“Inference to be best explanation” is an illegitimate epistemology.
Abduction, sometimes called “inference to the best explanation“, is appropriate as a tool within science for identifying and submitting hypotheses for testing and potential falsification, but it is falls far short of the rigor required for epistemic integrity.
Consider a robbery in which a heavy safe has been removed from a normally locked office. One hundred individuals have keys to the door of the office. The strongest among those one hundreds individuals is Bob who can lift slightly more than the others. All else being equal, Bob becomes the best explanation. Within an epistemology that considers “inference to the best explanation” a legitimate reason to arrive at epistemic conclusions, Bob took the safe.
This abductive reasoning (also called retroduction) is the foundation of the epistemologies of a significant minority of Christians, if not the majority. Instead of mapping the degree of mapping certainty along the epistemic gradient to the degree of evidential certainty along the evidential gradient, Millions instead simply identify the most likely conclusion, and flip a switch from disbelief to an unnuance belief.
But rational belief is gradient. Identifying the best explanation, and making a binary conclusion that this best explanation is the explanation we will adopt is irrational. Rational belief requires that we do nothing less than map our degree of belief to the degree of the relevant evidence.
Yet millions, especially within theism, are taught that if explanation X is the best explanation, they are warranted in adopting that explanation as a binary conclusion.
“Inference to the best explanation” is only legitimate as an experimental design tool, and has no place in the epistemology of a rational mind.
A linguistic presupposition is ‘an implicit assumption about the world or background belief relating to an utterance whose truth is taken for granted in discourse’. (Wikipedia)
A epistemic presupposition might be defined similarly as an implicit assumption about the world or background belief that is taken for granted prior to attempts to determine its veracity.
PROPOSITION: The inclusion of epistemic presuppositions in an epistemic method is always illegitimate.
At the foundation of epistemology lie two hopes.
- 1: The hope that our reality will make sense.
- 2: The hope we can uncover a methodology that will make sense of our reality.
These are hopes. We don’t need to assume these hopes can be actualized.
Some take these two hopes, and for various reasons, presume they are more than hopes. They start with the presupposition that reality does/will make sense, and that we do/will have a methodology that will make sense of that reality.
These presuppositions are clearly unfounded. There is nothing about hope that warrants a presupposition. Those who do accept such presuppositions have blundered at the very foundation of their epistemology in that they have accepted a conclusion to a degree not warranted by the appropriate degree of evidence, thereby abandoning the very essence of epistemic integrity.
Highly reliable regularities do not deserve the status of “presupposition”.
We were not born assuming our realities would appear logically coherent. Yet, for most of us, we discovered that reality invariably mapped to “laws” of logic to such a degree that, by the time we were toddlers, we possessed a justified extremely high degree of confidence in the continued reliability of “laws” of logic.
Some who can not remember this process of legitimately acquiring confidence in logic through inductive experience during infancy subsequently claim logic is something we are warranted in presuming. This is a presupposition arrived at out of forgetfulness; they have simply forgotten (or are ignoring) the natural cognitive acquisitions of their infancies.
The reliability of our minds need not be presumed. Nor should it be presumed.
Some claim that we must presume the reliability of our minds before we can even attempt to make sense of the world around us. This is not true.
Imagine a system of interdependent modules, all of which must be working for a positive outcome. Examples include a car engine, a computer or clock. If any individual module of the system ceases to function, the entire system will fail.
The same holds for what we might call an epistemic apparatus in which 1) a mind, 2) sensory organs, and 3) scientific methodology all combine to form an interdependent system. If any of these three modules fail, the entire system will fail. If any one of these modules is faulty, the system will be faulty. However, if this epistemic apparatus produces predictive power and explanatory coherence, we can map the degree of confidence in the working of the constituent modules to the degree that the system is demonstrated to be successful.
So the reliability of our minds need not be a presupposition, nor should it be a presupposition. Our minds should be tested prior to our confidence in our minds. And there is no guarantee that the current reliability of our minds will not increase or diminish in the future.
Even those who claim we must presume the reliability of our minds understand that their minds will begin to diminish in their later years. And they admit that even our faltering minds can normally test the degree to which our minds are faltering through the observation of our own forgetfulness, or through more rigorous means such as charting our success over time at crossword puzzles.
