Up@dawn 2.0

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Group Two: Richard Feldman

God? Seriously? Let’s Be Reasonable

Richard Feldman, in his essay Reasonable Religious Disagreements, inspired in a barrage of altruistic alliteration extrapolated from a co-taught philosophy course entitled Rationality, Relativism, and Religion, demonstrates the polite, prudent, and politically correct way to proceed with a perfectly logical line of unadulterated thinking concerning the ontological status of gods and the arguments that inevitably ensue. This type of college course offering would seem to be an excellent lightning rod for contentious debate but after spending an entire semester with overly polite Religious Studies students, Feldman discovered that the mostly inter-faith class “agreed to disagree,” and subsequently concluded: “reasonable people can disagree” about religious beliefs.

For me, this doesn’t seem much of a take-away from a full (paid) semester of philosophical study. This sentiment is fine and dandy in the spirit of religious tolerance and social graces but does it get us anywhere near the teeth of rigorous skeptical inquiry and dialectic Socraticism? I don’t think it does. And Feldman, upon reflection, doesn’t think so either. Luckily, his training in epistemology and critical thinking skills jarred him from his complacent slumber and allowed him to apply those skills to the problem at hand.

As with any honest examination of facts from shared evidence brought to bear before the altar of reason, Feldman’s upshot in his essay is that, logically, both sides of the god debate cannot be correct. 

After a several pages of cathartic venting about the insufferable Cal Thomas and various issue framing, Feldman eventually gets down to the crux of the argument he must have realized was missing in his Triple R philosophy class: there is a truth-value to the proposition that a god or gods exist. His epiphany must have been most enlightening when he realized he wasted an entire semester debating the fine cloth, thread and trimmings comprising each and every Emperor’s new clothes. That gets boring after a while, even for a courtier. 

One of Feldman’s finer points made throughout his line of reasoning is that evidence that is “not fully shared” is not really valid evidence (Jamesians may chime in here). This disputation, for Feldman, is simply a point of disagreement that must be settled by something other than unsupported personal insights.

The contention is that private evidence is, in terms of weight and preponderance, just as much in the atheist’s corner as the theist’s—it’s a proverbial wash. E.g., if I think there is a baseball in the fridge and you don’t, then we both have to appeal to some external arbiter to settle the matter. If we both look in the fridge and you claim it would be foolish to rush to judgment because there isn't a baseball in the fridge, then we have two problems. To give special status to personal revelation—brought only in the case of gods (or baseballs)—is imprudent. Insight doesn’t solve the problem; it’s simply a good starting point. William James wouldn't hold out for the "baseball evidence" either because his argument is much more sophisticated; Feldman is addressing a more vulgar degree of ontological disagreement. 

In conclusion, Feldman, after wrestling with special considerations of other and various issues, comes down hard on the side of epistemic honesty: “That is, it cannot be that epistemic peers who have shared their evidence can reasonably come to different conclusions.” This leaves us replete with reasons for our beliefs that are warranted by empirical evidence.

Matters of value, ethics, and aesthetics may trouble us for years to come but, eventually, I think we'll find that most ontological disagreements can be easily resolved if both parties agree that scientific empirical evidence—the mainspring that has moved society forward since the dawn of science—is the best judge and jury regarding all things extended.

What’s is most comforting about this proposition is that one doesn’t have to take this sort of philosophy on authority, the proof is right there in the pudding. 


  1. I actually really liked this essay, and I agree with his general conclusion. I think it is true that one side or the other of this kind of claim must be right. Where I would diverge from many people I think in this class is that I doubt our ability to discover which is which. One of the things in the essay that was repeated over and over (and that I commend him for) was his statements to the effect:

    While one of us must be right and the other wrong, and we can not agree to disagree and both still be reasonable, the truly reasonable thing to do in such cases is to suspend judgment.

