Archive for the ‘books’ Category

Contending with history

2013/04/26

This is a review of the second section of the book Contending with Christianity’s Critics.

The Jesus of History

There are six essays in this section, but my reactions to most of them are similar enough that it really isn’t worth reviewing them separately.

The thing is, they all tend to lean on evidence from within the books of the Bible to support their claims. And that’s just silly. I mean, really? You have a collection of books, culled by a particular religious group from many alternatives and, in several cases, selectively edited in the process. This highly biased set of texts is then used as evidence – sometimes, different books within the set are put forward as independent sources of evidence! – of the theological position of the religious group that collected them.

Now, let’s be fair. If orthodox Christian beliefs do represent a faithful history of early-first-century events, then we would expect to have the books of the New Testament more or less as they exist today. (Perhaps with fewer internal contradictions, but not necessarily error-free.)

But then, if those beliefs are false, given people’s natural tendency to believe, even in spite of evidence to the contrary, it isn’t all that surprising that we have the books of the New Testament as they exist today. Including contradictions.

Now, for some brief responses to the individual essays.

First, Robert H. Stein outlines “Criteria for the Gospels’ Authenticity”. Some of them sound plausible, others less so. The examples from the gospels – particularly for the “criterion of embarrassment” – tend to be very weak. The only criterion that seems at all persuasive to me is the linguistic one: there are elements in the gospels that point to translation from an Aramaic oral tradition, and that point to a Palestinian geography. So yes, I’ll accept that the oral traditions that were the sources for the (Greek) gospels came from Aramaic-speaking Palestinians. To the extent that the others give anything reliable, it is about elements that skeptics (such as Bart Ehrman) would not disagree with: Jesus existed; he said certain things; he was crucified; his followers started a religion in the wake of his demise that flourished, evolved, and has come down to us as a thousand different communities, all with slightly different takes on slightly different subsets of text and tradition from that time. Unimpressive.

A further barrier to my accepting this approach is the assertion, made for example by Richard Carrier here and here, that the “criteria” approach is bankrupt. It is not a valid historical method for ascertaining reliability. I wonder if he elaborates on this in the next book in our series (The Christian Delusion contains 2 of his essays)? If any historians are reading this, please let us know your thoughts.

Ben Witherington III closes his essay “Jesus the Seer” by reminding us that “who a person is, who a person claims to be, and who others say a person is can be different.” (p111) And yet Witherington hangs all his certainty about who Jesus claimed to be on indirect evidence of what others said he was. Unimpressive.

Gary Habermas, in “The Resurrection of Jesus Time Line”, works back from a small sample of late, non-eyewitness textual accounts, through two or three levels of extrapolation. At each stage, possibilities are exaggerated to certainties with little or no consideration of alternative explanations. At no point is the inherently incredible nature of the resurrection claims even acknowledged, let alone accounted for. Habermas concludes that “this is the argument that has rocked a generation of critical scholars.” (p125) Really? So, are critical scholars recanting their skepticism en masse and accepting the literal resurrection? I can’t say for sure, but the content of Ehrman’s very recent book, Jesus, Interrupted, and the existence of the next volume in our challenge (The Christian Delusion, edited by John Loftus) seem to speak against this claim. Unimpressive.

“How Scholars Fabricate Jesus”, by Craig A. Evans, is an interesting walk through some of the better-known extra-canonical Christian texts, such as the Gospel of Thomas (which, Evans notes, is featured in The Da Vinci Code). While Evans seems to be exaggerating the weight that critical scholars give to extracanonical material, this essay is largely an informative, interesting account of that material. (Note that, at least as Ehrman builds the case in Jesus, Interrupted, this material is irrelevant to the question of the historicity of the Gospels. They can be competently challenged on internal grounds alone.)

Daniel B Wallace’s essay, “How Badly Did the Early Scribes Corrupt the New Testament?”, is one I was particularly looking forward to, as it directly responds to Bart Ehrman. Unfortunately, it doesn’t respond to Jesus, Interrupted (JI), the Ehrman book that opened the philosophy challenge. Instead, it tackles Misquoting Jesus. I actually took the time to look through the latter book before reviewing this essay. This review will be presented in its own post – there’s a fair bit to chew on there. But, perhaps predictably, my overall conclusion was that Wallace’s arguments are unimpressive.

