Open and Closed-Mindedness

Originally posted on July 15, 2012

It looks as if a previous entry about atheism and closed-mindedness has caught the attention from one of the FTBers.  Someone with the name Digital Cuttlefish wrote:

 I meant to post a comment (not my verse; that came later) to this site–but they want me to sign up in order to do that, and I am unwilling.

Er, this is just one of those standard, free WordPress blogs.  As with hundreds of thousands of other WordPress blogs, people who comment have to provide some username and some email address.  I have no control over what is required.

DC tells us that I have missed the point entirely in that “Open-mindedness has nothing to do with whether you expect to find the evidence–it’s a matter of what you do when actually presented with the evidence.”

So DC claims he/she would have posted this in the comments section of this blog:

How open are believers to the possibility that god might *not* exist? That should be your standard of comparison for “open-mindedness”. We have a better set of case studies there, because we can actually (for some, but not all believers) disconfirm some basic beliefs, and see how open-minded they are. Given the reams of evidence regarding the age of the universe, the age of our species, etc., we can see young-earth creationists as particularly closed-minded (or, to use their vocabulary, “faithful”).

For starters, I am not a young earth creationist.  What’s more, I fail to see how certain Christians being closed-minded about the age of the earth is supposed to mean there are no closed-minded atheists.  As to the question, “How open are believers to the possibility that god might *not* exist?”  I can’t speak for believers, but I can speak for myself.

Answer – I’m quite open to the possibility that God might not exist. First of all, I already mentioned that I would score myself as a 2.5 on Dawkins scale.

Contrast this with Dawkins’ 6.9.  Recall that a perfectly agnostic person is a 4.  So while I am three steps from agnosticism, Dawkins is six steps away from agnosticism.  Ironically, while atheists and agnostics are often grouped together, I, as a Christian theist, am closer to agnosticism than Dawkins and most atheists.  In other words, I am more open-minded about this issue.

Secondly, keep in mind that I am one who has said, “I am happy to acknowledge that atheism is a reasonable position to hold.  I don’t agree with atheists, but that does not mean I think they are unreasonable or stupid.”

Does anyone really think Dawkins could reciprocate and acknowledge that Christian theism is at least reasonable?   Of course not.  To people like Dawkins, Christianity is not only nonsense, but dangerous nonsense.  And people simply don’t keep an open mind about dangerous nonsense, now do they?

DC then asks:

What evidence can you think of that would give an equal test for a Dawkins-type atheist?

It would all depend on what data Dawkins was willing to count as evidence.  My guess is that he needs a Super-Duper Miracle that no scientist could every possibly explain.  And nothing less.  For the door to his mind is shut.  Not just shut, but locked, dead-bolted, and nailed shut.  Thus, he would need something that would “blow his mind” open – a Super-Duper Miracle.

Open-mindedness does not, and need not, speak to how open one is to the possibility of evidence existing. Open-mindedness speaks to how one reacts when evidence is actually presented.

It’s not either/or.  It’s both.  If one is not open to the possibility of evidence existing, not only is it closed by definition, but it means the brain is excessively predisposed to engage in disconfirmation bias when presented with any candidate for evidence.  This is because once someone has reached the state of a closed mind by denying the real possibility of evidence existing, a consideration of evidence that is presented is no longer just about some search for truth, but now also entails the need to justify one’s previously reached conclusion of closing their mind.  That is, the disconfirmation bias functions as a rationalization and self-justification. And if the atheist is also an activist for atheism, then there is also the “cause” to think about.  And if the atheist is a somewhat famous activist atheist, then there is the need to keep his/her fans happy.   Again, it’s clearly no longer just about some search for truth,

I can be absolutely certain that no evidence for god will ever be forthcoming, so long as I am willing to admit that I was wrong when (or if) evidence actually shows up. That’s the thing about evidence; it doesn’t care if you expected it.

