Sunday, February 21, 2010

Marilyn McCord Adams on god and rational optimism

In this podcast, McCord Adams claims that it is a necessary condition to be a "rational optimist" to believe in god. The first time I heard this podcats, I couldn't help but be impressed with this line of argument as it does have its appeal to me despite the fact that I thought it very much wrong. I was impressed by its originality and its odd perspective on things. I couldn't at first put my finger on specifically what was wrong with it but now I know. It's wrong for several possible reasons. Since I've never read her books or papers, I have to go on what she said in the podcats but it seems to me to be a wholly fallacious argument due to an equivocation on the word "optimism" or because it makes the fatalistic fallacy.

First of all, her argument doesn't purport to argue for the existence of God based on ontological or cosmological or even, strictly speaking, ethical considerations like most traditional theistic arguments (it's a "practical" argument much like Kant's). It seems that her argument is aimed at a charge of irrationality of holding both that one can be optimistic and atheist. So it's only directed at optimistic atheists and will not work against those who are pessimist about the chances for future human goodness and the reduction of evils. She says that it's inconsistent to both be rational and optimistic given the history of horrendous evils in the world. This history is supposed to count as evidence of the future state of things. She claims it's a necessary condition to believe in god if we are rationally optimistic because history has shown that things won't likely turn that much better in terms of evils committed. It will take a supernatural will to right all the wrongs and truly make a better world. That's what I take her argument to consists in. So if it is necessary to believe in god to be rationally optimistic in this world, optimistic atheists must abandon either their optimism or their atheism or else concede that their non belief in god is irrational! Since atheists aren't likely to abandon their optimism, to avoid charges of irrationality, they must bite the bullet and adopt a belief in god to justify that optimism.

My first response to her argument for God's existence is for "existential" reasons. She seems to equivocate on "optimism." I understand optimism to be either an affective attitude (or feeling) for a positive outcome or it could be a belief in the likelihood of that positive outcome. So she seems to argue that a rational and realistic atheist is forced to concede that since humans have not improved that much in our basic bad treatment of each other (which is a huge and largely unsubstantiated assumption), we must adopt a negative belief based on our history that we will not be able to improve and that our affective state of positive feelings about improvement and redemption of evils should follow our "pessimist" but wholly justified belief.

Now for the sake of argument, I won't deny that humans have not bettered themselves in regard to the evils we commit.

I also would say that for the most part our attitudes whether positive or negative on life should follow our (rational) beliefs. In other words, normatively, we should have affective states concordant or at least not at tensions with our beliefs. If I know that house cats are safe, tend to be nice, and make good pets, I should not fear them or have negative attitudes (or affective states towards them) regarding potential for harming me. If I know that the president is a mean, nasty and untrustworthy person, I should not still have warm gooey feelings of inspiration regarding his character traits. That much is clear.

But on occasion, we should not have belief concordant affective states associated with our beliefs (or the affective aspect of "aliefs") and in fact we should have discordant affective states.

Consider if your wife or husband had cancer and all the best doctors based on the latest scientific findings on the current state of his/her condition said he/she had little chance of recovery and will die soon. So even though we should, in some sense, have a pessimistic outlook on the chances of survival of our spouse, we should adopt a more roseate affective state towards their full recovery. We should have positive feelings towards their chances of recovery even though we believe (and it is possible that they will rationally believe too) that their chances are slim. We should have these positive feelings towards full recovery despite the justified beliefs. In fact, we wouldn't be good spouses, friends, family members, etc if we didn't adopt these feelings in just these kinds of circumstances.

Consider the concept of hope. I can hope that you, my best friend, will win the lottery the next time you buy a ticket despite the fact that I know you will have little chances of winning and I can be fully wanting you winning it. There's nothing irrational about this. In some sense, that's being optimistic about you winning the lottery. So the concept of hope involves a lot of these optimistic feelings (attitudes or affective states)without there even being a necessity built into the concept for an optimistic belief. Indeed, we hope for things all the time for ourselves and our loved ones without believing they are likely to befall us. We also sometimes hope that the wicked will get their just deserts even on occasions when we believe that there's little chances of it happening. Reality is simply irrelevant to this kind of attitude. The expression of the positive "optimistic" attitudes in hoping for the best is a gesture of good will and required for our being good human beings.

Even when there is no chance of a positive outcome, we may still have good reason to be hopeful. Consider the doctor protagonists in Camus' The Plague. He can work like he does and presumably have the same optimistic attitudes (despite his actual beliefs) as he does as if his situation had not been that dire without being irrational. We may have "existential" reasons to adopt such feelings despite knowing there is no chance of a positive outcome not because we know it will make a difference in the outcome but because we are doing what's required to be worthy of that positive outcome.

So I would argue that an atheist can be rationally optimistic because we can hope for much better even if we believe there's little chances of that happening. I'll call this kind of optimistic atheist the "hopeful atheist". So this shows that McCord Adams is wrong on the necessity part of her claim but maybe she is right that most or many atheists should revise their beliefs on god because most atheists optimism is based not on this kind of reality irrelevant attitude from hope but based on not being able to come to terms with reality? That is, if they fully embraced rational beliefs about reality, they would come to see that their attitudes had been wrong. I'll call these atheists "blinders atheists". Then her argument would only be aimed at these blinders atheists and would be ineffective against hopeful atheists. This then is a much more plausible albeit far less strong a claim (again, assuming that her claim that history shows there is no improvement in the perpetration of evils).

I think that McCord Adams also makes a fatalistic fallacy because we can argue that even though it's unlikely that there will be much less evil in the future, for that possibility to happen, it will be much more likely if we adopt a more optimistic attitude. So that will gives us rational reasons to adopt it because it will raise our chances to improve the world even if that improvement will not make it probable that it will.


  1. If you want I can email you a PDF I have of Adams talking about the Problem of Evil. Her solution is very specifically Christian.

  2. Yes, that would be great, Carl.