Playing the Consistency Game

When I posted earlier on the blogfight unleashed by Jenifer Fulwiler’s post “Five Catholic Teachings that Make Sense to Atheists,” I focused on how to gauge the sincerity of a convert’s discarded beliefs. That was an argument about the author, and now I want to focus on the dispute over the logic of her post. Jen wasn’t offering a proof of Catholicism’s claims, she was trying to show that the system held together pretty well. PZ Myers wrote two posts rejecting the validity of this approach

Does she even realize that including speculation about the nature of God and heaven, especially speculation that ignores the monstrous tyranny described in the Bible, means it automatically makes no sense at all to an atheist?

…So first, find an atheist who’s willing to pretend that she believes in a god. Then, while she’s pretending with all of her might, maybe her brain will be addled enough to accept the load of swill that follows. Brilliant! I have another suggestion: 1) find an atheist who is tripping balls on ‘shrooms, 2) whack them hard enough on the head to give them a concussion, and 3) proselytize! Jesus wins!

I come down on Jen’s side. It can be useful for both sides to put aside the big contentious dispute and talk about how well the rest of the theory stands up, even when you grant the cornerstone premise. This is exactly what Myers, Loftus, and other do when they ask Christians why, if god(s) exist, why they’re so certain that their take on this god is accurate.

Don’t forget that atheists and Christians don’t just disagree on which way the evidence points, they disagree on what kind of evidence should be counted. Atheists think that proof for the existence of God should look like the proof for the existence of life on the moon, or an invisible dragon in the garage. There should be observable, reproducible evidence that is convincing to pretty much any person with a grip on reality. Christians like Jen think that this kind of proposition is more like the squishy claims of “my mother loves me” or “people’s actions have moral weight” or “the physical world is not an illusion.” These claims are not provable in any formal system and they don’t lend themselves to definite empirical observation.

Trying to settle the standard is intensely frustrating and leads to a lot of talking past each other. But if you play the internally consistent game, it’s easier to learn how your opposite number thinks (maybe even well enough to pass an ideological Turing Test). You can see whether, even when spotted the major premise, your opponent’s system makes predictions about the empirical world that are flat out wrong. If there aren’t any obvious misses, is it because your sparring partner has limited the real world implications of his position until they can’t pay rent? How do they respond to that criticism?

If you don’t hit snags of the type described above, then maybe your opponent does have a reasonably coherent system, if you grant them a few foundational beliefs. Now it’s time to go back to arguing about how you judge those base beliefs. Or maybe, if their system did make good predictions that paid rent, you should take another look at the system that you brought to the table, test your own predictive power, and think about whether you’ve gained any evidence in favor of metaphysical backsliding (use the link if you don’t know the phrase).

The fact that a system is self-consistent is not proof that it’s true. I know the conventional example given by G.K. Chesterton in Orthodoxy:

The madman’s explanation of a thing is always complete, and often in a purely rational sense satisfactory. Or, to speak more strictly, the insane explanation, if not conclusive, is at least unanswerable; this may be observed specially in the two or three commonest kinds of madness. If a man says (for instance) that men have a conspiracy against him, you cannot dispute it except by saying that all the men deny that they are conspirators; which is exactly what conspirators would do. His explanation covers the facts as much as yours.

But I like to point to the well-fleshed out (but still sadly fictional) world of Harry Potter. The fandom that surrounds Rowling’s world is also a good example of how an unfinished and inconsistent world can be neatened up by scrupulous fans fixing Flints (theological examples fall under the heading of scriptural fanfiction).

On the other side of the coin, an inconsistent system isn’t necessarily false. It can be better to bite the bullet, and admit that you don’t know how to choose between two conflicting claims than to cling to one out of fear of looking uncertain. It’s easier to fix a problem you admit is a weakness than one you’ve papered over.

When two different philosophies manage to both look reasonably consistent, and the crucial proposition is unproveable or untestable, then you’ve got a case of non-Euclidean theologies (the phrase is inspired by the non-Euclidean geometries when you vary the definition of Euclid’s Fifth Postulate). You could conclude that these theologies are evenly balanced, but I’m inclined to say that the tie goes to the atheist position, since I’d expect a god to give people a bit more of a fighting chance to be converted.

About Leah Libresco

Leah Anthony Libresco graduated from Yale in 2011. She works as a statistician for a school in Washington D.C. by day, and by night writes for Patheos about theology, philosophy, and math at www.patheos.com/blogs/unequallyyoked. She was received into the Catholic Church in November 2012."

