Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Open theism and risk

We have many well-justified beliefs about how people will freely act. For instance, I have a well-justified belief that at most a minority of my readers will eat a whole unsweetened lemon today. Yet most of you can. (And maybe one or two of you will.) Notice that a fair amount of our historical knowledge is based on closely analogous judgments. When we engage in historical analysis we base ourselves on knowledge of how people freely act individually or en masse. We know that various historical events occurred because of what we know about how people who report historical events behave--given what we know about human character, we know the kinds of things they are likely to tell the truth about, the kinds of things they are likely to lie about and the kinds of things they are likely to be mistaken about. But it would be strange to claim knowledge about past human behavior and disclaim knowledge about future human behavior when exactly similar probabilistic regularities give us both.

But if open theism is true, then God cannot form such beliefs about the future. For open theists agree that God is essentially infallible in his beliefs: it is impossible for God to hold a false belief. But if God were in a habit of forming beliefs about how people will in fact act, then in at least some possible worlds, and probably in this one as well, God would have false beliefs—it may be 99.99% certain that I won't eat a whole unsweetened lemon today, but that just means that there is a 0.01% chance that I will.

So the open theist, in order to hold on to divine infallibility, must say that God keeps from having beliefs on evidence that does not guarantee truth. Why would God keep himself from having such beliefs, given that they seem so reasonable? Presumably to avoid the risk of being wrong about something.

But now notice that open theism has God take really great risks. According to open theism, in creating the world, God took the risk of all sorts of horrendous evils. The open theist God is not at all averse to taking great risks about creation. So why would he be so averse to taking risks with his beliefs?

The open theists who think that there are no facts about the future have an answer here. They will say that my belief that at most a minority of my readers will eat a whole unsweetened lemon today is certainly not true, since the fact alleged does not obtain, and hence that I shouldn't have this belief. Instead, I should have some probabilistic belief, like that present conditions have a strong tendency to result in the nonconsumption of these lemons. My argument here is not addressed to these revisionists.


Heath White said...

One answer might be that God derives no advantage from having a BELIEF that p will be true, versus a CREDENCE OF 99.9% that p will be true. His actions will, presumably, be the same in either case.

Your argument does, however, raise the question of what's so terrible about God having a false belief.

Here's another point about Open Theism I think few notice. For an omniscient (in their sense) God, even the entire set of potential histories of the universe is a game of tic-tac-toe. There is either a guaranteed "win" or not, or more generally, God's optimum decision at any point is perfectly obvious to him. There isn't any drama of uncertainty or striving, any more than in a pre-determineed universe. Sometimes the dramatic aspect is presented as a selling point of OT but I think it's a total flop.

Alexander R Pruss said...

1. But do *we* derive an advantage from having a belief that p is true versus a high credence? (Maybe due to some contingent stuff?)

2. Note an interesting cost of the open theist's position. While the classical theist can either accept or reject the thesis that to believe p is to assign a high credence to p, the open theist must reject this thesis or else God will end up (at least possibly, but probably also actually) believing some falsehoods.

3. I think you can have drama even when you know the ending.

Heath White said...

Re: your 1. I tend to think belief/credence is like intention/desire. (Here Bratman is helpful.) An intention serves as a fixed point or commitment. In three related ways: it is the thing you act on; and it is what you hold constant for purposes of your own deliberation (e.g. fixing ends, one reasons to means); and it is what you hold constant for purposes of interpersonal deliberation (e.g. you state your intention to be home at 5:30, and your wife then plans to make dinner around then).

Belief, I think, has a parallel role as a fixed point or commitment in the cognitive realm. In one sense, belief is what you act on—acting is how we find out what you really think. But also, it is what we hold fixed for purposes of inquiry (e.g. from data to theory, or evidence to conclusion), and it is what we hold fixed for purposes of testimony (when you make an assertion you express a belief).

