Faith Is Rational Without Evidence Debate: Challenger’s Rebuttal

This is the 2nd stage of a debate with a Christian gentleman named Justin.

Debate structure

  1. Justin’s Opening
  2. Phil’s Rebuttal (this post)
  3. Justin’s Rejoinder
  4. Phil’s Opening
  5. Justin’s Rebuttal
  6. Phil’s Rejoinder

    NOTE: It appears that as of Feb 12, 2011, Justin’s blog is off-line.

First a comment about concluding statements in Justin’s opening. He stated the following.

So if Phil were to succeed in showing that faith is irrational without evidence, the price would be to render the vast majority of atheists irrational.

This is based on Justin’s belief that any objective moral standard that atheists hold must necessarily be based on faith-derived premises.

I am not defending other atheists’ beliefs, nor am I asking Justin to defend Fred Phelps or the pope. I’ll be addressing only his own arguments, and I hope that he will address only the arguments I present rather than the ones he presumes I hold.

Let me begin with definitions.

  • Rational Belief: A degree of belief that maps to a corresponding degree of evidence, either empirical or logical.
  • Faith: A degree of belief that does not correspond to the degree of evidence available. For example, Jesus blessed those who believed more with less evidence.
  • Evidence: What increases the probability of the truth of a given proposition against alternative propositions, and consequently, increases the epistemic warrant for a belief through the heuristics of science including observation, induction, parsimony, and other heuristics of epistemic inquiry that result in beliefs with predicative power and logical cohesion.
  • Reason: The logical operations of the mind on constituents of evidence to arrive at logical conclusions.

Justin stated the following.

I will make four separate arguments for this: (1) evil demon problems, (2) The Regress Problem, (3) culture as an aggregation method, and (4) Bayesian statistics.

1. Evil Demon Problem

Justin claimed that I must employ faith in my acceptance of reality, for there is the logical possibility that an evil demon is manipulating my mind to provide merely the illusion of reality.

An evil demon is a logical possibility. However, its probability is not equal to the probability of the world I perceive being the world that is real. I only need to demonstrate that there is asymmetry between the probabilities of these 2 epistemic options to defeat the notion that faith must be invoked.

It is true that, unless I am acting on evidence that this possibility is less probable than the possibility that the world I perceive is real, believing the world I perceive as real requires a leap of faith from between 2 equally plausible options. To dismiss this evil demon as improbable, and therefore an irrational belief, I need to provide the evidence that shows such an evil demon is less likely than the reality of the world I perceive. There are many circular ways of attempting this. There is at least one non-circular way; foundational mathematical parsimony.

Imagine your mind had no sensory window to an outside world, and that you could entertain only logical and mathematical concepts that you could never rigorously inductively test in an interactive world. Under these conditions we are still able to ask one basic question; Is there a greater probability of there being few or many entities, qualities and relations in reality? What is the relationship between ontological complexity and probability? We do not need to posit of the existence of any single entity to answer this question. We know through mathematical reasoning without invoking an actual substantiation or inductive assessment of any particular variable, that, as the number of entities and their relations inflate, their ontological probability decreases.

Now let’s look at a few of the minimally required entities, qualities and relations in this evil demon scenario.

  1. A demon.
  2. An additional spiritual realm hidden from the apparent material realm in which a demon can reside.
  3. A demon that knows of my existence.
  4. A demon that has the power to know and control my thoughts.
  5. A demon that has the power to construct an illusory world that has at least as many entities as I now perceive.
  6. A demon that can manipulate my thoughts without detection.
  7. A demon that has emotions and is malicious.

As you can see, we’ve already had to add to our perceived world several new entities, qualities and relations that would increase the complexity of our reality, thereby reducing the probability of that reality. I know that I exist, and however complex the genesis and existence of self, the genesis and existence of self plus and evil demon must be more complex and therefore less likely. I now have warrant to believe the apparent world as real over any sort of evil demon. Entertaining additional complexity without evidence is irrational, and foundational parsimony in which complexity and ontological probability have an inverse relation is the evidence that adding an evil demon to my ontology is irrational.

This is the evidence that an evil demon and all its necessary additional complexity is much less probable than the reality I perceive, and this is the evidence that warrants a very high degree of belief that the much less logically complex world I perceive is the more probably real. Faith need not be invoked, and remains irrational and inappropriate.

