There Isn’t a Bad Reason to Reject the Christian Faith, Continued
Previously I argued there isn’t a bad personal reason to reject the Christian faith. Christian apologist Dr. Vincent Torley understood my argument fairly well so I’ll use what he wrote to describe it (edited for brevity without the digressions). Then I’ll comment on it.
What does Loftus actually claim?
Loftus doesn’t really claim that there isn’t a bad reason to reject Christianity; and Loftus fully accepts that arguments about all sorts of matters (including Christianity) can be publicly discussed and scrutinized for any faulty logic that they may contain. Rather, what Loftus actually believes is that there isn’t a bad personal reason to reject Christianity. “What’s a personal reason?” you might ask. I’ll let Loftus explain:
Keep in mind I’m also speaking of the reasons people personally have for rejecting Christianity rather than the arguments constructed to convince others. I don’t think people must be able produce an argument that will convince others of something before it can be said they have good reasons for what they think…
Is there a legitimate distinction then between someone’s having good personal reasons and having bad reasons for believing something? Again we’re not talking about arguments constructed to convince others, for the rules of logic dictate which arguments are good ones from bad ones. We’re talking instead about the personal reasons people have for accepting or not accepting something as true. How do we really know that what we think is justified? Do we really understand how many cognitive biases affect most all of us most of the time?
Later on, Loftus discusses the hypothetical case of a man named Pat becoming convinced that a message given to him in a dream is true, “because his God-given cognitive faculties are such that he would accept its message as true.”
Some brief definitions
I’ll now attempt to formulate a rigorous definition of Loftus’ terms. Here goes. On Loftus’ account, a good personal reason for a belief is “a reason that would justify you in forming that belief, given the way in which your cognitive faculties work.” Of course, your having a justified belief doesn’t make it true; and conversely, the fact that you have a true belief doesn’t always mean that it is justifiable.
A bad personal reason can now be defined as “a reason that would not justify you in forming that belief, given the way in which your cognitive faculties work.”
Who is Loftus’ target audience?
As we’ve seen, Loftus’ bold claim is that there are no bad personal reasons for rejecting Christianity. The kind of Christianity Loftus has in mind here is the kind whose members accept this doctrinal statement, which Loftus refers to as “DS” in his post:
There is an omniscient, omnibenevolent, omnipotent God who sent Jesus to atone for the sins of all who believe in him. This same God desires everyone should be saved and that no one should be lost (See 1 Timothy 2:4; 2 Peter 3:9).
Loftus’ claim, in a nutshell
Loftus’ claim that there are no bad personal reasons for rejecting Christianity means that there are no reasons that would not justify you in coming to believe that Christianity is false, given the way in which your cognitive faculties work. In other words, Loftus is saying that any reason that happens to persuade you (given the way in which your cognitive faculties work) that Christianity is false, would also justify you in arriving at that belief.
Loftus: involuntary beliefs destroy the distinction between good and bad personal reasons
Why does Loftus think this? A clue can be found in a little passage in his post:
What if, as I strongly suspect, that belief is overwhelmingly involuntary, if not completely involuntary. Is it all just a lucky coincidence if we get something right? If any of these conditions obtain then the distinction between having good personal reasons and bad personal reasons basically flies out the window.
What Loftus is really saying is that if our false beliefs are the product of our built-in biases, then they are still justified beliefs, given the way in which we’re put together, neurologically speaking.
Loftus’ argument that there isn’t a bad personal reason to reject Christianity
First, he considers a man named Pat, who rejects Christianity for a bad reason: “he had a strange dream where his dead Christian mother, Patricia, tells him it’s all a ruse, that no matter what people believe when they die God is sending everyone to hell anyway.”