Michael Wilkins’ essay, “Who Did Jesus Think He Was?”, draws on gospel material to affirm the claim that Jesus saw himself as the same saviour that modern Christians see him as. Interestingly, Wilkins actually weaves in the fact that the Jewish picture of the Messiah presented in the Old Testament, the character expected by Jews (including Jesus’ disciples) is not the messiah that Jesus turned out to be. He suggests that this failure to fulfil the prophecies supports, rather than undermines, the claim that Jesus is the prophesied messiah. It is an odd and quirky approach, but not particularly impressive.

In all, this section was vaguely interesting – particularly Wallace’s essay. But all of the essays suffer from one central shortcoming, in the context of the Ultimate Challenge. By leaning on the texts of the Bible, they give insufficient reason to take any of their conclusions seriously. It is extremely unlikely that a reasonable outsider will accept the claims of any religion, based only on the texts that its adherents pick out as divinely inspired.

It should be noted that the book wasn’t (of course) written for the Ultimate Challenge. It reads more like a book that was written to give believers an excuse to keep believing, if they are worrying about the arguments offered by critics. Sort of an internal apologetics. So I can’t say whether the writers failed at their own goal. I can only say that their arguments fall flat from the perspective of this outsider.

Duty and futility

2013/02/02

Oh, woe is me!

Anyone who has been watching me eke through the Ultimate Philosophy Challenge (put forth by Luke Muehlhauser) over the past year and a half may have noticed that my postings have become more and more sporadic.

I could claim real-world interference with my writing, but that would be a distraction. The fact is, I am rapidly losing my motivation.

I did not undertake the challenge expecting it to change my mind. But my experience of Luke’s writing and podcasting (+here) suggested that this challenge would put in front of me the most thought-provoking apologetics, rather than the appalling works I had previously run across. I had read C. S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity before I had even heard of humanism and begun self-identifying as such; Lee Strobel’s Case for a Creator as I was beginning to explore things and identify as a humanist; and most recently John Blanchard’s book, Does God Believe in Atheists, which I reviewed in a series of five posts on this blog (1 2 3 4 5). Summary: apologetics in print have seemed as self-congratulatory and vacuous as the more degenerate online discussions of atheism versus Christianity (from either side).

Anyway, having appreciated and occasionally been challenged by the balance and pursuit of truth (as opposed to confirmation) that Luke exemplified, I had hopes that these authors he was pointing me to (none of whom, Christian or atheist, I had read before) would at least make me pause for thought, and perhaps puncture one or two of the more comfortable, self-satisfied conclusions I was happy to hold.

But I find that the atheist arguments are familiar and seem sound, and the apologists’ arguments are familiar and easily refuted. They set up straw men of real atheist positions, and subject their own arguments to only the flimsiest tests. I enjoy being proven right as much as the next guy, but it’s disappointing that this challenge isn’t more challenging. Is it because I actually do have the right answer already? Is it because I’m too close-minded to see the value in the opposing arguments, or the flaws in the atheist arguments? Either hypothesis is consistent with the superficial details of the experience.

 

I know that an open mind is necessary in order to grow toward truer belief. But I can’t help think of the prayer experiment I undertook with our Mormon missionary friends back in Edinburgh. They said to pray honestly for insight, I tried it, I got not message from Heaven. They said to keep trying until I got a message. But to keep asking the same question until the answer comes out the way you want is not the way to truth. So I ended that experiment. If I ever get reason to believe that it’s worth trying again, I will, but until then I have a reasonable conclusion based on honest testing.

I feel like the same thing is happening with Christian apologetics at large. I had a suspicion that there wasn’t any knock-down argument for God, based on my previous experience. I have tried out the best arguments, recommended by what seemed to me to be an open-minded, thoughtful source. And they’ve failed to stir my doubt-o-meter. Case closed?

