Sunday, 8 October 2017

Seems Implausible

I've often been curious as what precisely is meant by the term “plausible” in apologetics.  WLC and his ilk* frequently bang on about how their arguments build a cumulative case based on their being "more plausible than not".  I wondered whether they have looked a dictionary (my emphasis):

plausible (google)

(of an argument or statement) seeming reasonable or probable.
"a plausible explanation"
(of a person) skilled at producing persuasive arguments, especially ones intended to deceive.
"a plausible liar"
plausible (merriam webster)

1:  superficially fair, reasonable, or valuable but often specious <a plausible pretext>
2:  superficially pleasing or persuasive <a swindler… , then a quack, then a smooth, plausible gentleman — R. W. Emerson>
3:  appearing worthy of belief
plausible (

1. having an appearance of truth or reason; seemingly worthy of approval or acceptance; credible; believable:
a plausible excuse; a plausible plot.
2. well-spoken and apparently, but often deceptively, worthy of confidence or trust:
a plausible commentator.
plau·si·ble (thefreedictionary)

1.    Seemingly or apparently valid, likely, or acceptable; credible:
a plausible excuse.
2. Persuasive or ingratiating, especially in an effort to deceive.


It seems odd to me that the term "plausible" should be used so frequently by WLC when it is so tightly linked to the mere appearance of truth, validity and reason and also to deceptiveness.

Why not avoid that problem by using the phrase "more likely than not" or "more reasonable than not" or "more consistent with the facts than not"?

And yes, I know, Blackwell gives "plausible" a specific philosophical meaning, but even that should be read carefully (my emphasis again):

A claim is plausible if it subjectively seems worthy of belief even if we have not necessarily studied its objective ground

This doesn't really do much more than say that something is plausible if it's superficially convincing or comes from a subjectively credible authority.  And it includes a caveat such that when we have a claim that is “plausible”, we have not fully (or properly) investigated the evidence in support of it.  A claim that is completely wrong can still be plausible, and an (apparently) implausible claim can be right.

This doesn't, subjectively speaking, seem to be the best of grounds on which to argue for the existence of one’s god.  Belief in maybe but, honestly, is minimal justification for belief all the theist is after?  This doesn’t seem plausible.


Examples of use of the phrase “more plausible than not” but WLC and his ilk:

WLC actually seems to be one the most frequent users of the phrase.  Here’s what he had to say in a booklet, Five Arguments for God:

In fact, if the premises, taken together, are more plausible than not, then the conclusion is guaranteed to be more plausible than not, and so you should believe it.

Apparently, WLC believes that there is an obligation to believe that which is plausible.


There’s an interesting effect of negation in English which I suspect sneaks past many people.  Naively it seems that the use of “not” or negating prefixes such as “im-” imply some sort of negative reflection of the concept in question.  But this is not the case.  Consider the words “possible” and “impossible” in the following context:

It is ____________ that X (where X = (X is true)).

If we think of a phase space, mapping out the modalities of X, there might be only a very small area in which X is possible meaning that everywhere else in that phase space, X is impossible.  If there is no part of the phase space in which X is necessary (where is it not possible for X to be impossible), then across the entirety of that phase space, it is possible that not-X = (X is not true).  In other words, impossible, or not possible, is a much stronger concept than a “possible not”.

This imbalance in the strength of a term and its negation applies also to plausible (and implausible), perhaps even more so.  Because the bar for being plausible is set so low, it becomes a major issue if a claim fails to clear to that bar – so that a claim is “implausible” is a very strong statement.  When saying that a claim is “implausible”, you are not implying that it’s plausible that the claim isn’t true, you’re not even implying that the claim doesn’t seem reasonable or probable, but rather you are implying that it’s not possible for the claim to seem reasonable or probable.

I note that WLC does not shy away from appealing to the (apparent) implausibility of competing hypotheses, sometimes saying they are “extraordinarily implausible”.  I suspect that these sorts of claims are quite effective as rhetoric, in part because of an implicit understanding of how strong an appeal to implausibility actually is.

That all said, I detect a bit of manoeuvring on the part of WLC to avoid any problematic claims to certainty.  For example, from the WLC-Tooley debate:

Now I'm not claiming that I can prove that God exists with some kind of mathematical certainty. I’m just claiming that on balance the evidence is such that theism is more plausible than not. Let me present, therefore, six reasons why I think it’s more plausible that God exists than that atheism is true.

I think what WLC is doing here, consciously or not, trying to eat his cake and eat it too.  He first claims to not achieve an unrealistic standard of proof (some kind of mathematical certainty) and then he compares a plausibility claim with an implausibility claim.  Such a comparison is a rhetorical cheat.

The theist should not really be comparing the plausibility of her belief claims again their implausibility.  She should instead be digging deeper into those claims and going beyond questions of plausibility, beyond questions of appearance, seeming and subjectivity and looking at the objective grounding of her particular form of theism.  But of course, this is unlike to be an approach that an apologist would promote.

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