Sunday, September 12, 2010

Response to Common Sense Atheism's Response to 'Does God Exist?'

Five months ago, Apologetics 315 published a series of blog essays on the question, “Is Christianity True?” I submitted a brief essay on the existence of God (Does God Exist?) as a prelude to the series. After all, if there is no God, it is somewhat irrelevant to argue for the existence of God. The blog essays have also been released on iTunes and as an e-book (also available from http://apologetics315.blogspot.com). There was considerable interaction and discussion following the publication of each essay – from Christians of various stripes as well as skeptics and atheists of various stripes. It was a wonderful exercise in apologetic dialogue. Apparently, the essay series also attracted Luke’s attention, from ‘commonsenseatheism’. He has just begun publishing blog essays promoted as ‘refutations’ of the original Apologetics 315 essays. On Saturday, he released the first essay, his response to my original essay. You can read his full response here - http://commonsenseatheism.com/?p=11041

I have no intention of entering into a lengthy call-and-response, but nonetheless I think it is worthwhile to respond to some of the points that Luke raises – several of them are insightful and worthy of deep consideration. I do not propose to give full answers to them (any more than I intended to give full versions of any of the arguments I provided in my original essay) – but hopefully enough food for thought.



(1) Luke disapproves of my quotation of Ecclesiastes, insisting that “Ecclesiastes actually says life is meaningless with God.” I would argue that the author of Ecclesiastes speaks throughout of his attempt to find joy, satisfaction, purpose, pleasure, and fulfillment in every which way possible – and yet finds it all ultimately disappointing. How does the book conclude? “Now all has been heard; here is the conclusion of the matter: Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole of man. For God will bring every deed into judgment, including every hidden thing, whether it is good or evil.” (Eccl. 12:13-14) His citation of Eccl. 3:14 does not demonstrate what he wants it to. Let me re-emphasize: Ecclesiastes tells of the meaningless of life without God, the fruitlessness of human pursuits; it does not argue that life is meaningless even with God.

(2) I must say that I would share Alonzo Fyfe’s disdain and rebellion if that was how I pictured God – but his picture of God is inimical to mine. Fortunately (from my perspective), God calls us to “promote cooperation and well-being over conflict and suffering,” so we do not need to try to “thwart” God in such efforts. Nonetheless, there may be something concrete to the expressed intention to work “against the purpose of my Creator.” Of course, one cannot thwart a non-existent deity, nor work against the purposes of a Creator who didn’t make the heavens and the earth; but from my perspective, the human condition today is indeed one of rebellion against the good purposes and intentions of our loving Creator. Be that as it may …

(3) Luke did not appreciate my ‘existential argument’ for God’s existence – if you followed the dialogue on Apologetics 315, you will note that several others did not either. However, most countered my argument without calling it “shameless, cult-like, … lies … [and] childish,” and suggesting that I (and Christianity) thrive on “insecurity … poverty and ignorance and fear and instability and risk.” I wonder whether Luke would insist that everyone who embrace Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord is “insecure” or “superstitious” or otherwise somehow deficient (morally? intellectually?).

(4) Luke asserts (without justification or supporting evidence) that “The poorest nations in the world are the most religious.” He concludes that when people have “stability and safety and education and health care and job security,” they no longer “need gods.” I’m sure that comes as quite a shock to the tens of millions of Americans (and the millions of Canadians) who have both “stability and safety and education and health care and job security” and a vibrant Christian faith. Indeed, it comes as quite a shock to me! Let me also briefly note the rising prosperity of China, which is contemporaneous with the massive growth of the indigenous Chinese church. Furthermore, even though traditional Christianity has been on the decline across the Western world for the past two centuries, there has been a simultaneous rise in alternative religious expressions – paganism, new Age, breakaway Christian sects, Eastern mysticism, etc. The religious state of the world does not support Luke’s cherished secularization thesis; indeed, a rising number of sociologists of religion (generally not friendly to Christianity, I might add) argue (as I do) that religion (including the desire to know and touch the transcendent) is inherent to humanity. I would also point you to the classic work “Amused to Death” (set to music by ex-Pink Floyd singer Roger Waters as well, I might add), which brings Blaise Pascal’s penetrating insights (from the mid-1600s) into the 20th and 21st centuries – modern man (in the stable, educated, wealthy west) is seeking ever-greater escapism and diversion. Oh – and as an aside, Luke asserts that I set forth an “empirically false” claim, but then does nothing to demonstrate its falsity.

(5) Luke sets two arguments up as equally false. On the one side is his “yearning to be the next Matthew Bellamy.” On the other side is what I posited as the (nearly-)universal human yearning for eternal life. [I also posited the universal human yearning to know and to touch the divine reality.] He concludes: “Wishful thinking does not indicate truth.” That certainly applies to the first side of the equation (as well as my own childhood yearning to be Wayne Gretzky), but he does absolutely nothing to show how it applies to the second … because it doesn’t. The universal human desire to know and to touch the divine is not wishful thinking; it is real. Yes, we can deny it is there, we can seek to suppress and quench it. But it rises up unbidden. It is a natural desire – it comes even if nobody teaches it to us. Desiring to be like Matthew Bellamy, on the other hand … well, that’s not natural. Nor is it even remotely universal. The desire for God and the desire for eternal life are much more like the desire for sex and the desire for food than they are like the desire to be like somebody else – that was the heart of my argument. Taking these first points together, the experiential argument for God’s existence remains intact.

(6) Luke does not spend much time on the Kalam Cosmological argument – for those who desire to read someone who does, I recommend William Lane Craig’s work on the subject. But four brief comments are in order:
[a] Luke very misleadingly suggests that the A-theory of time is false, and that its falsity is old news. That assertion is just plain wrong: there is by no means a consensus (from any group, physicists, philosophers or otherwise) that the B-theory of time is true and the A-theory false. I’m not sure whether he is simply unaware of that, but I am honestly not sure how he could have arrived at the conclusion that the A-theory of time has been ‘disproven’ or the B-theory of time ‘proven’ or ‘established’.
[b] Even if the A-theory of time was mistaken (which it is not, in my humble opinion – rather, it is by far superior explanatorily and conceptually; at any rate, Luke has done nothing to convince anyone it is mistaken), Luke has not indicated how that would pose a problem for my argument.
[c] In a severe understatement, Luke admits that “it’s hard to see how the universe could be self-caused or a necessary being.” But then he adds that positing God as the creator is somehow a “far worse problem,” again without showing how this is the case. Naked assertions are pretty easy to make; substantiating them is much harder – but Luke has done only the former, not the latter.
[d] Luke accuses the KCA of employing “intuitions and language in a slippery and sneaky way,” but yet again does not demonstrate how. I fail to see the power of his argument – the rhetorical name-calling is quite effective when preaching to the choir, but Luke has certainly not given me any reason to take this part of his response seriously.

