Should Tyler Cowen Believe in God? – New York Times (blog)

Posted: July 7, 2017 at 1:56 am

A little while ago the prolific and intellectually-promiscuous Tyler Cowen solicited the strongest arguments for the existence of God, and then with some prodding followed up with a post outlining some of his reasons for not being a believer. I cant match Cowens distinctive mix of depth and pith, but I thought Id take the liberty of responding to some of his reasons in adialogic style, with my responses edited in between some of his thoughts. Nothing in here should be construed as an attempt to make the Best Argument for God, and the results are rather long and probably extremely self-indulgent, so consider yourself forewarned. But here goes.


Cowen:Not long ago I outlined what I considered to be the best argument for God, and how origin accounts inevitably seem strange to us; I also argued against some of the presumptive force behind scientific atheism. Yet still I do not believe, so why not?

I have a few reasons: We can distinguish between strange and remain truly strange possibilities for origins, and strange and then somewhat anthropomorphized origin stories. Most religions fall into the latter category, all the more so for Western religions. I see plenty of evidence that human beings anthropomorphize to an excessive degree, and also place too much weight on social information (just look at how worked up they get over social media), so I stick with the strange and remain truly strange options. I dont see those as ruling out theism, but at the end of the day it is more descriptively apt to say I do not believe, rather than asserting belief

The true nature of reality is so strange, Im not sure God or theism is well-defined, at least as can be discussed by human beings. That fact should not lead you to militant atheism (I also cant define subatomic particles), but still it pushes me toward an I dont believe attitude more than belief. I find it hard to say I believe in something that I feel in principle I cannot define, nor can anyone else.

Me:Perhaps, but since you raise the strangeness of subatomic particles you might consider a third possibility for thinking about origins: Alongside strange and remain truly strange and strange and then somewhat anthropomorphized, there might be a category that you could call anthropomorphic/accessible on the surface and then somewhat stranger the deeper down you go.

This often seems to be the nature of physical reality as we experience and explore it. When we work on the surface of things, the everyday mechanics of physical cause and effect, we find a lot of clear-seeming laws and comprehensible principles of order. When we go down a level, to where the physical ladders (seem to) start, or up a level, to our own hard-to-fathom experiences of consciousness, we seem to brush up against paradox and mystery. So up to a point the universe yields to our fleshbound consciousness, our evolved-from-apes reasoning abilities, in genuinely extraordinary ways, enabling us to understand, predict, invent and master and explore. But then there are also depths and heights where our scientific efforts seem to trail off, fall short, or end up describing things that seem to us contradictory or impossible.

And by way of analogy it might be that there is a similar pattern in religion and theology. The anthropomorphizing tendency that makes you suspicious, the ascription of human attributes to God and the tendency of the divine to manifest itself in humanoid (if ambiguously so) forms, the role of angels and demons and djinn and demi-godsand saints and so forth in many religious traditions all of this might just reflect a too-pat, too-anthopomorphic, and therefore made-up view of Who or What brought the world into being, Who or What sustains it. But alternatively and plausibly, I think it might represent the ways in which supernaturalrealities are made accessible to human perception,even as their ultimate nature remains beyond our capacities to fully grasp.

Which is, in fact, something that many religious traditions take for granted(the Catholic Church, for instance, does not teach that angels are really splendid androgynes with wings), something thats part ofthe architecture of ordinary belief (most people who habitually visualize God as an old man with a white beard would not so define him if pressed), and a big part of what the adepts of religion, mystics and theologians, tend to stress in their attempts to describe and define the nature of God.

Note, too, that this stress on surface accessibility and deep mysteryis not something invented by clever moderns trying to save the phenomenon of religion from its critics. It is present from ancient times in every major religious tradition, providing a substantial ground of overlap between them David Bentley Hart is good on this, in a book that offers a partial answer to the definitional issue you raise and in Western monotheism it shows up in such not-exactly-obscure places as the Ten Commandments (no graven images for a reason) and the doctrine of the Trinity. (You will not find something that better fits the bill of strange and remains truly strange than what the Fathers of the Church came up with to define the Godhead.) Or, for that matter, in the story of Jesus of Nazareth, who in the gospel narrativesis quite literally an anthropomorphic God, and then after his resurrection becomes, not a simple superman but something stranger sometimes recognizable and sometimes not, physical but transcending the physical, ghostly and yet flesh whose attributes the gospel writers report on in a somewhat amazed style without attempting to circumscribe or technically define.

