Saturday, October 30, 2010

Rational Persuasiveness and Religious Arguments (Part 2)

This post is part of a short series on Jennifer Faust's article "Do Religious Arguments Persuade?".

In the previous post, we discussed Faust's account of rational persuasion. We saw that when assessing the persuasiveness of an argument {P1...Pn/C} we need to keep in mind the subjective probabilities and antecedent beliefs of the person to whom the argument is addressed.

Specifically, we saw that if we wish to persuade someone through argument we need to ensure that (i) they attach positive probabilities to the premises of the argument; (ii) that the premises raise the probability of the conclusion; (iii) that the premises are more acceptable to the person than the conclusion; and (iv) that the conclusion does not clash wish some stronger antecedent belief.

We further distinguished between peripheral antecedent beliefs and core antecedent beliefs. The former have low subjective probabilities and low epistemic costs associated with them; the latter have high subjective probabilities and epistemic costs associated with them. It follows that persuasive arguments are more likely to work on peripheral beliefs.

1. The Nature of Religious Beliefs
The question we now have to ask is how this account of persuasion affects religious arguments. The first thing to do is to determine the locus of religious beliefs: do they lie at the core or at the periphery? As noted last time, Faust thinks they probably lie at the core.

I think this is broadly correct. I suspect most theists would say that their belief in God is foundational; that it shapes how the understand and interpret the world; that it is the filter through which all evidence and argument must pass. This means that giving up theism would have very high epistemic costs associated with it, which is why most arguments against the existence of God are likely to fail to persuade. I recommend listening to my podcast on Anthony Flew's paper "Theology and Falsification" with this in mind.

Two words of caution about this characterisation of religious beliefs. First, what is true for religion is also likely to be true for a belief in naturalism or some worldview. Second, it is unlikely that all religious beliefs lie at the core. For example, I doubt that the doctrine of transubstantiation is a serious deal-breaker for most Christians. Indeed, I know plenty of Catholics who would be happy to give it up (most of the time they don't even think about it).

The second point is important to bear in mind if one wishes to persuade or argue someone out of their beliefs. I would imagine that most success could be had be carefully planning one's strategy so as to begin by taking out beliefs at the periphery, which may slowly erode the confidence with which the beliefs at the core are held.

2. Begging the Doxastic Question
Having located religious beliefs at the core, Faust proceeds to identify a basic flaw that seems to be shared by most arguments in the philosophy of religion. She calls this flaw "begging the doxastic question" and it is to be distinguished from the classic logical error known as "begging the question" or petitio principii.

An argument begs the question (i.e. is guilty of petitio principii) whenever it explicitly or implicitly assumes what it tries to prove. Faust cites the following example coming from George W. Bush (I'd imagine the statement was primarily made for rhetorical effect):
The reason I keep insisting that there was a relationship between Iraq... and al-Qaida is because there was a relationship between Iraq and al-Qaida.
This seems to be a straightforward example of the premise being equivalent to the conclusion, i.e. P&Q, therefore P&Q. There is no formal deductive error here because there is no real formal deduction taking place. Other times, arguments that beg the question can be more difficult to spot.

Anyway, Bush's error needs to be contrasted with the problem of begging the doxastic question. Faust argues that this takes place whenever the assignment of some positive degree of probability to one (or more) of the premise is conditional upon the pre-existing acceptance of the conclusion. So this is not straightforwardly circular reasoning. Faust cites the following example as being a classic instance of this phenomenon:
  • (1) Republican lawmakers routinely devalue public welfare programs, education funding etc.
  • (2) One ought to vote for candidates who value public welfare programs, education funding etc.
  • (3) Therefore, one should vote for the Democrats.
Now this isn't even a complete argument since there is a hidden factual premise (namely, one stating that Democrats are more likely to value those things) but in any event Faust says it begs the doxastic question because one's assignment of positive probability to (2) is likely to be conditional on one's acceptance of (3) and not the other way round.