So, presuming that our minds are reliable prior to testing our minds transgresses epistemic integrity.
Any method currently successful in making sense of our reality need not be presumed to always be successful.
I am sometimes met with the objection that my current epistemic methodology is a presumption I hold. It is not. Just as the continued reliability of my mind I don’t nor should presume, I do not presume that my epistemic method will continue to work.
What is that epistemic method? Essentially it is to follow what appears to work (in terms of predictive power) to the degree that it appears to work for as long as it appears to work.
And what if this method stops working? To the degree that it stops working, to that degree I will lower my confidence in the method.
(I currently can not imagine what it would mean for a method of following what works to cease working, but my lack of imagination does not warrant that I hold my method as a presupposition.)
Some may argue that, since I am admitting I am dependent upon the appearance of the success of the method, that I am subject to being deceived. Welcome to the limits of subjectivity. Absolute certainty is not possible for those less than omniscient since we are limited to less than certain evidence, the longing to transcend this limitation notwithstanding.
Even my epistemic method need not be held as a presupposition.
It may be that some who insist others hold presuppositions are simply over-projecting from their own emotional/cognitive inability to appropriately abandon their presuppositions to the conclusion that no one else can abandon their psychological disposition to hold presuppositions. They will poke and prod at my position, and when they can not uncover a presupposition, will simply assert I have presuppositions hidden away somewhere deep down in my presupposition-inclined soul. It’s an argument based on the arrogance of assuming others do not know nor can control their own degrees of certainty.
Ultimately, the attempt to demonstrate everyone holds presupposition is driven by the hope to make one’s own faulty epistemology more legitimate by claiming an equivalency that does not exist. If they can only demonstrate we all hold presuppositions for which we have no justification, their own unjustified presuppositions are somehow made legitimate.
This is both illogical and indicative of the current dismal state of apologetics.
I hold no presuppositions. If you do, I strongly recommend, for the sake of epistemic integrity, that you abandon your presuppositions. Limit your degree of confidence in any proposition to the degree that is warranted by the perceived efficacy of that proposition. You’ll discover a reality with less of the comfort of dogma, but much more freedom to honestly follow the evidence into a more rigorously constructed ontology.
I posed the following on a Facebook group page. I thought others may find it helpful.
On the probability of the resurrection.
I have two observations about belief in the resurrection.
Based on my recent interactions with Christians, it seems that belief in the resurrection may be simply a problem with a mathematical misunderstanding.
Imagine that, for each of five naturalistic explanations, the resurrection is twice as probable.
- 1: It is twice as probable that a man has come back to life than that the story was intentionally fabricated.
- 2: It is twice as probable that a man has come back to life than that a legend of a resurrection can grow out of the many retellings of a hero’s life among those devoted to him.
- 3: It is twice as probable that a man has come back to life than that a man who had not actually died appeared alive after being thought dead.
- 4: It is twice as probable that a man has come back to life than that that the body of that man was stolen or simply moved to a different place.
- 5: It is twice as probable that a man has come back to life than that those looking for someone’s body went to the wrong sepulcher.
Let’s add a sixth proposition that constitutes a “all others” category necessary to complete our sample space.
- 6: It is twice as probable that a man has come back to life than that one of all remaining unintroduced or unimagined natural explanations is the actual explanation.
Let’s grant these six assumptions for the sake of argument.
Now, based on these assumptions, are we justified in concluding that Jesus resurrected from the dead based on the principle of abduction or “inference to the best explanation”?
I would argue that we are not.
Based on the relative probabilities of the six assumptions we have granted, the probability that someone has come back from the dead is only 25%.
That someone has come back from the dead, granting the assumptions above, is the best explanation. Yet this explanation justifies only a 25% of belief. The complementary doubt must be at 75% for a rational mind.
The problem is that many think that the best explanation is inherently deserving of a high degree of confidence. It is not.
And it is this fundamental error that may lie at the base of the confidence of many that Jesus rose from the dead.
This is my first observation.
Belief in the resurrection may be simply based on a logical blunder.
Many claim that the resurrection is the most probable explanation without providing the probability of a resurrection.
For the rational mind, the following two premises can not be held at the same time.
- P1: X is more probable than Y.
- P2: I don’t know the probability X.