(7) I’m not sure why Luke wants to be shown “evidence that life has intrinsic value;” I take this to be self-evident to reflective human beings. Furthermore, I wonder whether there could ever be anything that anyone would accept as empirical evidence that life does indeed have intrinsic value. Luke is simply setting up an impossible ideal. Neither have I ever seen any evidence that ‘love’ exists, but I don’t doubt that one bit either. It’s a sad world that never embraces the insights of human intuition and feeling.

(8) Is fine-tuning an air-tight argument for the existence of God? No. Did I present it as such? No. Does the exquisite fine-tuning of the universe make more sense within a theistic universe than an atheistic universe? Yes - and even agnostic (atheist?) physicists like Paul Davies and Stephen Hawking admit that. That’s the simple extent of the argument. On both the Kalam and fine-tuning side of the cosmological argument, then, Luke has not effectively countered my claims – the argument stands intact.

(9) Luke properly constructs my moral argument, but incorrectly identifies the way that we know objective morality does exist. Yes, it is true (as I said) that “deep down everyone knows that morality is objective;” but that’s not where the argument ends. The deep intuition that we all have that morality is objective constantly wells up in our actions and words. If you want to read more on that particular topic, check out my blog post on the moral argument for the existence of God - http://tawapologetics.blogspot.com/2010/03/god-goodness-i-moral-signpost-of-gods.html Luke, along with everyone else, theist or not, acknowledges in his words and actions that he too believes in objective morality – indeed, he believes that “cooperation” and “well-being” are objectively better than “conflict” and “suffering”. I agree whole-heartedly, and would insist that those who disagree have consciously or unconsciously repressed the moral sensitivities that God created us with.

(10) I like Luke’s example of the “giant alien” telling us that moral sensibilities were grounded in the alien! Good stuff. Of course there is a qualitative difference between the giant alien and the Christian God. God is not just ‘out there’ or ‘in the sky’ – rather, he is our benevolent Creator. He made us; the alien didn’t. Again, the example is amusing, but it is not applicable. And as an aside, I haven’t seen the Euthyphro dilemma as a problem for years. So on the moral argument for God, again, Luke has left my argument intact.

Just to summarize, then: I presented experiential, cosmological, and moral arguments that point towards the existence of God. While Luke shared various thoughts, and made numerous assertions, he has done nothing to refute any of those three arguments.

(11) I appreciate Luke’s warning against bowing down “to your feelings and intuitions.” I want to close with a similar warning. Don’t be moved by strong rhetoric and moving words alone. Only accept arguments if there is substance and content within them. Use logic, critical thinking, science, and yes, even well-grounded common sensical intuition to evaluate the arguments that are laid before you.

(12) On a personal note. Luke – you have some good things to say; while I do not agree with you on much, it is obvious that you have thought things through. You’re an intelligent and articulate man. I found it unfortunate that you frequently descend to name-calling and mudslinging in your response. (I hope I haven’t done the same in my response to your response, and if I do come across as at all condescending or dismissive, please point it out to me so that I can apologize.) I understand that many people (atheist, Christian, and otherwise) prefer to hear their apologetic champions ridicule and demean the other side. “If you can make fun of my opponent and make them look stupid, then it helps me feel better about my intellectual position.” It’s an effective rhetorical strategy. But I am more interested in dialogue and pursuit of truth, and I find that respect is more fruitful. Furthermore, rhetorical name-calling may help keep the choir convinced, but it’s not likely to persuade those who are not already committed to your perspective.

28 comments:

  1. Tawa,

    Great response. I've been intrigued by Luke's blog since I read his deconversion story, but the more I read and interact, the less I see that is unique about his atheism from anyone else's, other than he's more well read than the typical internet atheist.

    A couple of things with regards to this post. I don't know how one would go about "proving" the B-theory of time anyway. If it were true, how could we ever know it since we never experience the flow of time in that way?

    With respect to his giant alien in which moral values are in, God is also omnipresent (which means these values would be with Him everywhere; that deserves some more thought perhaps) and created us in His image, which includes His moral image. That seems to be part of the reason we have innate reactions to certain moral atrocities. On a practical level, it certainly makes more sense than the society-makes-right desire utilitarianism he adheres to.

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  2. bossmanham,

    Just a quick note. You prove the B-theory of time by defending special relativity, which isn't hard.

    Also, desire utilitarianism does not endorse "society makes right." That is cultural relativism.

    My response to Tawa's response (thanks Tawa!) goes up in a few hours.

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  3. Luke,

    Just a quick note. You prove the B-theory of time by defending special relativity, which isn't hard.

    No you don't. All STR shows is that different vantage points result in different speeds that are observed by different individuals, assuming there is no universal frame of reference. I don't see how you jump from that to all events in time being equally real.

    Also, desire utilitarianism does not endorse "society makes right." That is cultural relativism.

    Yep, which it seems to me what desire utilitarianism amounts to. If a bunch of people desire somethings, then only choices that lead to the most of those desires being fulfilled are right. Not sure how that isn't "society makes right."

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  4. Brother in the Lord,

    Hello!

    As a fellow believer in Christ I appreciate your response but find it curious that you think Luke was engaging in mudslinging and name calling.

    Luke seems like one of the more respectful atheists
    out there. I read his article and saw no examples of
    rudeness nor mudslinging. He was being straightforward.

    My wish for myself and my fellow believers - that we
    not be so sensitive and on the prowl for verbal attacks.
    Too often we think that atheists are mocking us when
    they are not. All this does is prove their point about
    us having a persecution complex and being sensitive.

    Even if this does not convince you, remember, Jesus
    did not complain when He was persecuted. Perceived
    slights on the internet are nowhere near as obscene
    as what Jesus went through, so why should we cry about
    it? As believers, shouldn't we have the thickest skin?