3. Do Religious Arguments Beg the Doxastic Question?
Finally, we come to the crux of the matter: do the types of arguments that are tossed back-and-forth in the philosophy of religion beg the doxastic question? Faust thinks they do and she gives a few examples of which I'll mention just two.

First, there is Anselm's ontological argument. On its face it does not seem to presuppose any beliefs because it is based purely on a conceptual analysis of value, perfection and so on. Presumably, the conceptual analysis should be acceptable to all. However, as Faust points out, assigning a positive probability to Anselm's premises concerning maximal perfection and value will depend on one's pre-existing acceptance of a universal, objective scale of value with a greatest being at the top. Only theist's are likely to accept that idea.

Second, there is the cosmological argument (in all its forms). This argument points to some abstract property of physical (or metaphysical) reality such as time, causality and so on; says that these properties need some explanation; and jumps from this need to the existence of God. The problem here is that accepting God as an explanation will depend on one's pre-existing acceptance of (i) the inadequacy of scientific explanations; and (ii) the plausibility of non-natural forms of explanation. And, of course, theists are the one's who are most likely to accept those premises.

I'm not sure how accurate this representation of religious argumentation is. I have a feeling that carefully-formulated versions of these arguments need not always beg the doxastic question. Nevertheless, I can concede that, at least sometimes, they do and that this can make arguments and dialogues in this area quite frustrating.


  1. I enjoyed reading these two articles John, thanks!

    I don't know why Faust is surprised to find that most of the arguments for theism aren't rationally persuasive for atheists, since there are underlying premises that the two camps disagree on with respect to subjective probability. Most theists today might settle for showing that theism is rational. Maybe naturalism will be in the same boat in a few hundred years, who knows.

    I would even venture the claim that the closer to the center a belief sits, the less likely it is that a rationally persuasive argument could even be made for it that isn't somehow doxastically circular. A parallel observation has been made about the political dispute between the left and the right being irresolvable because of deeply held commitments to liberty or equality.

    With regards to non-epistemic states and atheism, Paul Vitz has written a book called "The Psychology of Atheism," and James Spiegal has written one called "The Makings of an Atheist."



  2. I cannot see how this account can possibly avoid the implication that "naturalist" arguments are equally non-informative or circular. You note that naturalist beliefs are also "core" beliefs... why did you not draw the obvious conclusion that this account has equally devastating implications for naturalism?

    In fact, on this account, the only reason someone would refrain from drawing this (patently obvious) conclusion is that their naturalist beliefs are deep within their epistmic core, and make them "blind" to this kind of implication. Irony abounds.

    Once we make the plausibility of arguments relative to the subjective states of individuals, this kind of result is unavoidable. Everyone's got a "core", and there is no possibility of ultimate agreement between two persons with significantly different "cores". The reason we bring in the "naive" model is that we need reality, and not just subjective probability, to ultimately adjudicate between rival positions.

  3. I have no problem acknowledging that naturalism would suffer from the same problems. What I said in the post is that "what is true for religion is also likely to be true for naturalism or other worldviews". I thought that would be enough to cover this point. I have acknowledged this elsewhere at any rate, as for example in my podcast on Flew's Theology and Falsification. I don't stress it here because I'm summarising Faust's article.

    Also, I don't know whether I've ever claimed to be a naturalist. I'm certainly more sympathetic to naturalism and would like to contribute to the naturalist project, but I'm not convinced that it is intellectually unimpeachable.

    I also agree that the kind of result you mention is unavoidable if we accept Faust's subjective account of persuasion (it is not, incidentally, an account of plausibility as far as I can tell). However, I am not sure -- and I state this in the post -- that things are as clearcut as Faust makes out. For example, I am not sure about the division between core and peripheral beliefs. In my own experience, most of my beliefs have changed during the course of my lifetime. This leads me to doubt that I have a clearly-defined, practically unassailable core. But maybe everybody likes to think they are more open to evidence than they actually are.

    As for needing an objective account of plausibility as opposed to a subjective account of persuasion, I agree that the former would be preferable. But I do not think it to be realistic. The naive account relies on some account of "truth" that will be debateable and whose acceptability will depend on many (subjective) factors.