Loftus thinks that although Pat could never hope to convince anyone else that Christianity is false on the basis of his dream, he would still have a good personal reason to reject Christianity. “Why?” you might ask. “Shouldn’t Pat be more skeptical of what he hears in dreams?” Here’s Loftus’ devastating reply:
If God desires Pat to be saved, and if God knows Pat will be convinced by his dream because his God-given cognitive faculties are such that he would accept its message as true, then God should not have allowed Pat to have had such a dream in the first place. Allowing a vulnerable ignorant person like Pat to have had such a dream, knowing it would lead him to reject Christianity, makes that God just as culpable as if he himself caused Pat to reject Christianity.
What Loftus is saying is that if Pat’s personal conviction that (i) his mother was speaking to him in his dream, and that (ii) she was telling him the truth, is caused by a built-in bias in Pat’s cognitive faculties, then Pat’s belief is justified, even though it is false. Why? Because it’s arrived at as a result of his cognitive faculties functioning in their normal fashion.
Loftus then argues that if a belief is justified, then the person who has that belief cannot be held morally culpable for having it – which means that any God Who punished a person for having such a belief would be acting unjustly. Indeed, Loftus’ argument would work equally well against any God Who punished unbelief in individuals.
Loftus’ argument, Part II: self-deception
In the case above, Pat was at least sincere in his search for truth. But what about people who are insincere, and who give up their faith because they have gradually deceived themselves into believing that it is false? Loftus brings a similar argument to bear in the case of these people’s beliefs, which result from self-deception:
The deceived do not know they are being deceived, even if it’s self-deception. Get it? So just as in the case of Pat above, if God allows us to deceive ourselves into nonbelief when we don’t know this is what we’re doing (and we don’t), then we can no more be held accountable for this self-deception than Pat can be held accountable for his ignorance. Just as Pat has good personal reasons to reject Christianity, even though they are ignorant, so also people who deceive themselves into nonbelief have good personal reasons for their nonbelief because they are ignorant of their own self-deception. LINK
Dr. Torley offers three substantive criticisms of my argument.
A critical evaluation of Loftus’ argument against the possibility of conscious self-deception
Loftus’ argument bears a strong resemblance to the old philosophical argument (dating back to the ancient Greeks) that there is no such thing as akrasia, or weakness of will: no-one would ever willingly choose what they knew was bad for them, as we can only will what is good for us. As Plato’s Socrates declared in the Protagoras: “No one who either knows or believes that there is another possible course of action, better than the one he is following, will ever continue on his present course” (Protagoras 358b-c). Philosophers continue to debate how weakness of will occurs, at the psychological level, and there is an interesting article about it here in The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. But the fact that it occurs is something I consider to be self-evident. It is a simple fact, after all, that people break their New Year’s resolutions all the time, even though they know perfectly well that they shouldn’t. If we acknowledge that people can sometimes do things that they know they shouldn’t, then we have to allow that they might sometimes choose to believe pleasing but ultimately pernicious ideas, even though they know they shouldn’t.
Yes, to sum up ancient Socratic Greek thought, “to know the good is to do the good.” And yet, even people who know the good don’t do it. To what then can we attribute the weakness of the will? It has to do with our fleshly appetites, yes, but all of us have these appetites depending on our DNA. So there’s more to it than that. We know we shouldn’t eat more chocolate when on a diet, but we just can’t stop ourselves. The reason we eat more of it anyway is because our will has a subconscious component that over-rides what we consciously think we want. Located in our subconscious mind is what we really want. We want more chocolate. We want it now. The problem of the weakness of the will then becomes the problem of how our conscious mind can over-ride our subconscious mind.
So the issue for us is how our subconscious mind has arrived at its conclusions, the ones that really motivate us. And the answer is simple, from our DNA and from everything we have experienced in life, along with any conclusions we arrived at from our experiences, all of them. Most of our early childhood experiences in life formed the attitudes that have shaped and subsequently are used to manage all of the ideas we arrive at, and this occurs at such an early stage in life that no one holds children accountable for this. Let that sink in.
