More on Narnia

April 21, 2009

My response to Dan’s comment was too long to itself be a comment, hence open letter:

You’re in good company with those arguments, and to be honest, I’m just on the verge of trying to make similar arguments myself, which would be a lot easier than this whole messy defense of theism.

But, like a good theist, I’m mostly going to ad hoc the crap out of your arguments instead.

First though, I think you missed something in your initial response. You say that the consequence of Lewis’ argument is that religious belief is “at best, a harmless delusion,” but that wasn’t Puddleglum’s point at all. Notice, he says, “I’m going to live as like a Narnian as I can, even if there isn’t any Narnia.” He’s not just going to believe in Narnia, he intends to live as a Narnian would.

Belief in Narnia apparently has consequences for how one should act, and that’s something I stand behind, too. I think that if God wants you to do something, it’s probably the same thing that you should do if there is no God. It’s not clear to me why God would order people to do things that derive their entire value from His existence. Christians are probably worse than atheists on this count, since they are more likely to say that morality can’t exist without God, but atheists will talk some trash as well. (I have in mind the pseudo-argument that runs “Christians say that premarital sex is bad, but Christianity is false, therefore sex ain’t no thing.”)

On to the ad hoc-ing!

Look, I love the philosophical clarity of your position. “If we let theists believe in God without evidence, what’s to stop them from believing that the sky is green?” But given the lack of people who believe both in God and that the sky is green, I feel like you’re striving for greater clarity than is actually possible when it comes to belief formation. I’m sure one could find huge differences by comparing the beliefs of theists and atheists, and I’d even be willing to say that individual theists are more likely to hold views that I believe are wrong than individual atheists. But I also think that you could take any person and add on a belief in God without that belief infecting their entire thought structure. I don’t think belief in God is a sort of cancer on the brain that spreads to everything else.

I remember the first time I heard that if you throw a ball horizontally, it will land at exactly the same time as a ball that you simply let drop to the ground. And I remember not believing it. It seemed to contradict my own experience up to that point in life. After a bit, I accepted that it had to be true, and so I recited it as a fact, even though it still didn’t feel true. Finally, (like, some time last week), I reached a point where it doesn’t even feel to me that the two balls should land at different times. I’ve somehow integrated gravity and Newton’s laws into my intuition about how the world works.

And so I propose that, for good or ill, that’s how our epistemic systems work. Logic is great, and we should use it whenever it is appropriate. I’m just proposing that when it comes to belief-formation, logic is only a part of it. In other words, I don’t think that the goal of logic is to supplant our belief-forming processes, but rather to aid them.

It’s weak, I know, and you ask “How do we know when it’s appropriate to use logic and when it is not?” and I can’t answer that question except to say, “Accept the logical conclusion when it feels like the logical conclusion is correct.”

I’m afraid that if I accept your argument that logic should always trump feelings and we should be constantly trying to ignore all evidence that doesn’t have clear logical support, my position will be precise and clear, but I will have to pay for that precision and clarity by being wrong.

PS. If it wasn’t clear before, I don’t think that all atheists are smug, only the smug ones.


2 Responses to “More on Narnia”

  1. Rrrobert! Says:

    It seems to me that a critical part of Lewis’s argument is that Narnia IS real. The dream of Narnia is the real Narnia, viewed through a glass darkly. Without a real Narnia, there would be no dream.

    The idea of Narnia is so powerful that for some, despite doubt, it compels one’s actions. And the idea in turn provides a source of strength which can overcome the otherwise crushing darkness of the underworld. So at its best, it is more than just a harmless delusion.

    In the same way, it seems to me that the idea of God is deeply ingrained in the human psyche. Whether it is an obscured reflection of a reality from which we are temporarily disconnected or an evolutionary throwback survival mechanism, it helps me live life better, so I’m happy to rely on it. Also note that the two explanations are not inconsistent with each other – the idea of God may be both evolutionary and real.

    Let’s also point out that belief in any one of these scenarios is no more illogical than belief in God’s non-existence. We’re talking about a realm in which there is no evidence for any belief state. As Dan points out, there is no objective way to distinguish between denominations, or between Gods and demons. But similarly, there’s no logical way to differentiate between those beliefs and a belief in non-existence – all beliefs on this subject are arbitrary.

    Mermaids are probably a different matter (in some ways). The claim about mermaids is that they’re physical beings that exist in the world, like giant squid. We could theoretically sift the oceans and prove or disprove their existence. At a certain point, we could say “if they existed, we would probably have come across them by now”. And we can use that as a basis for belief in their non-existence. The same is not true of God. I understand that in a certain sense (one with a bias toward logic) it is philosophically unfair to believe in something that by definition cannot be examined logically, but them’s the breaks.

    But logic isn’t everything – it’s only one tool in our philosophical toolkit. It gets the most play because it’s the only one that can compel other people’s beliefs. If you can reason from A to B in a logically solid way, and someone accepts A, they must accept B. Appeals to the depths of other people’s psyches don’t hold as much weight.

    As such, Dan is right that appeals to God are not appropriately marshaled to directly support policies. And it’s WAY inappropriate to ask people who don’t share an arbitrary belief to promote its proselytization indirectly. And by and large I don’t approve of the kinds of policies that come from appeals to God. But to play devil’s advocate, it’s not immediately clear to me that those beliefs can’t inform people’s moral positions, and that people’s moral positions are a bad basis for public policy. You can marshal a logical argument that depends on the state of people’s beliefs. And once you start talking about that, you’re no longer talking about whether God belongs in public policy – you’re talking about how to best structure human institutions and manage people’s relations with each other.

    Just to be clear, I’ll caveat that I don’t think people should be legislating their morality onto others. But I think that might be a matter of the logic of institutions rather than whether one ought to seek moral goals through public policy.

  2. I didn’t comment on the public policy implications of theism, but my beliefs are pretty easy to guess. Public policy is one area where I seem to be willing to have neat and clean beliefs at the cost of being wrong and/or irrelevant.

    Laws are for community order, not morality. There are plenty of things that should be legal but that you shouldn’t do.

    I get that the more fervent atheists believe that Christianity really is responsible for the horrible things that Christians do. But I don’t think that’s right.

    So I think we can safely agree on the policy implications and disagree on the reasonableness of forming beliefs on evidence that is incommunicable or inexpressible.

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