Friday, May 26, 2017

A response to Cowen's "Why I don’t believe in God"

Sanct asks:

Off-topic, I apologize, but any chance one of you Tbloggers could comment on this?

Cowen doesn't have formal training in philosophy to my knowledge, but is a widely celebrated public intellectual.

First off, I'd like to say I appreciate Prof. Cowen's sincere and inquiring spirit in his post. It's in this sincere and inquiring spirit that I'd like to respond as well. Also, he would probably eschew the label, but it sounds like he's more an agnostic than anything else.

FWIW, if anything, here's my response:

1. We can distinguish between “strange and remain truly strange” possibilities for origins, and “strange and then somewhat anthropomorphized” origin stories. Most religions fall into the latter category, all the more so for Western religions. I see plenty of evidence that human beings anthropomorphize to an excessive degree, and also place too much weight on social information (just look at how worked up they get over social media), so I stick with the “strange and remain truly strange” options. I don’t see those as ruling out theism, but at the end of the day it is more descriptively apt to say I do not believe, rather than asserting belief.

1. I admit I'm not entirely sure what the argument here is supposed to be. In any case, one doesn't need to accept how Prof. Cowen frames the "possibilities for origins" in the first place between "strange and remain truly strange" and "strange and then somewhat anthropomorphized", I don't think. Why not instead frame the "possibilities for origins" between true and false? For example, is Therevada Buddhism's account for the "origins" of the universe true or false? That makes more sense to me.

2. Even if God is "somewhat anthropomorphized" in the Bible, does this necessarily mean the biblical depiction is false? I'm not sure how this is meant to follow? Perhaps the assumption is an anthropomorphic God is a God of human creation? Yet, it could go the other way around as well, i.e., perhaps God created humans in his image, perhaps God has spoken and revealed himself to humans in ways which relate to humans which is to say anthropomorphically, etc.

3. Related, one could argue for how we know things, how we justify what we believe, etc. That's in the realm of epistemology. But that's a distinct and very large topic.

2. The true nature of reality is so strange, I’m not sure “God” or “theism” is well-defined, at least as can be discussed by human beings. That fact should not lead you to militant atheism (I also can’t define subatomic particles), but still it pushes me toward an “I don’t believe” attitude more than belief. I find it hard to say I believe in something that I feel in principle I cannot define, nor can anyone else.

1. It's true there are different definitions or conceptions of God. However, it's not necessarily true all definitions or conceptions of God are therefore false. It could be some conceptions of God are true, while others are false.

2. More to the point, it's not necessarily true that because there are many different definitions or conceptions of God, therefore we cannot know which definition(s) or conception(s) of God is true (or false).

3. It's true we would be limited to what we can know about God if all we have is general or natural revelation and our reason and senses. It's true we would know less about God if God did not reveal himself to us by other means. However, I wonder, what makes Prof. Cowen assume these are the only means by which God has revealed himself to humanity? For example, Judaism and Christianity purport to be revealed religions, revealed in terms of the Tanakh and New Testament.

4. Further, I wonder, what makes Prof. Cowen assume our reason and our senses are necessarily reliable enough to ascertain true knowledge of God if the context is an atheistic and evolutionary universe? Wouldn't a theistic universe better argue for reliable enough cognitive faculties?

5. How many definitions or conceptions of God are there? For example, we could ask if God is all-knowing or not. We could ask if God is all-powerful or not. Fundamentally speaking, we could simplify and say God is "in" the universe, God "is" the universe, or God is "outside" the universe. These are the sorts of questions one can ask as starting points to begin to narrow the definitions or conceptions of God. There aren't an infinite number of questions we could ask to arrive at a rough conception or idea of God.

6. Or why not start with a classical theistic definition of God? That definition should suffice at least for the sake of argument.

7. BTW, minor note, but one can define subatomic particles in a scientific and mathematical sense. Of course, one can debate the definitions for subatomic particles proffered, but it doesn't mean subatomic particles can't be defined.

3. Religious belief has a significant heritable aspect, as does atheism. That should make us all more skeptical about what we think we know about religious truth (the same is true for politics, by the way). I am not sure this perspective favors “atheist” over “theist,” but I do think it favors “I don’t believe” over “I believe.” At the very least, it whittles down the specificity of what I might say I believe in.

4. I am struck by the frequency with which people believe in the dominant religions of their society or the religion of their family upbringing, perhaps with some modification. (If you meet a Wiccan, don’t you jump to the conclusion that they are strange? Or how about a person who believes in an older religion that doesn’t have any modern cult presence at all? How many such people are there?)

This narrows my confidence in the judgment of those who believe, since I see them as social conformists to a considerable extent. Again, I am not sure this helps “atheism” either (contemporary atheists also slot into some pretty standard categories, and are not generally “free thinkers”), but it is yet another net nudge away from “I believe” and toward “I do not believe.” I’m just not that swayed by a phenomenon based on social conformity so strongly.

That all said I do accept that religion has net practical benefits for both individuals and societies, albeit with some variance. That is partly where the pressures for social conformity come from. I am a strong Straussian when it comes to religion, and overall wish to stick up for the presence of religion in social debate, thus some of my affinities with say Ross Douthat and David Brooks on many issues.

1. Religious belief may have "a significant heritable aspect", but that doesn't mean it's not true, it's false, or we don't or can't know. I think Prof. Cowen needs a connecting argument to go from "Religious belief has a significant heritable aspect" to therefore "I don't believe". One is often strongly influenced by what one is taught by one's family or society, but that doesn't necessarily mean what one's family or society has taught isn't true (or false). It depends on what's been taught.

