Wednesday, October 24, 2012

The "Good and Intelligent People Disagree" Argument

This is an adaptation of a paper I will be reading Friday at the Intermountain Philosophy Conference at the University of Utah.

Agnosticism is a dominant viewpoint in modern America.  I would define "Agnosticism" as the view that objective truth cannot be known (at least with anything close to conclusiveness) in matters of religion and deep philosophy due to a lack of objective evidence for any religious or deep philosophical claim being generally available.  The number of people associating more explicitly with some kind of Agnostic label (including the label of "none") is increasing, as has been shown by a number of polls (so far as such things are conveying accurate information).  But aside from this more explicit sort of identification, Agnosticism dominates the minds of many implicitly.  I don't have time here to build a case for this claim, but it is evident in the attitudes and the language of many people (both at a grass-roots level as well as in higher-up academic and political settings) when it comes to talking about and relating in general to matters of religion and deep philosophy.

One of the ways in which this fact about our culture shows through is in the popularity of an argument I call the "Good and Intelligent People Disagree" argument (or GIPD, for short).  This argument seems to be the main, lynchpin argument for an Agnostic point of view in matters of religion and philosophy among a very large number of people.  It has come up in just about every conversation I have ever had regarding the truth of any controversial religious claim.  Those who make the argument almost never recognize it as a distinct argument or label it explicitly.  Usually it is just stated as an obvious fact to which no objection could be conceivable and passed over quickly.  It seems to function as an unquestioned assumption in the minds of many which has the tendency to make the Agnostic viewpoint seem like an unquestionable truism.

I think that it is helpful, in order to bring these kinds of unquestioned assumptions up to the surface and subject them to critical analysis, to give them an explicit label.  And therefore I have done so.  I am not aware of anyone else ever labeling this exact argument, though I would be surprised to find that it has never been done anywhere before, as the argument is so ubiquitous (and irritating to non-Agnostics!).


So what is the GIPD argument?  It goes basically like this:  "There is widespread disagreement on matters of religion and deep philosophy.  If there was enough objective evidence generally available to people so that the truth could be known in these matters, there would be far more of a general consensus.  Therefore, the only reasonable conclusion we can draw from the lack of such a consensus is that there is not enough objective evidence to know with any conclusiveness what is really true in such matters."

I consider the GIPD argument to be one of a number of arguments I have labeled together as shortcut arguments.  Shortcut arguments are arguments that try to reach a conclusion without doing the necessary work to get there.  They are lazy arguments that rely on superficial appearances and gut reactions that are not carefully examined with more precision.  See the hyperlink in this paragraph for more examples of this kind of argument.

As with all shortcut arguments, a closer examination of the GIPD argument causes it a lot of trouble.  I want to provide such a closer examination by attacking the argument on two main fronts:  1. First, I want to show that the GIPD argument is both self-refuting and that, if successful, it refutes the very Agnostic position it is designed to support.  2. Secondly, I will show that the GIPD argument begs the question by resting on certain unquestioned and dubious assumptions about the nature and tendencies of human beings.  Once these assumptions are questioned and shown to lack support in the evidence, the basic thrust of the GIPD argument is fatally undermined.


First of all, the GIPD argument is self-contradictory.  I wonder if you can anticipate what I am going to say here.  The GIPD argument says that when there is widespread disagreement over a matter, the only reasonable explanation of this disagreement is that there is not enough objective evidence available to know what is true.  Well, as we look at the various items out there over which there is widespread disagreement, guess what we find among them:  GIPD!  Perhaps I should pause here for a moment and let that sink in. . . . Good, I can see from some of the smiles on your faces that you've gotten the point.  Since there exists widespread disagreement over GIPD (all non-Agnostics reject the argument as fallacious--though the conversation seldom becomes explicit because the argument is seldom explicitly articulated), GIPD itself tells us that we have no reason to accept GIPD as being a good argument.  Well, if GIPD doesn't think itself a worthwhile argument to consider, I am happy to go along with its judgment here!

Also, GIPD opposes the very position it has been created specially to support: Agnosticism.  GIPD is designed to be a weapon to shoot at any non-Agnostic view when it rears its ugly head and makes any claims obnoxious to Agnostics.   So, for example, if a Muslim were to claim that it is objectively true and can be known to be true that the Qur'an is the Word of God, the Agnostic response will often be, "Well, you may think so, but the Christians think their holy book is the Word of God, and the Hindus think their holy books are the Word of God, etc.  So therefore you have no basis for your claim!"  (You can see how the GIPD argument is usually articulated, not explicitly as an argument but as an apparently obvious observation that can't be gainsaid.  "If there are lots of contradicting claims about holy books, well, that just must mean that each claim is roughly equally valid and thus all are equally worthless.  What else could the existence of contradictory claims mean?")

