Thursday, February 14, 2008

"The Beneficial Arguments for God"


Chapter 9 is the last in a series of chapters analyzing and criticizing the popular arguments for the existence of God. Unlike the previous chapters which dealt with evidential arguments, or better, arguments based on some kind of potential knowledge, this chapter is focused at analyzing arguments based on the practical benefits of belief regardless of the truth-status of the particular claims. As with some of the other non-empirically motivated arguments, I tend towards agreement with Martin on his assessments here, perhaps more than in any other chapter that I have read thus far. So, once again, I fear that I will have very little substantial criticism to offer and will have to resort to some smaller matters. Nonetheless, I will proceed.

Summary of Martin's Claims

Dr. Martin begins Chapter Nine by defining "beneficial arguments" as "arguments based on the so called practical benefits of belief rather than on evidence." After defining them this way, he tells us that he will focus primarily on the two most popular such arguments, those of Blaise Pascal (Pascal's Wager) and William James (from Will to Believe). He begins with Pascal's Wager.

Blaise Pascal was the antithesis of Rene Descartes who believed that all certain knowledge, including that of God's existence, was found by way of reason. Pascal believed that the existence of God was indemonstrable and that only by acceptance of revelation and submission to God can we achieve any true knowledge of God. However, as a result of this Pascal recognized that it was necessary to give a reason that one should place such faith in the existence of God. Therefore, he developed what is now known as Pascal's Wager (*Note: This argument actually purports to provide beneficial reasons to act in religious ways that would indirectly result in religious belief. Pascal recognized that to turn the will apart from habit would require intellectual assent. But since intellectual assent was not available then habit was the proper route.). Briefly stated it says:

P-1: If one believes in God and God exists, then one gains infinite bliss after life
P-2: If one believes in God and God does not exist, one has lost little
P-3: If one does not believe in God and God exists, one suffers infinite torment in hell after death
P-4: But if He does not exist and one has not believed in Him, he has gained little
Conclusion: If one has little to lose and infinity to gain by believing or little to gain and infinity to lose by not believing, then one should believe that God exists

Martin offers one specific criticism of this argument and then takes on objections to that criticism. His criticism is that the Wager doesn't take into account the other possibilities regarding a possible transcendent being. He offers four alternatives: 1) a being exists that punishes believers and rewards unbelievers; 2) a being that rewards only for belief in a being that rewards unbelievers and punishes believers; 3) a being that punishes everyone regardless of belief; and 4) A being that rewards everyone regardless of belief. Martin proposes that, in logically possible situations such as these, unbelief may be more beneficial than belief.

Next, Martin offers some possible objections to his view and answers them. The first objection is that these views presuppose that people would even believe in such beings, which is a dubious assumption. They argue that the Wager presupposes only "real possibilities," such as the Christian God. Martin answers that the claim that the Christian God is a better logical option is an arbitrary and culturally motivated assumption at best and an irrational one at worst. He adds that, only by demonstrating that such beings have inconsistent properties could one rule them out a priori. The next possible objection formulated by Martin is that this criticism assumes that it would be better to believe that no supernatural being exists even if one did, in fact, not exist. Supporting this, the objector may offer the idea that hope, even if misplaced, may be beneficial. Martin answers this critique by postulating that the negative value of religious worship (tithing, asceticism, and time consummation) must be weighed against the moment of hope—at which point the hope may have cost too much. Furthermore, there could be great practical value in not believing such as: 1) non-belief gives reason to take responsibility for own problems; 2) there are psychological benefits such as not being na├»ve; 3) there is epistemic value in not believing a falsehood; and 4) the comfort of believers is actually short lived and ultimately leads to despair. After these criticisms he offers one more that deals with probabilities and succinctly answers it. He then concludes the discussion if Pascal's Wager by stating: "Beneficial arguments should only be used when there are inadequate epistemic arguments to believe one ay or the other, and should be allowed to override epistemic arguments only in very special circumstances."

Next, Pascal takes on a beneficial argument offered by William James. James begins his argument by making distinctions between live options and dead options as well as between genuine options and forced options. He then claims that, when a decision is real, forced, and momentous and not decidable on intellectual grounds then we should resort to our passionate nature (the will). From here, he points out that sometimes the possible gain of a belief being true outweighs the risk of it being an error. Therefore, he concludes teaching skepticism to someone who would benefit from belief is to ask them to be unwise, even if the belief is actually misplaced (since the better things are the more eternal things). In addition, James claims that we would be better able with this belief in a God than without it to confirm epistemically whether or not God exists.

