Can We Or Anyone Think Objectively?

I like visiting Christian Cadre just to see the best that Christians can do against my arguments. In one comment I had said,
“I have very good grounds for saying that what religious faith a person accepts is due to when and where they were born. Surely you cannot disagree with that. If you were born and raised in Iran you'd be a Muslim, is but just one of a myriad of examples.”
BK responded:
“It goes without saying that if you are raised in a particular country where a particular religion is paramount, the odds are that you will be of that religion….The circumstances of where I'm born and raised make it more likely that I will hold one belief, but that is irrelevant to its truth. To merely point to the fact that some people want to test religious claims in different ways does not mean that we cannot, through reason, arrive at the best way to test the religious claims and then use reason and evidence to test those claims.”

I responded to BK:
“But we all test the claims of different religions from the outside, because we are outsiders, and we arrive at different conclusions precisely because we are outsiders. Why don't YOU test your beliefs as if YOU were an outsider? How does one become an insider in the first place? It's based to an overwhelming degree on when and where we are born, precisely because there are no mutually agreed upon tests to decide. Test them as an outsider. What do YOU find when you do?”

BK responded:
“Excuse me, but you don't know me. You assume that I haven't tested the claims as an outsider. And on what basis do you think I haven't tested the claims like an outsider? Because I found them to be satisfactory?”

Then I responded:
BK: “If you have, then congratulations, you are above the great majority of people. You must be really really intelligent to think outside of your upbringing. Kudos to you. You're smarter than I. You have bragging rights, ya know. Although, tell me how you came to embrace your faith and let's see. Spare me no details, okay? Who or what influenced you? Start with when you were a child.”

Then BK thought he hit pay dirt when he wrote:
“What I find amazing about this conversation is the inconsistency that you are showing. Now, think about it. Either we have the ability to see things objectively or we don't. If we do, then why are you acting so astounded that I may have done so? If we don't, then your atheism is merely the result of a combination of your DNA and experiences. After all, you haven't looked at the claims in any type of objective manner either, in which case you are merely spouting whatever nature and nurture programmed you to say which may not be what nature and nurture has programmed me to say. So, why are you here?”

Christians think this is a showstopper. But it doesn't solve anything. Here’s the problem. In an epistemology class I took with evangelical apologist great Dr. Stuart Hackett, at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, one of the books we read was William Pepperell Montague’s classic book, titled, The Ways of Knowing (Humanities Press, 1925). While it is dated it was (as is) a great introductory book on the various options in epistemology (excepting Reformed epistemology and Hackett’s own epistemology). In his long chapter on the method of Authoritarianism, for instance, Montague wrote: “We accept on trust nine-tenths of what we hold to be true. Man is a suggestible animal and tends to believe what is said to him unless he has some positive reason for doubting the honesty or competence of his informant….To hear is to believe.” (p. 39). Montague takes the reader through how one can evaluate authorities, for which see his book (probably in the libraries). But the fatal question for accepting something based upon authority is based on the fact that authorities conflict: “Why should I accept your authority rather than his?”

While Montague didn’t specify all of the things we believe based upon authority, or take a poll, it just rings true. I suspect we believe based upon authority upwards to 95% of that which we believe. The realm of things we do not base our beliefs on authority are those things we have personally experienced (or incorrigible beliefs) and those things which we have personally “done the math” or performed the experiment. Everything we believe about history, psychology, world geography, and so forth is based upon authority. I have never visited China, but I believe it exists and that the pictures I see of the Chinese people there, really live there. This is not to say there isn’t evidence for these beliefs, because there is indeed evidence. It’s just that I have never personally confirmed them.

So the fatal question when we consider that about 90%-95% of what we believe is based upon authority is this: why should I accept your authorities over mine? Authorities do not conflict about the fact that China exists, so I can be reassured it does. The more that authorities agree the more I can be assured of a particular belief. That's why we can believe what scientific authorities have to say to a much greater degree than any other discipline of learning.

Now let’s talk about religion in this same vein. Authorities do in fact conflict. Not only are there conflicting authorities between religions, there are conflicting authorities between adherents of each specific religion. What’s a person to do? It would take a lifetime to study all of these religions out in great detail, something the great scholar Huston Smith has probably done, and he concluded with philosophers John Hick and Terence Penelhum that this world is “religiously ambiguous.” He wrote, “People have never agreed on the world’s meaning and (it seems safe to say) never will.” [in Why Religion Matters, pp. 205-206].