Again, anthropomorphism is the initial layer, the first mechanism of revelation. The strangeness you understandably think is necessary for plausibility, given our limitations, lies above or down beneath.

Of course the analogy to Newtonian/Einsteinian physics breaks down in various ways, not least of which is that there is often a basic agreement among scientists about the first layer, the understandable and predictable and lawbound aspectsof the physical world, whereas the religious cannot agree upon (or conduct laboratory tests to prove) which anthropomorphic supernatural revelations are trustworthy and should control practice and theological commitment. Thus specific religious belief, as opposed to a general openness to the idea of God, tends to beeither intensely personal, culturally-mediated, probabilistic, or some combination thereof in a way that believing in the laws ofphysics is not. But that brings us to your next point

Cowen: Religious belief has a significant heritable aspect, as does atheism. That should make us all more skeptical about what we think we know about religious truth (the same is true for politics, by the way). I am not sure this perspective favors atheist over theist, but I do think it favors I dont believe over I believe. At the very least, it whittles down the specificity of what I might say I believe in.

I am struck by the frequency with which people believe in the dominant religions of their society or the religion of their family upbringing, perhaps with some modification. (If you meet a Wiccan, dont you jump to the conclusion that they are strange? Or how about a person who believes in an older religion that doesnt have any modern cult presence at all? How many such people are there?)

This narrows my confidence in the judgment of those who believe, since I see them as social conformists to a considerable extent. Again, I am not sure this helps atheism either (contemporary atheists also slot into some pretty standard categories, and are not generally free thinkers), but it is yet another net nudge away from I believe and toward I do not believe. Im just not that swayed by a phenomenon based on social conformity so strongly.

Me: Okay, butas you note the conformity problem exists with every human school of thought and inquiry, every moral and political theory of what is good and what should be condemned. We are always creatures of our time and place and parentage, and converts of any kind not only religious, but political and intellectual are by definition exceptional.

Yetthe cultural contingency of all beliefs does not prevent people from reasonably holdingfairly strong views about a lot of non-religious issues. So its not clear to me why it should requireagnosticism as opposed to humility in belief in religious matters either.

For instance: Does the fact that my heritage and cultural context inclines me to regard human life as sacred mean that I mustretreat to agnosticism about the moral status of the Shoah? (Nazis even more than Wiccans are strange these days, but that doesnt prove that anti-Nazism is just so much cultural prejudice.) Does the bias instilled by the fact they were mostly born and raised in a commercial republicmean that the faculty of George Mason should cease evangelizing on behalfof free-market economics? Yes, moral theory is unlike economics which is unlike theology, but in each case we have plenty of examples of people converted from one view to another by reasoned argument and so long as conversion is possible, the fact that most people dont convert is hardly a knock-out blow against the potential truth of one argument or another, and the value of holding at least provisional commitments.

Moreover just as arguments about moral theory and economics often work because they proceed from a basic conceptual common ground, so too do arguments in religion. Even if choosing a specific religion is a knotty problem, the various religions do have a lot of shared beliefs that supernatural realities exist, at least, and then beyond that commonalities in their ideas of God, and then beyond that in many cases a shared belief in certain revelations.

Your example of Wicca and my own Christianity are in some senses particularly far apart, but in other ways less so, since a Christian might reasonably regard Wiccan beliefs as not so much false as dangerous, touching on realities that might be real but are best left unexplored either because they might be demonic or because they are simply unseely, to borrow the language of the folklorists and poets. The Wiccan, meanwhile, might well have some sort of revisionist Jungian reading of the Christian gospels that incorporates them into her own cosmological picture. Overall, I do not find the Wiccan world-picture nearly as strange and implausible as I find eliminative materialism, and its perfectly possible to have a fruitful Christian-Wiccan argument even if we might have persecuted one another in the past just as its possible to have a fruitful argument between a constitutional monarchist and a republican even though the French Revolution wasa bloody affair.

