A Response to The Messianic Manic’s Video

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.

Context

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.

Opening

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 always, in my view, always rational to believe that things are the way they seem to be in the absence of counter-evidence. There’s a number of words for this principle, I call it the Principle of Credulity. That is to say, the rational person is the credulous person who believes everything in the absence of counter-evidence.

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:

Why? And what does Swinburne even mean when he uses the word “believe”? Why would it not be more rational to be agnostic about whether things are the way they superficially seem to be in the absence of counter-evidence? I think it would be reasonable to suspect that things are the way they seem to be, but I don’t see why it’s rational to have more than a mere suspicion. I don’t see why it’s rational to fully believe “everything” in the absence of counter-evidence.

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:

So, then what is it to believe that so-and-so, that today is Monday or that there is a God? I suggest that the primary concept of belief picked out by public criteria is the concept of believing so-and-so more probable (or more likely) than such-and-such. I shall be arguing for this suggestion shortly. If this is correct, then belief is relative to alternatives… (Swinburne, 3-4).

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 [1]. 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.

Swinburne Answers

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:

For, if a claim is to be justified inductively, we must in some sense `have’ the evidence of past performance in order to be justified in making the inference. But then, an induction from past experiences to future experiences is justified only if we recall our past experiences correctly. And what grounds have we got for supposing that we do? Clearly not inductive grounds–an inductive justification of the reliability of memory claims would obviously be circular. Here clearly we must rely on the principle that things are the way they seem, as a basic principle not further justifiable; that we seem to have had such-and-such experiences is in itself good grounds for believing that we had (Swinburne, 305).

He goes on to say:

If you require that other people also shall have had the experience of it seeming to them that there was a table present before you are justified in trusting the deliverances of your own sense on this matter, then what is your justification for believing that other people have had such experience? Clearly (as well as assuming that other people probably tell you the truth) you again rely on the principle that things are as they seem to be (that other people seem to you to have said that they had these experiences gives you justification for believing that they did say this). The principle that the rational person supposes that, in the absence of special considerations in particular cases, things are the way they seem to be or to have been can be given inductive justification on the basis of past experiences only if these latter are held to be trustworthy solely on the basis of the Principle of Credulity itself (305-306).

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.

Parsimony

Picking up where we left off, TMM then makes a comment about parsimony. Here’s what he says:

Also, I know I keep harping on parsimony, but whether you should believe that something is the way it seems to be depends at least in part on whether how things seem to be is the simplest explanation for one’s experience.

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.

Obviousness

The video continues with Swinburne saying the following:

You’re right to believe that you’re sitting in a chair interviewing me, you don’t need an argument for that–it’s so obvious.

TMM cuts him off:

Yeah but the existence of a god is not so obvious as to even remotely be analogous to the obviousness of being where one seems to be and doing what one seems to be doing.

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.

Limited Application

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:

But of course somebody can wake you up and show you you’re only having a dream, that would show you you were mistaken. So the principle is always in the absence of counter-evidence it is rational to believe things. So, a person is brought up in a closed religious community, and has a deep religious experience, it’s obvious to him there’s a God, he’s right to believe it, fair enough…

TMM buts in again:

If a person is ignorant of all the psychological factors that can induce such experiences, I guess I couldn’t blame them for coming to such a conclusion, but this simply doesn’t apply to most educated people and is also probably inapplicable to many lay people as well.

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.

Intellectual Poverty

The last comment TMM makes is undoubtedly his worst. We’ll start again with Swinburne:

But, he may come out into the outside world and be presented with counter arguments, and then he’d need to consider them, if his religious experience isn’t very strong, and these arguments seem appealing. Likewise, it’s rational to believe there’s a God if the wisest person in your community tells you there’s a God and there’s no other person to tell you there’s [not] a God, because it’s always rational to believe what others tell you in the absence of counter-evidence.

Thankfully, Swinburne has finally been permitted to finish his thought (which, as many will agree, looks pretty sensible). Here’s TMM’s commentary:

Ok, I definitely don’t buy that. However, even if I did, these arguments seem to only apply to someone who is in a hypothetical state of general ignorance. “If” someone doesn’t know that religious experiences can be psychologically induced, “if” they live in some isolated community where the wisest person is a theist. Swinburn’s argument seems to boil down to saying, “it’s rational to believe in a god if you’re in a context of severe intellectual poverty.”

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.

Concluding Thoughts

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.


Notes:

[1] Dr. Robert Sloan Lee has done a lot of good work in philosophy of religion. Check out his debate with Matt Dillahunty.

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“On Naturalism, each fundamental particle exists brutely; thus, Naturalism entails at least 1080 brute facts” How does Dougherty define “brute fact”? Is it a contingent fact without a “sufficient”explanation or cause? If so, theism entails just as many brute facts. Every libertarian free choice made by God is a contingent fact which ultimately has no sufficient explanation or cause, because libertarian choices are, by definition, free from antecedent causal factors. There may be some insufficient “reason” why God chose the way he did (such as value determinations), but there is no ultimately sufficient reason why he chose to make one… Read more »