Okay so far? Now what are the rest of us to do? Authorities like Richard Swinburne, William Lane Craig and Norman L. Geisler disagree and argue instead that Christianity is objectively true for everyone. Some think Christianity is rationally superior.

With this as a background let me speak directly to BK’s last response. Can we think objectively about our world? Yes, I would like to think so. It depends upon what issues we are thinking about, though. If nearly all authorities agree, then we can have some degree of objectivity about this world. But I don’t believe we have any ultimate objectivity (defined as “certainty”) about this world. Oriental authorities disagree with our Occidental authorities. The East is the East, and the West is the West. This is no different than when I say I have objective morals but not any ultimately objective morals. For Christians who want to claim they need certainty before they can know anything or do anything good, I think they just must not know anything or do anything good, because attaining (apodictic) certainty probably isn’t possible (Descartes “I Doubt Therefore I Am,” is probably the only possible exception to this, and even that is subject to Russellian doubt).

Do we truly have metaphysical freedom? Yes, I would like to think so, but I don’t know for sure. Jean Paul Sartre thought so, as do some other atheists. If we have self-consciousness, then we have some degree of non-abstract limited freedom, I think.

The point is that most everything we believe is because of which authority we trust. So how do we decide between authorities when there isn’t a mutually agreed upon test to decide between options, and where there is the greatest disagreement between conflicting authorities? We do so based upon where and when we are born.

What does BK say in response? He wants to argue that we do have epistemological objectivity, and he thinks that if I don’t admit this, I have no case. But wait just a minute. At best, the only epistemological objectivity he can argue for is the remaining 5%-10% of his beliefs—beliefs which he has personally experienced, and even those beliefs can be subject to doubt (maybe he’s dreaming, hallucinating, under the influence of prescription medicine, anger, lust, or simply failed to remember what exactly happened)! He must admit that most of what he believes is based upon authority, which is in turn based upon when and where he was born. Should that grant him much comfort, knowing that in no other area of opinion do authorities disagree the most with one another than when it comes to religious beliefs? Not at all. For to say that objectivity is possible merely grants him that it’s possible, in the same exact way that by granting we can know what happened in the historical past is also possible. Even if there is a possibility that objective knowledge and objective history is possible, that is a far cry away from knowing that his particular views of both are probable when it comes to religious beliefs where there is the greatest level of disagreement between authorities.

Now, what can be said if there is no epistemological, or historical objectivity at all, or that there is no metaphysical freedom? What if everything we do and everything we believe is based entirely upon the forces of nature acting in conjunction with our genetic material? Then we can never say we know anything with any objectivity at all. We believe simply because of random chance events.

If this is the case, then it’s the case, and there’s nothing any of us can do about it, Christians like BK included. But there is nothing preventing us from acting as if we are free simply because we have the illusion that we are, and there is nothing wrong with thinking we have an objective reasons for believing something even if there is none. We can neither act nor think differently than we can act or think! There is likewise nothing wrong with condemning murder even if there is no objective morality. Why? Just to mention one reason, there might actually be an objective basis for these things in self-consciousness, or eternally existing Platonic values and norms for knowledge, like some atheists believe. So if something seems reasonable to us we should argue for it. That’s how nature will progress, as we do our part as a part of nature.

Does this then grant BK the needed justification for believing Christianity is true? No! For once he acknowledges that there is no epistemological objectivity he should be an agnostic. He should abandon all attempts to justify his own certainty with regard to Christianity. Agnosticism is default position. My claim is that agnosticism leads to atheism, that’s all. The question is how it would be possible for agnosticism to lead BK to Christianity? It can’t, and yet by my analysis it’s the default position.

What BK argues is that it’s all or nothing. Well, if that’s his demand, then like demands of this sort, he gets nothing. Granting him some objectivity doesn’t get him to the full-blown Christian beliefs anymore than handing a child a set of blocks gets us a New York Skyscraper. And admitting we may not have an objective basis for knowledge (if this is the case) does not mean that Christianity is true by default either, since Christianity still falls by the wayside with the other religious claims made by different authorities based upon when and where they were born.


Anonymous said...