  • http://pharyngula.org PZ Myers

    I disagree most strongly. This isn't simply a matter of accepting one simple premise in order to see the world as the other side does. In Fulwiler's case, she asks that we accept the existence of a deity, and then suddenly we're supposed to find the veneration of Mary and acceptance of the theological authority of the Vatican to be rational and consistent. It is not: it is a pile of baggage that requires accepting a whole load of priors on authority.In a piece purporting to present insights into the way atheists think, she wasn't even able to imagine how Protestants think.

  • http://www.soulsprawl.com Matt DeStefano

    I think you're right, Leah, in that: "[if there are no obvious misses]your opponent does have a reasonably coherent system, if you grant them a few foundational beliefs".In Jen's case, she's putting the entire bag of Catholicism into her "foundational beliefs" and trying to make us play ball from there. As PZ said, those claims rest upon 'a whole load of priors': ones that were simply skimmed over in favor of painting the beliefs as rational.

  • http://wordsideasandthings.blogspot.com/ Garren

    I use the term 'rational' in two ways. The first, more stringent way has to do with entailment from some clearly defined starting point. The second is more along the lines of 'not irrational,' i.e. not in contradiction.Broadly speaking, Atheists tend to focus on the former, and Theists on the latter. Basically: 'Can you prove it's true?' vs. 'Can you prove it's false?' Yes, I'm hinting that this might be going on above.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/08572976822786862149 Darwin

    In Fulwiler's case, she asks that we accept the existence of a deity, and then suddenly we're supposed to find the veneration of Mary and acceptance of the theological authority of the Vatican to be rational and consistent. It is not: it is a pile of baggage that requires accepting a whole load of priors on authority.I don't think that Fulwiler is saying that if only someone will think within the context of imagining there to be a deity, that it will then become obvious that there must be purgatory or apostolic succession. Rather, she's pointing out that given the overall context of Christianity (which, yes, involves granting not one, but a number of things that atheists and Christians disagree on) certain Catholic beliefs are going to answer questions which are often posed by outsiders (including atheists.)So, for example, one comment I've at times heard about Christianity is, "It's supposed to be based on the bible, but look at how many different kind of Christians there are. Clearly, people can pick up the bible and read it in totally different ways. Don't you think that if there was a God and he wanted you to know about him he would have given you a book that was more clear?" To which the Catholic answer would be, as Jenn pointed out in a rather brief way, the doctrine of apostolic succession and the place of Tradition and the papacy in guiding doctrine.Now, that certainly doesn't mean that an atheist would say, "Oh My Now-Believe-in-God, you're right, now I'm a Christian!" But it does address what is otherwise a very obvious question.–DarwinCatholic

  • http://www.soulsprawl.com Matt DeStefano

    "To which the Catholic answer would be, as Jenn pointed out in a rather brief way, the doctrine of apostolic succession and the place of Tradition and the papacy in guiding doctrine."But these are just more foundational premises. Now, on top of the divine inspiration of the Bible, we also have to accept the papacy, 'the place of Tradition', and apostolic succession. Another pile of baggage.

  • Anonymous

    I really do support the idea of occasionally talking about other belief systems within their own starting framework, to help you better understand what they are thinking. But I don't think that's what this is trying to do. To me, the list feels a bit less like "Christians teachings that open-minded atheists will understand/agree with" than "Teachings that might make atheists like Catholics more than Evangelicals." That's a fine goal to have, but its not about consistency. Talking about the Veneration of Mary or Communion of Saints is not going to show me that Catholicism is an internally-consistent rational system without a whole lot of background information.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/08572976822786862149 Darwin

    Matt,But these are just more foundational premises. Now, on top of the divine inspiration of the Bible, we also have to accept the papacy, 'the place of Tradition', and apostolic succession. Another pile of baggage. I suppose it depends how one sees the idea of "granting more premises". If the premise being granted is that a God somewhat like the Christian idea of God exists, then one has already granted the possibility that such a God could any number of things. It seems like the way that one would be examining such a scenario would be, "Does what you describe your God as doing fit with your description of what your God is like?" or "Does your description of how your God is getting his message out to people fit with what I actually see of Christians in the real world."Otherwise, one would be going through the odd exercise of saying, "Look, I'm willing to imagine for the sake of argument that your God exists, but I refuse to imagine that he actually does anything. That just wouldn't be believable!" When, of course, it's only unbelievable in and of itself for God to do a particular thing if one does not in fact grant his existence.Anon,To me, the list feels a bit less like "Christians teachings that open-minded atheists will understand/agree with" than "Teachings that might make atheists like Catholics more than Evangelicals." I think that's probably accurate — or perhaps a little more accurately: Here are some things which your Evangelical friends are always freaking out about because "they're not in the Bible" (at least the way Evangelicals tend to interpret the Bible), but which may sound (within the context of Christianity) fairly plausible to your atheist friends. –DarwinCatholic

  • http://twitter.com/blamer Blamer ..

    put aside the big contentious dispute and talk about how well the rest of the theory stands up, even when you grant the cornerstone premise. This is exactly what Myers, Loftus, and other do when they ask Christians why, if god(s) exist, why they’re so certain that their take on this god is accurate.This ground has already been well-tilled for atheists by the religious. Monotheists of different religions cannot reconcile the essential acts of divine intervention that they attribute to their god. (If that were fertile ground then we'd expect the Abrahamic religions to converge.)So history tells us that even assuming theism, the further claims of Catholicism – including those that bolster its internal consistency – are just not compelling to non-Catholics.

