As many will know, I recently had the privilege of interviewing Christian philosopher Richard Swinburne. If you’re hearing of this for the first time, feel free to go watch it (and check out his portraits). It’s unnecessary to watch the whole interview prior to reading this post. In fact, all you’ll need to do is watch a short excerpt.
Before we look at The Messianic Manic’s video and my response, I would encourage you to watch the original video he’s criticizing. It’s a short excerpt from the full interview mentioned above. The title of the video is, “Can Belief in God be Rational Apart from Argumentation?” Watch it here. After you’ve watched the original, watch TMM’s response (or just skip to my responses where I’ve pasted his comments in full).
In the sections below I’ll lay out and summarize his arguments and then provide responses.
In the opening, The Messianic Manic (hereafter referred to as “TMM”) says, “Here’s Richard Swinburne to explain why he thinks credulity is rational.” Not two seconds in and we’ve already encountered rhetorically-charged, misleading language. Swinburne does not argue that credulity simpliciter is rational. He includes a crucial and very standard no-defeaters clause; here’s what he actually says (emphasis mine):
It’s misleading, or in any case, imprecise, to say that Swinburne argues that “credulity is rational.” In reality, he argues that credulity is rational only in the absence of counter-evidence. Whether this poor choice of wording was intentional or unintentional, Swinburne’s position has been misrepresented.
Agnosticism & Self-Defeat
Immediately after Swinburne lays out his Principle of Credulity, TMM stops the video and inserts his comments. Ironically, TMM challenges Swinburne’s stated Principle of Credulity by citing his own incredulity. Here’s what he says:
It’s important to note that in the context of the interview, I was asking Swinburne for his view; I wasn’t asking him to defend it. Swinburne has defended his Principle of Credulity at length in his published work (see the next section). Further into the video, TMM asks what Swinburne “even means” by “believe”? Fortunately, we don’t have to guess. Swinburne has an extensive and clear analysis of the concept in his book Faith and Reason. Specifically, in Chapter 1: “The Nature of Belief” he, in part, says:
Swinburne’s analysis of belief is consistent with Bayesian Epistemology; for him, beliefs come in degrees. Sloan Lee, a very good philosopher friend of mine, has pointed out an interesting implication here . If Swinburne is right, suspecting such-and-such will be functionally equivalent to believing such-and-such. And since TMM has agreed it’s “reasonable to suspect that things are the way they seem to be,” he’s in danger of unwittingly accepting the view he’s criticizing.
TMM then asks an interesting question, but it’s followed by two statements of incredulity. He asks why agnosticism is not more rational than belief (see the next section for a response), but then he says, “I don’t see why Swinburne’s view is the case” and then ends his commentary. The fact he ends his commentary with incredulity invites further exploration.
Twice he says, “I don’t see why . . . ” Ironically, it looks like TMM is rejecting Swinburne’s Principle of Credulity by endorsing what I’ll call the Principle of Incredulity. It states that, “It is always rational to reject whatever one is incredulous about.” Two responses. First, if the Principle of Incredulity is true, anyone incredulous about it is rational in rejecting it. Second, it looks like the kind of principle that one either sees as true or doesn’t. However, if that’s true, rational belief in the Principle of Incredulity is supported by something like Swinburne’s Principle of Credulity. One can immediately see the conflict; Swinburne’s view must be accepted in order to reject it.
For those dubious of this, look at the whole quote. TMM’s “why” question at the beginning is basically saying, “I don’t see why Swinburne’s view is correct,” then he offers a possible alternative (agnosticism instead of belief), and then expresses his own incredulity–twice. The whole comment is one big statement of incredulity. But why should incredulity give one reason to reject Swinburne’s view? As I’ve said, a likely candidate is the Principle of Incredulity. And why should we believe the Principle of Incredulity? A likely candidate is Swinburne’s Principle of Credulity. Ironically, TMM’s own incredulity defeats him.
As noted above, I didn’t ask Swinburne to defend his view in the interview, but that doesn’t mean he couldn’t have or hasn’t. The informed person will be aware of the fact he’s defended his Principle of Credulity in The Existence of God. Here’s just one of the arguments available there:
He goes on to say:
Swinburne says here, quite persuasively in my opinion, that inductive reasoning itself relies on something like his Principle of Credulity. Later on, just a few paragraphs later, he mentions that without his Principle, we’d be forced into a position of skepticism about virtually everything we think we know.
TMM’s “why” question is a good one, but it’s not one without an answer. Indeed, that answer was ready and available long before he decided to make a response video (the latest edition was published in 2004). There are really only three explanations for TMM’s “why” question. Either he knew Swinburne’s defense and honestly asked why (which makes no sense), he knew about it and rhetorically asked why, or otherwise he was ignorant of this fact and was really asking why anyone would believe it. The latter seems to be the most plausible explanation.
However, what excuse does he have for such egregious laziness? It’s not as if Swinburne isn’t well-known among those who think about these issues (I mean, there’s a reason he chose to do a video on him). All of this leads me to conclude that if TMM isn’t serious in his thinking, perhaps we shouldn’t take his thinking very seriously.
Picking up where we left off, TMM then makes a comment about parsimony. Here’s what he says:
Fortunately for us, this isn’t another expression of incredulity. Here at least we have a claim that can be evaluated. Let’s try and formalize this principle a bit. It looks like he’s saying this: If X is not the simplest explanation for person S’s having the experience that X seems true, S ought not believe that X is true. Call this TMM’s Maxim. Three points. Well, actually four.