Ravi Zacharias was born and raised in India and he's a Christian.

Anonymous said...

As I say, there are probably exceptions to the rule. Can you explain the rule?

Anonymous said...

The rule is: You're wrong.

Chris said...

First off, would the other Christians out there please quit posting anonymously? Are you afraid that John will come and burn down your house?

OK, nice post John. I am amazed that the spring of ideas that is constantly welling up here. Do you have a day job?

I hate to say this John, but BK's comments are extremely well-reasoned. You shouldn't be so quick to dismiss him. If you stopped and thought carefully about what your interlocutors are saying, instead of waving them off, you might learn a thing or two. It's just a thought.

Do you take yourself to be objective about your beleifs?

I had some trouble seeing what your main argument here was. Is it something like this:
(1) We believe what we do because of what the authorities in our life tell us.
(2) If (1), then our beliefs are unjustified.
(3) So our beliefs are unjustified.

I'll grant you (1) for the sake of argument, but it is dubious. (From which orifice did you pull that 95% figure?)

If this is what you are arguing, then it is unsound. Belied based on testimony can be justified because testimony is a kind of justification. I'm not talking about truth here, only justification (good reasons for belief).

But instead of (2), did you mean:
(2') If (1), then our belief are probably false. ?
This is clearly false. Why should I think beliefs produced through testimony are false?

How about:
(2'') If (1), then we can't know if our beliefs are true.

That is false, since any person can go out and investigate his beliefs by other means. If you don't think we can know truth at all, then you're just a skeptic, but I don't think that is your position, since you claim to know lots of things.

Another puzzling thing about your argument is that while you say that it is a strike against our beliefs that they are based on 'authority,' you then go on to say:

"The more than [sic] authorities agree the more I can be assured of a particular belief. That's why we can believe what scientific authorities have to say to a much greater degree than any other discipline of learning.

So when authorities agree, it is a good basis for belief? Is that what you had in mind here? So, for any particular question, what kind of consensus is required to generate justification? Who are the proper 'authorities?'

Would you mind clearing this up for me?

Two more thoughts/questions:
(i) Are you familiar with the 'genetic fallacy?' I'd be curious to hear your thoughts on it.
(ii) In honor of Spiderman 3, I'll quote Uncle Ben: With great power, comes great responsibility.

Now, I'm not claiming that you and I have great 'intellectual power,' but we have a fair amount, it seems. So put a cork in it about all this 'conflicting authorities' nonsense. Not everyone has the cognitive gifts you have, so maybe they are stuck watching PhD's duke it out. But you can get into the ring! Keep studying, go back to school, seek out the answers. BECOME AN AUTHORITY, and stop your belly-aching. Then you will KNOW the truth, and the truth will make you free indeed.

Anonymous said...

Chris, did you say something about the genetic fallacy? Really? That's interesting to me, since the genetic fallacy is, well, not always what it's cracked out to be. The rest of what you argued is besides the point, I'd say, but that's just me. Are you saying that if I became more informed than I presently am, I'd know the truth? That is so naive I'll just pass on that. I'd say YOU were the one who needs an education.

Anonymous said...

John, I do post anonymously, but not because I fear retribution from those who are known here - my real name is unusual and I am not so gullible to believe that there are those who do not exploit familiarity (that is one reason I keep saying that I feel protective of those who are so revealing of themselves).

I think I understand your concerns about the Outsider test but to make sure before I write a comment; is it that you are worried about people going to hell that cannot conform to belief in the God of Easter? or that will not be exposed to the gospel message? Am I understanding correctly?

Anon 1035

SocietyVs said...

I read the blog you posted and I kind of saw you shluff of some of the things they said to raise new objections without finishing the first points being raised - is ther a reason for that? Just wondering is all.

Anonymous said...

Not quite right. My best friend was born and raised up in Iran until 23. And he is NOT a muslim. And he told me many Iranians are just pretending they are Muslims to survive there.

Curiosis said...

When I first told my father that I was no longer a christian, he said that he had investigated many religions and had come to accept the truth of christianty.

He was born in the bible belt to christian parents.

I told him that I'd be more likely to agree with him if he had come to believe any other religion than christianity. It was just too convenient.

Anonymous said...

Ravi Zacharias was born and raised in India and he's a Christian.

