Thursday, March 11, 2010

Johnson's framework for theistic arguments

Occasionally, I've been offering theistic arguments that border on begging the question. Here, for instance, is one that's basically due to Kant, but transposed into an argument in a way that Kant would not approve of:

  1. (Premise) We should be grateful for the wondrous universe.
  2. (Premise) If something is not the product of agency, we should not be grateful for it.
  3. Therefore, the wondrous universe is the product of agency.
The argument is indisputably valid.[note 1] Moreover, if theism is true, it is also sound, and I do take theism to be true. But soundness is, of course, not enough for a good argument. While premise (2) is pretty plausible (in the objective sense of "should"), it feels like premise (1) "begs the question".

Nonetheless, I think there could be something to (1)-(3). Dan Johnson, in the January 2009 issue of Faith and Philosophy has a fascinating little article on the ontological and cosmological arguments. He argues that a certain kind of circularity is not vicious. Suppose that I know p1. I then infer p2 from p1 in such a way that I also know p2. I then non-rationally (or irrationally) stop believing p1, but as it happens, I continue to believe p2. It will then often be the case that there will be a good argument from p2 back to p1 (perhaps given some auxiliary premises), and if I use that argument, I will be able to regain my knowledge of p1. This is true even though there is a circularity: from p1, to p2, and back to p1. Here is an uncontroversial example: I am told my hotel room is 314. I infer that my hotel room is the first three digits of pi. I then forget that my hotel room is 314, but continue to believe it is the first three digits of pi. I then infer that my hotel room is 314.

Johnson proposes that by the sensus divinitatis one may come to know that God exists (actually, throughout this, I can't remember if he talks of knowledge or justified belief). One may then infer from this various things, such as that possibly God exists. Then, one irrationally rejects the existence of God (it does not have to be a part of the theory that every rejection of the existence of God is irrational), but some of the things one inferred from that belief remain. And arguments like the S5 ontological argument then make it possible to recover the knowledge of the existence of God from the things that one had inferred from that belief. Johnson also applies this to the cosmological argument.

This same structure may be present in my Kantian argument. By the sensus divinitatis one comes to know that God exists (obviously this is not a Kantian idea!). One infers that the universe is such that we should be grateful for it. One then irrationally comes to be an atheist (again, there is need be no claim that every atheist is irrationally such), but one continues to believe that gratitude is an appropriate response to the universe. And if that belief is sufficiently deeply engrained, one can reason back from it to theism or at least to agency behind the universe.

Now let me move a little beyond the Johnson paper. I think it is not necessary for this structure that the initial knowledge of God's existence come from the sensus divinitatis. Any other way of having knowledge of God's existence will do—say, by argument or testimony. In fact, it is not even necessary for this structure that one oneself ever had the knowledge or even belief that God exists. Suppose, for instance, one's parents knew that God exists (in whatever way), and inferred from this that the universe is worthy of gratitude. They then instilled this belief in one, and did so in such a way as to be knowledge-transmitting. (Surely, value beliefs can be instilled in such a way.) But they did not instill the belief that God exists (maybe because they thought that the existence of God was something everybody should figure out for themselves). One then knows (1), and can infer (3).

This transmission can be mediated by the wider culture, too. Culture can transmit knowledge, whether scientific or normative, and arguments can work at a cultural level. It could be that a theistic culture where the existence of God was known grew into a culture where (1) was known. The knowledge of (1) can remain even if the culture non-rationally rejects the existence of God (as American culture has not done, and might or might not do in the future). And then the individual can acquire the knowledge of (1) from the culture (we don't need to attribute knowledge to the culture if we don't want to; we can just talk of knowledge had by individuals participating in the culture), and then infer (3).

I think there are probably many consequences of theism that are embedded in the culture, from which consequences one can infer back to theism. If the participants in the culture knew theism to be true when these consequences were derived, then it is perfectly legitimate to reason back from these consequences to theism.


larryniven said...

This is a bit to the side of this post, it seems, but could you say something more about (2)? I have a vague notion of where that might be coming from, but I'd like to hear it in your words.

Alexander R Pruss said...

I was thinking about gratitude as something that one owes to a person, and where there is no person to whom one owes it, there is no gratitude owed.

James Bejon said...

Suppose a terrorist is holding me hostage. There are 6 equations written on a blackboard. 5 of them are false; the other is true. The terrorist tells me to roll a dice. If I roll-up a false equation, he will shoot me (having a strong dislike of shoddy maths). I happen to roll-up a true one. I am grateful. But of what? The equation's being true? The dice landing on a certain number? Neither of these things seem to have anything to do with agency as such. Perhaps, then, this is a counterexample to (2)? Or perhaps my intuition that I should be grateful is a reason for me to believe in God, on the grounds that there is no-one else for me to be grateful to?

Mike Almeida said...

I'm not sure I see the circularity. The argument you gave is an enthymeme and unproblematic.

1. My room is #314
2. 314 = the first three digits of pi.
3. My room # is the first three digits of pi.

And of course (3) and (2) entail (1). No circularity there. There are lots of examples.

1'. Smith won the lottery.
2'. Smith = Jones
3'. Jones won the lottery.

