Reflections on My “Unbelievable?” Appearance

On Thanksgiving Day I recorded an episode for the very popular Unbelievable? radio program. I was in dialogue with UK Street Epistemologist Pascoe Rapacci (@PocketPasc). The episode has recently aired and I wanted to share some of my thoughts on the episode. If you haven’t had a chance to listen, I’d recommend doing so before continuing.

General Thoughts

Overall I thought the discussion was a good introduction to Street Epistemology (SE), what it is, how it works, and some of the things I find problematic about it. The nature of a radio program like Unbelievable is such that it doesn’t allow for much depth. On that note, I definitely felt rushed to get across the points I wanted to, didn’t take enough time to explain key concepts, and the like.

After listening to the discussion several times through, and this rating changes pretty much every time I listen, I would give myself a solid B+. There were things I did okay in, and things I would change completely if given the opportunity.

Perhaps the biggest thing I would consider changing is staying away from doing a whole presentation on Reformed Epistemology (RE). Explaining and defending RE on the show meant that instead of providing simple answers to SE that other Christians could easily emulate, I was busy explaining the difference between de jure and de facto objections, laying out the concept of properly basic beliefs, talking about Equal Weight Theory, and defending a complex epistemological view against Pascoe’s down-to-Earth criticisms.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that I’m unhappy with my choice to defend RE. I think there were benefits in my doing so. For starters, I think it helped expose listeners to important concepts and developments in religious epistemology (including RE itself). My hope is that my presentation, if anything, will encourage further research. If you are one of those people, make sure to check out some the posts I’ve written on the subject.

Bad Connection?

The most common criticism I’ve received from friends and fellow apologists (including Justin Brierly, the host) is that I went too academic and didn’t connect as well as I could have with the average person. While this is probably true to an extent, I believe that I did connect in various ways with the average person. Many of the messages I’ve received after the discussion corroborate this. That said, I agree that Pascoe’s practical approach probably connected more.

This raises an interesting question: What level of rigor should we strive for in these public discussions? We can’t go too academic, but we also can’t go too basic. Reducing complex arguments down to a few basic words carries its own set of risks. So we have to find the right balance. But what is it? I think a good case could be made that we ought to be introducing sophisticated concepts into public discussions like these. Where else are listeners going to get it? Moreover, many of the topics and subjects we’re discussing require a certain level of discourse. People may not like it, and it might turn others away, but at some point we have to go deeper.

Elephant(s) in the Room

There are at least two arguments a number of listeners believe Pascoe won on. In this section I’ll explain why this belief is utterly mistaken.

Belief in Christianity or Reformed Epistemology?

At the 53:35 minute mark, Pascoe asks this question: “How many supporting evidences and arguments do you need, Cameron, in your claim not to need any?” My initial response was, “I’m not sure what you’re asking.” His question was confusing, so I wanted to make sure I understood it. He tries to clarify and we abruptly go to commercial break. This quick series of events has lead some to believe that, after the break, I didn’t actually respond to his question or that, as one commenter put it, “Cameron’s brain turned into a souffle and collapsed.” Have to admit that one is kinda funny. Anyway, two points.

First, the response I gave after the break involving Phenomenal Conservatism (PC) was a direct answer to his question. He asked what arguments are needed to support my claim (re: Reformed Epistemology) that arguments and evidences aren’t needed (re: Christian Belief). In other words, he was asking whether my belief in Reformed Epistemology has or requires argumentation. After the break (during which I was able to ask for clarification), I responded by saying that I hold Reformed Epistemology in the basic way and that for me it is justified through PC. This was a direct answer to his question. Now, I could have made this clearer (if we had more time), but the answer I gave was exactly the kind of answer his question called for. Unfortunately, this point was completely lost on him (and I imagine on a number of people, including Justin).