However, Agnostic users of the GIPD argument (as if there were any other kind) generally fail to see that the argument can be turned just as easily against their own Agnostic position.  If Christian claims are subject to skepticism on the grounds that lots of people disagree with them, and Islamic claims are subject to skepticism on the same grounds, and Hindu claims, and Buddhist claims, etc. . . . well, then, why not Agnostic claims?  Agnosticism itself is widely disagreed about.  So, according to GIPD, we don't have any good basis to believe the Agnostic position any more than any other controversial position.  So when an Agnostic claims, "There is simply not enough objective evidence available to conclude objectively that any particular religious claims are true," a non-Agnostic could simply reply, using the GIPD argument, "Well, you may think so, but the Christians think otherwise, as do the Muslims, the Hindus, the Buddhists, etc.  So therefore you have no basis for your claim!"

GIPD is one of those all-purpose arguments.  It slices, it dices, it refutes every single position and argument in existence, including itself and any argument or position it is used to defend!  Which makes it completely worthless!  One of the hallmark tendencies of the use of fallacious arguments is that they are often used selectively and arbitrarily rather than consistently.  And that is the case here.  GIPD gets turned on whenever some unwanted non-Agnostic argument or position comes by, and then is shut off again quickly enough to avoid it being turned on its user and on itself.


The other major problem with the GIPD argument is that it is a question-begging argument.  I label it thus because it rests its case on certain assumptions regarding human beings and human tendencies which are themselves dubious and disputed and need to be subject to critical evaluation.  These dubious assumptions cause the GIPD argument to ignore alternative conclusions that can plausibly be drawn from the fact of widespread disagreement.

GIPD makes a lot of sense as an argument (besides it being self-refuting and all-purpose, as discussed above) if we assume the following description to be true of the generality of human beings:  "Human beings are generally competent, honest, and successful truth-seekers in matters of religion and deep philosophy.  They have a general tendency to follow the evidence wherever it leads, no matter what the personal consequences to themselves might be--whether there be negative social consequences, financial consequences, consequences in terms of prestige and dignity, or comfort, etc.  They would never come to a wrong conclusion motivated by a desire to avoid an alternate uncomfortable conclusion.  They would never cling to an old position or argument out of familiarity.  They would never avoid a conclusion because of feared social consequences, such as being thought wicked or stupid or being rejected by friends, family, employers, entire social communities, etc.  They would never cling to an opinion for financial reasons, or for reasons of pride, or bias, or apathy, or reputation, or opportunities that come with it, etc.  And they are are generally very competent and successful truth seekers.  They are all generally well skilled and practiced in precise and careful critical thinking in religious and deep philosophical matters, and never come to conclusions due to sloppiness or carelessness of thought, or irrational habit.  And they can be generally relied upon to come to the right conclusions.  They hardly ever get confused, or simply make errors in reasoning that lead to incorrect conclusions.  You can be pretty confident that if you ask a religious or a deep philosophical question to most of the people on earth, you will get a well thought-out, well-reasoned, competent, successful, and fully honest answer!"

Perhaps you think that I have just provided an accurate view of the general tendencies of human nature.  If you do, I have a bridge in Brooklyn I'd like to sell you, real cheap!  : )  For my part, let me understate my position by saying that I am a tad bit skeptical that this is what most people tend to be like when it comes to religious and philosophical matters!  And yet this general picture is required by the GIPD argument, because the GIPD argument assumes that if there was simply enough objective evidence available to people so that it was possible for people in general to find out the truth, then we should expect the generality of the human race to congregate around the truth and reject error, so that there would no longer be widespread disagreement.  That assumption is the entire basis of the argument.  It is on the basis of this assumption that the argument claims that the existence of widespread disagreement can only reasonably be explained by there being a lack of objective evidence available.