(1'),(2')|- (3'), but also (2'),(3')|- (1').

1*. S is a creature with a kidney
2* S is a creature with a kidney iff. S is a creature with a heart.
3* S is a creature with a heart.

And so on. The inference goes both northward and southward, but there's no circularity here at all.

Alexander R Pruss said...

The full sequence of reasoning is this:

1. My room is #314
2. 314 = the first three digits of pi.
3. My room # is the first three digits of pi.
[Here, one forgets (1), but keeps remembering (2) and (3).]
4. My room is #314

Alexander R Pruss said...


I think sometimes we might use "grateful" to mean "glad" (or maybe something a bit stronger). The fact that we use the word "grateful" in this way, though, may point to a culturally embedded intuition that we owe thanks for it to someone.

In any case, I meant "grateful" here in a sense which makes (2) true. I think there is such a sense.

Dan Johnson said...


Your extension of my account to interpersonal and culture-wide arguments is fascinating. Three points about this extension:

(1) It seems that the structure of the person's epistemic justification is really not circular at all. He has testimonial evidence for the premises and infers the conclusion from that. The only thing that could involve anything like circularity is the person's knowledge -- his knowledge of the premises depends on the source of his testimonial evidence having known the conclusion by some other means. But this isn't really the sort of knowledge-threatening circularity that philosophers have worried about.

(2) That said, your extension at least shows this: many arguments that we might be inclined to diagnose as circular (because we are thinking in terms of some idealized person and how they might come to know the premises of the argument) may not really be circular at all for individuals embedded in communities of the sort you describe.

(3) Moreover, the extension you describe won't serve all the uses I want for the sort of circular argument I describe (this goes beyond the paper). My sort of circular arguments end up with the person persuaded of God's existence AND basing that belief on their basic awareness of God in the sense of deity. It therefore avoids some Kierkegaardian and Dutch Reformed worries about basing faith on arguments. Your extended sort of argument, though, won't result in the person basing their belief in God on their own awareness of God in the sense of deity.

All that said, I think you've made a really powerful point that goes beyond my own. Many arguments that many would dismiss as circular are actually of the sort that you describe, where the premises are justified for the individual by the testimony of a culture with a leftover Christian foundation. Arguments appealing to the dignity of human beings may be just this sort of argument for many people.

Alexander R Pruss said...

Well, in the case of an argument extended over time, furthered by testimony, we need to trace the argument back to its origins, and it all counts as part of the argument.

For instance, x sees the sheep that is dressed up as a wolf and concludes that there is a wolf in the field, and indeed there is, but not where x is looking. x tells y there is a wolf in the field, and y infers there is a predator. We don't want to say that y knows there is a predator. y's belief comes from x's testimony, and that's all well and good, but x is testifying to something he doesn't know, and so y doesn't know it, either--Gettierness is transmitted by testimony just as knowledge is.

Here the sequence is:
1. There is a wolf. (Believed by x.)
2. There is a wolf. (Believed by y.)
3. There is a predator.
But there is no knowledge as 1 was Gettiered.

In the cases I am thinking about, once we write out the transpersonal argument, we do get circularity.

brian_g said...

You mentioned hotel room example in your article in Blackwell's Companion to Natural Theology. That argument struck me as interesting.

Aaron M. Clark said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Aaron M. Clark said...

Dr. Pruss,

I arrived here by reading your latest post and I’m new to this idea, so I have a quick question. In the case of the pi example, it seems that we don’t really infer from P(1) to P(2) and then back to P(1). We don’t infer from 314 to “the first three digits of pi” and back to 314 because they’re conceptually synonymous…we’re just inferring to C from C (unless one can infer to C from C in a non-trivial way). There is no relevant distinction between them. So my question is, does this sort of legitimate circular reasoning hold when one infers from P(2) back to P(1) when there is a relevant distinction between them?

For instance,

(1) We should look for God's imprint on the world.
(2) If God's imprint is not on the world, we should not look for it.
(3) Therefore, God's imprint is on the world.

Say that I previously knew that (3) and then non-rationally rejected (3), and I continue to believe that (1). There is quite a relevant difference between (1) and (3)…they do not seem to be the same thing at all, which gives me pause about assenting to a legitimate use of circular reasoning here, even though I once held that (3). Here it seems like begging the question because I clearly must presuppose a hefty claim ((3)) in order to ground the truth of (1). In short, it seems that I must give independent reasons for (3), even if I once knew that (3), and (3) led me to (1). Alternatively, in the pi case I don’t have to give independent reasons to regain knowledge (or justified belief) of P(1) because it’s a trivial inference from P(2) back to P(1).

Alexander R Pruss said...

I don't know exactly what you mean by "conceptually synonymous". But we can vary the example if you don't like this one.

Suppose, for instance, I see that the room number is 1939. It occurs to me that this number is the year in which Hitler invaded Poland. I later forget the room number and I forget when Hitler invaded Poland. But I know the room number is the year in which Hitler invaded Poland. I pull out my phone and check wikipedia, and infer that it's 1939.

Here the inference from "My room number is the year in which Hitler invaded Poland" to "My room number is 1939" is quite non-trivial, making use of empirical information.