First, one can simply reject the idea that simplicity is an explanatory virtue. I’m personally on the fence about this. However, it’s not enough to assume that simplicity is a virtue; it must be argued for (here’s an example of how philosophers do it).
Second, in light of the fact that TMM gives no reason to think that TMM’s Maxim is true, we have no reason to accept it. Perhaps he thinks we ought to believe TMM’s Maxim because it’s intuitively obvious. But then it looks like TMM’s Maxim requires Swinburne’s Principle of Credulity.
Third, if TMM’s Maxim is correct, it would mean that in many cases it would be wrong to believe the truth. For example, suppose that it seems to Ben, a seasoned homicide detective, that five men were responsible for some horrendous murder while many others think it was committed by two. And suppose it’s correct that five men were involved. Clearly, two is less than five. Thus, in this case, the truth is more complicated than other reasonable alternatives. However, given TMM’s Maxim, Ben shouldn’t believe the truth.
Fourth, there’s no one correct way to think about simplicity (Swinburne even has his own account). In his (very good) book on animal suffering, Trent Dougherty notes that simplicity can be cashed out in terms of which hypothesis entails the least number of brute facts. In that case, Naturalism always loses. On Naturalism, each fundamental particle exists brutely; thus, Naturalism entails at least 1080 brute facts. One can’t help but wonder if TMM’s account of simplicity is the result of a careful investigation or if it’s been chosen to suit his agenda.
The video continues with Swinburne saying the following:
TMM cuts him off:
First, says who? I personally have had several experiences where, in looking at a beautiful sunset, I’ve become overwhelmed with thankfulness to God. These experiences are qualitatively indistinguishable from moral and sensory experience. Important to note, I’m not defending Reformed Epistemology here; I’m challenging his claim that religious experiences are never as strong as sensory experiences.
Second, so what? Even if TMM is correct, it doesn’t follow that Swinburne’s Principle of Credulity is false. Moreover, this kind of fisking is entirely inappropriate. Swinburne wasn’t arguing in this incomplete thought that religious experiences are as strong as sensory experiences. He was making a separate point, namely, that beliefs formed on the basis of sensory experiences are wholly rational apart from compelling counter-evidence. Only after making this point does he extend the model to belief in God (as one sees later on in the video). Interrupting Swinburne mid-thought to make a useless comment isn’t something that should be applauded.
We’re down to TMM’s last two comments. Both are the weakest of the bunch. Let’s get Swinburne’s comment, followed by TMM’s. Here’s Swinburne:
TMM buts in again:
Interestingly, TMM actually agrees with Swinburne and the title of the video! In other words, he agrees that it can be rational to believe in God apart from argumentation. His only worry is that it won’t apply to “educated people” and many lay people. I’ll say a couple things about this.
First, TMM seems to think that psychological factors play some important role in the rationality of belief in God (this will be more apparent in the next section). I’ve covered that objection extensively in my article entitled, “Christian Belief as Wish-Fulfillment“; I won’t repeat those arguments here. Safe to say, I disagree that psychology plays much of a role in the epistemic status of belief in God (just like I disagree that it plays a significant role in the epistemic status of belief in other minds, belief in the external world, the reality of the past, moral beliefs, and so on).
Second, it’s unclear what “educated people” TMM has in mind. Being educated doesn’t mean one has thought hard about their religious beliefs. Most people–especially laymen–are not in a state of having good counter-evidence (just ask the average person on the street what they think about religion). It appears that TMM is guilty of generalizing from an unrepresentative sample. In any case, this discussion is purely academic–he’s already conceded (at the beginning of the quote) that belief in God can be rational apart from argumentation.
The last comment TMM makes is undoubtedly his worst. We’ll start again with Swinburne:
Thankfully, Swinburne has finally been permitted to finish his thought (which, as many will agree, looks pretty sensible). Here’s TMM’s commentary:
What he’s not buying is Swinburne’s Principle of Testimony (which is again something he’s argued at length in his published work, see Chapter 1 of The Resurrection of God Incarnate). The argument for this principle is similar to the argument for the other. Namely, without it we’re plunged into an endless abyss of skepticism. (Most of our scientific knowledge has come to us in the form of testimony from others.)
Moving on, apparently TMM thinks that Isaac Newton lived in a context of “severe intellectual poverty.” Newton wasn’t aware that religious experiences can be psychologically induced (or if he was, he didn’t find it compelling counter-evidence), and it’s very likely the wisest person around was a theist (ie: himself). Same goes for Thomas Aquinas, Gottfried Leibniz, Firmin Abauzit, Michael Faraday, Gregor Mendel, William Paley, and so on. According to TMM, all of these men, and countless other scientists, mathematicians, and physicists, lived in “severe intellectual poverty.” If only they had been exposed to TMM’s YouTube videos!
A bit more on religious experience and psychology, scientists can also induce hallucinations (as can drugs). Does that mean we can’t have any confidence in the reality of the external world? Not at all. That some sensory/religious experiences can be induced doesn’t mean all of our experiences are illusory. That doesn’t follow in either case.
On the positive side, TMM’s video has caused me to investigate Swinburne’s views more thoroughly and I’ve come out learning some new and interesting things. For that I am very grateful! Our views on epistemology are a lot more similar than I thought!
As for the content of TMM’s video, I wish I had better things to say. In a sentence, it’s an exercise in how not to think seriously about a topic.