    He brought up much more articulately than I did many of the points I have tried to make before about chains of evidence, holding different fundamental worldviews or "starting points" for an argument, and other related issues. I think ultimately, I would take this essay a step further than he did. While he mostly said that suspension of judgement was the reasonable conclusion in many of these cases, I would say it may be the reasonable conclusion in all cases of the sophisticated Deist type arguments. But of course, then we get into the never-ending discussion about the difference between a Deist and a Theist. :D

    Though I'm curious Dean, I would like to hear your argument for why scientific empirical evidence is the best judge and jury of all things extended in the field of value, ethics, and aesthetics. These fields do not seem to lend themselves well to "empiricism" in the sense that I think you mean. The comment strangely reminded me of the various claims about having computers using an algorithm to spit out chart-topping catchy dance hits in music.

    If such a thing were possible, I think that would say more sad things about the reflection and aesthetic abilities of the mass of popular culture than it would say good things about the ability of science to resolve aesthetic disputes. ;)

    1. Hi, Jamie,

      First, I liked this essay as well and, in the spirit of reasonable (in the broad sense) discussion, I'm happy to "agree to disagree."

      I think, ultimately, both of us will have to justify our claims in some fashion or another or at least submit some supporting evidence or the absence thereof as to why we hold those beliefs. It may boil down to etymology, e.g., defining "evidence," "god, "proof" or one of us simply accepting a presupposition (no matter the logical pain involved). I'm sure our inquiry will continue to be fruitful.

      Secondly, I know you think you got me ;) but I think you misread my statement or it wasn't perfectly clear, which is possible. Believe me, I wouldn't make the mistake your inferring. And, you're right, it would be sad if the world worked that way so I would have to "agree to agree."

      So, for the sake of clarity, here it is again:

      "Matters of value, ethics, and aesthetics may trouble us for years to come but, eventually, I think we'll find that most ontological disagreements can be easily resolved if both parties agree that scientific empirical evidence—the mainspring that has moved society forward since the dawn of science—is the best judge and jury regarding all things extended."

      My point here is that value judgments, e.g., morality, ethics, aesthetics, and meaning will is and will be beyond the reach of science and objectivity. The extended (to use a Kantian term) e.g., rocks, chairs, cats on mats, etc., on ontological terms (what exists), does belong to the discipline of science.

      Most concepts of gods eventually wind up with some transcendent foot in latter category viz. gods that interact in some way with humans, i.e., answering prayers, healing the sick, smiting the wicked, as well as influencing sporting events and awards shows.

      I'm sure I'll trip up somewhere and I hope you there to call bullshit on the mistake but this wasn't one of them.

      P.S. Great post on the Blackburn essay; I’ll be chiming in soon.

    2. Mea culpa Dean, the fault was mine. I failed to properly parse the clauses of your statement and thought you were saying something that you weren't. Despite what you migt think I'm not lurking behind my keyboard waiting to pounce on any flaw I see in your thinking.

      Or AM I?

      *dun dun dun!*

      On a more serious note, I guess what I think the most about this essay, is the question of what it means to be rational. One of my biggest pet peeves and the quickest way to make me angry (and I find this goes to both sides of the fence here) is when people act as if belief in a divinity is prima facie evidence that someone is irrational. I know Dr. Oliver has said it before, and it's an appreciated thought, but many highly intelligent and exceptionally rational people have been believers, and it seems a dismissive reduction to presume otherwise.

      I think that most cases of 'reasonable' disagreement fall under the category Feldman marked as 'starting from different points'. As he says in his essay, once these are identified, they too are open for rational inquiry. The difficulty lies in two places: One, it is often hard to identify what principles or premises we are just taking entirely for granted without examination... BECAUSE we are taking them entirely for granted and so don't notice them. Two, because you can't /actually/ have an infinite chain of anything, ANY argument is going to have to be crafted with some unsubstantiated premise or other, something that is either agreed by both people to be self-evident or is at least accepted 'for the sake of argument'. And depending on how committed the two people are to the argument, it might be very very hard to find some foundational principle they both can agree on. :)

    3. I guess the question would be: how do rational (in the broad sense) people hold irrational thoughts? More pointedly, why do they mostly make this exception for religious beliefs or the supernatural?