This is inaccurate.  Evidence does not show up.  Data show up.  What one’s mind does with the data will determine whether or not it is mentally transformed into evidence.  If someone is absolutely certain that no evidence for god will ever be forthcoming, then we know from psychology that people tend to see what they expect to see.  Thus, we would expect this closed minded person to be blind any to evidence for God (short of a Super-Duper Miracle) since the power of expectation fuses with the power of disconfirmation bias.

If atheists can’t see this, how would they react if a single word change was made and a creationist said, “I can be absolutely certain that no evidence for evolution will ever be forthcoming, so long as I am willing to admit that I was wrong when (or if) evidence actually shows up. That’s the thing about evidence; it doesn’t care if you expected it.”

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29 Responses to Open and Closed-Mindedness

  1. dognillo says:

    Wouldn’t where one falls on the Dawkins scale depend on which god is being considered? As for myself, if a deist god is considered, then I am a perfectly agnostic 4. I don’t know if a deist god exists and, while it might be interesting to know, I don’t see that it really matters one way or the other. But if, say, the God of the Christian Bible is considered, then every year of my life that goes by and I see nothing that convinces me that the Christian God is real, my Dawkins score goes higher, because if the God of the Christian Bible is in fact real then I would expect to see something that convinces me He is real. Not that my score would ever get to 7 even if I never see anything that convinces me that the Christian God is real. But right now, regarding the God of the Christian Bible, my Dawkins score is quite a bit higher than 4.

    Michael, if you were considering the God of Islam, what might your Dawkins score be?

  2. Andrew says:

    I had an interesting thought:

    Every so often, a skeptic demands a personalised sign, along the lines of “I’m God, and I’m real”. Interestingly enough, there is a record of one such event in Scripture: Acts 9:1-18. The risen Christ appears to Saul and declares “I am real, and I am God”.

    Though I’ll note a few salient caveats:
    – Saul was zealous for God; he was anti-Jesus.
    – God then speaks to Ananias, and says of Saul: “For I will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.”

    Perhaps those making petty demands that God perform for them should heed this warning: if God makes a personal appearance to you, then your life as you knew it is over, and you will suffer.

  3. Michael says:

    Michael, if you were considering the God of Islam, what might your Dawkins score be?

    Somewhere between 6 and 7.

  4. Kevin says:

    I have my own personal miracle when it comes to disproving Christianity, when asked what it would take. Aliens attacking the earth and enslaving or destroying mankind. A giant comet or asteroid or nuclear war wiping out mankind. The Greek pantheon showing up and smiting us for unbelief. Any of these Super Duper occurrences would convince me the Christian god did not exist.

  5. TFBW says:

    @dognillo, if you’re still with us.

    … every year of my life that goes by and I see nothing that convinces me that the Christian God is real, my Dawkins score goes higher, because if the God of the Christian Bible is in fact real then I would expect to see something that convinces me He is real.

    Standard question ’round these parts, and since nobody else has asked it yet, I will: what sort of experience or observation would convince you? And what’s your basis for those expectations you mention?

  6. dognillo says:

    TFBW, at this point I can’t honestly say what would convince me. I just don’t know. I don’t think it could be just one experience and then everything is back to normal, because afterward I would wonder if I had been hallucinating. If I was to have an ongoing relationship with God similar to the one Moses had, then I don’t see how I could deny that God was real. But I know that’s a lot to ask for. Otherwise, I just can’t say what would convince me.

    I will say this, though. After reading the Christian Bible I could never hope that something like that is true. The thought of anyone, even Satan, suffering everlasting torment, is too much for me to bear. Especially if God is considered to be omnibenevolent. That, probably more than anything else, makes me think that Christianity is simply unreasonable to believe.

  7. TFBW says:

    dognillo said:

    TFBW, at this point I can’t honestly say what would convince me. I just don’t know.

    Then by the same token, you don’t know whether anything can convince you, right? So you don’t know whether you’re open-minded or not.

