Belief without evidence (2 of 6): A skeptic’s inventory

The previous post introduced the topic of skeptical “beliefs without evidence”. This post gets to the meat of it by identifying three beliefs that I hold without evidence or sound reasons to back them up.

The most thoroughgoing logical, rational system of beliefs must start with some assumptions. In this post, I will go through three claims about the nature of the universe – you might call them my metaphysical beliefs – that I have identified as the basis of my consciously-held humanist worldview. In the following post, I will add to these two basic value statements.

1: The inductive principle

The inductive principle is the idea that the past is a useful guide to the future. If a light comes on every time we flip a switch, we are reasonably justified in expecting that the next time we flip the switch, the light will come on. If the sun has come up consistently every morning for my whole life, I can expect it to come up tomorrow morning too.

The thing is, there really is no way to demonstrate that this is a good form of reasoning, without assuming that this is a good form of reasoning. It’s tempting to argue, “The inductive principle is sound, because it has always worked in the past.” But this amounts to saying that if you assume the past (successful uses of the inductive principle) is a good guide to the future (future uses of the principle), then you have good reason to conclude that the past is a good guide to the future. It’s circular.

Pragmatically, of course, the inductive principle is a must-have. Even those who engage in the most heinous special pleading (“Oh, but you don’t *know* that the laws of physics were the same back then, so maybe the Earth *is* only 6000 years old!”) will use the inductive principle in every important aspect of their lives. They are only inclined to dismiss it when it points away from their cherished beliefs.

This is a point of faith that we all share. Even acknowledging that it will sometimes fail us (consider the poor turkey in this story), and applying the principle with due care, we have to live as if the inductive principle works most of the time.

2: Other people exist

I don’t have it in me to be a solipsist. Just because I can only experience the world as me, I don’t assume I’m the only one experiencing the world. I think it is a psychological imperative for mentally healthy social creatures such as humans to accept this dictum. But I cannot imagine a context where evidence could demonstrate this to be true. (Or false.)

3: Non-just-nowism

Call it the non-perversity of reality. I assume that the world is not so perversely arranged as to give systematic evidence contrary to reality. For those who haven’t come across it, “Just-nowism” is a somewhat tongue-in-cheek belief that the universe was just created, moments ago, so that everything in it – the physical evidence, our memories, everything – would make us think that it had actually been around a lot longer.

It seems to be a response to the Omphalos hypothesis (from the Greek word for navel – a reference to Adam’s belly button), originally by nineteenth-century apologist Henry Philip Gosse. It’s still sometimes promoted by creationists: the idea that all the scientific evidence of an old earth, of evolution, and so forth, is just put there by God to test their faith. Or, perhaps, by Satan to destroy their faith.

Either way, the Just-nowist/Omphalos hypothesis is the ultimate conspiracy theory: any evidence you see is simply proof that such evidence has been faked. There is no argument against it; that is why my non-just-nowism is a dogmatic belief. It’s also a useless way of facing the world, so I’m happy to remain a non-just-nowist. (Also note that just-nowism would undermine the inductive principle mentioned above.)

So there you have my three “faith-based” beliefs about the real world: induction works, other people exist, and the world is not perversely arranged to mislead us.

Next, I cover a couple of values that complement these metaphysical beliefs.

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6 Responses to “Belief without evidence (2 of 6): A skeptic’s inventory”

  1. jasonincontemplation Says:

    This is an interesting post, I’m looking forward to discussing it with you.

    I found this paragraph interesting, “Pragmatically, of course, the inductive principle is a must-have. Even those who engage in the most heinous special pleading (“Oh, but you don’t *know* that the laws of physics were the same back then, so maybe the Earth *is* only 6000 years old!”) will use the inductive principle in every important aspect of their lives. They are only inclined to dismiss it when it points away from their cherished beliefs.”

    I am reminded of Atheists who affirm that nothing comes into existence from nothing “in every important aspect of their lives. They are only inclined to dismiss it when it points away from their cherished beliefs.” Like when it means the universe must have had a creator. Or these Atheists will point out regarding anything else, that it is irrational to suggest an infinite regress, but then insist on one for the universe. Here are two cases not only of special pleading, but utter irrationality on the part of Atheists. But I must reject the claim that young earth creationists are engaging in special pleading, they have evidence for their claims, the Bible.

