Sep 05

The Matrix Objection – Conclusion

Last time, I laid out what I think is a very intuitive illustration against the reliability of ad hoc reasoning. I also claimed that the Matrix Objection (TMO) is an example of such ad hoc reasoning. Let me briefly restate TMO, and then I’ll defend my case.

TMO: Real life would be indistinguishable from life in The Matrix, but you believe your life is real based on what is self-evident.

Let’s put this in context as a quick reminder for people in case you don’t want to read the introductory piece. You can imagine a conversation between an atheist and a theist that goes something like this:

T: I have a special internal sense of knowing that God, and specifically Christianity, is real. It’s my own personal experience and cannot really be tested by you.

A: Well how do you know that sense is reliable? You could be wrong. It reminds me of that Nietzsche quote – something like, “A casual stroll through the lunatic asylum shows that faith proves nothing.”

T: I just know it’s true the same way you know that you don’t live in the Matrix. You could be wrong, but you just know by some direct method of sensing its truth.

This is the point in the conversation where I want to defend the point made by the atheist. The atheist in this case should be basing his/her objection on the very poor track record of religious/magical beliefs that have little to no external evidential support. This contention allows us to differentiate between an inference from past data for the atheist and an ad hoc assertion for the theist.

My argument will consist of three parts. First, I’ll set the stage with the commonly accepted starting assumptions for both sides. Second, I’ll discuss the inferential support behind the atheist’s objection. Third, I’ll discuss why there is not analogous support behind the theist’s objection.


Starting Assumptions

Interestingly, the argument by the theist from the reliability of his/her own faculties sets the stage quite nicely for my argument. In order for TMO to really work, our faculties must be giving us, in general, a reliable picture of the world, so much so that TMO sounds ridiculous to us. Their desired feedback is for the atheist to admit, “Yes, you’re right. I use what is self-evident to conclude that the external world is real, so you may also use what is self-evident to conclude other things.” In order to receive this response, the theist must grant that our faculties are giving us reliable information. If not, he or she is not gaining any way to infer from our own firm foundation to their internally-based belief in God. The theist may want to assume more, but this is the starting point where both parties should be in agreement.

So, it is granted by both sides up to this point that there are methods of direct observation which provide us a sort of insular defeater-defeater. Plantinga presented this idea in his reply to Phillip Quinn on The Foundations of Theism. His example, as I recall, is of someone who has been accused of a crime and there are reasons to believe he has committed the crime. These reasons are such that all of his friends and colleagues may believe he did it. However, the person accused has a distinct memory of being out in the woods camping that entire day. This sense memory functions for the man as a belief that is immune to defeat, unless perhaps it can be shown that the man has a defect in proper mental function. Whatever other evidence is presented to the man will not overcome his own memory. Plantinga and others want to make the case that there is a function of knowing God and truths about God that should count as one of these defeater-defeaters. Even if you don’t want to grant the reformed epistemology of theists, and I am definitely skeptical of it, this seems like a reasonable common ground for discussion.


The Atheist’s Objection

The typical atheistic response to this objection is to say that beliefs in God are not as reliable as something like a very recent memory of being on a camping trip. I’d like to unpack this objection a bit more formally. Once we see the reasons for the atheist’s objection, we’ll be in a position to see those same reasons do not apply to TMO, meaning the skeptical pretender using TMO is not giving us an analogous response.

Now, why would someone object to an internal belief in something like the triune God of Christianity as being a good candidate for an insular defeater-defeater? Here are a few reasons, inspired by philosopher Stephen Maitzen’s arguments:

  • Most people, both today and throughout history, have not come to the same conclusion given allegedly the same sort of internal sense.
    • Currently, only 33% of the world is estimated to be Christian. This means that throughout history, we could very charitably say that <25% of the world population has come to roughly the same conclusion as Plantinga. This cannot be accounted for by claiming that people are just not good at interpreting the basic belief correctly because Plantinga wants to claim it is as obvious as our sense memory. People may make minor mistakes in memory, but not drastic ones and on such a large scale.
  • Belief in God, as evidenced by demographic data, seems very much tied to social factors. In fact, these social factors seem to do a better job of explaining the demographic data than an internal way of knowing God.
    • For example, traditional ethnic boundaries serve as very severe dividing lines between religious and non-religious or between mutually exclusive religious beliefs. This situation is expected under a naturalistic account, but not very plausible under a strong internal sense of the truth (remember, as strong as your memory of having just been on a camping trip). By “not very plausible” I think we could estimate the likelihood of such a distribution of similar beliefs under Plantinga’s claim as <10%. I would consider that incredibly charitable.

I also have some major conceptual difficulties that are harder to quantify. For example, it does not seem likely that a super-intelligent being whose every action is perfect would create such a flawed belief-forming system when said system is supposed to be our primary way of knowing God. It would also be strange for God to create a separate belief-forming system when it comes to this one specific area when we already have a fairly reliable system in place for forming all other beliefs.

I think these start to build a very strong cumulative case against the theist’s claim that such an internal religious feeling would be reliable.


The Theist’s Objection

Now that we have an objection backed by arguments, rather than just a quote, we are in a better position to compare the atheist’s objection (as I’ve described it) to TMO. I have two major faults with TMO as a response to the atheist’s critique. First, as I’ve already said, it’s ad hoc. I’m going to give a few more details on why that’s a problem. Second, it doesn’t function well as an objection because there is no clear analogy. When we were comparing one quote to another, it was difficult to see why, but now that we have a stated case from me and some background from Plantinga, it should be clearer.

So, why should we avoid ad hoc objections? There are several reasons, but perhaps the most compelling is that it is prima facie more likely to be false. There are several ways the world could potentially be, but only one way the world actually is. On a small scale, you have things like what color shirt I might be wearing. There are several possible answers even to that simple question, but only one correct answer. Knowing nothing else at all, the probability that some random statement is a true representation of the world will be 1/n where n is some very large number. Using external means of justification and testing, correcting mistakes, etc. gives us a means of reducing the size of n. But in the case of an ad hoc objection, it does not have such support. It is merely given as a possible alternative. Because of this feature I’ve described, we want to seek out plausible or probable alternatives, rather than just possible ones.[i] Since TMO is only presented as a possible state of the world without support from our background knowledge or evidence, it qualifies as ad hoc.

But what about Plantinga’s description of sense memory and insular defeater-defeaters? Is there a strong case to say our “immediate” experience of the world is analogous to forming a belief in a god? I think under a fuller statement of the argument, like I’ve provided above, it’s clearly not analogous. The past data stated above along with evidence from psychologists should undermine our confidence in that type of belief. On the other hand, we don’t have such a miserable track record for beliefs such as “I am sitting in a chair right now” or “My friend next to me is also conscious.” Another issue is that we understand to a decent extent how our bodies and brains work to create sensory perception, memory, etc. In the case of Plantinga’s claim about immediate experience of a god, we have no clue. Given these issues, I simply don’t see how Plantinga’s claim about an immediate experience of a god is supposed to truly align with my immediate experience of the external world. There is no clear physical tie between the two and there are probabilistic inferences that undermine any confidence we should place in the reliability of such a belief.



Since TMO is highly improbable, as stated, and there is no clear analogy between our immediate sensory perception and forming beliefs in gods, I’d say TMO does not overcome the atheist’s objection.


[i] It could be the case that an ad hoc assertion turns out to be probable or actual, but we just don’t have any reason to think so at this point. One possibility on this front for the theist is to provide a case similar to Nick Bostrom’s Simulation Argument, but I don’t think theists will want to go down that road because it would ultimately lead to conflicts with their beliefs.


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