      Faith, by definition (in the logical sense), is irrational but doesn't necessarily have to invoke a negative connotation. I think it would be perfectly acceptable to say a person who believed in the supernatural was being irrational without being derisive.

      Words, words, words--language is a messy business; it made Wittgenstein write whole other book.

  2. I suppose I define rationality/rational as a process more than an end result. That is: "relating to or conforming to reason". It may be that believers, or any other person on a given question, may hold a premise or foundational claim which then turns out to be false. However, this doesn't make their argument irrational, it merely makes it wrong.

    I know that Dr. Bombardi covers this in the elementary class on logic to some degree. To say an argument is logical usually says very little about the truth value of the conclusion. It is possible for an argument to be rational (Ie, formulated correctly and following correct inferences) and the conclusion be false.

    So when I say that someone is rational but incorrect, I mean that they are thinking clearly and with logical inferences and a well-reasoned argument, however I dispute the truth of one or more of their premises. In empirical matters and many areas of science, we can test the premises to see whether or not it is false. In many areas, this isn't possible.

    That's one of the great atheist arguments against such arguments for God isn't it? That the premise of God is made unfalsifiable and can't be tested in this manner. To many atheists, that makes a pointless argument, not worth giving respect to. But of course, the counter is that we believe all the things that are not falsifiable in this sense all the time.

    A fairly cursory examination of the insane can demonstrate the point I'm trying to get quite readily. The problem with the truly insane is rarely their logic. In fact they are usually frighteningly and exactingly logical. The problem is not with their rationality, but with the premises they accept and can not break free from. But once in psychological examination you learn what these deranged premises are, you can see how it all "makes sense" and their actions follow quite naturally and logically from the information they are working with.

    So the "too long;didn't read" version: My understanding of rationality is that it means merely the exercise of reason. Indeed the textbook/wiki definition is: "It refers to the conformity of one's beliefs with one's reasons to believe. Or the conformity of their actions with their reasons for the actions."

    So, we may have mutually enjoyable discussion about whether a premise (say "God exists and has these certain attributes") is true or not. But even if it is false it doesn't make someone's arguments for theism irrational, merely mistaken.

  3. Thank you for the introductory lesson on truth-tables but, I can assure you, Dr. Bombardi covers this more than "to some degree." I'm sure when you said "logical" you were referring to the validity and soundness of deductive arguments as well as the strength and cogency of inductive arguments based on logical and material conditionals. Also, one might be surprised by the many sources on various forms of logic that have been available outside of class for some time now, e.g., Quine, Konyndyk, Grayling, Popper, etc.

    (I'm sorry, Jamie, I just couldn't resist writing that introduction; I guess I've been sitting too close to David in class. Kudos on the tactic though—keeps me on my toes.) :)

    That being said, I still maintain that you are defining words to fit your needs.

    In the case of "rationality" in everyday conversation, it's not necessarily a crime or even an etymological violation that you have committed here—lexicographers could comfortably relax. Let’s examine one of your sentences:

    “I suppose I define rationality/rational as a process more than an end result.”

    I think you are going to have to define “rationality” this way to get where you want to go because what your are telling me is that it is “rational” to believe in premises based on faith. Therefore, x is true because I believe in x. There is a pretty big reason society has two different meanings for “rationality” and “faith.” Crafty wordplay doesn’t make it better. Also, this used undermines the very definition of “faith.”

    Let’s look at how the terms “reason,” “rational,” “faith.” and “irrational” are used. I’ll use the Oxford Dictionary and The American Heritage Dictionary for standardization:

    Faith—Belief that does not rest on logical proof or material evidence.
    Rational—based on or in accordance with reason or logic.
    Irrational—Not logical or reasonable; not endowed with the power of reason.
    Reason—a cause, explanation, or justification for an action or event; In Logic—a premise of an argument in support of a belief.

