Theism, Naturalism and Antecedent Expectations

I’ve been kicking around an atheistic argument in my head for a while. I can’t say how original it is; I suspect not very. The general strategy has been pursued by Paul Draper and Austin Dacey. Perhaps it’s not so much a new argument as a distillation of other atheistic arguments; a cumulative case, if you will. It’s still a work in progress and may need some more sussing out. But I figure this is as good a forum as any to introduce it. I call it the “Argument from Antecedent Expectations.” Before I present the argument though, consider this thought experiment.

Let’s suppose you were raised in an underground bunker with no exposure to the outside world. You were taught reading, writing, math, logic, and rudimentary physics but you weren’t taught anything about history, biology, geology etc. The content of the books you read were carefully screened for content that might give you clues about the world. You had very few experiences, but you were kept comfortable and healthy. In short, you wouldn’t know anything about the world beyond your bunker. Now suppose that the social engineers behind this experiment (ethical scruples aside!) present you with two hypotheses: theism and naturalism. Clearly, you don’t have much to go on to decide between them. But I think that you could make some predictions about what one would expect the world to be like if either hypothesis were true. In other words, you could form what I call ‘antecedent expectations.’

You might think, for example, that if theism were true there would be no evil and suffering in the world, or at least not much, and certainly none that appears utterly pointless with respect to producing a greater good. You might also expect that if theism were true God’s existence would be evident to everyone. No persons would be unaware of God’s existence. You might further expect that an examination of the natural world would reveal evidence of special creation. You might also expect the normal order of nature, such as you understand it, to be regularly punctuated by miraculous events. Moreover, you might expect that divine revelation would be a remarkably accurate source of information about the world. You might expect prophecy to be a remarkably reliable means of predicting the future. If there were any suffering in the world, contrary to your first expectation, you would certainly expect prayer to be a remarkably effective treatment for various maladies. I could go on, but I think the point has been made. We don’t live in a world that meets these antecedent expectations. It’s important to bear in mind that there’s no reason, a priori, not to expect the world to be this way. The world we’ve described is a possible world. Furthermore, on the hypothesis that theism is true we would have some antecedent reason to expect the world to be this way. But of course, it’s not. So if you were let out of the bunker, and allowed to observe the world, you would have to come to the conclusion that your antecedent expectations had not been met. In other words, the features of the world that you would have expected to observe on the hypothesis that theism is true are absent. This functions as an inductive argument against theism. We could set it up as follows:

P1. If theism were true, there are a number of features of the world that we would expect to observe.

P2. We do not observe those features of the world that we would expect to observe if theism were true.

Conclusion: Therefore, theism is probably not true.

We could also run the thought experiment and the argument the other way around. If you were forming antecedent expectations regarding naturalism you would make quite different predictions. For example, you might think that if naturalism were true there would be a random distribution of evil and suffering. You might expect that there would be no consensus among intelligent people on whether there is a God. You might also expect that the operation of natural laws would be adequate to explain a wide range of features about the world, including our existence. You would expect that these laws are probably never interrupted. You would also probably expect that the scientific method, rather than divine revelation, would yield accurate information about the world. In fact, you’d probably expect alleged revelations to be largely inaccurate. Likewise, you’d expect prophecy and prayer to be ineffective. To me, this picture better matches the actual world. But again, there’s no antecedent reason that the world ought to be this way rather than the other way. From your perspective in the bunker, both theism and naturalism are live options. It’s only by going out into the world and observing the features it does in fact have, that you can come to a conclusion about which worldview is more probably true. So, if you were let out of your bunker and observed the actual world, I suggest you would have to conclude that your antecedent expectations on the hypothesis that naturalism is true are met, whereas those regarding theism are not. We could run the converse argument like this:

P1. If naturalism were true, there are a number of features of the world that we would expect to observe.

P2. We do in fact observe those features of the world that we would expect to observe if naturalism were true.

Conclusion: Therefore, naturalism is probably true.

Now these are inductive arguments and depend on a number of assumptions the theist will probably deny. Fair enough. Very few arguments are of the knock down variety. But I think I’ve at least made a plausible case that the antecedent expectations of a naive observer would probably favor naturalism over theism considered as general hypotheses about the world. The theist will no doubt object that my antecedent expectations are all wrong. But I suspect that is largely because all of us are familiar with the actual world and therefore tailor our expectations to it. The purpose of the thought experiment is to try to get us to recognize that we tend to rationalize our beliefs after the fact. We know that there is suffering in the world, and lots of it, so we work that data into our theology. However, from the perspective of the bunker, our antecedent expectation would be the absence of suffering or at least gratuitous suffering. A theist might also charge me with conducting the thought experiment in a biased way. To that I reply that he’s free to conduct it any way he likes. Perhaps we might add to our antecedent expectations on theism that the universe has a beginning, that it’s fine tuned for intelligent life, that there are objective moral values, religious experience, and at least some well-attested miracles. The theist is free to add any or all of this data. Of course, then the question comes down to our assessment of the evidence for these claims. Do we live in that sort of a world? This is not an easy question to answer, but I suspect the balance of evidence suggests that the answer is “no.”

Despite the fact that this argument is not a knock down blow to theism, I believe it still has force. It certainly forces the theist to think very hard about what kind of world we would expect to find if theism were true. I suggest that our antecedent expectations — not our after-the-fact theological rationalizations — on theism would yield very different predictions about the world than our predictions on naturalism. And unfortunately for the theist, our predictions on theism turn out to be false. By contrast, our predictions on naturalism turn out to be true. We could perhaps state the argument in a way that incorporates our two previous arguments:

P1. We do not observe those features of the world that we would expect to observe if theism were true.

P2. We do in fact observe those features of the world that we would expect to observe if naturalism were true.

Conclusion: Therefore, naturalism is probably true.

Again, the theist could certainly deny these premises. And since it’s an inductive argument, even if both premises are true the conclusion is only probably true. But I think the intuition behind the argument, aided by our thought experiment, is certainly plausible, more plausible than saying that we live in exactly the sort of world we would expect if theism were true. I doubt even the staunchest theist would go that far. The question is: on balance, which worldview, theism or naturalism, meets more of our antecedent expectations? It looks to me like naturalism wins out.


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One response to “Theism, Naturalism and Antecedent Expectations

  1. Pingback: What is a Prima Facie Case against Theism? | dude ex machina

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