Catholic Philosopher vs. The Parsimony Argument
READ THIS FIRST
I thought you guys would like to have an actual philosopher's argument to examine for once, even if he does take several pages out of Plantinga's book. His counter to the parsimony argument (near the end, after the second italicized section) is of particular interest. I need to point out three things first, or the essay won't make sense. (1) He paraphrases naturalists' arguments at two points, which I have italicized. These are NOT his ideas, they are the ideas that he is critiquing. (2) The acronym HADD refers to a "Hypersensitive Agent Detection Device". It is a cognitive faculty that tells you whether an entity has a mind, and as its name suggests, it errs on the side of caution, giving many more false positives than false negatives. (3) This argument is part of a larger paper, which I will a post a link to at the bottom. It is possible that the argument will appear to have more holes than it in fact does, since a couple of important points are covered earlier in the paper. Nevertheless, I think the except I quote here is intended -more or less- to stand on its own.
"Cognitive psychological accounts of religion can account for the origin of religious belief in a way that makes no reference to and requires no causal connection with supernatural reality. However, properly justified belief requires that the target of the belief be causally connected to the belief itself in certain ways. Since these accounts show us that none of those ways are in fact in play in the origins of religious belief, beliefs so generated are unjustified."
This is a complex objection and it merits a more detailed response than I can give here. I have space for only the following two points. First, philosophers who are concerned about questions of the justification of belief fall into two basic categories: internalists and externalists. Internalists argue that whether or not a belief is justified depends entirely on facts "inside the head" (for example, facts about the extent to which the belief is properly supported by other beliefs one has). Externalists argue that justification depends on whether or not the belief has the right relation to facts about the external world. For some, the right relation consists only in reliability while for others the right relation will require that there be certain causal connections between the external world and the belief formed. I point this out only to make it clear that even if these psychological accounts do show that there is no direct causal connection between religious beliefs and their target, only some epistemological theories would take that to be relevant to the justification of those beliefs.
Should externalist epistemologists who argue for the importance of causal connections between the belief and its target take religious belief formed by HADD (etc.) to be similarly unjustified? No. Perhaps God set up our environment and the course of evolutionary history in such a way that we come to have cognitive tools that lead us to form beliefs in a supernatural reality (let’s call this the "supernaturalist explanation of religion". If that is the way things work, then my beliefs would have a connection, albeit an indirect one, to the target of the belief, and a connection of that sort would not undermine the justification of the belief. We can see this by way of an analogy: Jones is a candidate in a local election. The voters in this district don’t pay much attention to this election and typically don’t know who the candidates are until they enter the voting booth. Wanting to become known to the voters beforehand, Jones programs an automatic dialing machine which calls each home in the district and delivers a short message introducing Jones and his campaign slogan. Because of this, all of the voters become aware of Jones and his campaign. If Smith were to stumble into Jones’ campaign headquarters and find the machine, could Smith conclude that the beliefs of the voters are unjustified because they were caused directly by the machine rather than directly by Jones? Of course not. The direct cause was a self-contained mechanism. But since Jones was the remote cause of the machine doing what it does, the beliefs are perfectly well justified. For all we know, God is likewise the indirect cause of the religious beliefs we have—beliefs that are directly caused by the cognitive tools psychologists have identified.
This argument aims to press the superiority of the naturalist explanation on grounds of simplicity. But while simplicity is a scientific virtue, it is a virtue only when all other things are equal, something that is rarely the case. When we choose between competing hypotheses, we also need to take into account the other theoretical virtues of the competitors including the extent to which the hypotheses cohere with our over-arching worldview. To borrow an example, it is, all other things being equal, simpler to assume that there are no other minds but my own (and that the behavior of other apparently minded things is caused by purely mechanical processes) than it is to accept that there are many minds. But we don't.
How does this affect the argument above? The answer is: the theist might say that the belief that God is the remote cause of supernatural beliefs fits in quite well with other reasons they have for thinking that religious belief is true (e.g., that without a God, many things just don’t accept the "one mind" over the "many mind" hypothesis because such a hypothesis doesn’t cohere with many other things we are committed to. The Christian might be committed to the idea that all humans have minds because they are created in the image of God. The naturalist/physicalist might be committed to the idea that things that are physically alike are alike in other respects (including mental ones) and thus that all humans (like me) have minds. In either case, other considerations override considerations of parsimony in leading us to our view.’t make sense: the existence of objective morality, why there is something rather than nothing, why the universe is fine-tuned for life, and so on). For them, that explanation would be more reasonable even if not simpler. Of course, for the naturalist, things might be different. However, all of this shows simply that psychological explanations of belief of the sort we have been considering do nothing on their own to undermine the justification of religious belief." (http://edisk.fandm.edu/michael.murray/Four%20Args%20Hawaii%20volume.pdf)
However, some scientist critics of religious belief are not satisfied with this response. For them, and this is the second point, something else is at stake in this argument, which they put like this:
The religious believer might push back by saying that "for all we know" God is the indirect cause of our religious beliefs, and in this way a proper causal connection between belief and target is preserved. "at might tempt the religious believer into thinking that there is no better reason to affirm the "naturalist" explanation of religion over the "supernaturalist" explanation of religion. But that’s not right. We do have reason to favor the naturalist explanation and the reason is: it’s more parsimonious! Thus, while it is possible that the supernaturalist is right, it is more reasonable to assume that the naturalist is right.
[Mod edit: formatting]