Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Warranted belief

As a believer, I am frequently bombarded (usually on the “sophisticated” blogosphere) with the question of why I personally believe in the existence of God. When asked this question, I can usually rattle off a few (among many) reasons: because the universe seems clearly contingent; because there is so much design which seems to imply a designer; because Near Death Experiences give compelling evidence in favor of the supernatural; because the ubiquitous nature of consciousness that is crucial to human cognitive function seems inexplicable on a naturalistic worldview; because innate human feelings such as love and goodness seem to transcend us and, arguably, have an absolute source etc. Now, it is at this point that my interlocutor will roll their eyes and ramble on about how the arguments for God’s existence have been refuted a thousand times, especially by Hume, or how NDE’s do not constitute valid scientific evidence, or how neuroscience demonstrates that consciousness surely must be dependent on the brain, or how the feelings of love and goodness are explicable in purely naturalistic evolutionary terms etc. Case closed, right? Well, no.
You see, my interlocutor has made an error in comprehension. Remember that I was asked why I believe in the existence of God, and not what logical proofs I have for the existence of God. Now, while these two questions might seem to be prima facie identical, they’re not. A warrant for belief in a specific inference is not equivalent to having logical deductive proof for that inference.

For example, it might be the case one day that my wife wakes up, after I have left for work, and discovers that the toilet seat was left up. She will immediately infer the following conclusion: my husband left the toilet seat up. Notice that this conclusion is a mere belief, as opposed to a proof. My wife has simply reasonably assumed this belief, based on the fact that I do this constantly and we’re the only two people in our house. She does not have any proof for such a belief. That is, she didn’t see me leave it up, nor has she called me and asked me if I did in fact leave it up. But the question that can be posed here is this: is my wife’s belief warranted? And surely the answer is in the affirmative. Indeed my wife has enough warrant to infer that I left the seat up. Now, could she be wrong? Yes, she could. But, does this possibility of fallibility render her inference unwarranted? No. So, even though she could be wrong, she is still warranted in holding her conclusion.

So, let us turn back to our original context, namely, belief in God. The question arises whether or not I have personal warrant for concluding, based on my reasons above, that God exists. The answer is surely that I do. Is it possible that I am mistaken in my conclusion? Of course, but that is not the point. The point is whether or not I have reasons that provide me with warrant to infer a specific conclusion, and I surely do possess these reasons.
Now, my interlocutor might claim that he himself has reasons for doubting the existence of God, or lacking a belief in the existence of God. For example, he might hold that the amount of suffering in the world is incompatible with the existence of God, or that God has not made his existence abundantly obvious, or that phenomena in the world can be explained in purely naturalistic terms, making God superfluous etc. So, is my interlocutor also warranted in his conclusions based on these reasons? Yes, he is.

We see then that both the theist and the atheist can be warranted in their conclusions even though such conclusions are mutually exclusive.
To return to my example, it could turn out that I do not remember using the bathroom that morning, and therefore it’s probable that I did not leave the seat up. So, I am warranted in my conclusion—that I did not leave the seat up--as well. Notice now that both my wife and I hold mutually exclusive inferences, yet we are both warranted in arriving at the conclusions we have arrived at. Now, when I get home we can discuss who is correct. That is, we can discuss whether I was so tired that morning that I forgot that I did in fact use the bathroom, or we can discuss whether one of the friends we had over the night before left the seat up and we never noticed etc. However, it still follows that we are both warranted in holding our beliefs.

Similarly, the theist and atheist can hammer it out constantly and provide their reasons for belief, or disbelief. However, this does not entail that both individuals cannot walk away from the discussion still warranted in their positions.
What is usually desired is logical deductive proof. And similarly, both sides can usually produce a logical proof of their own, and which one of these individuals can provide a successful proof I will leave for another time. But whether these proofs are valid, or whether they will persuade the other side is peripheral here. The point is that a conclusion can constitute a warranted belief without itself being the inference of a logical proof. And furthermore, two individuals with mutually exclusive beliefs can still both be warranted in said beliefs. Hopefully, this can help the fruitfulness (or lack thereof) of discussions such as the atheist/theist divide, in the sense that these discussions need not be predicated on who can “win” the argument, but, rather, they should predicated on simply demonstrating the reasons one has for their conclusions. People should still be able to walk away from a discussion knowing that even though they don’t agree with their interlocutor, they can still appreciate that their conclusion is warranted.

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