    Please consider this. Let us no be so sensitive
    and instead focus on arguments. The more we complain, the less glorious He seems.

    In Christ,

    Jordan T.

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  5. bossmanham,

    Here is the standard argument.

    And here is my second reply to Tawa.

    Luke

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  6. Just to clarify - I did not feel personally slighted by Luke's post. I did not take offence to it. Jordan's comment is entirely appropriate - as followers of the one who willingly endured all for our sake, we should indeed have "the thickest skin." Besides which, I'm Canadian, and therefore notoriously difficult to personally offend. Jordan, you're also absolutely correct that the "perceived slights" we receive on the internet are "nowhere near as obscene as what Jesus went through." Absolutely correct. Please don't think I was crying in my Cheerios as I pondered how Luke had maligned my good name. Nothing of the sort. Rather, I was simply seeking to show that he had indeed couched his argument rhetorically in such a way as to suggest that one maintaining my argument is somehow childish, idiotic and/or exploitative - the closing implication was that Christians have their minds so wide-open as to let their brains fall out. Hey - it is amusing; but I do not perceive it as particularly respectful or fruitful to dialogue. Am I wrong?

    It seems that the point I was trying to make either (a) was made very poorly; or (b) perhaps is illegitimate to make at all. I lean towards (a), but am open to being shown that I am wrong.

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  7. Thanks for your response, Tawa!

    Did Luke couch his argument in rhetoric? A rather light layer, yes.

    Is he wrong to do so or is he deserving of blame?

    No. I can think of two reasons.

    1.) Argument alone doesn't persuade people. This a point Nietzsche often makes and is one of the reasons his writing is often rhetorically fiesty. He has a point and an argument to provide yet he also uses his style to jab at the reader. The purpose is to stir them up so that they will interact with the arguments (or to at least keep those away that may not actually benefit from understanding such arguments.) Rhetoric often inspires us to pay attention and as such, and in the manner used by Luke, is no point of blame.

    2.) Our book, The BIBLE, even uses fiery rhetoric. I don't know that there is any 'polite' way of quoting Psalm 14:1 or any other scripture where non-believers are called 'fools'. As to whether God intends to awaken hearts with such rhetoric or just mock those not elected, I leave for others to decide ;)

    Thanks for considering, Tawa. I appreciate your response.

    In Christ,

    Jordan

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  8. Luke, again, how would different vantage points result in different speeds that are observed by different individuals, assuming there is no universal frame of reference, show that I still exist in 1985 nursing on my mother. I acknowledge that If I traveled near the speed of light, time would pass differently for me than it would you. That doesn't show that all events in history still exist as real events. All that objection shows is what I've already acknowledged.

    Further, if there is a universal frame of reference, which recent discoveries in simultaneity point to, then this objection fails. It's nowhere near "proven" as you hastily put it.

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  9. Maybe I'm missing something here, but it looks to me like the "Does God Exist" essay was tailored for people who have a yearning for something to fill the God-shaped hole in their hearts; who crave eternal life (and presumably not a miserable eternal life, but one of maximum bliss); for people who feel their lives have no meaning if there is no God to assign one to them; who feel humans aren't competent to work out among themselves any reasonable moral standards; and who believe the universe sprang into existence in some abrupt, inexplicable, seemingly miraculous fashion, along the lines of the scenario proposed by the priest Lemaitre. I can see how this article might carry some persuasive weight with such people (if any exist who still need persuading), but isn't this like trying to see if you can score a goal starting out one inch away from goal line? And even if we suppose, for arguments sake, that humans do have some sort of innate need to believe in a god of some sort, and further allow the far-fetched notion that the existence of a human need establishes that there will be something to satisfy that need, could it not simply be the god belief itself which satisfies this putative need for god belief?

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  10. Shuttlebug:

    Perhaps you are missing my purpose. My essay was tailored for people who have a yearning for truth, and are open to considering clues from (a) the human condition, (b) cosmology, and (c) morality that point to the existence of a transcendent Creator. None of the arguments were presented as comprehensive or exhaustive, but rather discussion-starters (hence the suggested supplementary reading in each area).

    I would also point you to atheist thinkers like Will Provine, Albert Camus, and Jacques Monod, who agree with me that human life (without God, who of course they believe does not exist) lacks significant or ultimate meaning. (Provine allows for 'proximate' meaning and fulfillment, but acknowledges this as qualitatively different than what Christians acknowledge as meaning given the existence of God.)

    I also point you to agnostic thinkers like Paul Davies who have concluded that the universe did indeed spring into existence in an abrupt, inexplicable, seemingly miraculous fashion at the Big Bang (which he explains by reference to an overarching multiverse) - hardly a "Lemaitre" figure, n'est-ce pas?

    I agree with you that it "could be" that "the god belief itself ... satisfies" our innate "need to believe in a god of some sort". If there was no other evidence for God, then your scenario would be more convincing to me. But I believe in God on other grounds than merely the 'sensus divinitatis' within us. E.g. cosmology, morality, other areas like the existence of human rationality and logic, and my own personal relational knowledge of God.

    However, imagine with me for a moment as well - imagine that the Christian story is true, that there is a God who created the universe, and crafted human beings in His own image as the crown of His Creation. Imagine that He loves His creatures relentlessly and deeply, and created us to have intimate relationship with Him. Would not that scenario also explain why we as human beings have an insatiably religious spirit, which unquenchably craves to know and to touch the divine? I am not asking whether you accept or believe the argument - clearly you do not, and I'm sure you have reasons for that. I merely ask whether it has explanatory power; whether you can acknowledge that yes, it makes sense (if one believes, as a Christian does, that this is the true story) of things.

    Incidentally, throughout his 50+ years as a hard-core atheist, Antony Flew appeared to accept the explanatory power of Christianity, and acknowledged that it made sense of the world FOR CHRISTIANS. He just happened to believe that it was all false. Such is the basis of rational dialogue and exchange - acknowledging that your dialogue partner is a rational human being with good reasons for believing what you are convinced is wrong.

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  11. Jordan - your point is valid, and I accept what you are saying as a mild and well-deserved rebuke.

