Monday, July 30, 2012

Rebranding possibilities as justified beliefs

By Mathew Goldstein

Some critics of the anti-accommodationist position assert that anyone who in any way is trying to accommodate a religious audience is an accommodationist. For example, they may cite E.O. Wilson who seeks out religious audiences and tries to accommodate their perspectives when arguing for taking environmental threats seriously. Then the critics of anti-accommodationist may falsely accuse anti-accommodationists of being opposed to reaching out to religionists. But E.O. Wilson is not an accommodationist as anti-accommodationists define the term and anti-accommodationists seek to debate religionists and to reach out to religionists and regularly do so when given the opportunity. Accommodationists are people like Michael Ruse, and Elliott Sober, who actively try to argue that religious beliefs can be properly justified within the framework of a rational approach to understanding how the universe works.

So what is wrong with the attempts of accommodationists to reconcile religious beliefs with a rational approach to understanding how the universe works? Accommodationists rely heavily on the notion that a proper and sufficient standard for belief justification is compatibility with the laws and theories of science. According to accommodationists, if a belief is not directly in conflict with any particular law or theory of science as they appear in textbooks then that belief is properly justified. I call this method a belief first approach for justifying beliefs. It is mistaken.

This belief first approach for justifying beliefs does incorporate a real standard in the sense that it does impose a necessary constraint on which beliefs can be properly justified. The problem, and this is a big problem, is that this constraint is entirely insufficient. It is insufficient because it fails to accomplish the primary goal of properly justified belief, which is this: Reliably distinguish what is true from what is false about how the universe works.

In order to reliably distinguish what is true from what is false, it is necessary to impose some additional constraints. In particular, there is the constraint that we don't spatchcock non-evidence supported beliefs onto our evidence supported conclusions. One reason we apply this additional constraint is that there is an infinite, unlimited, supply of such beliefs. Basically, such beliefs are mere possibilities. And merely proposing a possibility doesn't achieve our primary objective of distinguishing what is true from what is false. Elevating mere possibilities to the status of justified beliefs opens the door to justifying all sorts of ridiculous beliefs, such as believing that President Barack Obama was not born in the United States or professes Islam.

Furthermore, we have every reason to think human imagination derived, human intuition derived, human psychology derived, beliefs are fictions because the evidence is overwhelming that in the context of questions dealing with issues outside of our day to day experience, such as questions concerning the very small and the very large, what we discover to be true via the empirical evidence is consistently outside the scope of anything that anyone previously imagined or intuited. So to allow such spatchcocking is to allow a back-door way to extraneously re-introduce our human imagination derived, human intuition derived, human psychology derived, fictions into our descriptions of how the universe works. This is particularly true when there is no explanatory deficiency in the evidenced based conclusion for the spatchcocked belief to remedy. So, for example, evolutionary theory completely explains the existence of all species of life, so there is no explanatory deficiency that is resolved by spatchcocking an unevidenced god to evolutionary theory. But this is also true even when there is an explanatory deficiency in the evidence supported conclusion. So, for example, we don't know why all of the constants of physics have the values that they do, but we don't actually answer that question by introducing an unevidenced, catch-all belief such as "god did it".

But the accommodationists never tell their target audience that there is anything insufficient or wrong with taking a belief first approach to justifying belief. On the contrary, they actively promote a belief first approach to justifying belief, provided it doesn't contradict any science textbook law or theory. And that is just plain wrong and counter-productive.

Furthermore, are supernatural concepts, such as god, really fully compatible with the laws and theories of science as the accommodationists imply that they are? Maybe a deist god that doesn't intervene in the affairs of our universe can plausibly fit with the available evidence. But who worships a deist god? So far I have asserted only that gods are unevidenced. My writing on this topic would be misleading if I stopped with that assertion. Gods, as commonly understood, including even a deist god, are actually counter-evidenced because the available evidence favors (better fits) the conclusion that we live in an entirely materialistic universe. The accommodationists don't admit this. The argument of atheist accommodationists appears to be grounded at least partly in the fear that being forthright would be counter-productive because some of the theists will refuse to listen to them if they actually fully said what they really think. That is probably true to some extent, but that excuse doesn't overcome accommodationism's fatal flaw.

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