Sunday, January 12, 2014

A surprising turn in the Faith Discussion

Yesterday, I thought the Faith Discussion was likely to be over, at least in one direction. Tom Gilson appears to have doubled-down on his doxastic closure (unwillingness to reconsider his beliefs) instead of accepting my invitation when it was most ripe--it may be too late now--effectively killing that dialogue. (Dialogues do not take place when someone becomes doxastically entrenched.) Of course, the other avenue is still open: the seemingly ever-cordial Phil Vischer is continuing with what is likely to be productive dialogue.

Perhaps the discussion with Tom is over (I hope not, but he's got to get back on track first), but I feel I must remark on this surprising turn. It really is quite astounding and seems to drive my point home even harder. My point is simply that faith is not a reliable way to claim or justify knowledge (even implicitly via conviction).

Because I let some of this conversation take place in part in the comment section on Gilson's blog, it appears I have now been moderated there (as predicted by Cal Metzger). Maybe he'll let my comments through, and maybe he won't now. At any rate, I'll try to link to what is there as is appropriate here.

My point really has been made, and now it's just a long-shot hope that Gilson will turn himself around, loosen his grip on his doxastic closure, and admit at the least the least of what I asked of him: that his religious beliefs are not things he knows to be true, whether he believes them for other reasons or not. This may be the only route left to productive dialogue with Tom Gilson on this (or, thus, any religious topic). That it is a religious doctrine on faith to give full assent to beliefs seems to have paralyzed him in this all-too-simple thing, which is lamentable.

I will admit, because the conversation has devolved away from epistemology (this is also true with Phil Vischer, who is now intent on talking only about semantics), that I went straight to the bottom, a move I'm sure Tom Gilson neither anticipated or liked. It simply had to be done.

That bottom is that until someone establishes that God exists, all references to religious beliefs, the validity of religious scriptures, and appeals to personal subjective experiences (of "God") do not present an argument at all. Of note, it's purely circular--therefore "not an argument at all"--to try to establish God exists by one of these means, and so it must be done apart from them. To say it's circular is, of course, to say it requires pretending things one does not know to use those as source material. Tom Gilson's response to this is incredible.

I will get to his most recent response momentarily because I want to illustrate that in addition to going straight to the bottom, I extended an offer to employ what comes down to The Outsider Test for Faith (see the book by this title by John Loftus for reference). I asked him--repeated on his blog in the comments--to evaluate Christianity as if he was an outsider, or to increase salience, to evaluate it the same way he evaluates Islam. This was something of a disaster, except that it proved that point too.

They (Gilson and Christian visitors to his blog who commented) missed the point spectacularly (see most of the comments here). Instead, they validated the effectiveness of the Outsider Test by proceeding to rattle off reasons that Islam isn't true from their perspective (what a shame no Muslim jumped in for another perspective). My request wasn't to have them discuss Islam, or try to point out why it's not on a level with Christianity; it was to have them evaluate Christianity as if they weren't Christian--just like how they evaluate Islam while not being Muslims.

To be charitable, what this reveals about these commenters, including Tom Gilson, is that they are not in a position to be able to evaluate their own religious claims from the outside, i.e. they are in a state of doxastic closure about their beliefs. It is therefore extremely likely that this reveals that they are pretending to know things that they do not know about those beliefs, then, because it implies that they are avoiding honest, unbiased, critical inquiry into them. This is one of Peter Boghossian's main points, and they're illustrating it beautifully for us.

Now, I'll turn to Gilson's most recent response, which he titled "'Prove Everything Or You've Said Nothing'," paraphrasing me somewhat inaccurately in a very telling way.

I didn't ask Gilson to prove everything. I asked Gilson to establish God exists independently of his beliefs about God, with the rejoinder that any pro-God argument that relies upon beliefs about God to be made is circular and therefore not an argument. That Tom Gilson considers this "everything" is simply astounding. It plainly says he cannot do it. That's an implicit admission that he does not know what he pretends to know about God's existence. (To be fair, I also pointed out that to use scripture as a source, beyond proving God's existence, one also has to prove a connection between God and scripture independently of that scripture.)