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  12. Greetings to Tawa,
    If you mean your essay was tailored for people who have a yearning for some particular sort of transcendent spiritual or supernatural truth, yes, I could see that. But it looked like an essay which started with a conclusion and then tried to find hints and clues which could be interpreted as pointing towards that direction. Regarding evidence from the human condition, it so happens that I'm a human myself, so I have a direct means of testing some of those claims, and in my case I can detect no God-shaped void in my psyche, I feel no yearning for a god relationship, and I certainly do not want eternal life. Regarding morality, it seems apparent to me that the domain of morality is strictly confined to considerations of the interface between minds. That makes it a product of sentience which has no objective reality outside of that domain. But that doesn't mean morality is utterly arbitrary. It just means it is something which needs to be worked out between minds. Considerations of meaning are similarly anchored in sentience. To mean something is to operate as a placeholder signifying something other than the thing itself. But nothing can be signified without a receptor mind. So my view is that absolutely nothing in the universe matters, or has meaning, or purpose, or significance, except where, and only to the degree that, some mind somewhere thinks it does. I don't see how the addition of a cosmic mind would do anything to change that, so I consider my view compatible with the atheist and the theist perspective alike.
    Cosmic evidence is not so directly accessible to me. I can't use introspection to examine it, so I can only go by what I understand of it. I used to accept the Big Bang scenario based on appeals to authority and trust in experts, but my doubts about its truth have accumulated to the point that I can no longer say I believe it. Which raises a question. Having used Bang cosmology as evidence for God, what will happen to your case if at some point we decide Bang cosmology was a mistake. (Even if it seems unlikely to you, we do have historical precedent for widely-believed notions having later been discarded.) If Bang cosmology were to be overturned, would that wipe out your cosmogical evidence for God, or would you simply adopt whatever new model replaced Bang cosmology as your new evidence for God? Could any cosmology serve equally as evidence for God?
    (break)

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  13. (continued)
    As regards your own personal relationship with God, I don't have any direct access to your internal experience, and I have no corresponding personal experience to examine. I do see, however, that there are former theists who say they similarly thought they were having some sort of relationship with a god, but later concluded they were mistaken, so such internal evidence would appear to be ambiguous at best.
    As regards the explanatory power of Christianity, I suppose it is an explanation of sorts (or really, many competing explanations, since even Christians cannot agree on one account), but is it a good explanation? Is it well supported? Is it economical? Does it simplify our understanding, or multiply the questions? Does it generate testable predictions? Does it outperform all competing explanations? Does it integrate well with other well-established knowledge? Many Bible stories appear to be little more than fanciful "just so" stories (where did rainbows come from, why are there sea shells so high up that mountain, etc). If the Bible represents divinely-revealed knowledge, it invites the question why it seems to be so confused, and contradictory, and even downright incorrect in places. I have heard Christians say that Christianity makes sense to them, but it always seems to be the sort of sense which has no reach outside of Christianity (and sometimes not even to other branches of Christianity). I don't know how that can be meaningfully distinguished from a (somewhat) internally-consistent delusion.
    Do I acknowledge you have good reasons for believing? I acknowledge you might. If your personal experience of God was as real to you as any objective form of evidence you perceive, that could constitute a good reason for you. Perhaps if I had an experience which had every sensation of being an actual encounter with a god, I would believe also. But for now, your personal experience of your god carries the same weight with me as others' experience of their supernatural or fanciful beings, some of which stand in contradiction to yours.
    But even if I acknowledge that Christians can think the Christian account makes sense to them, I have to wonder, is the purpose of Christian apologetics to lay out an account which makes sense to Christians? Or is the goal to start from an outsider's perspective, and from there lay out the rational steps which would lead to Christianity? And if so, is that how you arrived at belief, yourself? If yes, then do you remember the path you took? If no, then why suppose that something which did not work for you will work for others?

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  14. Shuttlebug:

    Just a brief response to two parts. First, your first comment - of course the essay is going to look like it has a conclusion, and then is looking for arguments that point in that direction. But the same could be said for your comments as well - you have obviously made your mind up, and now you are pointing out things that, to your mind, seem to support the conclusion you've already reached. That's not a criticism of either one of us - it simply means that when you are making an argument, you are arguing to support the conclusion you are reaching. Nothing new or revolutionary in that.

    Regarding the Kalam cosmological argument - it has been around for FAR longer than contemporary Big Bang cosmology. It was used persuasively throughout the later Middle Ages, depending more on logical and philosophical arguments than on scientific ones (again, for more on this, see William Lane Craig's voluminous writings on the KCA). If Big Bang cosmology turned out to be wrong (which, as you indicated, is not particularly likely), the powerful logical arguments in favor of it would still stand strong. [Incidentally, one could equally ask - 'if the theory of evolution turned out to be false, would that undermine your atheism?' I suspect your answer would be the same as mine is - No, I would still hold my position, on other foundational bases.]

    Could any cosmology serve equally as evidence for God? No. In fact, from the early Enlightenment through the mid-1900s, the dominant cosmological picture was the Steady State model - that the universe had always existed, without a beginning point in time and space. That model is distinctly unfriendly to Christian theism.

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  15. One other question for Shuttlebug:

    Why do you argue that the Bible is "confused," "contradictory," and "downright incorrect in places." Help me out with one or two examples ... I see that claim thrown out there frequently, but I simply don't see it.

    Regarding the questions that you ask (Is it well supported, etc.) - I would respond positively to them. Yes, it generates testable hypotheses (although I wonder why that's even relevant to the issue). Yes, it is well-supported. Yes, it provides answers and simplifies our understanding. It does not raise more questions than it answers. It meshes with other well-established knowledge (although, again, what counts as well-established knowledge may be a matter of intense debate as well). One can just as easily ask the same questions of atheism. And from my perspective, atheism cannot answer those questions as successfully as Christianity can.

