of an atheist, non-belief in God).
Alas, it looks like Jonathan failed to understand what I wrote. Certainly he didn’t engage it. Consequently, he ends up by refashioning my statement as a strawman caricature of weak and underdeveloped evidences. And so he concludes: “And that really is it. The problem for Randal is that, even given the brevity of such a task, this is simply not enough to derive a belief in God….”
Even more strangely, Jonathan ends that last sentence by concluding “for me at any rate.” In other words, he seems to be chiding me for failing to provide sufficient argument for Jonathan to become a theist! But that wasn’t the task I was given and it is silly to think anybody is going to persuade another person to shift their most basic metaphysical commitments in a couple paragraphs.
Jonathan also badly misreads my reference to teleology. This is evident when he writes “Oh, and we pretty much know how the eye evolved.” This is presumably offered as a reply to my reference to “the inescapability of teleology – from eyes that are for seeing to lives that are for helping others”. Jonathan seems to think that there is some sort of teleological argument being offered here. That is yet more evidence of his poor reading based on evidentialist presuppositions. I’m not referring here to the origin of the eye but rather the fact that teleology is a basic category by which we order the world. We speak, for example, of eyes as being for seeing (among other things) such that eyes which cannot see fail to function properly. One can choose to treat all such design language as a mere facon de parler, but one only makes a judgment like that from another philosophical perspective (i.e. one in which the divine is understood to be non-agential). My point is that interpreting the world as having purpose is a properly basic, plausibly and indeed ineluctable way to look at the world.
Jonathan concludes with a couple putative defeaters. The first is the claim that aesthetic value is better understood to be subjective and even if it is objective, it need not be sourced in a transcendent agent. This, of course, is the start of a long conversation. But one must keep in mind here once again that I am not appealing here to an argument for the existence of God from objective aesthetics. Rather, I’m describing the way experiences of beauty provide the occasion for forming properly basic belief about God.
Jonathan’s second putative defeater is the problem of evil. Interestingly, of all the examples of evil he could have invoked, his first example of evil is “shit stained toilets in a slum”. Fortunately that one can be dealt with via a good toilet brush and a sprinkling of baking soda. At the same time I do recognize that the subsequent examples Jonathan provides are more troubling. But it is interesting to note that Jonathan doesn’t provide any formal argument here that evil ought to serve as a defeater for God’s existence. Instead, he enumerates some instances of evil and then states his own personal incredulity that God should allow such things. Now that’s what I call lacking philosophical substance.
In closing, Jonathan invited me to share, but he apparently didn’t really want to hear why I am a Christian. Consequently, he passed by the interesting discussion of what constitutes a properly basic belief and how belief in the external world does, and does not, provide an analogue for properly basic belief in the agential identity of the divine. Instead, Jonathan reworked my statements as an inchoate evidentialism which he could then knock down with a few indignant comments about the evils in the world. Two ships in the night with one Titanic misreading.
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