    If I was to have an ongoing relationship with God similar to the one Moses had, then I don’t see how I could deny that God was real.

    What sort of details are we talking about here? Communication with God, having God perform miracles through you, or what? And when you say that you don’t see how you could deny that God was real under these conditions, whatever they happen to be, is this just an expression of your personal scepticism threshold, or is it meant to be a more universal “it would be enough to convince any reasonable person” threshold.

  8. dognillo says:

    It’s strictly a personal skepticism threshold. I can’t speak about what could or should convince anyone else. I don’t think that would be fair. Above, when I said that it makes me think that Christianity is not reasonable to believe, I should have specified it as only for me.

    As to your first question, it’s true that I don’t know for sure if anything would convince me. I would have to experience it before I could say for sure. I don’t like to think that I would be close minded. But if that makes me close minded in your view, then so be it. I’m being as honest as I can here. I’m simply unconvinced that Christianity is true, and I don’t know what, if anything, would convince me.

  9. TFBW says:

    Above, when I said that it makes me think that Christianity is not reasonable to believe, I should have specified it as only for me.

    That’s a remarkably relativist view. Presumably you believe that the God of Christianity either exists or does not, and does so regardless of what people believe — that is, God’s existence (or not) is an objective fact, not a relative one. What justifies variance in reasonable belief? Is it reasonable to raise the bar on evidence because you have sympathy for the devil?

    It seems to me more like you are raising the bar on evidence because you want to disbelieve (as in “I could never hope that something like that is true”), and that’s more like rationalising than reasoning, don’t you think?

  10. Kevin says:

    I’ll be charitable with my interpretation here.

    How often have you heard some stuck-up New Atheist say something along the lines of “There is no evidence for God” or “There is no reason to believe in God” or some variation? They are elevating their opinion to the level of fact and making a truth claim based on it. As in, “Since I personally see no evidence for God, that means no one else does, either.” And then comes the Boghossian definition of faith, belief without evidence.

    It seems dognillo is saying he/she personally doesn’t see it, but that other people may have evidence that convinces them even if it doesn’t convince dognillo. Seems to be a big improvement from the New Atheists who worship their own powers of reason and claim for everybody whether there is good reason to believe something.

  11. FZM says:

    I will say this, though. After reading the Christian Bible I could never hope that something like that is true. The thought of anyone, even Satan, suffering everlasting torment, is too much for me to bear. Especially if God is considered to be omnibenevolent. That, probably more than anything else, makes me think that Christianity is simply unreasonable to believe.

    I think this is a pretty subjective kind of argument. If Satan is everlastingly evil and everlastingly committed to fostering evil I don’t see that Satan being punished in some everlasting way is evidently unreasonable.

  12. dognillo says:

    TFBW, of course I recognize that whether or not I want something to be true has no bearing on whether or not it is true. But, based on my conception of benevolence, it seems extraordinarily unlikely to me that an omnibenevolent being would consign anyone to a state of everlasting torment. And that’s a very powerful deterrent to my believing in Christianity.

    Thanks for your charity, Kevin. I think that it’s well placed.

  13. TFBW says:

    dognillo:

    TFBW, of course I recognize that whether or not I want something to be true has no bearing on whether or not it is true.

    I didn’t suggest that you thought otherwise. I remarked that your desire for the thing not to be true seemed to be a major influence on your requirements for evidence, not whether or not the belief is true. Your primary objection seems to be a philosophical one: how could an omnibenevolent being consign anyone (Lucifer included) to a state of everlasting torment? That might be an argument against God’s omnibenevolence (for a certain conception of omnibenevolence), but it has nothing to do with His existence. It seems to me that your high requirements for evidence are misplaced, and driven primarily by a desire not to believe in that sort of God, as I said.