  • http://www.soulsprawl.com Matt DeStefano

    " If the premise being granted is that a God somewhat like the Christian idea of God exists, then one has already granted the possibility that such a God could any number of things."The problem is that Catholics act as if this is an even somewhat settled term. Pick any quality about God you wish: I can find a disagreement between denominations. Any affirmation of one quality or another is going to be denomination specific. In that case, the characteristics of God that likewise make the Catholic tradition seem righteous are the very same characteristics of God that the Catholics abide by in the first place.

  • melior

    While I agree with you in principle about potential usefulness of the internal consistency game (and I loved the brilliantly apt Less Wrong reference!), my experience has been that such good-faith (heh) attempts at engaging with Christian beliefs inevitably break down in practice for the same reason that you identify charitably as the "squishy" nature of the premises.Consider how Turing Test participant Jeannine describes herself: "I am a practicing Roman Catholic, and like New York Times journalist Nicholas Kristof, I believe that the Catholic Church is really two churches: that of the Vatican hierarchy and that of individual believers at the grass roots. I prefer to align myself with the second group." It just torpedoes the whole project and is incredibly frustrating when infallible received dogma suddenly transforms into enlightened personal revelation just in time to evade an internal inconsistency. Yet somehow that doesn't seem to require that appeals to authority be jettisoned as justification for the other premises? It's like wrestling a balloon filled with Jello, or trying to regulate Wall Street.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/03615608336736450543 Hendy

    @Blamer:,—| So history tells us that even assuming theism, | the further claims of Catholicism – including | those that bolster its internal consistency -| are just not compelling to non-Catholics.`—Exactly. Furthermore, what additional proof is required to demonstrate that no religion puts forth any verifiable claims whatsoever than the fact that they have not converged to a single form of theism since, say, 1500 AD (Luther).I can't fathom any other situation in which mutually exclusive ideologies all specifying insanely intricate details and doctrines about the invisible reality that surrounds us can go along, side-by-side, without anyone being slightly disrupted by it all.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/17467675780212523820 Brandon Jaloway

    Invisible Dragon in GarageWhat if it were more like an invisible foundation on the whole house? What if every home owner claimed that there was a foundation under their house but no one, except certian privilaged few, ever "saw" the actual foundation itself? What if there were great debates about the nature of the foundation? What if even tribes of people who had no prevous contact with the "civilized" world were discovered to believe in some kind of foundation? What if all people of all generations of all cultures were discovered to believe in some kind of foundation? What if the only people who doubted the existence of some kind of foundation were, for the most part small groups of intellectuals, whose arguments most peoples of the world wrote off because they thought it was "obvious that there must be some kind of foundation."

  • Anonymous

    The fact that is so commonly overlooked in the differences between atheists and christians is that, by and large, atheists have thought a lot more about the problem than christians.Sure, you can find your occasional Andre Sullivan who is a christian intellectual, but 99% of everyone I've ever known that was christian just never thought about it that much. All those Christians include family and friends of my entire childhood and the younger version of myself.Pretending that Christians, in general, think as much about the existence of God is just plain wrong, despite how much so many people want that notion to be true.

  • ministerial

    "Pretending that Christians, in general, think as much about the existence of God is just plain wrong…"It's reasonable to think hard on the existence of God and become a theist.It's *much* less reasonable to think ones way to Christianity.There are just too many internal contradictions,and the god on display is too awful for most thinking people to actively choose.Rather, most US Christians are indoctrinated at an early age.It's extremely hard to sever beliefs ground into a child's brain over and over.I've seen some *very* intelligent folks bend logic till it breaks in defense of their parents & churches' brainwashing.I don't use the term "brainwashing" lightly.I strongly suspect, that void of any early religious "education,"most American theists would hearken to Buddhism, Unitarianism, or a private personal doctrine-free theology.We'd all be a lot better off if that was the case.

  • http://technologeekery.blogspot.com Hendy

    Meandered here via your recent posts on Feser and really liked this post. I think I saw it when it first posted, but skipped/skimmed it. I re-read it and liked it a lot. I posted a link/comments on my blog. Thanks for the post. I very much agree with your proposition.

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