But in reality, there are lots of other possible reasons for widespread disagreement, because people are not always motivated by a pure desire for truth at all costs when they come to conclusions, and they do not always learn to practice the sorts of thinking skills that are required to be good at actually arriving at truth instead of error.  (Not to mention that the best and most honest thinkers on earth are quite capable of just being confused and wrong sometimes!)  These facts fatally undermine the GIPD argument.  The argument depends on there being no other plausible reasons for widespread disagreement besides lack of objectively available truth; but this is clearly not the case, or at least there is no reason to believe it to be the case.

There are many different views out there about human nature (which means that we can't know which of them are true!  Just kidding.).  The GIPD argument, as we have seen, requires an incredibly naive optimistic view of human nature.  But some perspectives think far less of the natural good tendencies of human nature.  The Christian worldview, for example, holds that the entire human race exists since the Fall of man at the beginning of human history in a state of wickedness, under the curse and wrath of God.  We Christians hold that the natural tendency of human beings is not to be honest and competent truth seekers in religious matters, but rather to be haters of truth and to run from it and invent for ourselves lies that better suit our desires.  By nature since the Fall, we humans are bent on going our own ways in rebellion against reality and the God of all reality.  The Apostle Paul describes our natural state this way in Romans 1:18-25 (NKJV):

For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who suppress the truth in unrighteousness, because what may be known of God is manifest in them, for God has shown it to them. For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even His eternal power and Godhead, so that they are without excuse, because, although they knew God, they did not glorify Him as God, nor were thankful, but became futile in their thoughts, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Professing to be wise, they became fools, and changed the glory of the incorruptible God into an image made like corruptible man—and birds and four-footed animals and creeping things. Therefore God also gave them up to uncleanness, in the lusts of their hearts, to dishonor their bodies among themselves, who exchanged the truth of God for the lie, and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever. Amen.

According to Christianity, this is the natural state of man since the Fall, and it is only by the grace of God in Christ that anyone is restored out of this condition.  Now, if this is the actual condition of humanity, we would certainly not expect the GIPD argument to be reliable!  Therefore, the GIPD argument begs the question by assuming without argument a controversial view of human nature which contradicts other views of human nature, such as the Christian view.

In fact, I would go even further here and claim that the existence of widespread disagreement, ironically enough, is actually far more consistent with something like a Christian view of human nature than it is with the sort of human nature assumed by an Agnostic who is using GIPD.  If it really is so that human beings tend to follow the available evidence where it leads and to gather in agreement and consensus around the truth, and if it really is so that Agnosticism is the viewpoint to which the evidence leads, then why do we not see the generality of the human race gather in consensus around Agnosticism?  That's exactly what we should see if the GIPD assumptions are right.  So, actually, the Agnostic GIPD position does not predict widespread disagreement on religious matters!  Rather, it predicts a general consensus around Agnosticism!  So the existence of widespread disagreement is so far from being a confirmation of GIPD Agnosticism that it is actually strong evidence against GIPD Agnosticism!  On the other hand, what would you expect the world to look like if it was full of a large number of diverse groups of people who don't really care about ultimate truth and are in fact opposed to it, who are far more interested in living in a worldview of their own invention that suits their desires regardless of whether it matches up with reality?  It seems to me it might look like . . . the world we live in!  We would expect widespread disagreement on religious matters, because while truth is one, individuals and cultures are very different from each other, and different worldviews suit different sets of values and preferences.  John Calvin called the human heart an idol factory.  Well, what do you get when you have a world full of diverse people and cultures all supporting their own preferred idol factories?  You get widespread disagreement on religious matters!  So the existence of widespread disagreement does not support either GIPD or Agnosticism, but instead points to Christianity (or any other worldview that holds a similar view of human nature).


There is one more issue I ought to address before I close.  If objective evidence is available or at least might be available in matters of religion and deep philosophy, then why is there a lack of consensus in these areas when there is far more of a consensus in other areas, particularly in areas having to do with things that are empirically observable or scientifically testable?  For example, there is not widespread disagreement (though there is some!) regarding, say, the existence of giraffes.  There is not widespread disagreement over the boiling point of water, the capital of Idaho, the number of moons orbiting the earth, or that the American Revolution actually occurred.  Why is that?  Why is there widespread disagreement over the existence of God and the truth of Christianity, but not over these other kinds of things?  This requires an explanation.