    Perhaps you should focus your objections where they actually lie: in the realm of philosophy. Be frank that your primary objection is a philosophical — not empirical — one. Know what your objections truly are; don’t displace them. Displacement and rationalisation are the enemies of communication and harmony. You can’t even have a clean disagreement with someone when they’re displacing their objections (as I was recently reminded, in an unrelated, personal affair).

  14. dognillo says:

    TFBW, to put it as plainly as I can, I find the idea that an all knowing, all powerful, all loving being would send someone to a place of eternal torment to be unbelievably absurd. And that’s one reason why, absent some really, really, really convincing evidence, I reject that the God as described in the Christian bible is real. Sure, I also find that particular concept of God despicable, and I hope that He isn’t actually real, and I don’t see how anybody could hope that He is actually real, but the absurdity is what makes me disbelieve. I’ve heard of other despicable beings (Hitler and Stalin for example) that I wish had never existed, but they’re not claimed to have been all knowing and all powerful and all loving, so I have no problem believing that they existed.

  15. Doug says:

    @dognillo,
    What evidence do you have that “the God as described in the Christian bible [sic]” “would send someone to a place of eternal torment”? I acknowledge that there are fundamentalist preachers who would lead you to make such a connection… but do you find them to be particularly trustworthy? And how do you think they arrived at it? Is the basis of their connection sufficient to credit it? Just curious…

  16. TFBW says:

    @dognillo:

    I find the idea that an all knowing, all powerful, all loving being would send someone to a place of eternal torment to be unbelievably absurd.

    So far, so good. You have expressed a philosophical objection to the Christian conception of God (as you understand it).

    And that’s one reason why, absent some really, really, really convincing evidence, I reject that the God as described in the Christian bible is real.

    If by evidence, you mean empirical evidence (which is the only sense in which Dawkins uses the term), then this is where it goes awry. Your philosophical objection should stand regardless of empirical evidence, because it’s not the sort of objection which can be overcome with evidence. It’s a rational (rather than empirical) objection which requires a rational counter-argument, not empirical counter-evidence. You are dealing in abstractions such as “all knowing, all powerful, all loving being” which are not amenable to empirical investigation.

    I’ve previously suggested that you are rationalising. On further reflection, I think perhaps that you’re making a category error rather than rationalising: inappropriately mixing rational and empirical issues. If your objection really is the alleged contradiction of omnibenevolence and eternal torment, then you really ought to be closed-minded with regards to empirical evidence, because your objection is analogous to the idea that there can be no such thing as a round square. No amount of experimenting with circular or square things is going to overcome such an objection; likewise, no kind of physical evidence is going to overcome your objection to God.

    Even if you were to have the kind of personal closeness to God that Moses had, it would not overcome your objection that He can’t be omnibenevolent and yet sentence someone to eternal torment. Such evidence could only establish a God at the level of deism, and you’ve already claimed to be a four on the Dawkins scale there, so presumably much less confronting evidence would suffice.

    That’s not to say that you are or ought to be entirely closed-minded on the subject. It just so happens in this case that you need to be open on the rational (rather than empirical) front. You need to be open to alternative formulations of omnibenevolence, or the suggestion that your conception of Christian doctrine is off, for example. Only if you are closed to these possibilities are you closed-minded in a problematic manner. In other words, you can be closed to evidence, so long as you are open to argument.

    In closing, then, I would say that there are two separate issues. One is the nature of God as propounded by Christianity, to which you object on the basis that it entails a contradiction, or at least an inconsistency. You should be quite properly closed to empirical evidence against this position, but open-mindedness demands that you be open to counter-argument. The other issue is the existence of God as a being, without commitment to particular character traits (i.e. deism). You’ve described yourself as neutral on this front, but haven’t as yet specified what, if anything would persuade you one way or the other. Perhaps you’d care to elaborate on that front.

