Saturday, August 4, 2012

Return to Reason

I recently read Return to Reason by Kelly James Clark. This book examines the arguments both for and against the existence of God. In the end, Clark concludes that argument and evidence are not sufficient. If he had simply left the argument at that point, I could have agreed with him.

While the first half of the book looks at the evidences on both sides of the argument for God, the second half tries to argue that belief in God does not require evidence. Rather than being a fideist, though, the argument is that belief in God is properly basic. A properly basic belief is a rational belief we hold that is not supported by other beliefs.

While there are multiple arguments he makes for the case that belief in God is basic, I will focus on two of them. The first deals with the idea of belief in persons. A belief that a fellow human being is a person is not deemed irrational even though we have no basis for believing anyone else is actually a person. For all we know, other humans could be automatons. Belief in God is simply the belief in a person.

There are two problems with this argument. First, some people actually believe that animals and even robots are persons. I recently saw an episode of Nova Science Now that included a segment on how robots could play a large part in the daily lives of people in need. One of the concerns is that people may start to treat these very life like robots as persons because of the way they are able to mimic us.

Another problem with the God as person belief is that unlike actual people, we do not see or interact with God. I can understand someone jumping to the conclusion that an animal or a robot is a person, because there is something there to see and interact with but God is conspicuously absent.

The second argument I would like to deal with is the idea that what we experience with our senses is properly basic. He uses an analogy of a person seeing a timber in the mountains. When he goes back to tell his friends, his friends argue that timber wolves are extinct. However, since he in fact saw the timber wolf, regardless of what his friends say he is rational in his belief.

There are three problems with this argument. First, as Clark has defined is, beliefs based on sense experiences are not properly basic. They are actually founded on the belief that our senses are accurate. Since we have no way to test the accuracy of our senses beyond the experience of our sense, the belief that our senses are generally accurate would be properly basic.

The second problem is that while our senses may in general be accurate, our interpretation may not be. One only need to see an optical illusion or a mirage to know this. The idea that our belief about what we see is properly basic means that nuts who believe in alien visitations because they saw a UFO are not irrational for their belief. Is a person who hears the sound of hoofs clip-clopping along rational for believing it is zebras and not horses?

The third and perhaps worst of the problems with this argument is which sense exactly are people supposedly using to discover God? While one can argue that the person who thought he saw an extinct wolf actually saw something, what can we say about sensing God? There are mental institutions filled with people who think they heard God. We certainly do not think they are rational for that belief.

When we have a sensory experience, we should not jump to conclusions about what it is we are experiencing. If what we are experiencing is within the realm of our normal experiences, it seems reasonable to think that what we are experiencing is true. If we have an experience with multiple other witnesses of something odd, we should try to reconstruct what happened. We should not jump to the extraordinary without first eliminating the ordinary.

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