One of the primary motivations for creating this blog was my observation of the tendency of many people, even famous intellectual atheists, to get caught up in the details of their opposition’s beliefs without ever examining or establishing the fundamental assumptions held by either party. As a result, they miss the opportunity to constructively exchange and engage with each other’s ideas. My first few blog posts will attempt to take a more prudent and structured approach to this complex debate.
To do this, we need to delve into some simple epistemology, which is the philosophical inquiry into how we know things. This kind of philosophizing may seem tedious and obvious at first, but if we clearly establish rules about how we should go about the conversation before we start, it will pay off in big ways once we get to discussing the actual content of our beliefs.
Let’s start with the following basic assertion: Every claim we make about reality must somehow be justified in order for us to accept it as true. It doesn’t matter what claim we make—whether we claim that smoking is unhealthy, that aliens exist, or that Elvis Presley is still alive—we must always do so with the understanding that in order to convince others that our claim is true, we must properly justify it.
But what does it mean to “justify” a claim? One might say it means demonstrating that it is reasonable. But if our goal is to actually convince our opposition that our claims are true and theirs are false then this will not suffice, for claims that can be shown to be reasonable are not necessarily always convincing. This we can deduce from the simple fact that one could judge several incompatible claims to be “reasonable,” yet since they are incompatible they cannot all be true.
For example, “life exists outside the solar system,” and “life does not exist outside the solar system,” might both be shown to be reasonable, yet we know only one of them can be true. In this example, most of us admit that we just don’t know which claim is true (yet), which is to say we are “agnostic” on the question of whether life exists outside the solar system. But for the kinds of mutually exclusive claims with which this blog will be concerned, like “God exists,” and “God does not exist,” I will proceed with the assumption that those who argue for either claim are not agnostic in the same way. In other words, we believe that our claims are actually convincing and ought to be believed, and are not just reasonable.
So justifying claims, for the purpose of this blog, will be synonymous with making them convincing. As we’ve shown, convincing someone entails more than demonstrating the claim to be one of several reasonable possibilities. Instead, to convince someone that a claim is true, one must demonstrate it to be the most reasonable among the possible alternatives.
But how does one go about justifying a claim (i.e. demonstrating that it is the most reasonable among alternatives)? We can agree that there are certain legitimate methods to justify claims: empirical and historical evidence, reason, logic, and personal testimony, to name a few. But how such methods should be applied in particular circumstances differ widely from person to person and claim to claim. There are also some methods of justification, such as “faith,” that both sides may not agree are legitimate. Because the methods we use to justify claims fundamentally shape our arguments, we must always critically examine what they are and whether or not we are using them legitimately.
Of course, what justifies a claim for one person will not always justify it to another. That’s ok. The point here is not to determine what precisely ought to convince someone that a claim is true in any situation; the complex nature of belief seems to me to render this question difficult if not impossible to answer definitively. Despite this limitation, there is one essential acknowledgement that I think we should all make: that the more extraordinary a claim is, the stronger the argument that should be required to justify it—“extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence,” the saying goes. For example, I could easily convince you that I went to the Grand Canyon by showing you a realistic photograph of myself at the Grand Canyon, but to convince you that I took a rocket to the moon would require far more than a photograph of me on the moon, no matter how realistic it looks.
We can begin to see how these epistemological ideas about justifying claims map onto the debate between theism and atheism. Theists and atheists make specific claims about reality that must be justified. But if we want to convince each other that our claims are true, we can’t just state our reasons for why we believe what we do and expect that to be enough. Rather, we must demonstrate why it is more reasonable to believe in our claims than any claims that disagree with our own. To do this we can use a variety of methods (empirical evidence, reason, logic, etc.), and which methods we deem legitimate and how we apply them are a fundamentally necessary component of the argument—for example, whether or not faith is a legitimate means of justifying belief in God and why is an essential question that we must address. Though we can’t definitively determine when a person “ought to be convinced” that the other side is right, we can acknowledge that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, and that we ought to justify them appropriately.
Do you think these are legitimate principles that should guide the rest of the conversation? Did I get something wrong? Did I leave something out?
It is essential to a productive and meaningful debate that we settle such questions now, or we will inevitably fall victim to the same kind of bickering that this blog was created to rise above. Let me know your thoughts.