I have encountered not just a few Christians who hold both of these premises.
So these two observation may assist believers in reassessing their belief in the resurrection. If you have already taken both of these observations into consideration, and have come to the conclusion the resurrection of Jesus did actually happen, good on you. But you may want to assist the many other Christians who believe in the resurrection based on a blunder in probability or logic.
Most foundational to an honest search for truth is a healthy epistemic disposition. Here are a few question we can ask ourselves to detect weaknesses in our epistemic dispositions.
- 1: Do I find myself uncomfortable saying “I don’t know” on large issues?
- 2: Do I find comfort in possessing a high degree of emotional certainty that exceeds the evidential certainty?
- 3: Do I treat belief in a binary way (either I believe or disbelieve) instead of attempting to map my degree of belief to the degree of the evidential evidence?
- 4: Do I find myself claiming everyone has faith to give my own faith legitimacy or excuse?
- 5: Do I find myself claiming everyone has presuppositions to give my own presuppositions legitimacy or excuse?
- 6: Do I find myself pointing out that all humans draw conclusions based on emotions to give my own emotionally tainted conclusions legitimacy or excuse?
- 7: Do I find myself frequently pointing out flaws in others’ ideologies, and feeling this makes my own ideology more likely flawless?
- 8: Do I find myself avoiding sources of arguments that run contrary to my current position instead of seriously considering contrary arguments?
- 9: Do I feel that honest doubt in which I back away from and reexamine every assumption I hold makes me unstable in some way?
- 10: Do I infrequently sit down and reconstruct my beliefs and update my degree of confidence in each belief based on any new evidence or arguments I’ve uncovered?
These questions are offered as a heuristic to uncover unhealthy distortions in our epistemic dispositions.
Many think statistics can be used to illegitimately defend even the most absurd positions. Is this true? Only among the statistically illiterate. Those who understand statistics are led into rigorous conclusions that may significantly differ from what they want to conclude. Those who don’t understand statistics, instead of blaming their own statistical illiteracy and modifying their positions, will dismiss the most rigorous statistical studies by suggesting statistics are some kind of mathematical trickery, and of the same evidential weight as anecdotes and emotional appeals.
Recently, there has appeared the same attitude towards logic. Ever hear someone say “Well, that’s just YOUR logic” as if logic were as subjective as your choice in socks? In this US election cycle, logic is being treated as something that is malleable and accommodating of nearly every position…and is not that important anyway. Logical arguments have been replaced by unfounded accusations by those hoping to poison the opposition’s well, and attempt to justify this behavior through the childish retort “Well, THEY started it”. And since logic requires focus and fidelity and an honest positioning of conclusions to the actual facts, logic seems far too troublesome and restrictive. Far fewer voices are ashamed of their intentional illogic. This is not a good thing.
Emotional intensity has replaced logic as the measure of a good argument. And this is only accelerating the recent dismissal of logic in the public forum to a point at which minds no longer have access to even the logic necessary to comprehend their illogic.
The following questions are provided as a challenge to the Biblical notions of sin and redemption. Feel free to comment.
1. What is it that prevents a loving God from forgiving without bloodshed? (Hebrews 9:22) If you became more God-like, would you also have difficulty forgiving without bloodshed?
2. Is punishing children for the sins of their father ever just? (Numbers 14:18) If a human judge were to punish the sins of a father by punishing his children and grandchildren, is there anyway that could be considered just?
3. How is it just for someone to pay for the sins of someone else? If a judicial system allowed this, would it be just?
4. If Jesus became human to “become sin for us” (2 Corinthians 5:21) to pay the human price for sin, how could he be resurrected since humans presumably have not paid for their sins after 3 days of death? Is the price of sin eternal damnation or a 3-day damnation?
5. Since Jesus was one man, how was it possible he could pay for everyone’s sins? Could one innocent child somehow pay the penalty for 1,000 criminals?
6. Why is eternal death called “punishment” when any loving being punishes only to rehabilitate those he loves?
7. Is there anyway a human born with a sin nature can avoid sinning? If not, how can sinning be culpable? Do we punish puppies born with a “bark nature” for barking by eternally damning them?
The following chart shows how Evangelical apologetics is becoming less and less about the “Gospel”, and more about a deistic position or simply critiquing other ideologies.