The first role is perhaps most relevant for purposes of holding each other responsible; the commitments are responsibility accounting devices. (Maybe; I could be persuaded otherwise.) The second role is a matter of cognitive economy; a brain like ours can’t hold everything in flux at once. (I think as one gets more sophisticated views about some difficult topic, one’s mental attitudes start being better described as credences rather than beliefs, precisely because one can see all the various options and everything becomes held more tentatively.) The third role is a matter of interpersonal cognitive economy, because we can’t communicate well enough to fluidly express anything more subtle than full commitment. (The ubiquity of cell phones has made all expressions of practical commitments more tentative, because more easily interpersonally renegotiable.)

The first role of belief/intention applies to God. He acts, and we can say this expresses his intentions, and if he acts in time we can say this expresses his beliefs about the way the world is or should be. The second sense doesn’t apply to God. He has no scarce cognitive resources. So if there is uncertainty about the future we should say he has perfectly adjusted credences about it. Also, if he is deliberating about what world to create, the wrong picture is that he starts out with some ideas about what he wants and then reasons how to get it. The right picture is, he just decides on everything at once. The third role applies to God insofar as he interacts with human beings. E.g. divine promises or testimony.

James Bejon said...

Is it really right, though, to say that one "believes" such lemon-related truths? Suppose I roll a dice. Do I believe that I'm going to get a number less than six? Can't I just think it probable, and then not have a belief falsified if I roll one?

Martin Cooke said...

For God to have a belief of the kind in question, the sort that seems reasonable to us, or most of us (maybe not those of us who are very strict with their own epistemology (although not the sort of belief that seems reasonable only to the less wise amongst us either)), well, that would be like an author having a belief about what a character is going to do. If it was a strong belief, as strong as one of our strong reasonable beliefs, then the author would make it so. If the author was going to see how the characters developed, then she would not have such a strong belief, but would maybe have a strong hunch, as strong as our strong belief. You see the difference? Of course, characters do not have free will, and God is infinite, and so on; but still, the conception of such differences is not beyond us. A minimal position (an epistemologically strong position) would be to keep an open mind about such things.

Martin Cooke said...

Alex: "The open theist God is not at all averse to taking great risks about creation. So why would he be so averse to taking risks with his beliefs?"

Heath:"what's so terrible about God having a false belief"

enigMan: It is so terrible to have beliefs that are not fully justified that it is like being mad!!!

More sedately, I recall an argument that had one Jews hiding in the attic, and were the Nazis at the door, asking after the Jews, one should not lie. Now, why not say: "There are no Jews here"? Those in your attic may, for all you know, have converted to Christianity, inspired by your good example. So what you say might be true, just unjustified, and it would help you a lot to avoid a lot of woe, to them and you. And yet, are such unjustified claims not like lies? And is it not far worse to have them as beliefs in one's own head? Even only in the world, we look up to Socrates, Joan of Arc, Descartes and so forth, and look down on those who keep their butts cosy by oozing rhetoric.

How odd, then, to find a philosopher raising such a question: Should it not make him wonder about the position that he was defending?

Alexander R Pruss said...

A belief that has a very high probability of being true is typically (perhaps always) justified. So this isn't about having unjustified beliefs.

Of course, a high probability of truth is not a guarantee of truth. But I will resist saying that "for all one knows" such a claim is false. No: one can *know* such a claim to be true, although it *might* be false.

Martin Cooke said...

A belief that has a very high probability of being true, that could be, say, a belief that some meteorite will hit the earth at some time in the future when it is almost certain to do so because of the layout of local space. It could be unjustified to hold that belief, though, say because you actually have no idea of the layout of local space. Still, I might get lucky with some crazy thought and hold such a belief. Of course, the point of the distinction is that the crazy thoughts are unreliable, the knowledge of local space a great achievement of mankind.

(Or you could believe that you will not toss twenty heads in a row, with a fair coin, or that it is very unlikely that you will, but you might. Now, I do not know about you, but as I read that sentence I am thinking "I do believe that, wait, I believe the latter." Of course, the latter contradicts the former, so there is a choice to be made there; if a thing will not happen, then it is not true that it might happen :)