When Is Belief Justified? Proof Of God’s Existence, 2

jim has written the second installment of his series titled Proof of God's Existence. The post introduces four fictional characters that jim uses in an intentionally loosely-framed thought experiment:

Bob Smith Bob is a somewhat elderly man, retired, whose wife and friends find innocent and trusting to the point of being gullible.

Carol Smith Bob’s wife is the counterpoint to Bob’s trusting nature, skeptical to a fault, and always on the lookout for a scam. (note: both Bob and Carol always try to be scrupulously honest with each other).

Mary Jones The Smiths’ nextdoor neighbor, as well as the local real estate agent. She’s a recent move-in, and neither of the Smiths know her very well.

Mr. Garcia The mysterious man across the street.

So far, everything sounds good to me.

One day, Mary visits Bob to inform him that she'd sold the yellow house across the street to Mr. Garcia. Within the next few days, Carol sees boxes in the garage as the door is ajar. She tells Bob, who takes her word for it without looking. Later, while getting the paper, Bob notices that the garage door is now closed, and tells Carol, who takes his word for it, also without looking.

Next, jim evaluates some of these things against what I presume to be the "common sense inquiry" he alluded to in the introduction. For example, jim questions whether or not Bob had "good" reason to doubt that Mary's identity:

Of course, it might be a twin, or a clone, or an impersonator up to no good. But does Bob have any good reason to doubt that it is, indeed, Mary? None that I can see. Why? Because the alternatives I’ve offered are too farfetched to be seriously considered. That kind of stuff happens in soap operas and other forms of fictional entertainment, but not in the real world. In the real world, we generally assume that people we know are who they appear to be. We don’t seriously question that our families and co-workers have been replaced by lookalikes.

Though I agree with jim that Bob had no good reason to doubt Mary's identity, I submit that jim's criteria are subjective and useless towards any meaningful quantification of "common sense inquiry" that could be applied to the larger question of God's existence.

Note that skeptics also claimed air travel was "too farfetched," and for all you know, I could be writing this from my laptop in the sky. As progress has shown, that we assert something is "too farfetched" is no good criterion for establishing what's possible in actuality. Mere assertion of what does and does not happen in the real world is not meaningful. The science fiction of one century often becomes the scientific fact of the next (e.g., lasers, organ transplants, particle colliders). The fact that something is the default assumption is not meaningful. The fact that we don't question a proposition is not meaningful. Though I agree that Bob's belief in Mary's identity is justified, jim's justifications for claiming Bob's belief is justified are not meaningful.

This has been perhaps my biggest point of contention with certain atheists in these debates: terms like "convincing" or "unambiguous" or "farfetched" or "generally assumed" are not meaningful in the establishment of objective epistemic criteria. While I agree with jim that Bob has no good reason to doubt Mary's identity, instead of just asserting that the alternative is "too farfetched," I submit that jim owes us an explanation of why the alternative is "too farfetched," and/or an explanation of why his explanation is the superior one.

To put my money where my mouth is: why do I believe Bob has no good reason to doubt Mary's identity? I'll argue that the likelihood of Mary having actually not sold the house to Mr. Garcia is greater than the likelihood of "Mary" actually being some kind of imposter. Although I've no choice but to concede the impossibility of offering a reliable probability as to whether or not non-human agencies seed the Earth with clones, I can offer the objective and falsifiable claim that widescale clone-testing is too expensive, complicated and risky for any human agency to undertake on a large enough scale to tilt the odds in favor of that explanation. Further, Bob is not an outstanding individual such that would merit the effort by any capable agency, should they exist. Of course, there is always "some chance" that Bob might be in a randomly selected study, but again, unless we accept the default assumption that "the government" is clone-testing a significant percentage of the population, the odds are against such actually being the case.

To contrast, many plausible explanations can be offered to explain why Mary may have claimed she sold the house when in fact she did not, but unlike the first case where we can say, "widespread clone testing is expensive, complicated and risky, therefore improbable," in the second case we have no objective claim to justify our adherence to the default assumption: we believe Mary not because of any empricial evidence that makes disbelief unreasonable, but solely on our faith in Mary's character as a witness. Of course, there's always "some chance" that Mary might be a pathological liar who makes stuff up, or is in some other way duplicitous, but unless we have good reason to suspect otherwise, the odds are still against Mary giving us false information.

Although jim fails to provide meaningful, objective criteria in the case of Mary's identity, luckily for us, he actually makes an attempt in the question of Mary's story, as we'll see in this paragraph:

Has she really sold the home across the street, and to a ‘Mr. Garcia’? Again, Bob has no apparent reason to doubt Mary…

Again, I would agree with jim that, all else being what it is at face value, Bob has no reason to doubt Mary's story. Though the question doesn't come up, I would further agree that Bob and Carol have no good reason to doubt their respective statements about the garage door being open and closed, either, because I accept jim's implicit assumption that both are honest individuals with intact senses.

jim continues:

As a matter of fact, Bob believes Mary’s story to an unquestioning degree. However, having said that I would submit that Bob’s degree of certainty should be lower than his identification of Mary herself. Why? Because in the first case the evidence is provided by direct sensory input-Mary’s face and voice are both imprinted upon Bob’s memory-while in the second case Bob is forced to make his truth evaluation based on a story told by someone else.

Again, I would agree. I think jim nails it when he says, "..in the second case Bob is forced to make his truth evaluation based on a story told by someone else." That is the salient distinction here.

In the first case, Bob makes his truth evaluation based on his own direct observation of the phenomena in question: he himself observes a mass of matter presenting itself as "Mary" – he does not hear a story about a mass of matter presenting itself as Mary – he observes the mass of matter directly. By default, a direct observation lessens the possibility of translator error.

In the second case, Bob's truth evaluation is not based on direct observation of the phenomena in question. He does not directly observe the transaction between Mary and Mr. Garcia. In the second case, Bob is forced to rely on somebody else's testimony that the phenomena in question is authentic. Now, the matter shifts from empirical evidence to witness character.

Perhaps sensing this, jim continues,

..nothing in [Bob's] admittedly limited dealings with Mary would lead him to believe that she’s trying to deceive him. Furthermore, what would be the point? What could possibly be gained? Unless, of course, Mary’s a pathological liar and makes stuff up just for the hell of it, or to fulfill some distorted kind of psychological need. But there’s certainly no reason to go there as yet, is there?

I would agree with jim, and add that without documentation from a qualified psychotherapist, there is no good reason to call Mary a pathological liar or accuse her of making stuff up. However, jim's criteria for "common sense inquiry" raise for me some interesting points and questions.

jim appears to be offering a two-tier criteria for justified belief in any given witness testimony: 1) if nothing in our dealings with the witness(es) would lead us to believe they're trying to deceive us, and 2) if we cannot establish a plausible motive explaining why the witness(es) would deceive us, then belief in their testimony is justified. As far as "common sense inquiry" is concerned – unlike his first set of meaningless criteria regarding Mary's identity – I'm perfectly willing to accept as meaningful jim's second set of criteria regarding Mary's story.

According to jim's criteria for justified belief as it pertains to witness testimony, my belief in the Bible is justified. After all, nothing in my dealings with the Bible has led me to believe that its authors are trying to deceive me. What would be their point? What could they have possibly gained? Unless he wants to arbitrarily declare that the authors of all 66 books are all pathological liars or otherwise duplicitous, or introduce new criteria (i.e. widen the goalposts), on what grounds can jim now tell me that my belief in the Bible is unjustified?

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