Is It Faith? The Demon, Dream, and Matrix Conjectures

I've initially examined Timothy Keller’s argument with regard to faith. But there's more.

Again, Keller argues skeptics should “doubt your doubts.” He claims: “All doubts, however skeptical and cynical they may seem, are really a set of alternative beliefs. You cannot doubt Belief A except from a position of faith in Belief B.” Writing to skeptics he claims that “The reason you doubt Christianity’s Belief A is because you hold unprovable Belief B. Every doubt, therefore, is based on a leap of faith.” [The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism (New York: Riverhead Books, 2008), p. xviii]. We have faith, he opines, whenever we accept something that is “unprovable,” and all of us “have fundamental, unprovable faith commitments that we think are superior to those of others.” [Ibid., p. 20]. So he argues skeptics likewise “must doubt your doubts.” [Ibid., p. xix].

As I said, I do not accept Keller’s definition of faith. He’s manipulating the debate by using a language game in his favor. I reject his game and his conclusion. Here is why, based on something David Eller argues: “knowing is not believing.” He argues that if believers “can drag down real knowledge to their level and erase any distinctions between the true and the false, the known and the merely felt or believed or guessed, they can rest comfortably in their own undeserved self-certainty.” He defends the view that “knowledge is about reason and that belief is about faith, and the two are logically and psychologically utterly different and even incompatible.” [David Eller, Natural Atheism, pp, 132-33]. The word faith (and belief) must be reserved to apply in this context to beliefs about that which cannot be empirically sensed or tested, like ghosts, angels, demons and gods.

Dr. Craig responds as Keller does when it comes to questions I've raised about his claim that the inner witness of the Holy Spirit "trumps all other evidence" in his Q & A.

Dr. Craig wrote:
...most of our beliefs cannot be evidentially justified. Take, for example, the belief that the world was not created five minutes ago with built-in memory traces, food in our stomachs from meals we never really ate, and other appearances of age. Or the belief that the external world around us is real rather than a computer-generated virtual reality. Anyone who has seen a film like The Matrix realizes that the person living in such a virtual reality has no evidence that he is not in such an illusory world. But surely we're rational in believing that the world around us is real and has existed longer than five minutes, even though we have no evidence for this.
I find these examples to be strange ones, very strange. So let’s see if I can put this into perspective. He's arguing that since it’s rational to believe we’re not in The Matrix or that we have not been created five minutes ago, it’s also rational to believe in God without evidence. Is there truly no evidence against our beliefs that we were not created five minutes ago or that we're not living in The Matrix? These examples are bandied about among philosophers as if they are self-evident, including the evil demon and dream conjectures of Rene Descartes. We are told there is no evidence for what we believe about such things AND we are told by Reformed Epistemologists like Plantinga and Craig that these examples parallel their belief in the “great truths of the gospel.” Let’s look at these things in turn.

First, I think there is evidence to suggest we were not created five minutes ago, depending on what we mean by evidence. Evidence in its broadest conception includes anything and everything used to demonstrate the truth of a claim, which includes our arguments based on the things we’ve experienced. What we believe will be based on the probability of the evidence, all of it, as broadly defined. As such, I think there is evidence against the existence of a creator God. The arguments for the existence of God are not persuasive. I do not think such a God could create the first moment in time if he is somehow “outside of time.” And I do not think a spiritual Supreme Being could create a material world. Even if a creator God exists I find no evidence that he would create us into such a massively deceptive world five minutes ago anyway. Therefore there is evidence against our having been created five minutes ago. All they have left is a mere remote possibility, not anything like a probability.

As far the existence of an external world goes G. E. Moore offered a good enough argument in his "Proof of an External World"

The demon hypothesis of Rene Descartes, in which there might be a demon who is deceiving me right now, fails because of the same evidence just mentioned above with regard to God creating us five minutes ago. Descartes uses his extreme method of hypothetical doubt like a massive sword. The mere possibility that there is such a demon was enough to cast doubt on his knowledge about the external world. But why must we base what we accept as the case on a mere possibility?

When it comes to the question of whether I’m dreaming right now a good case has been made by Norman Malcom [in his book Dreaming and Skepticism], and Bernard Williams [in his book Descartes], that there is a difference between dreams and our waking experience. The fact that we can distinguish between them presupposes we are aware of them both and of their differences. It’s only from the perspective of being awake that we can explain our dreams. Hence we can only make sense of this distinction if we are sometimes awake. And since this is the case, all of our experiences throughout our entire lives cannot be made up merely of a sequence of dreams.

What about the world depicted in The Matrix film? There are several responses to such a radical scenario which would upstage most everything we accept as true about our existence in this world. Such a scenario is a mere possibility, if it is possible at all, and a very unlikely one at that. The story is just implausible. I see no reason why there would be any human resistance or knowledge of the Matrix at all by people living in the Matrix, since it determines all of their experiences…all of them. I also see no reason why a pill or a decision by Neo could make any difference at all while inside the Matrix. Apart from the story line itself I see no reason for the Matrix in the first place, and I see no reason why our bodies are better at fueling it than other sources.

As David Mitsuo Nixon argued, “The proper response to someone’s telling me that my belief could be false is, “So what?” It’s not possibility that matters, it’s probability, So until you give me a good reason to think that my belief is not just possibly false, but probably false, I’m not changing anything about what I believe or what I think I know.” [“The Matrix Possibility” in The Matrix and Philosophy, ed. William Irwin (p. 30)]

So even if the Matrix is a possibility, it too is an extremely unlikely one. To overturn nearly everything we think in order to accept it would be to go against the overwhelming evidence (as defined above) about that which we claim to know. In fact, it would be self-defeating to accept it, for if we did then how do we know that THAT world isn't just another kind of Matrix? That is, if we accept the claim about the Matrix then it would cause us to distrust everything we experience. And since this is the case, then Neo would have no reason for trusting the experiences he had while supposedly outside the Matrix in the so-called “real world?” When it comes to Neo knowing the real world in distinction from the Matrix he has been given no reason to think one world is real and the other is illusionary. The red pill could have been nothing more than a hallucinogenic drug, for instance. So Neo would have no basis for trusting those experiences supposedly outside the Matrix in the real world, and as such he would end up as an “epistemological solipsist,” not having any reason for trusting there is a world outside his mind.

Craig also wrote…
Many of the things we know are not based on evidence. So why must belief in God be so based? Belief in God and the great truths of the Gospel is not a blind exercise of faith, a groundless leap in the dark. Rather, as Plantinga emphasizes, Christian belief is part of the deliverances of reason, grounded in the inner witness of the Holy Spirit, which is an objective reality mediated to me from God.
Notice the impossibly huge leap Craig makes here. From the fact that we cannot be absolutely certain

(a) that we were not created five minutes ago, or

(b) that we are not living in a Matrix,

Craig claims,

(c) we can know with some real assurance that the Christian God exists and that the gospel is true.

I think a proper conclusion from what he’s argued can only lead him to conclude that since it’s a remote possibility that (a) and (b) obtains, it’s therefore a remote possibility that (c) obtains. What Craig argues is therefore extremely problematic. As I’ve argued in my book, Christians repeatedly retreat to the position that what they believe is “possible,” or “not impossible,” rather than what is probable. When they do this they are admitting the evidence is not on their side. They’re trying to explain the evidence away. Just because all of these things are possible he cannot conclude that what he believes is probable. A possibility is not a probability. How he slips in a probability because of a possibility is beyond me. The inference does not follow. It's a huge non-sequitur.

[First posted 10/9/09]