Not quite. The problem is, I’m really just halfway through the Challenge. I still have a book by Swinburne and one by Craig to wade through, in addition to two further atheist offerings. And that’s after I finish the current book – a dense pack of essays ranging from transparently vapid to impenetrably opaque, without offering any illumination.

I can’t plead the excuse sometimes used in clinical trials – that people seem to be suffering or dying from one leg of the experiment – for halting early. I’m just really, really tired of wading through garbage philosophy, in the interest of fairly testing what is really a very low-probability hypothesis. (Christianity is only one of many popular theistic hypotheses of roughly equal prior probability; and all of them are but a subset of the domain of logically possible deistic hypothesis).

So this is my dilemma. I am engaged in an exercise that feels increasingly futile. And yet, as part of my duty to the pursuit of truth, I cannot reasonably beg off the remaining part of the exercise. So I should carry on. But, knowing that my state of mind is increasingly opposed to the whole endeavour, I’m not sure I can claim to be fairly evaluating the ideas I’m coming across.

I’m tempted to leave off – take an indefinite hiatus. But that isn’t really a solution is it? It’s just an escape.

I’m tempted to just skim through the remaining books. But that isn’t really an honest fulfilment of my original resolution to fairly examine the claims.

I’m honestly puzzled here. I think I’m procrastinating toward the hiatus solution by default. There’s always something more interesting to do/read/whatever than this. Perhaps I should skip to the next book (an atheist collection – perhaps a bit more palatable), to help get back in the mood for the project.

What do you do when you have a task that (a) has no deadline or external pressure to finish, (b) feels futile or pointless, but (c) you feel some sense of duty or responsibility to complete? Have any of you undertaken this challenge or something similar? How did you overcome (or succumb to) the hurdles you encountered?

Do you have any insight that would let me see the problem in a different light, perhaps resolve the dilemma more easily?

Contending with Dawkins (2)

2012/08/22

This is a review of the sixth essay in the book Contending with Christianity’s Critics.

Dawkins’s Best Argument Against God’s Existence by Gregory E. Ganssle

Didn’t we already have this? Not really. Unlike the earlier essay by Craig, Ganssle goes for a much higher-level summary of Dawkins’ argument:

  1. A universe made by God would be different from one made by only natural occurrences.
  2. Our universe fits better with a naturalistic universe than with a theistic universe.
  3. Therefore, our universe is more likely to be a naturalistic universe than a theistic universe. (p75)

Also unlike Craig, I think Ganssle manages to present the argument in a form that Dawkins would be content with. I certainly am. The idea here is to treat naturalism and theism as hypotheses that make predictions about the sort of entities and events we should observe, and compare these predictions against what we do observe.

Unfortunately, Ganssle runs off the rails pretty soon after by playing loose with the idea of “observability”.

Dawkins is disposed to think of detectability in terms of sense experience and the methods of the natural sciences. Something that is in principle subject to scientific investigation is detectable. (p77)

Yes. The methods that centuries of scientific progress have shown to be the best for teasing fact from our own bias are the best methods to use, if our goal is to form conclusions that reflect facts rather than our own biases.

For example, ethical theories can differ from each other in detectable ways. If one theory prohibits lying in every circumstance, while a second theory allows lying under specified conditions, there is a detectable difference between them. … The difference between the theories is also not due to some empirical observations. (p77)

In other words, it is not an observable difference in the sense Dawkins (and any other competent scientist) would mean – the sense that underlies the argument Ganssle so efficiently summarizes at the beginning of his essay.

Now, having excused himself from the hard work of providing real evidence within the framework of Dawkins’ argument, what does Ganssle offer in support of theism over naturalism?

  1. The universe is ordered and susceptible to rational investigation.
  2. It is a world with consciousness.
  3. It is a world with significant free agency.
  4. It is a world with objective moral obligations. (p79)

Let’s take these one at a time. I actually think they are interesting points, though I disagree with Ganssle on both their truth and their relevance to the question at hand. I am therefore indulging in a longer-than-usual post.