So theidea that religious controversy is simply a clash of instilled habits, while certainly often true, need not be necessarily true, and (again as with other non-scientificquestions) isnt true when serious people debate the issues in good faith.

I would also add that in the present cultural context most of the believers that you, a professor and blogger, are likely to end up arguing with will be people whose religion is notat all simply an inheritance but rather something reasoned toward and held in defiance of intellectual convention, whereas your agnosticism is presently such an academic commonplace as to be its own form of conformism. It seems to me that by those premises you shouldnarrow your confidence in that agnosticism, and give religious commitment a slightly longer look.

Cowen: I do accept that religion has net practical benefits for both individuals and societies, albeit with some variance. That is partly where the pressures for social conformity come from. I am a strong Straussian when it comes to religion, and overall wish to stick up for the presence of religion in social debate, thus some of my affinities with say Ross Douthat and David Brooks on many issues.

Me: Ill take the affinities I can get though one possible religious response would be to reject this one, on the grounds that (to rip off Flannery OConnor) if its just socially usefulthen to hell with it. But thats not my take; instead, I think the fact that religion has net practical benefits (with some variance as you say!), and not only practical in some strict utilitarian sense but also aesthetic (that religiously-infusedsocieties produce better art and architecture is of course technically a de gustibus issue but come on, its true), is itself suggestive evidence for the claim thatreligious beliefs point to something real. One can come up with plenty of other explanations, but still, a harmony between religious ideas, human flourishing and great aesthetic achievement iscertainly consonant with the idea that we are restless until we rest in Him. And in a similar vein the claims from atheists that if we could pinpoint the evolutionary origins of religious belief we would somehow explain it all away always strike me as strange, because most evolved features of human nature evolved the way they did because they were adapted to some actual reality and why shouldnt the religious instinct be the same? But on to your next point

Cowen: I am frustrated by the lack of Bayesianism in most of the religious belief I observe. Ive never met a believer who asserted: Im really not sure here. But I think Lutheranism is true with p = .018, and the next strongest contender comes in only at .014, so call me Lutheran. The religious people Ive known rebel against that manner of framing, even though during times of conversion they may act on such a basis.

I dont expect all or even most religious believers to present their views this way, but hardly any of them do. That in turn inclines me to think they are using belief for psychological, self-support, and social functions. Nothing wrong with that, says the strong Straussian! But again, it wont get me to belief.

Me:Well sometimes believers dont present things this way because their religion is, as you say above, an inheritance rather than a chosen thing,and so they arent inclined to be Bayesian about it for the same reason that the average patriotic American doesnt give you percentages when you ask what system of government is best. And sometimes they dont because the practice of religion encourages a quest for a personal relationship with God, and once youve embarked on that kind of quest after perhaps making a calculation before you leap, as your point about conversion concedes you cant always be worrying aboutthe percentage odds that youre making a mistake. (There are similar issues in romantic love!)

But theres also plenty of apologetic literature, some of it crude and some of it sophisticated, that makes what amount to implicitly odds-based arguments: Everything from Pascals wager to C.S. Lewiss lunatic/liar/Lord trilemma falls into that broad category, and authors of varying religious traditions, past and present, are constantly making arguments for why their ideas are a better intellectual bet than Muhammeds or Luthers or Joseph Smiths or the Buddhas or whomevers. Indeed its onlyin contemporary liberal circles that these sort of arguments are considered ill-mannered and impolite which, again, might narrow your confidence that the agnosticism assumed in those circles is held for genuinely good, well-thought-through and well-defended reasons.

Also, as it happens, because Im a weirdo I mentally play this kind of Bayesian game with all myself fairly often. For instance, when people ask me what effect Pope Franciss maneuvering around divorce and remarriage might have on my confidence in Catholicisms truth, the answer is thata big enough shift would lead me to downgrade my belief in Catholicisms exclusive truth claims relative to other Christian confessions, and raise the odds that there simply is no One True Church and all the various confessions have pieces of the garment Jesus and the apostles left for us. Whether thinking along those lines is wise or pious is an open question, but oddsmaking definitely forms part of my mental religious architecture. And ifwatching me play the game might help convertyou(I doubt it, but Ill risk the embarrassment), Ill play it at the very end of our dialogue but first lets take up your last two points.