2. One can break away from what one's family or society has taught. At least in a free society like the United States. However, even in a thought oppressive society like the former Soviet Union and communist Eastern European bloc nations, or modern North Korea and large swathes of communist China, what one vocalizes externally isn't necessarily what one is internally convinced of. For instance, witness the growth of the underground churches in modern day China as well as former communist nations (e.g. Richard Wurmbrand) which likely wouldn't be the case if people simply believed what they were taught to believe in that society (i.e. communism, atheism).

3. Indeed, there are many believers who started out in completely different belief systems. For example, I know of atheists raised in atheistic homes who later in adult life became Christians. I'm sure the same can be said in reverse. In other words, there are examples in every direction, from religion to irreligion, from irreligion to religion, etc. But I don't see how this is necessarily anything more than a sociological data point. At least not without, again, a connecting argument.

5. I am frustrated by the lack of Bayesianism in most of the religious belief I observe. I’ve never met a believer who asserted: “I’m really not sure here. But I think Lutheranism is true with p = .018, and the next strongest contender comes in only at .014, so call me Lutheran.” The religious people I’ve known rebel against that manner of framing, even though during times of conversion they may act on such a basis.

I don’t expect all or even most religious believers to present their views this way, but hardly any of them do. That in turn inclines me to think they are using belief for psychological, self-support, and social functions. Nothing wrong with that, says the strong Straussian! But again, it won’t get me to belief.

1. Well, an obvious reason most believers don't use Bayes is because most believers (like most people in general) don't know anything about Bayes. So that shouldn't be a surprise let alone a point of frustration.

2. There are Christians who use "Bayesianism" arguments to argue for the existence of God, the resurrection of Jesus, the possibility of miracles, etc. Take Richard Swinburne. Tim and Lydia McGrew come to mind too. Why not start with the McGrews' arguments? They are intelligent, knowledgeable, well published in philosophy, and make use of Bayes for many of their arguments.

3. If the Christian God is the only true God, and if a person has become a Christian, then he or she may be warranted to believe Christianity is true without need for Bayesian arguments, for there are other justifiable grounds to believe Christianity is true. For example, Alvin Plantinga has makes a case in his trilogy ending with Warranted Christian Belief.

6. I do take the William James arguments about personal experience of God seriously, and I recommend his The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature to everybody — it’s one of the best books period. But these personal accounts contradict each other in many cases, we know at least some of them are wrong or delusional, and overall I think the capacity of human beings to believe things — some would call it self-deception but that term assumes a neutral, objective base more than is warranted here — is quite strong. Presumably a Christian believes that pagan accounts of the gods are incorrect, and vice versa; I say they are probably both right in their criticisms of the other.

1. I think we have to judge each person's religious experience on a case-by-case basis.

2. We need to distinguish the person's religious experience from the person's interpretation of their religious experience. I'm speaking as a Christian, but I wouldn't necessarily conclude a pagan's account is outright false. I believe it's possible some pagans or people of other religions have had bona fide or veridical religious experiences which they interpret to be from their god or gods. However, speaking as a Christian, I might say, for instance, that a pagan's religious experience was genuine, but it had a different origin than what their interpretation would hold (e.g. some pagan gods may uncannily look like, walk like, and quack hiss like something demonic).

3. However, the data pointing to veridical religious, supernatural, paranormal, NDE, and similar experiences does seem to be telling as well as compelling. I'm not only referring to William James' book, but likewise other books like Craig Keener's Miracles as well as accounts collated by our very own Jason Engwer and Steve Hays here on Triablogue. There are at least some veridical religious and similar experiences. At a minimum, this seems to strongly point to the existence of something besides or beyond the standard materialistic world of atheism. Atheism (materialism) quite arguably shouldn't even be a contender based on the evidence. As such, the question shouldn't be does God exist, but rather which God exists?

7. I see the entire matter of origins as so strange that the “transcendental argument” carries little weight with me — “if there is no God, then everything is permitted!” We don’t have enough understanding of God, or the absence of God, to deal with such claims. In any case, the existence of God is no guarantee that such problems are overcome, or if it were such a guarantee, you wouldn’t be able to know that.

Add all that up and I just don’t believe. Furthermore, I find it easy not to believe. It doesn’t stress me, and I don’t feel a resulting gap or absence in my life. That I strongly suspect is for genetic reasons, not because of some intellectual argument I or others have come up with. But there you go, the deconstruction of my own belief actually pushes me somewhat further into it.

1. Unfortunately it looks like Prof. Cowen's formulation of a transcendental argument for God is mistaken. Instead, I suspect he may be referring to an argument from morality for the existence of God, not a transcendental argument. I'd recommend the works of Prof. James Anderson for the best formulation of the transcendental argument(s) from a Christian perspective.

2. Just as it's "easy" for Prof. Cowen "not to believe," it's "easy" for many believers to believe, and not because of some pie-in-the-sky faith, but for good and justifiable reasons. Prof. Anderson recently published a little book titled Why Should I Believe in Christianity? which I'd warmly recommend Prof. Cowen considers reading.

3. Is Prof. Cowen's implicitly arguing for some shade of genetic determinism when he refers to "genetic reasons"?


  1. Thanks, Patrick. I appreciate you taking the time, great post.

    1. Thanks, Sanct. :-) Hopefully other Tbloggers will weigh in too.

    2. Steve has a response well worth reading.