    I think the way you are trying to “logically” justify your argument is that fact that your can plug in your premises into a logical form as required by the logical conditionals that makes the form valid, then, simply ignore the truth-value of your premises while maintaining that your argument is “rational” based on only the validity of the argument, and you know that validity is only part of the process. This, to me, fits the very definition of irrational. You are conveniently using "logical in form" and "logical in truth" interchangeably to justify your position when you actually need both.

    This fuzzy thinking is the very thing that was bothering Feldman in his essay.

    So, let’s go back to this statement:

    “That's one of the great atheist arguments against such arguments for God isn't it? That the premise of God is made unfalsifiable and can't be tested in this manner.”

    Neither gods nor garden fairies can be tested because of two reasons: one can’t prove a negative and there is absolutely zero evidence for either.

    Think about this: if you were working at the local sheriff’s department and I called you about 2am and swore up and down that there were garden fairies playing poker and drinking beer in my kitchen, would you seriously be compelled to indicate in the police report that I was being “rational but incorrect” or would the term “irrational” seem to be a much better fit?

    Thanks for the exercise. I’m sure you won’t find my argument compelling but I always look forward to each and every challenge you pose.

    1. Hey, I resemble that remark. #strident

    2. Ha! I thought you would.

      "I love the smell of stridence in the morning."

  4. ( I think you are going to have to define “rationality” this way to get where you want to go because what your are telling me is that it is “rational” to believe in premises based on faith. Therefore, x is true because I believe in x. There is a pretty big reason society has two different meanings for “rationality” and “faith.” Crafty wordplay doesn’t make it better. Also, this used undermines the very definition of “faith.” )

    I think here is where you lose the understanding of my point, because this is not actually what I said or would say. X is not true because I believe in X. That would be circular and rather silly. A closer approximation of what I am saying would be something like:

    X may or may not be true. But if it is, inferences/conclusions Y and Z follow. Therefore, if I think X IS true, then it is perfectly reasonable to believe that Y and Z follow.

    If your point is that one can not be rational and believe in something where at least one of the premises can not be tested or demonstrated, then I would suggest you are the truest skeptic, because under those conditions nothing could ever be considered rational to believe in. I'd invite you to show any argument or conclusion where all of the premises and assumptions are testable and able to be demonstrated.

    Which is a trick question, because I remain fairly sure that is an impossible task.

    And, before David nails me and tries to say something to the effect that we "don't need 100 percent certainty before we can act, it's good enough to know how much more likely it is than the fanciful alternatives." I will make more explicit that I agree. Certainly some arguments are going to be stronger than others, some inferences and conclusions more 'rational' than others. Certainly, it can be more LIKELY that a certain educated guess about the truth-value of a premise is correct. I'm merely saying that having an untestable premise or an undemonstratable assumption does not /in and of itself/ make an argument irrational.

  5. The contra argument would be that the unsupported premise to which you are referring (God) has been tested for thousands of years and has turned up nothing. This is where I think you have parted ways with William James.

    Now, if one defines God differently from the characters in the Bible and Quran--beyond space and time (all the time) then you might have a better argument. Unfortunately, the present understanding of deities is that they interact with their followers as well as non-followers (e.g., answer prayers, heal the sick, change the future, smite the pagans, etc.) so I don't see how that argument holds.

    Once there's a claim that a deity has stepped foot in our world and began violating the laws of nature, that very act would justify a demand for empirical evidence because such claims are in the interest of science.

    So, since the evidence for contemporary gods that interact with the world has been proven nonexistent, I would argue that to hold these beliefs is against all rationality and therefore irrational. This is not to make the vulgar claim that the person is irrational, but holding a belief in something that has been proven false is and of itself— irrational.