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  16. Hiya Tawa:
    Our situations are not quite symmetrical. I am not pointing out things in support of a conclusion I have reached, I am suggesting why the arguments you've proposed are not rationally compelling enough to warrant budging from default skepticism. If I were asserting the impossibility of gods, or even the impossibility of making a rationally compelling case for gods, then in that instance, yes, I would have the burden of support for those propositions. But as it is, no burden attaches to default skepticism until a rationally compelling case has been presented. So the question centers on whether or not such a case has been presented.
    Your question about evolution kind of misses the point, first because that is not the basis for my unbelief (the lack of a rational case for belief is) and second because evolution is supposedly compatible with theism, or so I've been told. An alternate account could overturn atheism if it included some compelling evidence for a god, but in such a case, it would be the compelling evidence which would be the critical point, and the overturning of evolution would be incidental.
    Regarding the Kalam argument, it appears the strength of that depends entirely on a presumption of necessity based on uniformity of experience. Two obvious problems with that are 1) we are seeing some things which seem to be inconsistent with our uniform experience (eg. no detectable cause for atomic decay, and apparent anti-gravity behavior on the macro scale) and 2) strictly speaking, in our uniform experience, we have never really witnessed anything begin to exist. We have seen countless rearrangements and conversions of already existing stuff, but before we go around making confident proclamations about actual beginnings of existence, I think we ought first to have had experience of at least one such case.
    As regards alternate cosmologies, it looks like you are saying that any cosmology which does not flatly contradict the Christian account of God could be adduced as evidence for the existence of God. No? Also, I didn't say it was unlikely that Bang cosmology would turn out to be wrong. I only granted that you might think it unlikely.

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  17. T: "Why do you argue that the Bible is "confused," "contradictory," and "downright incorrect in places." Help me out with one or two examples ... I see that claim thrown out there frequently, but I simply don't see it."

    Okay, well, it's been quite a while since I read the Bible, but here are a few of the problems and questions I recall offhand. (I'm just presenting a list of questions to set up a point here. I'm not actually asking you to answer them.) Biblical cosmology appears to be describing a domed "firmament" over a, possibly flat, Earth, with water above this firmament, and little stars stuck to the underside--apparently insecurely enough that they can detach and fall. In one story, a star in the East leads wise guys (also from the East) to a particular stable. The Bible sun appears to be something which goes down to a particular place on Earth to reside in a tabernacle when not in use. God reportedly stopped its progress across the sky on one occasion, and on another even moved it backwards. True story? Was the Creation account literal, or metaphorical? How about the story of the Fall? Worldwide flood? Noah's Ark? Tower of Babel? The Exodus? Talking donkey? Do you subscribe to the demon theory of disease? Can faith literally move mountains? Who was it that recorded what Jesus did when he was alone in Gesthemane, or flying about with the devil? What is the meaning of the story where Jesus curses a tree which had no fruit out of season? What is the Christian position on the morality of lying, or polygamy, or homosexuality, or child beatings, or slavery, or killing? Does the Bible support the view that abortion is murder? Did Judas kill himself? Did God ever require human sacrifice? Did he command the slaughter of peoples, and literally send bears to shred children who were mocking a prophet? Did he personally destroy entire cities? Is there an actual eternal Hell? Is the afterlife a spirit realm, or does the Bible describe a physical resurrection of corporeal bodies?
    Now, I expect you have arrived at answers to all of those, so perhaps from your perspective, you see no error, no confusion, and no ambiguity in the Bible. But from the outside, the problem becomes glaringly obvious. Whatever set of answers you have for those questions, there will be many millions of Christians who have a very different set of answers and interpretations. How many doctrinally distinct sects of Christianity are there? Thousands? Tens of thousands? It is the wide-ranging and vigorous disagreement between Christians themselves which is the strongest evidence against any suggestion that the Bible is inerrant, coherent, and unambiguous.
    Regarding the relevance of testable hypotheses to the issue, perhaps I lost track of the issue. I thought the original issue under consideration was whether a rational case for God built on evidence could be mounted? If that is the issue, then the relevance is that testable hypotheses are a standard test we use for determining likelihood of truth. If a proposition has no real world (accessible, testable) implications, then it may be a matter of academic interest, but it's otherwise irrelevant. But a proposition which does have real world implications can be expressed "If A (the model is true) then B (the implications of the model are true)" If B is negated by testing, then that logically negates A rendering it very likely false (with some allowance for test error). If B is tested and confirmed, then that increases the likelihood that A is true. If two different models make the same confirmed prediction, we test their other predictions to see which model has the better track record overall.
    As for the questions atheism can answer, there is only one question that it addresses at all: "Do you believe in a god?" It has no lessons, no values, no meaning, no explanations, no implications beyond that.

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  18. Shuttlebug:

    I used evolution simply because it is frequently cited (e.g. Will Provine) as the primary reason for personally prejecting Christianity and embracing atheism. And, no matter what folks like Francis Collins say about the compatibility of evolution and vibrant Christian faith, the folks at the National Academy of Science strenuously disagree! You and I may disagree with them (in which case we agree with each other), but many higher educators at public universities teach vehemently the incompatibility of evolutionary theory with Christian theism. Hence my use of the example. But if we see somewhat eye to eye on that matter, we can set the example aside as unhelpful to our dialogue.

    I want to focus in on one thing you mentioned - the notion of "default skepticism". You rightly point out that, if I am seeking to persuade the unpersuaded that there is a God, then I tend to bear the burden of proof. I think that's fair - I am taking up a position in a rational dialogue, it is only fair that I provide persuasive reasons. You and I disagree about the persuasiveness of my case.

    However, I disagree quite emphatically that skepticism is, or ought to be, the 'default' intellectual position. I would argue that in a public dialogue or debate, the atheist/skeptic is holding to a positive position, and bears the burden of proof for establishing that position. It is not sufficient simply to point out flaws in the opponent's argument, rather, it is necessary to establish one's own position as well. Furthermore, I maintain that belief in the divine IS inherent to the human person, and rises up unbidden. It does not have to be conditioned INTO us, but rather has to be conditioned OUT OF us. Again, a survey of human religiosity throughout time bears this out. The default human position is religious; skepticism is far from it, and to my mind needs to be defended if it is going to be posited.

    In sum, I guess I'm saying that skepticism is 'default' for you because it is your established worldview, arrived at through a process of reflection and rational thought, I'm sure. In the same way, Christian theism is my 'default' position because it is my established worldview, arrived at through a process of personal experience, reflection, and rational thought. For me to convince you, I need to provide: (a) defeaters to your skeptical beliefs; and (b) positive reasons to replace skepticism with theism [from my perspective, I also need the work of God within you to bring you to faith ... arguments alone will not do it]. For you to convince me, you need to provide: (a) defeaters to my theistic beliefs; and (b) positive reasons to replace my theism with your skepticism.

