Is it rational to believe random stuff for no good reason?

So yesterday I got into the car to go get something from somewhere, and I heard the tail-end of an interview with some philosopher-guy. All they said in the twenty seconds I heard was that God and football are the main topics at Notre Dame, although there are a few others ha ha, and then they said his name is Alvin Plantinga, and he has a new book.

Thanks to the magic of the Innertubes, in this case the NPR app for the iPad, I was able to listen to the entire piece (and you can too if that link still works; it’s just six minutes). It’s Alvin Plantinga, who’s an Emeritus Professor of Philosophy at Notre Dame, talking in very general terms about how science and religion are compatible, and how in fact it’s “naturalism” (i.e. the idea that there are no “supernatural entities”, by which he means God, because no one believes in Santa anymore) that’s the weird belief, and that science is a great thing, but just limited in scope, and there are lots of things that you can’t scientifically prove, like the reality of the past (that is, the entire universe could have been created five minutes ago in exactly the state that we all remember, and you wouldn’t be able to tell), and (I’m guessing) the divinity of Jesus.

I’m always interested in religious people who claim to have a rational (or rough equivalent) argument for their religiousness, so I poked around the web a bit, and found a site that has a bunch of his papers, and I read a couple of them.

There’s some interesting stuff here, but I think he tends to (rather Searle-like) skip very quickly past the obvious problems with his theories, and dive into the complex and arguable ones instead. Admittedly those are more fun :) but…

On to the arguments! The first paper I read was “Theism, Atheism, and Rationality“; it’s intended as a response to the claim that “[a] person who believed without evidence that there are an even number of ducks would be believing foolishly or irrationally; the same goes for the person who believes in God without evidence”, and that therefore “one who accepts belief in God but has no evidence for that belief is not, intellectually speaking, up to snuff.”

He examines this first as a claim that the “theist without evidence” is violating an ethical or cognitive duty or responsibility that applies to any member of some cognitive or rational community, and that by violating this duty e opens emself to criticism and disapprobation by (other) members of the community, that being the way that communities work.

Plantinga’s first response to this is to note that he doesn’t exactly choose to believe in God. Although there may be “some sort of regimen” that he could use to eventually change or extinguish that belief, it’s not like if offered a million dollars he could just change his belief in a moment.

And that’s fair; no one needs to claim that he’s being irrational on purpose, I don’t think.

So what’s the alternative? The next possibility he considers is that, rather than choosing to do something wrong, perhaps the theist without evidence is defective in some way, broken, or ill, or otherwise malfunctioning. That’s all very well, he says, but the theist might also say that the atheist is broken or ill or malfunctioning or full of sin or whatever, and doing the wrong thing for that reason. How do we decide which one is actually malfunctioning?

(It’s interesting to note at this point that while he started out talking about someone who thinks it’s irrational to believe in God without sufficient evidence versus someone who thinks that’s fine, he’s now talking in plainer terms of atheist versus theist; that will become key a bit later.)

It’s easy for the theist, he says, in that correct functioning means functioning as God intended, and God wants us to believe in him, so believing in him is correct functioning. (Which makes alot of unwarranted assumptions about God and belief, but we’ll let that pass for now.) What, he asks, can the atheist offer instead?

Here Plantinga considers, and instantly dismisses, the right answer. The “atheological evidentialist objector” (love the phrase) “may be thinking of proper functioning as functioning in a way that helps us attain our ends“. And that’s basically right: for pretty much any plausible set of plans and goals and desires, believing stuff only for good reasons is much more conducive to attaining them than is believing stuff without good reasons (because it feels nice, or because you saw it in a dream, or whatever). If I believe in a traditional Christian God for no good reason, for instance, I will probably defer various pleasant things on the theory that I will be infinitely rewarded after death as a result; but if I don’t have good reasons to believe that, it’s quite likely false, and I will have deferred those pleasant things unnecessarily.

Plantinga, though, doesn’t look this deeply into the claim. He just notes that although the atheist may not want to believe in God, the theist probably does, so believing in God helps him attain his ends, and the atheist is just wishing that he wouldn’t. But that’s confusing “doing things that help me attain my ends in the long-run” with “doing things that I want to do right now”. One of the benefits of rationality, in fact, is just that it can help us see what will work out best in the long term, even when it’s not the thing we most want to do right now.

Next Plantinga does consider a version of the argument I give above:

A second possibility: proper functioning and allied notions are to be explained in terms of aptness for promoting survival, either at an individual or species level.

And that works, too, and in fact it’s a special case of the end-attaining argument above to the extent that in general our ends include individual and species survival.

Plantinga waves this one away, also, saying “the atheological objector would then owe us an argument for the conclusion that belief in God is indeed less likely to contribute to our individual survival, or the survival of our species than is atheism or agnosticism”, and concludes that that would be a hard argument to make.

I find this baffling! Suddenly, rather than replying to the suggestion that we shouldn’t believe in things (including God) for no good reason, he’s defending theism per se. Surely all that the atheological evidentialist objector (and note that Plantinga has dropped that middle word this time) has to argue is, not that believing in God is less survival promoting than not believing in God, but that believing things for no good reason is less survival promoting than believing things only for good reasons.

And doesn’t that seem awfully plausible?

Plantinga seems to have just dodged here, and that’s disappointing. He seems to entirely forgotten that he started out to respond to the claim that it’s irrational to believe in God without evidence, and reverted to just “well, you can’t prove that believing in God causes bad results!”, which is not the same thing at all.

The last paragraph of the paper is equally disappointing, raising a question that should be so obvious to any philosopher as to not even need asking. I’ll just quote the last three sentences:

The theist has an easy time explaining the notion of our cognitive equipment’s functioning properly: our cognitive equipment functions properly when it functions in the way God designed it to function. The atheist evidential objector, however, owes us an account of this notion. What does he mean when he complains that the theist without evidence displays a cognitive defect of some sort? How does he understand the notion of cognitive malfunction?

If only there were a vast existing literature, much of it not making reference to God at all, about what rationality and cognitive obligation and function and malfunction might mean! If only this vast literature were available in any decent university library, easily accessible by anyone in the Philosophy profession!

Oh, wait…

Next time: the next paper I read, in which Plantinga approaches some of these same things, and some different things, from a different angle, and raises some interesting questions, but still dodges the correct answer. His new book is apparently based on essentially the same argument.

Update: some stuff I forgot to mention. :)

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4 Responses to “Is it rational to believe random stuff for no good reason?”

  1. What sort of evidence would be required to answer the duck question?

    After I get my hands around that, maybe I can move on to God.

  2. Well, you could count all the ducks. Although you’d have to do it pretty fast. :) Someone that you trust could assure you that they’d counted all the ducks (pretty fast). That sort of thing…

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