March 22, 2011

An Argument from Reactive Attitudes for the Existence of God

In The Second-Person Standpoint, Stephen Darwall notes the fact that "we speak of being grateful for good weather" as a possible objection to his view that reactive attitudes are 'second-personal'. He goes on to dismiss the objection on grounds that such gratitude "evidently involves the conceit that the weather is a free gift, as if from God" (p. 73). This remark struck me because I have known people who feel a sort of psychological need to believe in God in order to have someone to be grateful to (or, in other cases, angry at) for events beyond human (or animal, or presumably space alien) control. At first glance, it certainly appears (to me, at least) that belief based on this kind of psychological need would be irrational. Perhaps, however, the matter is not so simple. Consider the following argument:

  1. Human beings are so constituted as to generally feel reactive attitudes in appropriate circumstances.

  2. Many human beings feel reactive attitudes about, e.g., the weather.

  3. Therefore,
  4. It is appropriate to feel reactive attitudes about the weather (inductively, from 1 and 2).

  5. It is only appropriate to feel reactive attitudes about events which are actions of some agent.

  6. Therefore,
  7. Weather events are actions of some agent (from 3 and 4).

A lot of moral theories seem to be committed to (1). (2) is empirically verified. The strength of the inductive inference will depend on how reliable our tendencies to feel reactive attitudes in appropriate circumstances are, and also on how common it is to feel reactive attitudes about the weather (and other similar things). So that might be a weak point. (4) is pretty widely held and intuitively plausible, and (5) follows deductively from (3) and (4).

Personally, I think the kind of reliability we have in (1) is pretty limited (we get things wrong a lot), so I don't think the argument is very compelling. Still, it does seem that there might be people whose epistemic situation is such that their credence in the existence of God can be justifiably boosted by an argument along these lines.

(Cross-posted at The Prosblogion)

Posted by Kenny at March 22, 2011 11:48 AM
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Thank you for the interesting article.

The argument has a great debt to the magnitude of the phenomena involved in step 2. Weather is rather world-encompassing, and we feel its effects all the time.
However, there is no limits set on these phenomena. If we were so inclined, we could substitute in "Many humans feel reactive attitudes about stepping-into-deep-mud-puddles".

We would tend to ascribe agency to stepping-into-deep-mud-puddles.
This can either be (1) trivial, in that we were indeed the steppers involved, so we ourselves did the stepping, or (2) sort of invoking a plethora of surrounding powers (with whom we react) which must be supplicated lest we step into mud puddles and worse.

I tend to agree that step 1 is a real problem. "Appropriate circumstances" is not close to the meaning and weight of "Therefore, it is appropriate..."

Posted by: Montag at March 28, 2011 4:26 AM

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