Cowen: I do take the William James arguments about personal experience of God seriously, and I recommend hisThe Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Natureto everybody its one of the best books period. But these personal accounts contradict each other in many cases, we know at least some of them are wrong or delusional, and overall I think the capacity of human beings to believe things some would call it self-deception but that term assumes a neutral, objective base more than is warranted here is quite strong. Presumably a Christian believes that pagan accounts of the gods are incorrect, and vice versa; I say they are probably both right in their criticisms of the other.

Me: My sense of things is that mystical experience tracks the pattern I noted above: Theres a commonality at the level of the ineffable, where mystics Western and Eastern, Christian and Sufi tend to sound somewhat alike in their descriptions of what they cant describe, and then theres diversity and contradiction when it comes to the more anthropomorphized encounters, where angels or the Virgin Mary or the God Krishna show up to deliver a vision or a message.

This diversity and contradiction is a good reason to be wary of founding your religious beliefs on any single persons experience or message, and it might be a case against dogmatism in religion, period. But I think even if you dont find any particular revelation convincing enough to let it control how you interpret the entire cosmos, a more parsimonious explanation than mass delusion and self-deception could still lead you reasonably to the forms of religious syncretism that were common in the pre-Christian world, to the pagan traditions that treat the gods of polytheism as personalized and localized manifestations of the Godhead, or to pantheism or gnosticism in their various forms. We see through a glass darkly, but the fact that we are all catching different glimpses of divinity should make us suspect that while the differences counsel humility, there really is something there to see.

And I would add that as a Christian I dont regard the pagan accounts of the gods as precisely wrong so much as partial, mythologized (often consciously and deliberately), and incomplete. There is nothing in Christian cosmology that precludes the Christian God manifesting Himself partially in non-Christian societies through mystical encounters that are experienced and interpreted in line with pre-existing beliefs, and indeed Christians (especially in the Catholic tradition) have in many case appropriated pagan traditions by treating them, in part, as providentially-intended preparations for Christianity.

At the same time Christians also believe as a matter of faith that there are other spiritual powers in the universe besides the Triune God, which allows for the belief that pagan accounts might reflect angelic or demonic encounters. And finally there is also nothing in Christian cosmology that precludes the possibility of other forces besides angels and demons. In the early Old Testament its quite a while before the Israelites discover, as it were, that the God speaking to them is different in kind rather than degree from other gods; nobody knows who the Nephilim were; belief in ghosts is as common in Christian cultures as in others; medieval and early modern Europeans often treated the realm of faerie as a kind of third space, a nonaligned spiritual territory, and in some cases explicitly re-read and rewrote their ancestors pagan traditions as faerie stories.

These kind of attempted reconciliations are obviously unnecessary if you dont accept the Christian revelation. My point is just that even if you do, the possible validity of a range of diverse and contradictory-seeming religious encounters doesnt have to go out the window. Indeed even when encounters happen completely under the metaphysical canopy of Catholic belief, the church itself can still end up concluding as it seems to be with the mystics of Medjugorje that some of them are really heaven-sent and some are not, that the same person or group of people can have a real vision and then subsequently a false or made-up or misinterpreted one. Even where God seems to be breaking in or speaking unusually directly, the through-a-glass-darkly rule still applies.

Cowen: I see the entire matter of origins as so strange that the transcendental argument carries little weight with me if there is no God, then everything is permitted!We dont have enough understanding of God, or the absence of God, to deal with such claims.In any case, the existence of God is no guarantee that such problems are overcome, or if it were such a guarantee, you wouldnt be able to know that.

