Don't Be Fooled on April Fool's Day: Take the Outsider Test for Faith

The Outsider Test for Faith argument can be found in my book, or online in an edited version right here. I've recently defended it from some of Dr. Victor Reppert's criticisms. One Christian minister encourages believers to take the test! I also provided an example of what it means to take the test. So let me just say on this April Fool's Day that taking this test is the best and probably the only way to know the truth about what you believe. And here's why...

It's because of who we are. When it comes to the religious faiths we were raised to accept, it's not just that they may be false, which seems obvious, given their proliferation around the globe into geographically distinct locations. It's much worse than that. It's that, well, if Christian philosopher Victor Reppert was raised in a different home, and had different experiences, and read different books, and studied under different professors, and got a teaching appointment in a different place, then he could be an atheist philosopher right now, just as atheist philosopher Keith Parsons could be a Christian philosopher right now if he had led the life that Reppert did and his experiences were likewise reversed.

Deny this if you think you can.

That's how bad it is when it comes to anyone who claims to know the truth about these issues, and that's how bad it is when it comes to the claim that we as human beings can think outside the box and reason correctly, objectively, and dispassionately, without prejudices or preconceived notions. We can't, or at least, if we can, the only thing we can and should trust is the empirical sciences. That's our only hope. Science is the best we've got, and even science has it's problems.

We believe what we were raised to believe, and we defend what we want to believe for the most part. It's really bad. It's terrible. We humans are illogical creatures, especially when it comes to these issues. All of us.

Let me put it to you this way, if you read everything that I have read and experienced everything that I have experienced, then you would think on these issues exactly the same way I do.

Deny this if you can.

So there is only one way to deal with a particular whole way of looking at these things...by looking at it as a whole. And the best way to do so is from the outside, from the perspective of skepticism. If the opposite is being gullible then skepticism is favored by far, given who we are as human beings and what we learned to believe on our Mama's knees.

Therein lies the dilemna and I think I have a handle on this better than most anyone I've seen argue on the web about these types of issues. We are not the rational creatures we want to appear to be. As human beings we are in terrible shape on these kinds of issues. And since we know this to be true we should be skeptical about that which we were raised to believe. And we should be skeptical about that which we want to believe. It's that simple.

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Christian, no, don't say I should be skeptical about that which I believe too. In some sense when it comes to that which I affirm, I already am! I affirm an agnostic atheism. Join me. Will you say the same thing? Will you affirm that you are an agnostic believer (but isn't that an oxymoron)? In any case, if this is my problem I embrace it. Although, someone will need to explain to me how a skeptic can be skeptical about beliefs he doesn't have! A skeptic affirms no religious beliefs but merely says to the believer, "show me." Why should we consider non-beliefs as equivalent to beliefs? [Examples of non-beliefs: do you believe in the Eastern ONE, do you have a belief about ilks who might live in the stratosphere?].

Besides, it'll do you absolutely no good at all to pass the buck back to me. Whether I am skeptical of my agnostic atheism or not should mean nothing with regard to what you need to do, believer. Even if I am inconsistent you still need to subject your own beliefs to the outsider test. You still need to be skeptical about them. You still need to embrace the scientific method. It's the only antidote to the fallibility of the human mind.

17 comments:

Victor Reppert said...

John, a quick note. My entire career as a student was spent in secular institutions except for three years at the liberal Candler School of Theology when Keith Parsons lived in the same house with me. Except for one year as a Notre Dame fellow at the Center for the Philosophy of Religion, (where there was a substantial secular presence), and some online classes for a Christian college in the past year, I have spent my entire teaching career at secular institutions.

There are people who do live inside a Christian cocoon intellectually. I am not one of them. I have had plenty of opportunity to be exposed to the non-theistic viewpoint. I'm just not persauded by it.

John W. Loftus said...

Thanks for sharing Vic. That's interesting to me. I'm sure my point is still well made though. It's just that I don't know your exact background or who really influenced you the most before those years, during those years, and after those years. Maybe you merely have a stubborn streak so you stubbornly held on to the faith you were raised to believe when others might not have done so? In any case, I don't know enough about you, but I bet if I did...

exapologist said...