India and Hinduism had traditionally been receptive of other religions. So you will find Muslims, Christians, Buddhist, Jains and Jews co-existing here. (Though the Hindu fundamentalism is growing so fast these days).

Yet almost all of them have some great grreat great great grand parents who were Hindus. The percentage of people who follow Islam in India is nearly 20% while Christians are 2%. I am sure you won't interpret it that Islam if more of truth than Christianity as people have accepted Islam more.

As far as secular countries are concerned, I think you will have to extend John's argument to say that people generally accept the religion of their parents. There are exceptions, I personally know a man who had been a staunch Hindu who have now become a born-again. But I see nothing great there. There are foreigners who come to India and convert to Hinduism. Christians convert to Buddhism. Evangelical pastors become aethists(this blog is a strong example).

The rate of conversion is very very low compared to those who stick to their faith all their life.


Why I Don't Believe said...

Authorities do not conflict about the fact that China exists,

I hope so...or I am a Holodeck malfunction...LOL!

Jason Pratt said...


Your case would look more impressive if you weren’t overreaching in order to make it. This is what the commenters were complaining about, over at the Cadre--and it ought to be something you can sympathize with in principle. {s} (More on that at the end.)

Taking as an example, the excerpts from your discussion with Bill above (in your main post--that’s BK for those who don’t know): you wrote, “But we all test the claims of different religions from the outside, because we [all] are outsiders, and we [all] arrive at different conclusions precisely because we are outsiders.”

But that includes you, too, at this time anyway. Your challenge to BK is that his evaluation of other religions is largely worthless because he’s testing them as an outsider, and that what little objectivity he or anyone can muster isn’t enough to overcome this. But then, that applies to you, too, if it’s a valid point. You’re not ‘debunking Christianity’ as an insider, except from inside ‘scepticism’ (now). So are you competent to be even writing this blog? Or not?

It would seem in a way you agree you are not competent to be doing so, depending on how your subsequent sarcasm is applied: when BK answers that he does test claims of his own position as an outsider, you reply, “If you have, then congratulations, you are above the great majority of people. You must be really really intelligent to think outside of your upbringing. Kudos to you. You’re smarter than I.” So, then, you aren’t thinking outside your own upbringing?--which is what you were trying to nix religious believers across the board for being unable to do, earlier.

The notion that you realize you aren’t yourself thinking outside your own upbriniging, and therefore are no more competent than your opponents at criticising your opponents, would seem to be corroborated by your shift to a different category as you continue that reply: how did BK _come to embrace_ his faith?

If he is capable, in principle, of thinking outside his upbringing, though, then this is irrelevant. The implication has to be that you think he _isn’t_ capable, and are going to call his upbringing in against him anyway. Otherwise, he’d be in a better position than _you_ at critiquing positions! Tu quoque.

Nevertheless, you persist in trying to critique someone else’s position from the outside. There can only be two grounds here for continuing this, and you tap them well enough.

a.) In fact it is possible to do so with some legitimacy. You’re capable of doing so yourself, for instance. But then, it’s possible for other people to do it, too, in principle, and the notion cannot be excluded from the outset by appeal to general conditions. (Which is what you started off in trying to do.)

b.) Well, in point of fact, we can’t. But there’s nothing preventing us from acting (even though it isn’t really “acting” if per hypothesis we _don’t_ have metaphysical freedom!) as if we are free simply because we have the illusion we are (although again if ‘we’ don’t have metaphysical freedom then there would be no ‘we’ to have an ‘illusion’ about it in the first place, and the distinction _of_ ‘illusion’ would be meaningless in the second place.) There is nothing wrong with thinking we have an objective reason (therefore) for believing something even if there is no objective reason. There is nothing any of us can do about it, Christians like BK included, so it’s perfectly okay to go ahead and do it...

...Christians like BK _NOT_ included, apparently. Because you then go right on to say, “Does this then grant BK the needed justification for believing Christianity is true? No! For once he acknowledges that there is no epistemological objectivity he should be an agnostic, and should abandon all attempts to justify his own certainty with regard to Christianity.”

But--you just said (along this line of defense) in the previous paragraph, that if (per hypothesis) we can never know anything with any objectivity at all, and we believe simply because of random chance events, then there is nothing wrong with thinking we have an objective reason for believing something even if there is none!