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  19. Shuttlebug:

    I appreciate your comments about the Kalam argument. You mention: "it appears the strength of that depends entirely on a presumption of necessity based on uniformity of experience." Please understand that I do not view myself as the expert proponent of the KCA - I would again defer to William Lane Craig's on the subject. Nonetheless, I'm not sure precisely what you mean by "necessity" or "uniformity of experience." If you mean simply: "the universal application of the laws of logic", then I would agree. If you mean: "some things are logically impossible" and thus uniformly not experienced, then I agree. Otherwise, I'm not sure exactly what you're driving at.

    To my mind, the strength of the Kalam argument is threefold. (1) By common intuition, we are all aware that "nothing comes from nothing; nothing ever did." Everything has a source. (2) Through applied logic, we can extrapolate the impossibility of an actualized infinite. (3) Through scientific observation (which, as you have kindly pointed out, is not infallible, but rather is subject to being overturned down the road), we can see that the universe (time and space) had a beginning point, a singularity, at what we call the Big Bang. From these three lines of thought, the Kalam argument points persuasively to the necessity (is that what you meant by necessity?) of a transcendent (outside of the universe's space-time fabric) source.

    I am intrigued by your comment that we have never observed anything 'begin to exist'. If you're speaking in an absolute sense, I believe that you are correct - and that is part, I think, of the KCA. If we think of all the rearrangements and orderings, that result in the formation of 'new stuff', it's all using pre-existent 'stuff'. But where did the 'stuff' come from? [btw, please understand that I am thinking out loud here, this may very well sound muddled and not clear]

    Lastly, regarding cosmologies, yes indeed, I would say that any cosmological model that does not 'flatly contradict' theism could and would be accommodated within my Christian worldview. But that is true of any worldview held by any person - you seek to understand new data, new evidence, new arguments, new models, within the worldview that you currently possess. If they are incompatible, then there is either a worldview conversion or a concerted challenge to the data/arguments/model. [Or you bury your head in the sand, but I don't recommend that option.]

    Incidentally, I am pleased that we (I think) agree on the tentative nature of scientific knowledge. Scientific models do in fact change, scientific knowledge gets overturned; it is not nearly as absolutely trustworthy and final as it is often presented to be.

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  20. Hi Tawa,
    I think the evidence for evolution is solid enough to qualify as rationally compelling, and my personal view is that you can only accommodate Christianity to evolution by stretching Christian interpretation to its elastic limit, but others clearly feel there is no conflict, and I don't see anything about evolution which would render a god impossible, so I think evolution is pretty much oblique to the question of whether a rational case for a god can be mounted. I will say, though, that if public science professors are actually declaring the incompatibility of Christianity and evolution in class, that seems improper to me. I would grant the legitimacy of comparing between various physical models, including any which might be based on religious views, but I think there ought to be a wall between science and faith, and that wall should work both ways.
    Regarding default skepticism, I wasn't referring to any natural human inclination. I was speaking of a rational default--basically, the minimum reasonable threshold required to warrant belief in the truth of a proposition. Rationality is a somewhat artificial and at times difficult discipline for humans, and I agree that it does have to be learned. But the rational position is not one of unbounded credulity, accepting any proposition until disproven, nor even accepting propositions simply because they are appealing or make us feel good. Even an intuitive inclination is not enough to warrant rational acceptance. The rational approach is to evaluate the reasons for and against acceptance to arrive at an estimated probability of truth, and weigh that probability against the likely consequences of error.
    Do I have a burden as a skeptic? I would say my first obligation is that of maintaining sound rational safeguards against unwarranted beliefs. I owe that not only to myself, but to others. At the root of many of the worst atrocities humans have committed has often been some foolish notion, uncritically accepted. Second obligation: If I wish to make the case that a given argument is defective, then its my job to show how it is defective. But neither of those require that I stake out my own position of belief. If I wanted to advance a proposition and argue that a given claim is true, (for example, that there is no god or particular gods) then it would be up to me to provide the support for that proposition, and anyone could critique my reasoning, and in that case they would not incur any burden to advance some alternate belief of their own either.
    Regarding my position, I am not exactly at default skepticism because I think it highly improbable that any of the thousands of gods humans have described actually exist, even though I grant the logical possibility of super beings which would, to us, appear god-like. My general god skepticism is based on consideration of the relative likelihood that human gods are rooted in actual encounters with gods vs. human imagination simply generating fanciful ideas. There is scant evidence for one and a tremendous body of evidence for the other, so it looks like no real contest to me. I would be inclined to say I think the God deity described in the Bible does not exist, except that I've never been able to form a coherent picture of that god, any more that I can make sense of the notion of black whiteness. I think I need to have a concept of X before I can claim that X does not exist, so instead, I say the notion of a just, vengeful, loving, jealous, powerful, needy, capricious, unchangeable, single/triple god is something I am probably incapable of believing in because, in my mind, trying to form the concept only results in the concept negating itself.(continued after the break)

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  21. (Continuing) Is the default human position religious? I would say the default tendency is superstitious--the feeling of a mind or minds at work in our surroundings. (Something akin to our ability to see faces and shapes in clouds and textures.) This feeling can then be socialized by local lore into various forms, and religious institutions seem to have become very adept at channeling and mining this trait for power and profit. But even granting that humans in general have this tendency, it looks like the tendency itself is more than ample to account for the pervasiveness of supernatural beliefs.
    Is my objective here to convince you to become an atheist? No. If you have evidence which is unavailable to me (eg. your own personal experience of God) then I won't find that evidence compelling, but how you deal with it is your business. And if your belief is a matter of faith, I consider faith in a different domain from reason, and outside my purview. I don't understand it, I don't speak the language, and I'm inclined to leave it alone so long as it doesn't impinge on me. But apologetics crosses over into the realm of reason, which is more comfortable territory for me. It appears to be an effort to establish that the most rational position is theism. I doubt that's the case, but if it is, then presumably it would be to my advantage to examine the arguments. And if I find your arguments are defective, that doesn't mean either one of us is wrong or right. It only means that those particular arguments didn't fly.
    Regarding 'presumption of necessity based on uniformity of experience', the "necessity" refers to the notion that if X begins to exist, then X must have had (ie. necessarily had) a cause (which I interpret to mean "at least one" cause, not "strictly one" cause). I say it is a presumption based on uniformity of experience because the argument proposes that we accept without proof that everything that begins to exist has a cause since (it is claimed) that is what we have always seen. (Causality itself is also something we intuit from uniform experience, without really knowing what it is or how it works.) (Cont'd after the break)