Hi you guys. I just wanted to point to two arguments going around in contemporary phil. of religion that appear to corroborate John's point here: (i) the argument from reasonable religious disagreement, and (ii) the argument from the demographics of theism. Richard Feldman's recent paper on (i) can be found here, and Stephen Maitzen's paper on (ii) can be found here. (Maitzen has a nice rejoinder to a molinist reply to his argument here).

John W. Loftus said...

I had known about Maitzen's article but not Feldman's. Thanks!

SE said...

I have had plenty of opportunity to be exposed to the non-theistic viewpoint. I'm just not persauded by it.

I can see how this could be true. Some just can't see how anything makes sense without a god. They're wrong, but as I used to think the same way, I understand it.

What I find more difficult to understand is why someone remains a "Christian" rather than becoming a Deist or perhaps Philosophical Theist while holding that viewpoint. It seems hard to believe that Dr. Reppert would accept the evidence for Christianity as compelling if he had been born, raised and was now living in an Islamic culture.

And yes, I'm aware there can be exceptions, just as some Americans convert to Islam and some in Muslim countries convert to Christianity. But those are tiny percentages within the total populations.

Lee said...

John, what you posted is so very apparent to me -- I'm so glad you posted this.

I have seen Christian theist after Christian theist rant about the limits of reason and what we humans cannot, or currently aren't able to know -- and then I have seen them jump to the outragious conclusion that some poorly defined deity with generally contradictory attributes just HAD to have been the cause of things aka the starting point.

But they do not stop there! Not by any stretch. They do not honestly reason and deal with the ramifications of what a hypothetical deity may be like.

They jump several dozens of steps ahead. They then claim that because they see no other way out of cosmologocal origin problems other than positing a creator, then that creator MUST be the one that they were brought up to believe in and then that Jesus and the Bible MUST be true!

What a wild leap, stupendous, tremendous leap to make! SO many other possibilities exists! Their eventual opinion almost always LEAPS from "first cause" deity to "Christianity", more or less every time!

You do not see Westerners taking Cosmological first cause evidence and reasoning that Hindu monistic belief or Buddhist "no self" doctrine is the explanation! It is nearly ALWAYS the evidence from which they are MOST familiar that they then jump forward to!

And when you find someone, a non-westerner who has concluded that theism is true, and who hails from an upbringing other than a Christian one, they almost unanimously side on the case that they are familiar with!

Take Amit Goswami for example. He is a famous Quantum Physicist. He reasons much like Christians in terms of the cosmological evidence but SHOCKINGLY (yes that is sarcasm) he sides with a variation of HINDUISM, which was the answer of his upbringing! No? You don't say!

If theist evidence compilers were simply out for pure truth you’d expect to see certain westerners siding with Eastern religions, with the Muslims, The Buddhists, and all vice versa.

But you don't!

Toby said...

I personally love what theists claim to know about god. They know god is male. They know his likes and dislikes, or whom he loves and how much. They know things that he has said to them personally or to others. They know what church or religion is his. They know God's name and address (heaven, right?). They even know that God has a place for them when they die. Most theists I know are extremely confident on these beliefs with certainty levels near 100%.

Mind you, they don't use evidence for knowing any of this because there is no evidence to support any of it. Unshakable confidence and certainty with absolutely no objective evidence to support their belief.

How is it then that they treat objective evidence concerning the above matters? They deny it or ignore it. For example, creationists ignore the facts of evolution, miracle believers ignore the laws of physics and most every medical study on miracles, Bible literalists ignore falsities and contradictions.

Theists don't care much for evidence at all. What's funny is I had a theist say to me, "There's no difference between you and me. It's just that you are confident in your beliefs and I'm completely confident in mine." To which I replied, "Yeah, but my beliefs are overwhelming supported and backed by science and reason, while yours overwhelming go against science and reason." He insisted that he has personally observed miracles, similar to Craig's nonsense views about supernatural experiences.

Toby said...

Lee wrote,

If theist evidence compilers were simply out for pure truth you’d expect to see certain westerners siding with Eastern religions, with the Muslims, The Buddhists, and all vice versa.