This is more than a little contradictory, to say the least. So is discussing how, when it comes to practical ethics, your ground for saying there is nothing wrong with condemning murder even if there _is no_ objective morality, is that there might actually be an objective basis _FOR MORALITY_ (or ‘these things’ as you put it instead) in self-consciousness (which per the hypothesis you’re supposed to be operating under _doesn’t exist_). Let that be beside the point, though. The main point is that you want it to be excusable _for you_ to go ahead and pretend you have objective reasons for believing something (morality or otherwise) even if there is no such thing as having objective reasons to believe something _AND ALSO_ that BK shouldn’t do such things under such a hypothesis because without epistemological objectivity he should abandon all attempts.

The one thread of coherence seems obvious enough to me. Any stick is good enough to beat the Christians (or ‘religious belief’ or whatever) with.

What about authority claims? You apply the same double-standard there. On the one hand, 90% of what we believe has to be on authority--which means Christians are necessarily handicapped in evaluating other beliefs (not to say their own!) for coherency. But on the other hand, accepting things on authority isn’t a bad thing, and is even unavoidable; we’re all in the same boat, and so we do the best we can with it, and there isn’t any point in complaining about it. Except when the Christians are the ones doing the evaluating. Then it can be brought in against them.

The escape hatch here would appear to be ‘if nearly all authorities agree, then we can have some degree of objectivity about this world’. Or about the claim they are all agreeing on anyway, since you _certainly_ don’t believe we can have any ultimate objectivity (which you define as “certainty”) about this world. Obviously this doesn’t count in favor of theism, even though the vastly overwhelming majority of ‘authorities’ throughout history have rejected atheism for some kind of theism, even if they then went on to disagree about particulars. Well, that happens; most authorities (religious and otherwise) were in agreement about Newtonian physics being the fundamentally basic way of describing natural behaviors, too, for a while. Ditto geocentrism.

In any case, the ground here is that “there needs to be a mutually agreed upon test for deciding between options”--assuming (though this appears doubtful) that accepting authority claims for data on which to reason about is not something that is done in objective reasoning. Who sets up that mutually agreed upon test? I gather that it’s the authorities! That, or it was some individual thinker, expecting us not to simply accept his claim as an authority, but to accept it according to our rational evaluation of the general logic involved in the claim. In which case it wouldn't matter so much that 90% of our data claims come from authority and the rest from maybe our own experience--the point is that we can objectively reason out implications from the data, wherever the data comes from.

So whether we go the long road or the short road, it turns out that we either have to include authority (even when it vastly outweighs personal experience) in objective reasoning, or else we have to abandon objective reasoning altogether. But if we can include authority as a data source about which to objectively reason, then a Christian can do that do--including critical thinking about the veracity of the data source (whether the conclusion is pro or con.) Except, then that would ruin your argument by generalization, that Christians only believe something because someone told them to! (Which _IS_ how you put the matter when you brought up the talking ass and the talking snake.)

It looks like the key principle is this: at all costs one must avoid admitting that a Christian might reach a critically objective conclusion that Christianity is true. Whatever can be brought to bear against this, from any direction, will be admitted--except to the extent that it hampers one’s own claims to have some legitimacy in contributing to something like, say, a journal debunking Christianity. Then leeway will be found, one way or another. But it can’t be leeway for Christians! Because, well, they’re Christians!

To which I anticipate the reply, “But Christians routinely do it to me!”

Yes--and it’s wrong for them to cheat like that. Isn’t it. In fact, when _they_ do it, it’s pretty clearly a defense mechanism to protect themselves against potential criticism. That’s obvious enough. Just like them, too; it shows the lack of real grounded confidence they have in their position.

{shrug} So--go and do not likewise. {s} (Without excuses that it’s okay when _you_ do it but not okay when _they_ do it.)


Anonymous said...

Jason, thanks for visiting here. Sometimes between questions and answers we can learn from each other. I hope that happens, but your tone isn't conducive to a mutual learning. You seem to have the answers my friend. My arguments are pressing home questions, like "Why don't you do this, or think this way?"

Jason, you either admit the basis for the outsider test, or you don’t.