His response is also astounding, and telling, in another way--it's another in the list of his non-epistemic responses. Asked to defend his epistemology, he first tried to do it (see also his ebook), then he tried to deflect by insisting that faith isn't an epistemology, and now he's talking about something else entirely (the likeness he perceives in my argument to what he's seen regarding Intelligent Design).

This is telling because it reveals, yet again, that he is relying on things he is pretending to know but does not. Otherwise, he would be able to stick with the epistemic discussion and provide some valid grounding for his knowledge claims, as he was attempting to do in the beginning before the circularity of his method was exposed.

I must insist that in alignment with what Gilson asserts here, this is no mere contest of opinion where I have mine and he has his. As he indicates, someone is actually wrong here. (Gilson doesn't admit another option: we could both be wrong. I've written repeatedly that the right religion, if such a thing might exist, may not have been revealed yet--another major problem with trusting revelation as a source and another indication of the underlying assumption Gilson operates from.) My assessment in my book Dot, Dot, Dot (which I must assume Tom Gilson hasn't read) indicates that there are two possible situations here to help us see clearly who is on which side.
  1. The plausibility of the hypothesis that God exists as a real entity is almost surely zero. Effectively, this means that the probability that Gilson is epistemically grounded in using arguments that assume God exists (beliefs, scripture, his take on subjective experiences) is almost surely zero. That's not good for Gilson's case which apparently depends upon those assumptions.
  2. The plausibility of the hypothesis that God exists as a real entity is quasi-indeterminable, or more specifically that we cannot assign a prior in a Bayesian analysis of the plausibility of the hypothesis that God exists. If we stop there and say that the plausibility of the God hypothesis is properly indeterminable, then Gilson is necessarily pretending to know something he doesn't know to use it. If we go on to do an analysis without assigning a prior (see chapter 13 in Dot, Dot, Dot), then we see that while we may not be able to assess "the" plausibility, we know that the evidence has consistently pointed only away from accepting the God hypothesis (see Richard Carrier's discussion about how naturalism is a "winning horse"). Thus, we can assert that a posterior analysis of the plausibility of the God hypothesis renders a negligibly low plausibility (possibly including zero, almost surely). That's not good for Gilson's case for the same reason.
I do honestly hope that Tom Gilson turns around and accepts my invitation to do some or all of the following, each conferring a greater amount of respect if done honestly.
  1. Admit that his beliefs are not based upon knowledge and that there must be other reasons that he believes them than that they are known to be true;
  2. Take the Outsider Test for Faith seriously and evaluate Christianity from the outside, examining its claims without relying upon Christian beliefs to do it;
  3. Repudiate all failed epistemologies, faith huge among those and the Christian reliance on faith huge among that.
I don't really expect any of this will happen, but this is not only a threefold invitation extended with sincerity, it is also a roadmap to freeing oneself from the Christian belief structure. First, reach doxastic openness (willingness to reconsider beliefs) by admitting that one doesn't know; second, use that doxastic openness to evaluate Christianity without the bias of faith; and third, repudiate faith entirely. Incidentally, this reveals the fundamental asymmetry between his and Boghossian's (and my) position--we readily admit that we don't know.

Good luck, Tom.


  1. Readers who wonder why I'm not accepting James's invitation are invited to read the blog post he has linked to here, where I have already answered that question.

  2. Replies
    1. I didn't expect the conversation would continue.

    2. Yeah, like I said, you've placed him into quite a dilemma. If he's smart he'll bite the bullet and ban you sooner than later. I'm rooting for later, because I'm enjoying the skillfulness of this series quite a bit. So much you have compelled me to buy your book.

      Thanks again.

  3. TG wrote (on his blog): "This is not a thread about ID. That was merely an illustration of my point, which was about not getting discussions diverted. Comments taking swipes at ID are diversions, and will not be allowed through the moderation queue."