Of course, the Agnostic explanation reflected in the GIPD argument will be that the difference is that there is sufficient objective evidence available on the boiling point of water, etc., but not in matters of religion.  That is certainly one possibility to be considered.  But, again, the GIPD line of reasoning begs the question by failing to consider other reasonable possibilities.  For one, we can point out the difference between more abstract claims vs. claims that are more immediately empirical and have more immediate practical consequences in life.  If you don't think that God exists, you can get by fairly well in life in terms of being able to live what would generally be considered a normal life.  On the other hand, if you start denying things like the existence of giraffes or, even more practically, the existence of your house or your best friend, you are very quickly going to run into serious disruptions in your ability to live a normal life.  This is not necessarily because there is less objective evidence available with regard to the existence of God than there is for giraffes or your best friend; it may simply be that some matters simply present themselves more forcefully and immediately before one's attention than others, making it harder to be wrong about them.

I've never had any arguments with anyone over the existence of giraffes.  But I have had quite a number of arguments with people over whether or not 2+2=4.  If you're surprised at this, well, just get yourself in the habit of asking people (particularly in a certain skeptical tone of voice) on various occasions whether or not we can really know if 2+2=4 and I imagine you will eventually have this fascinating experience.  Now, why is it that people will argue far more readily over whether or not 2+2=4 than they will over the existence of giraffes?  Is it because there is less existence for the claim that "2+2=4" than there is for the claim that "giraffes exist"?  No.  Actually, the reverse is true.  The existence of giraffes is not as immediately evident as the fact that 2+2=4.  Giraffes might simply appear to exist, really being all-sensory illusions projected by extremely dedicated aliens with advanced technology and too much time on their hands.  On the other hand, there can be no distinction between the appearance of 2+2=4 and 2+2 actually =4, because the appearance is simply the thing itself, since we are talking not about an illusion vs. an actual thing but simply an abstract concept.  So we ought to be more certain, in this sense, that 2+2=4 than we are that giraffes exist.

Another factor that needs to be taken into account here is that matters of religion and deep philosophy tend to deal with issues that are far more important to people than many empirical matters, such as how many moons orbit the earth or the capital of Idaho.  If you find out you are wrong with regard to the capital of Idaho (what is the capital of Idaho, anyway?  Is it Boise?), it is not likely to devastate your life or change it significantly.  On the other hand, changing one's religion or basic worldview is typically a very significant and often traumatic event with all sorts of personal and social consequences.  So, knowing human nature (even without Christian assumptions), we would expect far less resistance to be given to new ideas and calls to accept certain conclusions with regard to things like which cities are capital cities than things like which religion is the true religion.  So much more is at stake, we would expect greater diversity and less consensus to be maintained.

So it very well may be the case that the reason why we have greater consensus in some areas and less in others has nothing to do with the amount of objective evidence available and more to do with other factors, such as those mentioned above.  Therefore, this fact cannot be used, without further argumentation, to conclude that objective evidence is not available in religious and deep philosophical matters.


So the GIPD argument turns out to be a bad argument.  It is self-contradictory; it contradicts the position it is intended to support; and it begs the question by assuming without argument controversial and dubious views of human nature while ignoring alternative plausible explanations of the data.  It therefore cannot do the work required of it to support an Agnostic position regarding deep philosophical and religious matters.  Refuting GIPD, of course, does not imply that Agnosticism itself is refuted.  There are other arguments for Agnosticism that would need to be refuted as well, the refutation of which would take us beyond the scope of this paper.  However, inasmuch as the GIPD argument tends to function for many Agnostics as a key argument supporting their reasons for being Agnostic, its refutation should have the tendency to call Agnosticism into question and to open minds up to the possibility that more may be available to know than many of us had previously considered.

And by the way, the capital of Idaho is indeed Boise.  I looked it up on Wikipedia.  And I don't care if you agree or not.


Aaron said...

Good article. But isn't it at least conceivable that, at some future time, agnosticism will become the predominate worldview? If this ever happened, wouldn't it undermine your first argument against GIPD?

Mark Hausam said...

If Agnosticism were to become the near consensus of the human race, then you are right, GIPD would no longer attack Agnosticism. In fact, GIPD would disappear as an argument, for its essential premise is widespread disagreement on ultimate matters.

Of course, widespread agreement is not necessarily an indicator that a position is true. In the Middle Ages in Europe, Christianity was nearly universal, and yet Agnostics today won't say that would have proved that Christianity was true. There can be other reasons for widespread agreement besides truth. If Agnosticism were to become nearly universal, it would not prove Agnosticism to be true either.

I've been planning to eventually write another article, probably to be called "The Good and Intelligent People Agree (GIPA) Argument," which will deal with that different fallacy.