No, you'd expect them to be all siding with one religion if there were a true religion. But since there is no true religion, if they were interested "pure truth" then they would side with atheists and agnostics.

Eric said...

"What's funny is I had a theist say to me, "There's no difference between you and me. It's just that you are confident in your beliefs and I'm completely confident in mine." To which I replied, "Yeah, but my beliefs are overwhelming supported and backed by science and reason, while yours overwhelming go against science and reason."

Toby, what's actually funny is not the caricature of theists you presented -- which, don't get me wrong, was as funny (there's nothing like the ol' 'let's-take-the-worst-representatives-of-X-and-treat-them-as-standard' move) -- but the naivete you express in your statement above.

First, it's not the case that theistic belief "go against science and reason," except in extreme cases (e.g. denying evolution or a 15 billion year old universe). That's like saying something as vague as 'a constitutional, representative democracy is anti-rights' because the U.S. has, in the past, not recognized the rights of women, African-Americans, etc.

Second, you *don't* believe most of what you do because of 'science and reason,' but because of the testimony of scientists and 'reasoners.' And you could never verify everything they -- it would take you a lifetime of hard work to master a sub-discipline of a sub-discipline of a sub-discipline, and you'd still be left with a host of assumptions *in your own narrow field* that you'd never get around to checking.

Finally, here's a test for you: take any proposition you believe to be supported by 'science and reason,' and proceed to provide the premises that support it. Take any one of these premises and support it. Continue. It won't take long at all before you reach a premise that you can't justify scientifically, and a short time after that you'll find a premise you can't justify with 'reason.' What then?

John W. Loftus said...

Eric said......take any proposition you believe to be supported by 'science and reason,' and proceed to provide the premises that support it. Take any one of these premises and support it. Continue. It won't take long at all before you reach a premise that you can't justify scientifically, and a short time after that you'll find a premise you can't justify with 'reason.' What then?

I agree with Eric on this. But there are two things I'd like to say about it. 1) This gets him no where as I've explained above in my post. Based on this admission he simply cannot all-of-a-sudden bring into the equation the whole host of assumptions he needs to in order to believe in the Christian faith. Simple assumptions, i.e. Ockham's razor, are better. For if he can do that then based on this assumption a voodoo witchdoctor or a Hindu, or a Muslim can do the same exact thing and as such fails the outsider test. 2) When we reach a point where reason or science doesn't help us down the rabbit hole, what we do then is we use our background beliefs to solve the problem. Even though science or reason may not help us we place that question next to the other things we believe since we cannot investigate every sub-discipline of a sub-discipline and in this sense what we believe can at least cohere with what we believe. That's what gets us all into trouble though, because as human beings we believe contradictory things which we thing cohere with the rest of what we believe, but we simply don't realize that they are contradictory! This too favors skepticism of our beliefs, all of them in some regard. But, and this is also a point I made, science, and I’ll add reason, are the best we’ve got. They are the best antidote to wishful thinking, the best chance we have for getting it right. If we don’t lean on science and reason then anything goes at all, anything. And since certainty is an impossible goal defending every proposition is unnecessary even if it’s practically impossible.

I’ve subjected a few of the most often proffered examples of things for which we believe where it’s claimed we have no scientific evidence for them right here. So what if we cannot prove otherwise. So what if there is always a possibility otherwise? We’re looking for probabilities and that’s all we can do if the opposite is to base our life on possibilities.

Eric said......take any proposition you believe to be supported by 'science and reason,' and proceed to provide the premises that support it. Take any one of these premises and support it. Continue. It won't take long at all before you reach a premise that you can't justify scientifically, and a short time after that you'll find a premise you can't justify with 'reason.' What then?

I agree with Eric on this. But there are two things I'd like to say about it. 1) This gets him no where as I've explained above in my post. Based on this admission he simply cannot all-of-a-sudden bring into the equation the whole host of assumptions he needs to in order to believe in the Christian faith. Simple assumptions, i.e. Ockham's razor, are better. For if Eric can do that based on his Christian assumptions when science and reason don't work at the level of certainties, then a voodoo witchdoctor or a Hindu, or a Muslim can do the same exact thing and bring into the equation all of their assumptions too. It seems as though the admission that science and reason don't work to produce certainties is used by believers like Eric to be a carte blanch sort of blank check to write for one's own beliefs. But this blank check approach fails the outsider test for it admits too much which other faiths would reject.