    It is telling that you will “just believe” in the inductive principle without any logical or scientific evidence or proof, yet when I suggest that you can encounter God by spiritual seeking, you say you’re only interested in the logically or scientifically evidenced or proven. Frankly, what you are doing is setting up an unjustified epistemology specifically designed to allow you to function without acknowledging God. You simply assume what you think you need to function without God, having no evidence or proof, and then boldly declare you need logical and scientific evidence/proof to believe in God.

    You have decided not to believe in God at the outset, and then imagined for yourself a reality you have no evidence for and cannot prove, that allows you to function without God. And you choose to believe in the reality of your imagination, rather than in the reality offered by the God of the Bible. In brief, you imagine things the way you want them to be, and then choose to believe it with no evidence or proof.

    Your problem with coming to God is not that you need logical or scientific evidence/proof, your problem is that you’ve heard the word of God, and you are not interested.

    That is the significance of my recommending a study of the book of Romans with the commentary. I was offering you a way to show some interest in the God of the Bible, it’s the only way you’ll ever find him.

    Let me speak frankly, since you Timothy, are willing to imagine things the way you want them to be, and then believe it with no evidence or proof, no argument will ever convince you that you are wrong. You need a change of heart, not evidence or proof.

    I hope I haven’t sounded negative in this post, I’ve really enjoyed discussing this with you. So if I sound overly aggressive I apologize, it is not my intention.

    Take good care Timothy,

    Jason

  2. Timothy Mills Says:

    Jason, you certainly don’t sound overly negative to me. Thankyou for your openness and honesty in this discussion. I am enjoying it too.

    I wonder if you could be more specific in what you suggest about atheists. In what circumstance have you seen atheists reject the inductive principle, for example?

    You say, “You have decided not to believe in God at the outset, and then imagined for yourself a reality you have no evidence for and cannot prove, that allows you to function without God.”

    This is neither how my personal journey to being a secular humanist and atheist came about, nor how I have constructed my epistemology. I have tried out religious belief at various points in my life, and have simply never found any compelling reason – empirical, personal, spiritual, or otherwise – to commit to religious belief. Epistemologically, as you will see in this series of posts, I do not begin with rejecting God. I begin by establishing some common-sense groundwork (induction, anti-solipsism, and non-just-nowism) and values (compassion and reason), and I follow where they lead.

    You are probably right that, without a dramatic change of heart, I will not come to believe in the god of the Christian Bible. The evidence does not seem to hold up to basic common-sense tests. From your perspective, I understand that this makes it seem like I have hardened my heart against your God. From my perspective, it feels like I have made an honest decision based on the most unbiased evidence and reasoning available to me.

    Whether there is more to say between us is unclear. I am enjoying our discussion, but I recognize that we are each likely to become frustrated by the other’s failure to accept the simple, obvious principles we are offering.

    If you have any suggestions for overcoming this – suggestions that might appeal to one such as me – please let me know.

  3. jasonincontemplation Says:

    Thanks for taking my initial post here in stride. I was not angry, but I think I was a bit pressed for time as I wrote, and it came out a little too “in your face.” I definitely went over the top a little, sorry about that. 🙂

    My point in the previous post essentially boils down to, when you say, “I begin by establishing some common-sense groundwork (induction, anti-solipsism, and non-just-nowism) and values (compassion and reason), and I follow where they lead.” You are really beginning with a conclusion I think.

    It seems very deliberately constructed. For example, why are the “common-sense” principles you begin with common sense? Why not other ideas, why not the common sense idea that a God who has made himself know has created all this?

    As I said rather bombastically above, I think you are very consciously selecting a set of “common sense” principles that will allow you to view the world from a naturalistic perspective.

    Allow me to call my belief that we are all made of snot a “common sense” principle, and soon I will rationally deduce that the whole universe is the result of a giant elephant’s sneeze.

    Greg Bahnsen is famous for saying anyone can make a system work if you just give them a few free foundational points. Think what beliefs I could justify if only a were allowed some “common sense” principles to start with.

    I am not a philosopher, Bahnsen, and even Sye Ten Bruggencate are way beyond me. But I think you see the point I’m making. If I let you call those things common sense from an Atheistic perspective then you will run with them, and never accept God.