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  22. (continuing) Regarding the threefold strengths of the Kalam argument, I would say 1) "common intuition" can be suggestive but I think it should be considered nothing more than that. It is so fallible, and so perniciously alluring, that scientists have to show all the protocols they put into place in their experiments to try to eliminate the possibility of influence or contamination from intuition. 2) I freely admit that I have trouble imagining an infinite amount of linear time, as we experience it, having preceded this moment. A cyclical infinite, however, is not so difficult to imagine. And we can only establish logical impossibilities within the confines of a set of rules. What is impossible under one set of rules might be possible under a different set, and we don't know that the universe always operated under the present set. But even if we suppose that there was a time zero to our universe, there is an obvious problem with suggesting that there was a cause which preceded time zero, because nothing could have preceded time zero, and causality, as we experience it, has no meaning for us outside of the context of time. And 3) I'm unconvinced that we've seen that the universe had a singularity beginning point. What we've seen is expansion, and what we assume, without proof, is that all the stuff that exists came into existence all at the exact same instant, with absolutely no addition to or subtraction from the mix since time zero. To me, that looks a lot like the same assumption Lord Kelvin made when he estimated the age of the Earth by doing a reverse extrapolation based on its present core heat. His assumption was that no heat could have been added to the Earth's interior after it formed. But that was before we knew about radioactive decay. So because he included an incorrect assumption, he meticulously calculated an age that fell more more than 95% short of the mark. If novel material is somehow accumulating in the universe, then any age estimates which assume that is impossible will be incorrect. Perhaps very incorrect. An accumulation rate as low as the mass of one hydrogen atom per cubic meter per billion years--far below our current detection threshold--could increase the age of the universe by many orders of magnitude. And to me, it looks like we are seeing things which are problematic for the 13.7 billion year timeframe which the reverse extrapolators have meticulously calculated. Of course, even if there is ongoing infiltration, that still tells us nothing about how the stuff got here. It would only change when it arrived. (continued after break)

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  23. (continuing) Regarding accommodating cosmologies, having a cosmology which does not contradict a given god renders such a god logically possible, but unless it is a cosmology which also contradicts the non-existence of that god, then the non-existence of that god also remains logically possible, in which case the cosmology itself cannot be proffered as evidence either for or against the existence of that particular god. I understand the appeal Big Bang cosmology has for Christians, but the Bang model itself neither negates nor necessitates God, so far as I can tell. At least, I've yet to see a convincing argument either way.
    And yes, I not only agree that science is tentative, I think that was a critical bedrock principle of science which made it as successful as it became. And I think if we ever lose sight of that principle, the track record of science will likely suffer for it. First principle: there is a Truth. Second principle: we have no direct conduit to this Truth. Always, no matter how sure we think we are, we are fallible and we could be mistaken.

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  24. Shuttlebug:

    First, my apologies for not publishing and responding to your comments earlier. I was away from my blog for the weekend, and then I desired to have a thought-out response before I published your comments. I should, rather, have simply published your comments ASAP and worried about responding to them when I had the time. So I apologize for not putting your comments up earlier.

    I'm just going to make a couple of comments right now, and hopefully find time later to come back and make some further comments.

    (1) I am glad to hear you say that it bothers you that science (and humanities) professors are claiming in the classroom that evolution disproves Christianity (or theism generally). My question would be whether you acknowledge that is actually happening in the classroom?

    (2) Your comments on rationality and default skepticism are interesting, but I think I fundamentally disagree. The way you present it is that we should not accept any belief unless we have weighed all the evidence on both sides of the argument and are convinced that we will not be making a mistake in adopting said belief. But that is simply not the way that anybody goes through life. While I agree that we should not have an unbounded credulity, the simple truth is no one can test every belief or proposition that presents itself to us. You are proposing a type of W. K. Clifford's 'evidentialist maxim', and epistemologists are pretty much uniformly agreed that his thesis is just unworkable.

    (3) I agree that many atrocities have been committed as a result of foolish notions uncritically accepted. But I would also argue that greater atrocities have been committed as a result of false beliefs which have been critically accepted (that is, they have not been unthinkingly embraced, but rather embraced after examination) - here I am thinking of things like slavery in the South, the Holocaust, Stalin's exterminations, Mao's regime of terror, the Cambodian Khmer Rouge, the current genocidal regime in Darfur. You could argue (and I would agree) that those false beliefs were embraced through faulty reasoning; nonetheless it holds that they had thought things through (at least to some extent). We would agree that they were at fault, but it had to do more with the falsity of their beliefs, not whether or not they had critically examined that belief.

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  25. (4) I also think your desire for evidential epistemology underestimates two things: (a) the powerful influence of underlying worldview presuppositions; and (b) the unconscious operation of our belief-forming mechanisms. Regarding (a), our worldview determines what I call 'the pool of live options' - presuppositions help determine what we will even accept as 'evidence' or 'data'. Regarding (b), when I walk down the street, I immediately form the belief that there is a car parked on the corner, that it is red, and has Kentucky licence plates on it. I don't ponder the evidence, I don't think things through, I don't critically examine the situation. Rather, I find myself immediately with the belief that the red car with Kentucky plates is there, and that it is real. Alvin Plantinga has argued, and I tend to agree with him, that our belief-forming mechanisms are to a surprisingly large degree involuntary. We can indeed develop epistemological virtue, habits that will tend us towards true-belief-formation; but we certainly do not have absolute control over what we believe and do not believe.

    (5) Why do you consider it more likely that human imagination has generated fanciful gods and omnipotent deities? Personally, I consider it infinitely less likely. Indeed, I would argue that if there is no transcendent divine being, then human conceptions of such a being are inconceivable and inexplicable. I base that partly upon the fact that human beings do not create ideas out of thin air - there is a concrete referent for all of the creative fictions that we postulate.

