Posts tagged: God

Atheism and Theism as Model Choices

One way to think about the comparative rationality of atheism and theism is to treat atheism as the rational default. After all, atheism postulates no God, theism does, and so theism bears the burden of proofs, especially because God’s existence is extraordinary or random postulate.

That’s the wrong way to think about the rationality of theistic belief. Following Michael Rea’s important book, World Without Design, I think of atheism and theism more like frameworks or research projects for making philosophical judgments. Many of the arguments for both positions involve claims that the other side sees as non-starters, and whose premises ultimately suppose that atheism or theism is true. What’s more, the frameworks are sufficiently different that they don’t even affirm the same phenomena to be explained, such as the existence of libertarian free will. In this way, we might even see theism and atheism as distinct philosophical paradigms, rather than simple competing propositions.

Atheism and theism are therefore competing frameworks for explaining certain kinds of “big” phenomena, like existence, order, morality, freedom, and consciousness. Both postulate an ultimate ground for everything. Atheism tends to ground everything in particles and fields. Theism tends to ground everything in a single agent, usually a perfect agent.

For reasons Mike Huemer outlines, simplicity does not settle fundamental philosophical problems, and I think that extends to atheism and theism. Which view is simpler? Postulating a single perfect agent that grounds all kinds of phenomena? Or particles and fields? On the one hand, atheism usually says that there is one kind of thing (matter/energy), whereas theism has two kinds of thing (matter/energy and mentality). On the other hand, theism has one grounding object, whereas atheism has many grounding objects. So which is simpler? I think theism is, but it’s not obvious.

So then how do we assess the rationality of theism? We engage in model-based reasoning. List shared phenomena and determine whether they are better explained by theism or atheism. Then list the unshared phenomena, assess whether you affirm or reject them, and then determine whether they are better explained by theism or atheism.

To illustrate, here are some agreed upon phenomena: contingent existence, order in the universe, consciousness, empirical knowledge, suffering, religious experience.

And here are some (usually) disagreed upon phenomena: necessary existence, libertarian free will, objective moral facts, a priori knowledge, universals, objective life meaning.

Here’s my balance of evidence.

Agreed-upon phenomena favoring theism: contingent existence, order in the universe, consciousness, empirical knowledge.

Agreed-upon phenomena favoring atheism: suffering.

Agreed-upon phenomena that may break even: religious experience (some is consistent with theism, but the totality may be inconsistent with theism).

Disagreed-upon phenomena favoring theism: necessary existence, libertarian free will, objective moral facts, a priori knowledge, real universals, objective life meaning.

Disagreed-upon phenomena favoring atheism: ? [atheists belief in less stuff, so it’s perhaps not significant that this category is empty, but feel free to fill in the gaps]

For me, the theistic model explains more phenomena that theists and atheists agree upon. I admit that suffering favors atheism, but not so much that it overrides the explanatory power of the other factors, especially order in the universe. I think the probability of suffering on atheism is like 99.99%, and on theism, it is well under 50%. [The skeptical theist reply convinces me that suffering is not very improbable on theism, since we don’t know God’s reasons. Plus, if everyone goes to heaven, every life has infinite worth, so suffering is always an infinitely small portion of one’s life.] But I think the probability of order on theism is 99%, and order on atheism is something like 10^-10. [Those are the odds the cosmic fine-tuning argument gives us, and that’s being generous to atheism.]

I think I have good arguments that the disagreed upon phenomena are real, and I think it is  clear that these phenomena make more sense on theism, but I understand that atheists will not be as moved by these arguments.

So from my epistemic point of view, theism is supremely rational as a modeling choice. It’s a way of looking at the world that makes a whole lot of phenomena seem natural, coherent, and unsurprising vis-a-vis the main intellectual alternative of atheism. I think theistic argumentation is sufficiently strong that atheists will have trouble assigning theism a very low probability, but I don’t think that atheism is an unreasonable view. It’s not something that has to be proven. It’s a modeling choice, and I get why people choose it.

But atheists should see theism as a modeling choice, and not treat theism as irrational because it is not subject to proof.

When Did Moral Philosophy Become Overwhemingly Secular?

Lately I’ve been poking around the history of moral philosophy, and I decided to read all of F. H. Bradley’s Ethical Studies, first published in 1876. Philosophers will remember Bradley for his essay “My Station and Its Duties,” which is one chapter.
I finished the book a few days ago, and I was surprised that the last chapter is about religion and morality (it’s called “Concluding Remarks,” so the content is not too obvious!). Especially interesting is that Bradley says that his moral theory, “My station and its duties,” is incomplete. Here’s what he says, with my comments in brackets:
[T]he hunt after pleasure in any shape has proved itself a delusion [Bradley rejects utilitarianism], and the form of duty a snare [Bradley rejects Kantianism], and the finite realization of ‘my station’ was truth indeed, and a happiness that called to us to say [Bradley likes his view! And yet …], but was too narrow to satisfy wholly the spirit’s hunger; and ideal morality brought the sickening sense of inevitable failure. Here our morality is consummated in oneness with God, and everywhere we find that ‘immortal Love’, which builds itself forever on contradiction, but in which the contradiction is eternally resolved.
So, basically, morality cannot be understood in secular terms, which you’d never know from just reading the “My Station” chapter. I’ve also just read Robert Stern’s Understanding Moral Obligation which compares Kant, Hegel, and Kierkegaard’s theories of obligation, and the divine looms much larger in Kant than I’d realized. I was surprised by its centrality for Hegel, though I knew it was important in some respects. And, well, obviously the divine is central for Kierkegaard’s moral theory!
I’ve come away struck by the thought that purely secular moral theorizing is actually pretty rare in the history of moral philosophy. Almost everyone up until the 18th century had some kind of deity (pantheist, classical theist, etc.) play a central role in their moral theory. Even Hobbes! (Sharon Lloyd does a great job bringing this out.) But from what I’m reading, the divine plays a role even in a lot of 19th century moral theorizing, especially in the idealist tradition, which was obviously extremely influential well into the 20th century.
In the 19th century, utilitarianism seems to me to be the main tradition of wholly secular moral theorizing. A lot of secular thinkers in the 19th century actually eschewed what we’d traditionally think of as classical moral theory, with Marx as Exhibit A.
So I’m curious: when did moral philosophy become so overwhelmingly secular, such that divinity can barely be seen in the history of ethics classes? I mean, we don’t even read any divine command theorists, certainly no contemporary ones like Bob Adams or John Hare. Instead, we have students read the Euthyphro, which we take to have obviously refuted any role for God to play in morality. But the Euthyphro isn’t about divine command theory at all. It was written centuries before the best theistic ethical theories were developed. And divine command theorists have reasonable replies.
Further, divine command theory barely scratches the surface of the ways in which the moral facts and the divine facts might be related.
What happened? I admit I don’t know. My best guess is the huge impact that Henry Sidgwick and G.E. Moore had on the formation of analytic ethics. They also had a pretty big impact on a number of high status British intellectuals. Moore’s Principia Ethica had a big impact on Keynes as a young man, along with many of his associates in the Bloomsbury Group. And since their moral theories are abnormally secular, historically speaking, contemporary analytic ethics has inherited its abnormal secularity from them.