Torley continues along the same lines with his second criticism:
This brings me to the ultimate flaw in Loftus’ argument that there can be no bad personal reasons for rejecting Christianity – or more generally, for rejecting a God Who punishes people for their unbelief. Loftus is assuming that when people come to believe that Christianity is false, their belief is caused in a deterministic fashion by their cognitive faculties. And Loftus’ point is that people can’t be blamed for the way in which their cognitive faculties work: that would be like blaming Sam for being Sam, or for that matter, blaming Sam for being human. Sam is what he is, and he is who he is. Nobody can blame him for that.
Loftus’ argument implicitly assumes that we have no control over the way in which our cognitive faculties work – in other words, that free will (and here, I’m talking about the libertarian variety) plays no role in the formation of our beliefs. “Well, why should it?” I hear you ask. “You didn’t choose to believe Pythagoras’ Theorem, do you? The logic of the argument compelled you to accept it.” But this is a highly atypical case. The vast majority of our beliefs do involve an element of choice, and our cognitive faculties do not normally work in a deterministic fashion. People often believe things that they find pleasant, or aesthetic, or morally uplifting, or intellectually congenial, or currently fashionable, or politically convenient, or what have you. The point I’m making here is not that they should or shouldn’t be forming their beliefs for these reasons, as they’re not all bad ones – science, for instance, is often guided by aesthetic considerations. The point I’m making is that beliefs typically involve an element of choice.
This objection of his is based upon an unevidenced assertion about something I never said. Apart from these two flaws what remains is excellent! Never-mind there isn’t anything that remains.
My real argument is not based upon determinism. I only said I strongly suspect that belief is overwhelmingly involuntary, if not completely involuntary. I never said with finality whether or not we are determined beings. Regardless of that issue I can demonstrate that even granting libertarian free will we human beings don’t have much of it at all, if we have any of it. Just read this thoughtfully. That’s all I need to make my present argument. To read some good arguments that we have no free will though, I recommend Jonathan Pearce’s book, Free Will?: An investigation into whether we have free will, or whether I was always going to write this book.
Torley’s third criticism of my argument is just as flawed.
[I]t assumes that God knows all possible counterfactuals…it assumes that God has knowledge of each and every counterfactual, relating to human choices. For instance, God knows what I would do if I were offered a bribe, or if I suddenly lost my sight, or if I won the lottery, or if I dreamed about snakes. It’s absolutely vital to Loftus’ case that God should possess this kind of knowledge.
Nope, this is not the case at all. Just as it does not depend on determinism neither does it depend on God knowing each and every counterfactual. All we need for the argument to work is simple divine omniscience, the kind he argues for stemming from Boethius, but which is rejected by other Christian philosophers (so I’ll let them duke it out, and when they settle it among themselves I’ll debunk the consensus, if that ever happens *cough*).
Does Torley really think that a God with simple divine omniscience cannot tell in advance what Pat will conclude if he had a dream as I described? If God cannot know what Pat will conclude from such a dream then omniscience means nothing at all. At a bare minimum omniscience should entail that a God with it could predict with nearly 100 certainty what a person’s next act will be. Likewise such a God could predict with near certainty what a person’s next thought will be. The problem of whether such an omniscient being could predict subsequent future acts and thoughts of a person is not a problem for my argument. For I’ll grant that with simple divine omniscience such a God will be less and less likely to predict what will happen as time moves into the future, since the counter-factuals will begin to pile up quickly and muddy the waters. Even then, if God has simple omniscience then he is still the master chess player and can predict the moves of people like chess pieces so far out in advance that it should stun us if he had such an ability. Apparently Torley isn’t stunned by such an ability at all. Oh hum, he yawns. Such a God cannot predict what Pat will conclude from a given vivid dream, so there. Poof, Loftus has no argument.
Sheesh. What a cheap notion of omniscience Torley has. I would love to see him use that same cheap notion of omniscience in explaining away why there is so much intense and ubiquitous suffering in our world. But I digress as well.
The point is that even Pat’s own brothers and sisters could predict in advance what he would conclude if he had such a dream. Doesn’t omniscience mean God has more knowledge than brothers and sisters or not? If not, give up the notion entirely. We all have it. If so, then my argument stands. His choice. I care not what he chooses.