    (6) You described the biblical God as "just, vengeful, loving, jealous, powerful, needy, capricious, unchangeable, single/triple god." Have you been reading Dawkins? I describe the God of the Bible as "just, loving, jealous (not in a negatively-connoted way, but as a husband would be rightly jealous [not vengeful] of another man seeking to seduce his wife), all-powerful, merciful, gracious, holy, perfect, self-giving, unchanging, and Triune." I just wanted to emphasize that we seem to be talking about different deities. Nothing within my conception of God is self-negating, logically contradictory, or incoherent; so I'm not sure where the problem lies.

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  26. Hi Tawa,
    Good to see this thread wasn't closed. I guess I should have kept checking back longer. I actually prefer slower, thoughtful dialogs anyway.
    Regarding whether public school professors are claiming evolution disproves Christianity in the classroom, I don't have any information on that. But presumably I don't need to establish it is happening before I can say such a practice would meet with my disapproval.
    Regarding item 2, I'm not saying we are all rational about our beliefs, or even that any of us are totally rational. But I think in order for a given belief to qualify as rational, it does have to exceed some minimum level of rational support. And it's not my view that we need to be convinced we will not be making a mistake, only that we need to weigh the estimated probability of truth against the likely consequences of error. That means the standard for acting as if a belief is true becomes more stringent when the costs of being wrong become more dire. Can we rigorously test every proposition? No. But in the overwhelming majority of cases, we don't need to, because the likely harmful consequences of error are not serious enough to warrant it. A guy you just met says his name is Joe. If you have no information to contradict that, it would be reasonable to accept his word on the matter so long as the potential harms of calling him Joe appear negligible. But in cases where the stakes are high, it would be equally reasonable to require more evidence than merely the say-so of some guy you just met.
    Regarding 3) I grant that many people thought they had rational justifications for their atrocities by virtue of having given the matter a lot of thought, but I think the lesson of such cases is that thinking you are being rational is not enough to ensure that you actually are being rational. People with notions of racial superiority did not subject their underlying premises to critical scrutiny. Rather, they began with some intuition or prejudice, and then only looked for confirming evidence. Valid logic can still lead to defective conclusions if the reasoning proceeds from defective premises. And where reason really broke down was when they allowed themselves to become so convinced of the rightness of their beliefs that they ceased to consider the possibility that they could be in error. When they attained certainty of their rightness, they no longer felt any need to consider the possible consequences of being wrong, no matter how horrific those consequences might be.
    Regarding 4) I have heard that there are people who do have voluntary control over their beliefs, and can choose to believe something, if they so desire, by a sheer act of will. I'm not one of those people, and your description that we do not have absolute control over what we believe and do not believe certainly applies to me. That said, I don't see a conflict in our views. I grant that we accept a tremendous body of beliefs based on nothing more than apparent perception. But I think you would find yourself applying more scrutiny and critical examination to a perception where the consequences of error were more serious, especially if the perception was ambiguous. (break)

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  27. (cont'd) Regarding 5) humans seem endlessly capable of thinking up things which do not exist (we could hardly be inventive without that ability). And when I consider fabulous creatures such as manticores, griffins, mermaids, centaurs, werewolves, dragons, hippocampi, elves, goblins, fairies, pixies, gnomes, ogres, titans, hydras, cyclopes, demons, trolls, brownies, bunyips, gargoyles, harpies, gremlins, satyrs, vampires, genies, chimeras, lamias, minotaurs, gorgons, nymphs, leprechauns, dryads, sirens, zombies, incubi, succubi, and snallygasters, I see absolutely no property of any of those (and many more besides) which would be beyond the ability of humans to imagine. Coupled with the apparent lack of evidence for any of them, I conclude they were most likely products of human imagination. Same goes for entity ideas like Quetzalcoatl, Osiris, Gunnodoyak, Ixmucane, Tiamat, Wigaan, Kali, Hunab Ku, Pele, Shakuru, Zeus, Thor, Shiva, Mithra, and Zurvan. To me, they basically look like humans, or human/animal hybrids, but with a larger helping of supernatural powers than was attributed to nymphs, pixies, leprechauns and such. Now, I'm guessing you consider the Yahweh god to be in a distinct category from the thousands of other human gods, but even if so, is the conceptual basis of that distinction really something that no human could possibly have thought up? And if the distinguishing property is truly beyond human imagining, then how can you have any concept of it?
    (break)

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  28. (cont'd) And then 6) my characterization of the God entity came from my reading of the Bible. (I'm unfamiliar with Dawkin's views on the matter.) Considering how many different interpretations of the Bible god there are, it would actually be surprising if we were talking about the exact same god concept--especially since mine is fragmented and self-defeating. I've never run across a Christian god concept that I could make sense of, but there could always be a first. You describe your god as not vengeful. Does that mean you interpret the Bible as describing a god who does not take vengeance? How about anger? By your read of the Bible, does he ever experience that? Do you think there is a limit to his patience? Is there a limit to his love? Does he love even those whom he consigns to hell? You describe your god as both just and merciful. Presumably, with a just god, you will get exactly what you deserve. But if so, what practical role does that leave for mercy? Does the Bible describe a god who requires that we worship him? If so, why is it important to him that he receive the worship of creatures who are less than microbes by comparison? Is he injured or harmed in any way by unbelief? Does he have any use for you other than providing him with an endless supply of worship? Is your god omniscient? Did he have perfect knowledge of how his creation would play out? If so, what did he gain from making it actual? Does being all-powerful include the ability to do anything other than what he has always known he will do? If your god has never changed, has your god ever made a decision? Does he experience wants or desires? Is your god good, and if so, by what standard of goodness is he to be evaluated? How does tri-unity work? Are the three personages each exact replicas of the other two, or are they individually distinguishable, with different properties? If they are exactly the same, then why the redundancy? If they are distinguishable then can they all three be different and yet all three be perfect? If they are only perfect when combined, then what is it about perfection that requires that it be fragmented it into exactly three distinct components? And I don't know what "holy" means, especially when applied to a god.
    I can think of three ways you could see nothing conflicted or confusing about your god. The first way is if you simply haven't given the matter sufficient thought. The second way is if there is something about being a believer which either solves the problems that nonbelievers see, or renders the problems invisible. And the third way is that your god concept actually is completely rational and coherent, but merely hasn't been communicated sufficiently to others. Is there a fourth option?

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