  17. dognillo says:

    Doug, yes there were fundamentalist preachers and believers that told me about hell being a place of eternal torment for nonbelievers, and they pointed out bible verses that seemed to confirm what they said. Are you saying that they were wrong? Not that they couldn’t be wrong, or that my understanding of what they and what the bible said couldn’t be wrong. Being wrong is always a possibility.

    It seems that it’s easy to get hung up on definitions. What does omnipotence mean? What does omniscience mean? What does omnibenevolent mean? What is hell? I suspect that each of these means different things to different people. So why don’t you simply tell me what your conception of God is, and, most importantly, how I can know that everything you say is true. I don’t see that as being too much to ask.

  18. Doug says:

    @dognillo,
    Considering that you could never bring me to “know that everything you say is true” I’m not at all confident that I could fulfill such a request to your satisfaction. But I really am curious to know what possible Bible verses that fundamentalist preachers could have used to “confirm” the primary reason you disallow any basis for Christianity. Don’t you have the same curiosity? You have now invoked this reason a number of times in this thread, but you have by no means constructed the necessary connection between the proposition that offends you and the Christian God who you disallow on the basis of that offense. Doesn’t intellectual honesty compel you to at least discover the basis for that (purported) connection?

  19. dognillo says:

    Doug, if you go on the GotQuestions.Org website, which I consider to be a really good source for information about what the Bible says, and select questions about heaven, hell and eternity you will find lots of Bible verses that describe hell as eternal torment for the unsaved. Those are the same verses that fundamentalist preachers have used to describe to me what God has in store for the unsaved. I hope that satisfies your curiosity.

  20. TFBW says:

    @dognillo:
    Much as I’d rather maintain a focus on your reasoning process, as Doug does above, I think it only fair to at least give you a partial answer on your Hell question.

    … there were fundamentalist preachers and believers that told me about hell being a place of eternal torment for nonbelievers, and they pointed out bible verses that seemed to confirm what they said.

    Framed the right way, isolated Bible verses can seem to confirm a lot of things. I was challenged on the subject of Hell years ago by an atheist, and at the time I had no reason to question the traditional view of Hell as eternal torment. But rather than simply regurgitate the traditions of my upbringing, I decided to do the Bible research myself, just to be clear about the basis for my position.

    I came away from that initial round of research far from convinced that there is a solid Biblical basis for the traditional view of Hell, with the exception of Satan’s ultimate place in it [Rev. 20:10]. I was expecting it to be a fairly clear-cut sort of thing, but it turns out to be anything but that (and I say this as one who considers a seven-day recent creation a fairly clear-cut thing, Biblically speaking, so tar me with the “fundamentalist” brush as you please). There are some things which are clear cut, like the fact that all will ultimately face judgement, but the exact details of what follows are not so clear. In my conversation with the aforementioned atheist, I backed down from the traditional view of Hell, and had to profess a degree of uncertainty about it.

    In the intervening years, I have continued my reading on the subject (as resources allow — it’s not a hot topic, if you’ll excuse the pun). The more I read on the subject, the less certain I become. Aside from the traditional view, there are two major alternatives which I think can’t be dismissed on a textual basis: Annihilationism, and Universalism.

    Annihilationism is the idea that what follows judgement is either eternal life, or eternal death. All rise from the dead to be judged, but some do so only to receive the wages of sin — a second (permanent, eternal) death in the lake of fire. It’s no picnic, but it’s not eternal torment.

    Universalism is trickier: there are heretical forms of it, so it tends to be dismissed as heresy as soon as the word is mentioned. A simple but conservative formulation which can not be so easily dismissed, however, notes that it is God’s will for all to be saved, and that He may succeed in this aim. On that formulation, Universalism is just the idea that God’s will is ultimately done. It makes no commitment to the nature of Hell, since it treats humans in Hell as counterfactual.

    For what it’s worth, I remain somewhat agnostic on the issue, but I do lean towards Annihilationism as being most harmonious with the text, as it lets death be death in a much more ordinary sense. I remain doubtful that the Bible teaches Universalism, but universal salvation is still an appropriate thing for which to hope, regardless.