2) When we reach a point where reason and science don't help us when trying to find the bottom of the rabbit hole, what we do at that point is we use our background beliefs to solve the question. Even though science and reason do not help us down there, we can still place that question next to the other things we believe and then have a good reason for deciding what to believe about the question in hand. Since we cannot investigate every sub-discipline of a sub-discipline what we believe can at least cohere with what else we believe.

But of course, this is what gets us all into trouble, because as human beings we believe contradictory things which we think cohere with the rest of what we believe, but we don't realize that what we believe is contradictory with other things we believe! This too favors being skeptical of our beliefs, all of them, to varying degrees (Quine's web of beliefs).

But, and this is an important point I made in my post, science, and I’ll add reason, are the best we’ve got. They are the best antidote to wishful thinking, the best chance we have for getting it right. If we don’t lean on science and reason then anything goes at all, anything. And since certainty is an impossible goal then defending every proposition is unnecessary even if it’s practically impossible.

I’ve subjected a few of the most often proffered examples of beliefs for which we it's claimed we have no scientific evidence for them right here, and even so I have good reason to reject these examples. So what if we cannot prove otherwise? So what if there is always a possibility otherwise? We’re looking at what is probable. That’s all we can do since the opposite is to base our life on possibilities.

Cheers.

John W. Loftus said...

I made a new post out of this right here.

See what you think.

Lord Thorkington said...

John,

If we believe what we were raised to believe, wouldn't that deny the possibility of life-long atheists coming to faith, and life-long Christians adopting atheism? Certainly, there are an untold number of both such occurrences.

John W. Loftus said...

Lord Thorkington, I've seen you around here and was waiting for you to come my way. I knew you would sooner or later. First let me say I appreciate your intelligent comments and welcome them all.

People change their minds, Lord, I admit this. Please tell me you've read my posts on this. You are merely pointing out the exceptions. I'm asking people to explain the rule.

Lord Thorkington said...

John:

I haven't read your posts on this. Point me in the right direction?

Toby said...

Eric,

Yes, you're right, I was using absolutes, which was technically wrong, but suited my point and purpose just fine. The point was to ridicule theists, not to justify my position in any way. I find most (51% or more) theists to believe absolutely ridiculous things. I live in a world filled with fundamentalist Christians, not the ones who are apparently reasonable with well-thought spiritual beliefs that you know.

Nit-pick all you want and get lost in the trivial wordplay of philosophy, but when it comes right down to it, I find the evidence overwhelmingly dismisses Evangelical Christianity. I find ridicule to be a legitimate form of criticism--just as apparently you do, considering the "naivete" in my previous post. To speak more like a scientist, we have data that is strongly suggestive of certain realities. Take the data of "miracles" and studies examining this phenomenon. These data overwhelming suggest life works according to natural laws, not supernatural ones. Yes, nothing is 100% proof of anything, but probabilities are reasonable assumptions. Anyone care to speculate on the probability of Christianity being the one true religion?

And as for my spiritual beliefs: I am a former fundamentalist, a graduate of both Bible College and Seminary, and was raised in a Christian family. Fortunately, the field of "soft" science (psychology) I finished a PhD in taught me enough about the scientific method to strongly suggest my former Christian beliefs were based on anything but logic or science (my brand of religion had bastardized both). I'm often sarcastic about religious beliefs because I am embarrassed or disappointed with my former belief system.

If naive is what I am now, then f'ing retarded is what I was before when I was a Christian.

Andrew said...

Toby, ridicule is just a class of logical fallacy.

Toby said...

Maybe, but I love the humor of it. Maybe that's why I like Family Guy and the Simpsons. Even when I was a Christian I didn't mind being ridiculed if it was clever. Now I'm not always saying I'm clever with the ridicule, but I try.