Hypothesis of God: the problem of basic knowledge

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Photo credit: Chris Price, via Flickr (cropped).

Editor’s Note: This is part 2 of a series. Read part 1 here.

Continuing with my assessment of the philosopher James Croft’s challenge to the God hypothesis as presented in his debate with Stephen Meyer, I will pick up where I left off in the Croft Substack summary, just after he had distilled Meyer’s argument into a few key points. Croft had three major problems with the argument. We will start with his first.

The clash of the philosophers

Croft proposes that Meyer’s abductive inference “is extremely unusual, in that it suggests that the cause of an observed effect is a designer about which we have no basic information.” It is a popular challenge, which has been developed more formally in the philosophical literature around design. Does he have merit?

The first natural point here is that we all start out in life with the same amount of basic information about all entities and minds outside of our own, i.e. none. A newborn baby has no basic information about the strange creature licking his face or the dark figure pulling him out of the crib. Nevertheless, through the progressive collection of data, he trains his understanding of cause and effect. I doubt Croft would claim that infants are born with innate concepts of these things. The data collection process has to start somewhere. Croft objects that “the phenomena to be explained (the explanandum) are supposed to be part of our proof that God even exists”. But in the same way, the wet washcloth feel of a puppy’s tongue on baby’s cheeks is part of baby’s proof that Puppy exists.

Now, it is true that for any body of evidence, we can assemble an explanation that will deductively entail the whole. Maybe the universe was set up from the start in such a way as to make puppies, moms, trees, etc. inevitable. The problem is, our “make all evidence inevitable” factor has no other epistemic virtues to recommend it. We may still be right. But that’s not the way to bet. The intelligent agency hypothesis, on the other hand, can have various virtues and explain a variety of phenomena.

What are you waiting for?

In the debate, Meyer uses a car burglary as a hunchback pump. We reason backwards from the crime scene to inference from human action. But Croft thinks this is very different from God’s assumption, because we already know a lot about human beings – that they exist, that they have the power to get into cars, and that they can have a motive. to do it. With all of this in the background, we can think backwards. This is not the case with God.

Coincidentally, someone I know had their car broken into this summer. It was quite climate-proof (he had carelessly left his door unlocked), but the car’s glove box and cargo area had clearly been searched. There was nothing of value to steal, but the small items missing included a bunch of inexpensive masks, some of which had been amusingly left in a trail like Hansel and Gretel’s breadcrumbs behind our fleeing thief. It was several months before the Delta Wave, but our criminal apparently thought the masks might still be worth something. Two small, ordinary pocket knives were also missing.

Now, a priori, before the fact, there was no reason to predict that a thief would be particularly interested in a wad of face masks or a few inexpensive pocket knives. And yet, a posteriori, after the fact, the burglary was the natural inference. I remember a story Fran Lebowitz told about finding his broken high school car windshield, his cigarettes, and an apple torn from the dashboard. Vexed, she called the closest NYPD representative and pointed out the damage. “What did you have on the dashboard?” The officer asked. “I had an apple and a pack of cigarettes.” “Well,” he said, raising his hands, “what were you expecting? “

It’s very funny, but also very appropriate. What was Fran expecting? What was my friend expecting?

Generic gods, generic men

To take another example, taken from an article by philosopher Lydia McGrew in response to philosopher Thomas Crisp, McGrew recalls receiving an email from an admiring reader in Croatia. Before receiving this e-mail, she knew Croats in general, but she did not know this Croatian in particular. Indeed, she had no idea that someone from Croatia would be particularly moved to send her a fan letter. But, upon reading the said letter, she acquired new knowledge.

it’s true that we don’t know a priori if there is an entity outside the universe with means and a motive to communicate its presence to human beings. But what if there was such an entity? In this case, how do you know? These are the questions which really interest the theist, because the hypothesis of God is not without content. This is the very hypothesis he wants to test. But Croft blocked the road right out of the gate.

And indeed, if we applied this reasoning consistently, it would block the road for our discovery of all new intelligent non-human agent, regardless of God. If aliens existed, why would they want to send the team to Contact an extended message consisting of the digits of pi? Nobody knows. There is certainly no “independent evidence” to this effect. But there.

Returning to our “magic ratio” from Part 1, the likelihood ratio P (E | H) / P (E | ~ H) (where we will say E = proof and H = hypothesis), McGrew makes another technical point: To have such a relationship which favors the hypothesis of God, one does not necessarily need to have an independent knowledge of the motive, only of the capacities. “God”, by definition, is certainly able design, whatever its motives. This is the key to answering the popular academic claim that our magic ratio loses its magic when H = hypothesis of God, because our numerator P (E | H) is inaccessible, a number we cannot put the hand. We can still say something about a report even though we don’t have full access to its components. We don’t need a very specific high number for the numerator to know that it is a lot higher than the denominator.

The “woven carpet”

Croft concludes this section by saying that the theist is in the “unenviable position” of “trying to use the explanations. [proposed cause of phenomenon] to explain the explanandum [phenomenon to be explained]. But that only smuggles into the silent assumption that the only kind of legitimate causal assumption is one for which we already have ‘independent evidence.’ If instead, to quote Charles Sanders Peirce, everything is’ a carpet woven and felted abductions ”, if all of our empirical knowledge is constructed by inference to the best explanation, then there is a first time for every new thing. On the other hand, if Croft is correct that the BIE always requires independent evidence before we can use something as explanans to suppress our surprise at an explanandum, then the question for Croft is how we learn something. for the first time.

This is Croft’s first problem: if he bites the bullet and says we’re not using inference for the best explanation for anything, then his argument is a universal acid. His second problem is the problem McGrew raises: Neither Meyer nor any proponent of identification is required to provide a number for the probability of our proof given to God. This number does not need to be high. Just be higher than the denominator.

This concludes my assessment of Croft’s first objection. Next time, we’ll take a look at his claim that Meyer misapplies writers like Charles Lyell and Michael Scriven.


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