Me: This seems like an overstated response to an overstated claim. I agree, there are conceptions of the Absolute that would justify all sorts of (what we would consider) atrocities and conceptions of His non-existence that still persuade people to be moral realists rather than ax-wielding Raskolnikovs. But consider a more modest version of the argument: Namely, that the Judeo-Christian conception of the nature of God and the modern small-l liberal consensus on human rights and moral wrongs cohere together fairly well, as a picture of how the universe and moral universals interconnect, whereas that same liberal consensus is a much poorer fit with the de facto atheism and materialism of many of its present-day proponents.

I think this modest claim is simply, well, true: Schemes for a Darwinian ethics generally have a brazen artificiality to them when they arent leaping merrily toward tooth-and-claw, might-makes-right conclusions; in the genealogy of modern morals the Christian worldview is a progenitor of rights-based liberalism in a fairly straightforward and logically-consistent way; and the alternative syntheses are a bit more forced, a bit dodgier, and a bit prone to suddenly giving way, as the major 20th century attempts at genuinely post-Christian and post-liberal societies conspicuously did, to screaming hellscapes that everyone these days considers simply evil.

I concede that a worldviews coherence doesnt prove anything definitive about its truth. You can certainly preserve a preference for human rights or any other feature of the contemporary consensus on non-theological grounds. But in the quest for truth, coherence still seems like a useful signpost, and looking for its presence still seems like a decent-enough place to start.

Cowen: Add all that up and I just dont believe.Furthermore, I find it easy not to believe. It doesnt stress me, and I dont feel a resulting gap or absence in my life. That I strongly suspect is for genetic reasons, not because of some intellectual argument I or others have come up with. But there you go, the deconstruction of my own belief actually pushes me somewhat further into it.

Me: This is weak sauce, Tyler. Youve just complained about the ethno-cultural pattern in belief and why it makes you more skeptical of religious truth claims. If you think you have a genetic bias toward a happy agnosticism, shouldnt that sort of deconstruction make you more intellectually skeptical of your own irreligious conclusions, not less especially since, again, agnosticism in our own era comes with higher social status in the academic circles you inhabit than does actual religious commitment? The world is very strange, Im comfortable leaving it at that is not a conclusion you would accept in the debates to which you are personally-cum-genetically predisposed. Doesnt your willingness to accept it on this question, one whose great importance I hope you would be willing to concede, seems a touch what word should I reach for ah, perhaps complacent? Arent you manifesting the very vice you just spent a book critiquing, however gently, in your fellow Western Brahmins? Why not be the change you seek?

As I admitted above, the game that a man of your Bayesian temperament would need to play to get to some limited form of religious commitment might seem a little ridiculous or embarrassing or flippant. But as I promised, Ill play it now myself.

What Im looking for when I gamble on a world-picture is something that makes sense of the four major features of existence that give rise to religious questions the striking fact of cosmic order, our distinctive consciousness, our strong moral sense and thirst for justice and the persistent varieties of supernatural experience. The various forms of materialism strike me as very weak on all four counts, and the odds that what Thomas Nagel called the materialist neo-Darwinian conception of nature is true therefore seem quite low. All these numbers will be a little arbitrary, but for the sake of the game Ill set the probability that a hard materialism accurately describes reality at 2 percent (and I think Im being generous there).

So what does? Well, if you decide treat every religious revelation as essentially equally plausible or implausible and decline to choose between them, the best world-picture candidates are either a form of classical theism as it would have been understood by most pre-modern thinkers and continues to be understood by many theologians today (again, read David Bentley Hart for a recent and compelling case), or else a form of pantheism or panentheism or panpsychism in which God/consciousness/the universe are in some sense overlapping categories, and all spiritual/supernatural experiences are partial and personal and culturally mediated glimpses of a unity.

Both of these possibilities seem to have more explanatory power across my four categories than does, say, a hard deism (which makes the varieties of religious experience a lot harder to explain) or a dualism or a gnosticism (both of which seem a little unparsimonious, and also somewhat poor fits for the data of religious experience) or a literalist polytheism (which begs too many questions about cosmic order, which is why philosophically-serious polytheists often tend to be pantheists or classical theists at bottom). And the latter possibility, some sort of pantheism, seems to be where a lot of post-Christians who are too sensible or too experienced to accept a stringent atheism are drifting it shows up in different forms in writers like Barbara Ehrenreich, Sam Harris, Thomas Nagel, Anthony Kronman, even Philip Pullman, and it pervades a great deal of pop spirituality these days. Indeed it might be where I would end up if I radically changed my mind about the credibility of the Christian story; Im not entirely sure. (It would probably come down to questions of theodicy; Ill spare you the provisional thought process.)