Let’s say you do. If you do then you ought to be an agnostic because no faith can survive that test in my opinion, although it should if there is a God who wants us to believe in his specific religion. If God exists and he doesn’t care which religion we accept, then that God might survive the outsider test, but we would end up believing in a nebulous God out there with no definable characteristics, perhaps a Deist God, the god of the philosophers. This God is far and away from any full blown Christianity or any specific religion though.

Let’s say you don’t accept the basis for the outsider test. At that point I can ask you why you apply a double standard here. Why do you treat your own specific faith differently than you do others? That’s a double standard. Why the double standard?

As I have repeatedly said, the overwhelming reason why someone becomes an insider to a particular religious faith in the first place is because of when and where he or she was born. Start there for a minute. Do you deny this? Yes or no? Surely you cannot dispute that. The adherents of these faiths are just as intelligent as other people around the world too, and you could no more convince many of them they are wrong than they could convince many Christians. Even with the meager missionary efforts on both sides of the fence, a major factor in why people change is still because of the influence of a personal relationship with someone (a missionary?) they trust.

You claim that I myself cannot think outside my own upbringing if what we believe is based to an overwhelming degree on when and where we are born, but that simply does not follow. It would only follow if I said it is impossible to think outside one’s own upbringing, which I haven’t said. Agnosticism is the default position given the outsider test, anyway. For in rejecting the religion one was brought up with, many people become agnostics, and or simply deny religion. Here's why: A believer in one specific religion has already rejected all other religions, so when he or she rejects the one they were brought up with he or she becomes an agnostic or atheist many times, like me.

I was once an insider to Christianity, having been brought up in a Christian culture, so I can argue that Christians should evaluate their faith as an outsider, since I have done so. You say that if I can do it then anyone can, but that too does not follow. I’m not so sure I did in fact do it. There were influences in my life that led me in the direction I am now going. I don't deny this. I am saying that to do so is the exception to the rule, and that you must explain the rule. The overwhelming numbers of people who examine their religious faith, perhaps myself included, follow the influences in their lives. No one knows for sure. And it does no good whatsoever to claim you did escape your upbringing so you are right about what you believe, as BK wants to say, unlike me.

Some notes:

If there is no such thing as having objective reasons to believe something then BK should be an agnostic, the default position. I also argue that agnosticism leads to atheism.

I never said we SHOULD believe what all authorities believe just because they believe it.

Who sets up that mutually agreed upon test? Why mutual partners, silly.

Anonymous said...

Christianity is unlike all religions. It was not some story written down by man or rules and laws to keep people in place.

That God sent his own son to die for our sins is amazing. That God would lay down his life for us so that we might live is almost uncomprehendable. That God is three persons in one and takes on 3 different shapes. That the holy spirit is within us. That to be saved we only have to believe in Jesus Christ. Rather than pray so many times a day, do this mission for so many years, go visit this place, give money to the church. That all were created equal and some not better than others. To treat all with love. That we have a personal relationship with God, and he is not some far-off being. That God loves us so much that no matter what we have done or thought, he will still forgive us if we believe in his Son.

This was not created by man. God was not created by man. One of the easiest and simplest ways is see to the difference between Christianity and all other religions in the world.

I ask you to open your eyes, open your heart, and see love, and lean not on your own understanding.

Jason Pratt said...

For those following along with the JvJ discussion at home, I've posted up my reply on the Cadre site, rather than inflict a 14 page answer on John's comment thread. {somewhat self-critical g}

It can be found here.


Prup (aka Jim Benton) said...

Live-n-grace: But Christianity in fact WAS a "story written down by man or rules and laws to keep people in place." In fact it was Paul, building on a dream he had of what someone he never even heard preach REALLY meant, that created it.

You say "That God sent his own son to die for our sins is amazing." Yes, it is a fascinating concept, but it wasn't Christian -- or Jewish -- in origin. It, like so many other concepts in these religions, came from Zoroastrianism.

And I still find the idea that 'to be saved we only have to believe in Jesus Christ' unspeakably vile. Our acts do not matter? Hitler and other high-level Nazis believed, or claimed they did. If their claims were true, then they are saved, but a Gandhi, a Jefferson, a Lincoln -- none of whom believed in 'Christ as a personal Saviour' -- are damned?

Anonymous said...

Our actions come through our belief, for once we believe in Christ, he lives within us.

But it is NOT by works! That is where the Pharisees had it all wrong. By works comes pride.