    Tom, you brought up ID (six times in your post). You explicitly brought up criticism of ID, and have proclaimed criticism of ID invalid, drawing a parallel with James' recent criticism of your beliefs. So, by the parallels you draw, if ID is in fact vacuous, wouldn't that mean the same about your beliefs? In other words, doesn't it seem a tad self-serving to proclaim the parallel you raised untouchable? Is there no end to the ways you might invent to privilege how your beliefs are examined and justified?

    Maybe it would easier (and more honest, for sure) if you posted on the header of your blog all those things that cannot be questioned: your beliefs, ID, etc.

    1. I only mentioned ID in my comment at all as a favor to him: to any outsider (and even many Christians), appearing to take the side of ID puts you in a losing position with regard to your degree of unbiased assessment of certain things. His comment that you quoted completely flummoxed me.

    2. Yeah, I have to say that this guy seems even more textbook than I first imagined. Phil Vischer appears almost entirely reasonable by comparison. I am hoping, though, that the ease with which Tommy G's moves can be predicted should bother him, and maybe that will lead him back to the beginning as you suggest?

      Then again, when you're in as deep as this guy seems I don't know if can even remember where it all started.

      And on the note of prediction, back to waiting for the next move. I sense a tu quoque coming. Wait for it, wait for it...

  4. This is how Tom Gilson proposes he can put the question to rest of justifying how he knows his faith-based beliefs are true:

    TG (in a comment on his blog): "So I have a proposal. Let’s stipulate this as a point of settled agreement between you and me. You think I’m pretending to know things I don’t know. I’ve got that, you’ve got that, we can all see that that’s what you think. There’s no need to waste more bandwidth on it. / Let’s stipulate also that I am quite sure you are wrong on this, but I don’t consider it my duty to dance to your demands to prove you wrong."

    In other words, Tom's proposal is that you stop pestering him to admit that he is pretending to know what he doesn't know so that he can go on pretending to know what he doesn't know.


  5. Ha. Just saw the chain of comments, culminating in Rodriguez's (sp?) last one on TC (in which he feigns giggling and chortling and whatnot). Awesome.

    Ah, the "my dear boy" reflex. Textbook defense mechanism, like any threatened animals, puffing themselves up to their most inflated size, trying to scare and diffuse and assure one another that as long as they agree to pretend then reality cannot penetrate their world.

    I expect more of the same there. More circling of the wagons, more talk about ignorance of basic logic, more imagined ignorance from you et al., more ad hominem, but mostly just bluster. Amazing, really, how threatened they are from that very, very, very basic question:

    How do you actually know that your God exists?

    Thankfully for you, there aren't any stakes around. If they're this uncomfortable from your internet pestering there's no telling what they'd do if they could all get together and actually get their hand on you...

  6. Actually, it truly gets funnier:

    You wrote: "Axioms are statements taken to be self-evidently true. Establishing the soundness of an axiom really means establishing that we have good reasons to call such a thing self-evident."
    To which Rodriguez responded (after warming up for 4 prior segments): " And no, “establishing an axiom” does not mean “establishing that we have good reasons to call such a thing self-evident”. First, there are axioms which are accepted and are far from being self-evident. Second, a statement may be deemed “self-evident”, but if someone disputes its self-evident status what this usually means is that said someone is really disputing is the truth of said statement. But in that case, it does nothing to advance the discussion to establish “that we have good reasons to call such a thing self-evident”; it accomplishes exactly nothing. / IOW, what the heck are you talking about?"

    Truly, he wrote all that. Apparently, without any sense of self-awareness or irony.

    Which raises an interesting question: does religious belief cause pathological thinking, or is pathological thinking more likely to settle on religious belief?

    Ah, well, done for tonight. Thanks for providing, along with the NFL Division games and Downton Abbey, great entertainment for the day.

    1. Wait until you read my response to Rodrigues's comment. (On Gilson's blog, I just dared anyone to go look up axiom in the dictionary.)