  21. Doug says:

    @TFBW,
    Thank you for your thoughtful summary of your findings.
    @dognillo,
    Considering that in answer to the question “Is Hell real? Is Hell eternal?” GotQuestions.org provides: “since God is an infinite and eternal Being, the punishment for sin, death, must also be infinite and eternal” (um, does. not. follow.) and the verses it gives are either a) part of a very surreal vision (i.e., Revelation) or b) part of a parable (whose other details are not taken literally by anyone), perhaps you might re-think the proposition altogether?

  22. John says:

    TFBW said:

    ” The more I read on the subject, the less certain I become. ”

    Well,there are more versions of the traditional view of Hell.

    But Hell doesn’t have to be eternal torturous torment.

    C.S.Lewis describes Hell in a way that doesn’t include Dante style torture in The Great Divorce.

    There are also other views such as that Hell is just eternal shame.God is basically omnipresent and those who reject God cannot escape from Him,and they feel shame because of their sins and their deeds for eternity.

    Another view says Hell is basically an eternal state of sin.And that sin is destroying and degrading people eternally,as if they were in a state of addiction,but not until the point of annihilation.

  23. TFBW says:

    @John: I’ve read The Great Divorce, and while it’s thought-provoking in many ways, I don’t think that its portrayal of Hell is credibly Biblical. I limited my options above to those (in my scope of awareness) which can reasonably claim to have scriptural backing. Speculation runs much wider than that, of course.

  24. dognillo says:

    TFBW, thanks for your answer. I think that’s what I needed to hear.

    In having this conversation, I can start to understand why you guys resent the New Atheists so much. And, from having been on lots of atheist sites I saw a tremendous amount of close mindedness and generally nasty behavior from a lot of people. Especially when politics comes up. I’m a libertarian, so I’ve been on the receiving end of a lot of their wrath. It’s pretty discouraging if one values civil conversation.

  25. Kevin says:

    Dognillo, that’s why Atheism Plus is / was such a monstrosity. Combine the dogmatic zealotry of so many progressive activists with the absolute certainty in one’s own reasoning and anti religious bigotry found in New Atheism, and you’ve got something nasty.

    Fortunately their numbers are small enough that they can be safely dismissed, but if there were tens of millions of people like that…Hoo boy.

  26. Andrew says:

    If I could add a couple of comments on the “eternal torment” discussion…

    There’s one perspective on “sin” that basically describes it as the attitude and action of treason against the eternal creator of the universe. It’s not simply “making mistakes”, but volitional rebellion. Mankind wants to be god without God.

    In many ways, God gives mankind a taste of what mankind demands. In this world, in this age, we experience a taste of what it is like to live with God’s hand withdrawn. Yet in his mercy, he does not withdraw it fully, and extends his offer to accept our repentance. This doesn’t address the ontological problem of Evil, or why God would allow it in the first place, but very much addresses the practical problem of Evil – God lets the consequences of sin reign (partially) so that man will repent.

    And if man will not repent? Then God withdraws his hand fully, and mankind gets what he wants – the horror of existing cut-off from God.

    Now, this doesn’t address the Hell vs Annihilation vs Universalism from Scripture, except to point out that it’s hardly unjust for God, when confronted by our demands that we get to be boss, to give us a little taste of how bad that would be. Nor is it unjust when we double down on it and accuse him – and not our arrogant and foolish demands – of being the problem for God to actually give us what we are demanding and let us suffer with the consequences. The great (and wondrous) scandal of the Christian faith is not that people perish, but that people are forgiven Punishment is justice. Forgiveness is injustice, also known as God’s amazing mercy.

  27. Doug says:

    @Andrew,
    Thanks for that — exceedingly well put.

  28. Michael says:

    @Andrew,
    Thanks for that — exceedingly well put.

    I second that.

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