For now, Ill give odds as follows (again, treating all revelations equally): Classical theism 45 percent, the pantheistic big tent 40 percent, gnosticism 6 percent, hard no supernatural deism 4 percent, dualism 3 percent. Which still leaves that 2 percent chance that Daniel Dennett has it right.

I told you this would seem a bit silly (and I know Im leaving out various combinations and permutations, sorry, maybe someday Ill tackle process theology but not today). But pressing on, I dont actually think you can treat all revelations equally, because theyre all so strikingly different and theres no good reason to treat them interchangeably. Instead, I think what youre looking for is a kind of black swan among revelations, a tradition that seems particularly plausible in the historical grounding of its claims and whose theological implications fit in well with the combination I proposed to you earlier, the mix of the comprehensible and the unfathomable that would do justice both to a divine Otherness and a divine desire to be known by us, the most godlike (and devil-like) beings in the created universe so far as we can tell.

And, no surprise here, I think the combination of the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament is the darkest swan in the sea of religious stories the compendium of stories, histories, poems and prophecies and parables and eyewitness accounts that most suggests an actual unfolding divine revelation, and whose unlikely but overwhelming role as a history-shaping force endures even in what is supposed to be our oh-so-disenchanted world. As a wise man once remarked (it was you), the Bible as a whole is one of the most beautiful, strange, and open-to-multiple-interpretation books that there is, and its emergence from a minor but oddly-resilient nation of Semites is both more strikingly unlikely and less contingent on a single religious personality than the genesis of any other holy book and thats even before you dig into what Christians consider its culminating revelation, a miraculous story that unfolds not in myth or prehistory but at an apex of earthly civilization, in the harsh light of recorded history, with multiple overlapping testimonies to its reality that two thousand years of criticism have not even begun to convincingly discredit.

Reasonable people can disagree with this take, but thats mine. Im betting on the Judeo-Christian story as an extended revelation unlike any other on the theology that the early Christians came up with to explain what happened in their midst, which balances the reasonable with the paradoxical in ways that fit the ordered strangeness of reality itself on Christianitys subsequent world-altering influence as a fulfillment of the brazenly implausible predictions that both Israels prophets and the gospel writers made about just how far Yahwehs rule could spread and finally on the mix of consistency and resilience, revival and reinvention in the central strand of Christianity across two millennia, which is why I make my home in the Roman Catholic Church.

You want those embarrassingly crude numbers on all this? Fine. Lets give Western monotheism a 60 percent chance of containing the most important and dispositive revelation. Then within Western monotheism, Judaism alone seems to me much less likely than does Christianity and Judaism together, so Id put Judaism-as-primary-revelation at 20 percent, Christianity as the fulfillment of Judaism at 65 percent, some Jewish-Christian-Islamic synthesis that weve failed to grasp at 10 percent, and Muhammed as the seal of the prophets at 5 percent. Then within Christianity itself, lets give it a 50 percent chance that Roman Catholicism is the truest church (pending Francis-era developments, as I said), a 20 percent chance that Catholicism and Orthodoxy have an equal claim, a 5 percent chance thats its Orthodoxy alone, a 10 percent chance for the Anabaptists, a 5 percent chance for the Calvinists, and 10 percent that the church is simply too broken for any specific body to have exclusive claims, in which case nondenominationals and big-tent Anglicans probably have the right approach.

There: Ive probably blasphemed, weakened my Catholic credentials, endangered my soul, insulted my religious brethren, picked pointless fights with Muslims and Calvinists, and betrayed a juvenile understanding of statistics.

So the least you can do, Tyler, after all of this, is to spend a few more Sundays in your local church.

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Should Tyler Cowen Believe in God? - New York Times (blog)

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