    You said, “Whether there is more to say between us is unclear.” Wow, my opening post was that bad huh? Lol, sorry.

    Regarding Kalam, I would encourage you to read his book for yourself, it’s a lot more in depth than what he has time to lay out in debates. Speaking of those debates, you mentioned a website that opposes Craig, there are many. Have you ever noticed though, that when Craig debates professional philosophers they don’t raise the objections put forth by these dubious (that’s a nice way of putting it) websites? Hmmmmm…why…is…that??…

    Something to think about.

  4. Timothy Mills Says:

    I do have a Craig book on my reading list. A stalled effort to read through some key popular/philosophical works on the atheism/religion dichotomy (see this index post for the summary and links) has Reasonable Faith on it. If I am impressed with Craig’s writing (as I am not with his speaking, although he has a very smooth style of presentation), then I will seek out the Kalam book.

    Regarding your other point … I don’t know myself perfectly, so I cannot completely rule out some unconscious bias vindicating your claim.

    My gut reaction is that you don’t agree with my conclusion, so you want to fault my premises. I know how this sounds, and I am truly not trying to descend into an “I know you are but what am I” exchange. I’ll assume this isn’t your line of reasoning, and invite you to elaborate.

    Perhaps you could help me to see that by suggesting what is wrong with one or more of the items I assert here.

    • Do you think the inductive principle is generally unreliable?
    • Do you think that other people don’t exist?
    • Do you think that the universe is arranged so as to systematically mislead us?

    I confess, based on the behaviour of everyone I have ever known (believer and atheist alike), I am inclined to think that all three of these are both common and sensible.

    You seem to suggest that I am arbitrarily hijacking the positive label “common sense” to make my premises (and therefore the conclusions I draw from them) seem more appealing. But unless you can demonstrate that they are not common (that a great many people reject one or more of them), or that they are not sensible (that there are sound reasons for rejecting one or more of them, regardless of their popularity), then you aren’t giving me any reason to set them aside.

  5. jasonincontemplation Says:

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts. I am not actually a presuppositionalist when it comes to the philosophical arguments, I think there are ways out of those dilemmas for Atheists.

    The point I’m trying to make, is that you are creating your worldview with your desired conclusion in mind. And I think everyone does that. All I’m arguing is that you are not arriving at your conclusions from a stance of open neutrality. You are selecting the parts you want, and rejecting beliefs you don’t want from the very outset.

    Most people do accept induction, the existence of others, and the uniformity of nature, but that doesn’t make them common sense. Common to whom? The people you’ve met on earth so far? Does that count for anything? Why should you accept them for that reason? In that case, belief in God is common sense and you should accept it too, since most people believe in God.

    Do you see what I’m saying? The only point I’m trying to make here, is that you have not come to your conclusions as a wide eyed seeker, guided by science, reason, and neutrality. You are a human who has heard lots of ideas in the marketplace, and selected those that appeal to you. That’s what I’m trying to get you to admit. Atheism is the preference of some, it is not the result of a reasoned search for truth. For that matter, neither is Christianity or any other religion.

    We believe what we want to believe, and discard what we want to discard, that’s my point.

  6. Timothy Mills Says:

    Jason, I think I see where I was misreading your tone.

    I think I misstepped when I started defending these as “common sense”. As you say, whether they are common or not isn’t really the point.

    The point – when I am not shying away from it – is just as you say: I accept these things because I accept them – that’s all. This is they way my preference goes.

    I think there are rhetorical points that can be made in their defense – and I may pursue them in the future. But I can prove neither their validity, nor their superiority to other basic beliefs that others might choose.

    In terms of running a society that does not unduly privilege or suppress anyone’s personal worldview, identifying common ground (yes, that’s where “common sense” may come in) becomes pragmatically valuable. But that, too, is a discussion for another time.

    I still disagree with you about the starting point. I lived most of three decades evolving my basic attitude to life and truth, before I came to the (still-tentative) conclusion that there probably are no gods out there. My atheism is a consequence, not a cause, of the principles I have chosen.

    But that doesn’t diminish the fact that I have chosen these principles. I have not discovered them, or reasoned to them, or had them revealed to me by some unquestionable authority.

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