Secondly, and this is crucially important, ‘belief in Christianity’ and ‘belief in Reformed Epistemology’ are not identical beliefs. They aren’t the same thing. This very obvious distinction didn’t occur to me until later on. Why is this important? This distinction means that even if we need arguments and evidence to accept Reformed Epistemology (which my original response refutes via PC), it doesn’t follow that belief in Christianity equally requires argumentation. So while his question originally sounded very challenging to many listeners, nothing at all follows from it. It’s based on a fundamental confusion between Christian belief and belief in RE. This is perhaps further confirmation that our best reasoning doesn’t always happen under pressure.

Gods and Dresses

The second objection he raised was that belief in God is “trivially easy” to defeat. He does this by narrating a personal experience he had with the dress phenomenon (happens at 1:04:36). For those that would like to read the transcription of that portion, see below:

The point is that even if we accept that we can have God as a properly basic belief, which I will say that I do not accept that, even if we do accept that, it’s trivially easy to provide a defeater. So, Stephen Law does it with our hyperactive agency detection mechanism, and we can go and have a listen to that podcast.

A great example, I was sitting at work, I was going through my Facebook feed and this picture of this dress comes on to my screen. And I’m having a very direct, properly basic belief about this dress that it’s white and gold. So I’m looking at this white and gold dress and people are arguing about it, and Ashley, a guy that I work with there, and I said, “Ashley, what color is this dress?” “Blue and black.” So we are both having a properly basic belief, it’s perfectly rational for me to hold that belief, and yet, using the same epistemology, of properly basic beliefs, me and Ashley disagree. So what do we do?

Well, I’ll tell you what we did. I started Googling for other pictures of the dress, and Ashley, cause he’s a smart guy, he got a color picker, and he picked the colors out of the dress, and he painted them on another page in the thing. And we looked at them and tried to work out exactly what color they were. And this is what I mean . . . It was blue and black. So I was wrong. And I can still look at that picture today and I can have as Cameron says, I can have the seeming, and it’s not like an optical illusion, where you can tilt your head and squint your eyes, I can look at that picture, I can put it up on my phone right now, and I can have the properly basic belief. Well now it’s no longer a properly basic belief, it’s just a basic belief, that it is white and gold, and I know it isn’t. So immediately this Reformed Epistemology stuff, as soon as you can provide a defeater, which is trivially easy to do, and as soon as you do that, you just cash out into scientific empiricism: the only way to actually tell what is happening in reality.

Before addressing this argument in depth, let me just reiterate that Tyler McNabb (and Erik Baldwin) have produced a paper in response to the kind of “Defeaters” objection Law raised in their debate on Unbelievable. If you want to check the paper out, give it a read here. He (McNabb) also produced a blog post shortly after his debate dispelling the (dubious) notion that he lost. Alright, moving on!

Now that Pascoe’s argument is typed out, we can analyze it more clearly. Pascoe seems to imagine that his experience with the dress phenomenon entails in some mysterious way that belief in God is defeated. But how is this argument supposed to work? Notice that in the story that Pascoe tells, his friend Ashley provided strong evidence that the dress was blue and black. That’s what actually defeated Pascoe’s original belief the dress was white and gold. Here’s the crucial point: Pascoe didn’t have a defeater for his belief until he was given very good evidence that his belief was false.

The problem is–and you can read back over his comments if you’d like–nowhere in the above statement does Pascoe argue or provide evidence that belief in God is actually false. In other words, he doesn’t actually provide a defeater for belief in God. This is rather odd if you think about it. Pascoe starts his argument by saying it’s “trivially easy” to provide a defeater for belief in God and then fails to give one! If it’s trivially easy to provide a defeater, why didn’t he do it?

At this point, I could have responded by simply asking for Pascoe’s alleged defeater. But since we were running short on time, I decided to help him out and address what is traditionally taken as the strongest evidence against God, namely the problem of evil (I also mentioned how I’ve debated Justin Schieber on the subject).

That’s really all there is to it. Pascoe says it’s “trivially easy” to defeat belief in God, doesn’t provide a defeater, and then declares scientific empiricism the victor. What’s perhaps most bizarre about this is that a number of people thought Pascoe won on this point. If you don’t believe me, check the comments on the Unbelievable episode page.

Another interpretation?

