Now that my workload has lessened a bit and I’ve finally caught up with George R. R. Martin in A Song of Ice and Fire, I should have more time to get back to writing. I’d also like to conduct a number of book reviews, including for Richard Carrier’s latest book on Bayes Theorem and the historical Jesus. So, look for more of that in the near future. Up first is a short introduction to what I call The Matrix Objection, which seems to come about in discussions of using internal evidence as warrant for belief in God (or anything else, really).
Internal evidence is often cited by Christian philosophers, such as Alvin Plantinga’s sensus divinitatis or William Lane Craig’s internal witness of the Holy Spirit. They think this evidence, which is available only to them and cannot be tested or verified by anyone else, is a good reason for belief in God. This internal evidence is also irrefutable, so it cannot be disputed by any external finding or evidence. If you discovered something in the world that contradicted this pre-existing internal belief, like evolution perhaps, then that thing you discovered must be mistaken because your internal sense of God’s truth could never possibly be mistaken.
In response to such ideas, John Loftus posted this quote on his blog:
“Self-authenticating private evidence is useless, because it is indistinguishable from the illusion of it.”
I think this quote provides a strong first level response, but our defense of this argument must be able to overcome what I’ll call The Matrix Objection (TMO).
TMO: Real life would be indistinguishable from life in The Matrix, but you believe your life is real based on what is self-evident.
TMO argues that since we use private evidence in some cases, the Christian should also be entitled to use it. It’s a technique to widen the gates of what we consider acceptable evidence.
I will argue, however, that TMO is ad hoc, while the initial illusion objection is not. If I am correct, then these are not analogous cases and TMO is not very successful as a response to the initial quote.
The main difference is TMO—and similar objections, like Plantinga’s argument from other minds—points to merely possible illusory alternatives, while the argument quoted by Loftus points to a plausible alternative. To get a grasp for the difference in force between possible and plausible reasons, consider the following scenario:
You are a football coach trying to decide the right play to run at a crucial moment in the game. You hold a brief conference with two of your assistants. The first assistant recommends a play action pass. His reasoning is that you’ve been running the ball successfully and the defense should “bite” on the fake. The second assistant recommends a running play to the left because aliens might attack the right side of the field.
Now, even if you don’t know much about football, you probably recognize a problem with the second assistant’s reasoning. Which assistant’s advice would you follow? The argument from the first assistant takes available evidence and makes an inference based on probability. If one cared to research football statistics, you would see that it is correct to infer that success in running the football correlates with later success using the play action pass. On the other hand, how do we assign any probability to the wild scenario proposed by the second coach? It is merely an appeal to possibility without anything in favor of its plausibility.
For the same reasons that any good head coach would take the advice of the first assistant over the second, we should also heed the possibility of illusion as Loftus means it as more likely than illusion as TMO means it. So far, I think the reasoning for this should just strike most of you as intuitively correct and even obvious. Next time, though, I’ll dig into the probability a bit more and attempt some actual estimates to be sure that our intuitive estimation is correct and provide a fuller defense against TMO.