(Part One, Part Two)
This post is the last in a brief series on Joshua Thurow’s article:
“Does Cognitive Science Show Belief in God to be Irrational? The Epistemic Consequences of the Cognitive Science of Religion” (2011) International Journal of the Philosophy of Religion
It is part of a broader series of posts on evolutionary debunking arguments (EDAs). These arguments claim that if a belief-forming faculty is the product of a process that does not track the truth with respect to the relevant class of propositions, then any beliefs produced by that faculty are unjustified.
Thurow’s article focuses on evolutionary accounts of religious belief and the implications of such accounts for the rationality of religious beliefs. We finished the last part by outlining Thurow’s second (and more robust) version of the religious belief debunking argument. He calls it the CSR Process Defeater Argument.
Although this argument has successfully weathered some criticism, Thurow thinks it is susceptible to another line of criticism. Let’s see what this is.
(You might like to keep part two, with the process defeater argument, open in another tab or window for reference purposes).
1. Propositional and Doxastic Justification
The process defeater argument, in the form we have been considering, has a relatively simple structure. It begins by specifying that people believe in God in a non-inferential or basic manner due to the presence in them of a cognitive faculty (the HADD) that generates such beliefs. It then points out that the cognitive faculty in question is not a reliable producer of such beliefs because it would produce such beliefs even if they were not true. It concludes that religious belief is unjustified.
It might be tempting to object to the argument on the grounds that it commits a kind of genetic fallacy: It impugns people’s beliefs on the grounds that they originate in the HADD, but fails to address the possibility that they might have other (justified) grounds for holding those beliefs.
Tempting as it seems, this response is mistaken. To see why, it is useful to distinguish between propositional and doxastic justification. Your belief is propositionally justified when you have good reasons for believing as you do. Your belief is doxastically justified when the reasons you actually use to justify your belief are good reasons. The distinction is subtle, but crucial, because a belief might be propositionally justified even when it fails to be doxastically justified.
How does the distinction apply to the argument at hand? Well, the idea is that while people may have good reasons at their disposal for justifying their religious beliefs, they do not actually rely on those reasons. The actual grounding for their beliefs (the one they rely on) is non-evidential and is attributable to the HADD (or similar faculty) and that grounding, as we have seen, is unjustified. Obviously, this claim could not cover all religious believers, but maybe it covers a good proportion of them?
2. Engaging with the Real Reasons for Belief
Not so fast, says Thurow. He doesn’t think the argument works even when targeting doxastic justification. The reason is that the cognitive scientists claims about the origins of religious belief are unrealistically general.
Take, for example, defenders of the HADD-theory. According to them, certain strange events tend to be attributed to supernatural or divine agents due to the presence of a HADD. As such, their claims only cover a general kind of religious belief, not a theologically and culturally specific kind such as Christianity. The general belief uses abstract, minimally counter-intuitive concepts that are filled in by a whole host of contextual and cultural factors.
When justifying their specific beliefs, religious believers will appeal to a wide diversity of reasons including, but not limited to: they think they have witnessed miracles; they believe the Bible is reliable; they think certain of their prayers get answered; the world seems to have been designed for certain theologically significant purposes; and so on. Such reasons are necessary to move from the general to the specific.
This is a problem for the process defeater argument. To show that a believer’s specific religious beliefs are doxastically unjustified, an opponent would have to engage with all those reasons on their own merits, i.e. by engaging with the arguments and principles used to defend those beliefs. Some of those reasons might be bad, but learning this would be no different from the usual philosophical game. And it would imply that the cognitive science theories by themselves cannot change the contours of the philosophical debate over the rationality religious beliefs.
For those of you referring back to the argument itself, Thurow’s objection seems to attack premise (7). Still, he goes on to claim that it does not directly threaten basic belief religious epistemologies. I’m not really sure what his argument for this is since this part of the article is brief and simply describes a number of basic belief positions.
My guess is that Thurow is pointing out that basic belief style epistemologies (particularly of the Plantingan-variety) appeal to epistemically possible models of warrant and that these models can only be challenged using concepts not advanced by the CSR process defeater argument. According to such models, it is possible, for all we know, that God created us with cognitive faculties that allow us to have direct experiences of his existence. And since many believe they have had such experiences, they are warranted (absent defeaters) in believing in his existence. Such a model can be challenged on the grounds that we have no good reason for thinking God would create us with such a faculty, but this is very different from saying that our religious belief-forming cognitive faculties were by-products of evolution.
3. A Final Rejoinder
Even if all this is successful, one might still object to religious beliefs on the grounds that our argument-evaluating faculties are also unreliable. For example, one might argue that we are biased or predisposed towards finding arguments in favour of a belief in God and so we shouldn’t even trust the way in which we evaluate arguments for religious beliefs. This is certainly not implausible. Hugo Mercier and Dan Sperber have recently put forward the hypothesis that our reasoning faculties have evolved not to pursue the truth but to persuade others of conclusions we already accept.
Thurow responds to this line of argument in a couple of ways. First, even if we favourably evaluate arguments for the existence of gods in general, a specific argument for the existence of a specific god might easily be undermined. Indeed, this seems to true HADD across the entire range of agents (both natural and supernatural). And second, confirmation biases presumably work across a diverse array of propositions. Some of these biases might work against religious beliefs and thus make them more difficult to sustain.
To sum up, debunking arguments maintain that certain beliefs are unjustified because they are produced by unreliable belief-forming processes. The CSR process defeater argument is an example of such an argument. It specifically targets the rationality of religious beliefs. Although the argument is a strong one, and survives several lines of attack, it is not completely persuasive. This is because modern scientific theories of religious belief formation describe such belief formation in an unacceptably general manner: they fail to engage with the real reasons that people offer for specific religious beliefs. The only way to engage with those reasons it to perform the usual philosophical analysis of the strengths and weaknesses of these reasons. In doing that, one must abandon the debunking argument.