Some might object at this point that I’ve misunderstood Pascoe’s point. His point wasn’t that he could provide a defeater for my belief in God (after all, nO oNe CaN pRoVe A nEgAtIvE), instead he was saying that when two people have inconsistent properly basic beliefs, the only way to tell who’s right is through scientific empiricism. Let’s assume for the moment this is the correct interpretation.

First, even if his claim were true, that wouldn’t be enough to defeat belief in God. Pascoe’s belief that the dress was white and gold wasn’t defeated until he was given very good evidence to the contrary. The same goes for God-belief. If the theist’s belief in God is to be defeated, and this should be obvious, they require a defeater. So we’re back at square one: Pascoe hasn’t presented a defeater Theism and hence hasn’t defeated belief in God.

Maybe you’ll want to object again at this point and argue that Pascoe doesn’t actually need to provide a defeater. His example shows that when two people disagree, the proper stance is skepticism. That’s his point. Putting aside the fact that Pascoe himself didn’t do this in his dress example (so this would be a ‘don’t do as do, do as I say’ kind of thing), this new claim is an expression of what’s been named Equal Weight Theory (EWT). Roughly it says that when two people have access to the same evidence and yet disagree about a specific claim, the proper stance toward the claim is skepticism.

When we hear a principle like this, it’s good practice to try and apply it to itself. A lot of the time these principles end up being self-refuting. So for instance, not everyone agrees that EWT is true ( I certainly don’t agree with it). But then if EWT is true, the proper stance toward EWT is skepticism. Thus, EWT is self-defeating.

This new interpretation doesn’t rescue Pascoe’s argument. At best it endorses a different but ultimately self-refuting principle. I should also mention that Law’s objection in his debate with Tyler was not subject to the same criticisms. I realize that Pascoe wanted to try and give his own argument–and I don’t mean this pejoratively–but it might have been best to stick with arguments that professional skeptics have articulated. Law’s objection, while still very wrong, at least avoids these kinds of fundamental logical errors.

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Spencer
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Spencer

You’re missing another way a belief can be undercut or defeated. When Pascoe sees the dress one way, and his friend another, they both get a sort of undercutting reason to doubt their seemings.

In other words, upon learning of a disagreement, like the color of a dress of if some God or another exists or doesn’t exist, one should scale back their confidence in that belief. The way to resolve this dispute is through looking at the publically observable evidence.

Religious disagreement provides an intrinsic rationality defeater to anyone who thinks they ‘know’ (their) God through an immediate experience.

Philip Rand
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Philip Rand

It gets deeper…. the perceived “black” in the dress is really made up of the colours: blue, red, yellow, green, orange and purple.

So, everybody is wrong!!!!!!!

gary
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gary

But if your belief in Jesus Christ is given to you as a supernatural act of God, why do you spend so much time debating evidence for these issues? Bottom line: Why do Christians need apologetics? When I tell Christians that I believe that it is it is wrong and foolish to believe any truth claim “by faith”, they complain. “You obviously don’t understand the word ‘faith’. We all use faith in many areas of our lives.” What is the typical evangelical Christian’s definition of faith: Faith is trust based on past performance. It is faith in a person, not… Read more »

Philip Rand
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Philip Rand

gary You are correct: A sceptic can be likened to the Pharisee Nicodemus… the Gospel of John addresses your point: 1 Now there was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews. 2 This man came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God, for no one can do these signs that you do unless God is with him.” 3 Jesus answered him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again[b] he cannot see the kingdom of God.” 4 Nicodemus said to… Read more »

Philip Rand
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Philip Rand

POSTSCRIPT: Nicodemus became a believer….

sillymuddle
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sillymuddle

I thought it was interesting that in public SEs are now denying that they avoid facts and actual reasons people have for belief in God. This for me, was one of the most frustrating things. They come to you saying they want to know why you believe what you do, and as soon as you start mentioning any, they change the topic. I don’t hold to RE (Im a Bayesian) but his characterisation of it and his supposed “trivial” refuting the idea of basic beliefs was just misguided. Theres a defeater in one case, but not the other. If he… Read more »