2. The Regress Problem

My previous argument against the evil demon above takes us all the way back to the assumption that the world is rational. This is the last assumption for which we must provide justification in order to stop the regress of beliefs from rolling back into infinity.

I experience logical coherency within my own mind. Logic is basic to my existence. It is not a question of whether there is or isn’t rationality in the world. I know there is at least within my own mind. The evidence is in my very ability to think. Logical incoherence could never produce self-awareness. And because I start with the knowledge that there is this rational core to my being, I am warranted in assuming, until otherwise demonstrated, that each progressive layer of the world that I outwardly penetrate around me will also be rational. I start with what I know exists, then extend that until it fails. This is foundational logical parsimony. There is an asymmetry between the probability of the world being rational and the probability of the world being irrational. This is the evidence that the external world in which I reside and interact with is also more probably logically coherent than not. This evidence for the more probable foundation of a logically coherent world is what stops the regress, and removes the need for raw assumptions or faith.

3. Culture and Social Learning

Belief is not held collectively. Beliefs are formed and held in individual minds. While evidential input from assessing the various beliefs of the collective does provide additional useful evidence, the individual rational mind then assesses, through induction, the probability of this source of collective wisdom being correct, and adjusts his or her degree of belief to appropriately map to the degree of the newly-modified evidence. No faith here. It seems Justin is confusing potential evidence in the community with the single set of evidence available at any given time to the single mind that forms a belief on a single proposition.

If I am missing something in your argument, Justin, it should be possible to provide a clear scenario addressing a single proposition where faith is required of an epistemic agent due to some confounding factor from culture and social learning. If no such scenario can be submitted, then your theory has no merit, and we have no reason for abandoning evidence for faith. (My response to this scenario may require a modification of the debate structure.)

4. Bayesianism

Justin appears to be attempting an Zenoesque introduction of apparent paradox that he feels requires faith. Wikipedia calls this “applying the principle of indifference incorrectly”, and I’m inclined to agree.

I find nothing in the argument of Bayesianism that suggests I am exerting faith. If Justin can provide a single proposition that requires me, the individual assessor, to exert faith, only then will he have begun to made his case that faith without evidence is rational. Once again, Justin is confusing potential evidence with the actual evidence that is held at any given time in the discrete mind that is forming a belief on a single proposition.

Perhaps Justin is making an argument here I am missing. If that is the case, he’ll need to remove it from its opaque packaging, state a clear single proposition related to his point, the hypothetical available evidence related to that proposition, then explain why I need faith in respect to that proposition. A coherent rewrite of the “red ball” scenario might do if there is one clear proposition being assessed, a single mind making the assessment, and includes all the evidence available to that single mind. I will then demonstrate that faith is not required. Faith, as a degree of belief that does not map to the degree of evidence, is always irrational.

Note that I go beyond simply eschewing faith from my epistemology. Warranted belief is not simply belief that has evidence; it is a degree of belief that maps to the degree of the evidence.

This chart reflects a scenario in which an epistemic agent assesses another's claim that he or she can continuously correctly predict the outcome of coin tosses. In this scenario, degree of belief or disbelief will commonly deviate from the linear accumulation of evidence. This emotion-adulterated belief that does not map to the degree of evidence available is human but irrational. Click on this image to read another post that elaborates on this critical point.

If evidence is completely lacking or evenly distributed, neither belief nor disbelief is warranted. The common misconception is to consider the salient emotion of confidence that, based on personal values and other emotions, attaches to any given proposition to be somehow an epistemic christening that warrants an degree of belief or disbelief incommensurate to the available evidence. What many call “belief” is merely this emotion of confidence, and emotion legitimates nothing. This is more fully addressed here.

In conclusion, I’ve demonstrated that your first 2 points of the evil demon and of regress are flawed in that they do not take into account foundational mathematical parsimony and foundational logical parsimony that do, in fact, create asymmetrical probabilities for the 2 epistemic choices proposed. I’ve also pointed out that your second 2 points of culture as an aggregation method and Bayesian statistics failed to provide a single example of an actual epistemic event that would validate the vague theoretical notions you presented. Bold affirmations such as “There is not a single reputable epistemology which holds that all beliefs need evidence” cannot be made without ignoring the evidence I’ve provided demonstrating that we can have, and indeed need, evidence before our beliefs can be considered rational. Assumptions need evidential warrant all the way back. My assumptions have the necessary accompanying evidential warrant. Faith has no place in a rational mind.


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