Dr. Martin offers five main arguments against James. 1) James' "live option" is subjective and relativistic and doesn't take into account all facts. Martin asserts that James should change the definition of "live option" to one that is non improbable. Doing so would make the "religious" question incapable of receiving an intellectual resolution, making it a real "live option." 2) James' language is at best ambiguous and at worst nonsense. Martin points out that there is no reason to believe that eternal things (numbers for Platonists) are better than non-eternal things. Nonetheless, even if one were to admit this, it says nothing of the actual existence of a perfect and eternal being. 3) There is no reason to suppose that theists live healthier happier lives than non-theists as a result of believing in such a being. In fact, religious belief is tied to poverty, sickness, and lack of education according to Martin. Further, even if a religious believer could experience more tranquility and serenity, there is no reason to suppose that these are better than the job, health, and education benefits received by the unbeliever (especially considering the fact that drugs can cause tranquility and serenity and are not considered more valuable than a job, health, and education). 4) The undifferentiated theism supposed by James' is not really a regular option ("live"). Bringing in these other options (Islam vs. Roman Catholicism) complicates James' formulations. And, 5) the supposition that being theistic provides better opportunities to weigh the epistemic evidence is unfounded. Differing beliefs may result in the "confirmation" of incompatible options. Further, James' doesn't consider the possibility that religious belief may block one from accepting dis-confirmatory evidence.

Finally, Martin claims that James' argument is even weaker than Pascal's, since it deals with the here and now advantages only, as opposed to Pascal's dealing with the advantages of the afterlife. Also, James does not consider the probabilities as Pascal does. However, if James were to fix these problems then his view would be reducible to Pascal's and subject to the same criticisms as the Wager.

Agreements and What I Have Learned

Well, overall I agree with Martin. Beneficial arguments, in my opinion either beg the question in favor of a particular God or are completely unfounded. In fact, I think that Martin was charitable regarding the criticism of Pascal. Granting that the God Pascal speaks of is the Christian God; I think that one loses more by believing in God if He doesn't exist than in disbelieving in Him if He does exist. Think about it, if I disbelieve God and He does exist, I lose out on an eternal communion with Him, but I still have my existence as I chose to have it. However, if I believe in Him and He doesn't exist, I have offered to a non-existent being the only existence that I had, and thus lost the chance to truly live as I desired (of course one may say that I desired to live believing in this God, but I say that no one knowingly desires to falsely believe in any God). This, to me, is a more devastating criticism of Pascal. Nonetheless, Martin did the job without being overly simplistic or mocking Pascal. He was correct to point out that the open-ended 'God' of Pascal's argument left it too ambiguous. I think that his proposed objections and answers were fair and especially appreciated his claim that only by demonstrating that such beings have inconsistent properties could one rule them out a priori. I wholeheartedly agree here. Finally, I loved his final comments on this section where he stated "beneficial arguments should only be used when there are inadequate epistemic arguments to believe one ay or the other, and should be allowed to override epistemic arguments only in very special circumstances."

I also agreed with his conclusion regarding the section on James' argument.


As for the critique, I will offer three minor criticisms based on the text and one more major criticism regarding Martin's assumptions. All three of my minor criticisms come from Martin's critique of William James. First, when Martin was discussing whether or not theism or unbelief leads one to a happier life I think that he was heading down a meaningless path. Such claims are not testable by comparing groups as he does. Only by evaluating individuals who have experienced both states of affairs can anything be concluded. And even then the claims are not really testable. Such evidence is really only subjectively relevant. Second, Martin talked for a while about happiness being related to having a good job. But I challenge this. A job may or may not be fulfilling, and to the degree that it is fulfilling, to that degree it makes one happy. Thus it is not the job but the fulfillment that can be linked with happiness. Different people may have identical jobs and not experience the same level of happiness, so there must be something more. I propose that happiness isn't found in specific things or actions, but in progressing towards some desired goal. It is in approaching this goal that results in a greater happiness. The fact that non-religious people may seem to have more happiness can be attributed to the fact that their goals are lower and, thus, they are closer to it. Third, Martin suggests that, if one were to start with their belief in God while evaluating the evidence, then incompatible belief systems, in light of the "evidence," would seem to both be true. But this is plainly false. It would only result in the confirmation of the characteristics in which they were similar. Where they differed, the Law of Non-Contradiction would still apply.

Finally, I would like to challenge one large assumption made by Martin in this chapter. He assumes that speaking of "better" or "valuable" is even meaningful in an atheistic universe. But is this so? How does one decide these things? Why is it better to take responsibility for one's own problems? Why is it better not to be naive? Why shouldn't we believe falsehoods? By what standard of goodness (ontological, not moral) is he comparing these things to? I am convinced that the atheist cannot sufficiently answer these questions.

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