1. Order and susceptibility to rational investigation

The first item may point to the argument from reason, that was so opaquely exposited in Reppert’s essay. In the current context, the question is: should we expect an ordered universe more if there is a god, or if there are only naturalistic laws at work? Philosophically, I think this question is tractable. Empirically, I can’t easily think of a test for it.

Interestingly, Ganssle’s discussion smuggles in two completely arbitrary assumptions that carry all of the apparent value in this argument. First, he is assuming not just any god, but a god who is rational, and desires a rational universe. Fair enough – that is the sort of theistic hypothesis he wants to pit against naturalism. But he is not making a parallel assumption for naturalism. He is not looking and noticing that naturalists tend to describe a natural universe that has orderly laws. He just says that “a naturalistic universe, however, would not have to be susceptible to rational investigation.” (p80)

So yes, if you’re pitting a theistic hypothesis that fits our universe (and that many people support) against a naturalistic hypothesis that does not fit our universe (and that virtually nobody would support), then our universe fits better with theism than with naturalism. But if you were to pit an “orderly-god” theism against a “natural-laws” naturalism (a fair comparison), then the apparent advantage here disappears.*

2. Consciousness

I had a lot of thoughts on this section when reading it. Ganssle presents two aspects of consciousness as particularly difficult to cope with naturalistically: the first-person-ness of it, and the intentionality of mental states. These are both non-starters for me. His description of the first-person problem – that I have more immediate access to my own mental states than to anyone else’s – is no more problematic for me than the fact that the domino I push falls over but the one I leave undisturbed does not: physical systems (such as the mental states embodied in our brain) react more immediately to causes adjacent to them (such as other mental states in the same brain) than to causes distant from them (such as the mental states of other brains). As for intentionality, I simply look to the causal chain of connections between the memories and mental states I experience and the physical experiences and objects they are about. To use Ganssle’s example, when I’m thinking about Niagara Falls, those thoughts are causally connected with my memories of being there, and my memories of television shows and conversations I’ve had about the falls. None of these things are problematic under naturalism.

Of course, consciousness is a philosophically thorny topic. What is it? How does it work? These are difficult questions, whatever your philosophical position. He points out, rightly, that it is difficult for naturalists to account for consciousness. He also points out, rightly, that by positing up-front the existence of a conscious creator being, theism has already accounted for a crucial step: how consciousness arises in the universe. What he seems to fail to acknowledge is that he hasn’t really freed theism from the “probability penalty” that comes with trying to deal with consciousness. He’s just put it somewhere else. Naturalism has to deal with it by finding ways for it to arise. (Hint: natural selection is very powerful in generating things that help us survive.) Theism has to deal with it by including a very complex premise up front: the “prior probability” of theism takes a severe hit by including this ill-defined and complex thing called “consciousness” in the definition of its god.

So, consciousness is a problem for theism and naturalism, and I don’t see how we can confidently say it’s worse for naturalism than for theism.

3. Significant free agency

This is a fun one. Free will is one of those issues that seem to hinge on aesthetic preferences rather than anything substantive. I have to thank Ganssle for sparking some new and tantalizing thoughts on this topic, which I’ll defer to another time to discuss. For now, let me summarize what he asserts and how he supports it. First, “A world with significant free agency fits better in a theistic universe” than a naturalistic one. Ganssle clearly means libertarian free agency here. I tend to agree: libertarian free will is less surprising under a theistic view than a naturalistic one.**

He closes this section by saying “they may be right [that there is no such thing as libertarian free will], but the case for libertarian freedom is strong enough that it lends support to the sort of argument I am presenting.” (p84) So basically, he’s saying that if libertarian freedom exists, then his argument stands; many people deny that it exists, but let’s just accept that it does so he can keep his argument. He never actually gives us a reason to believe that libertarian free will exists. Scratch this point.

4. Objective moral obligations

This is another case where his initial premise seems to be legitimate: “A world with objective moral obligations fits better with a theistic universe.” Yes it does. (He even includes a quote from an atheist philosopher agreeing that, if objective moral obligations in Ganssle’s sense existed, then they would lend support to theism.) He also asserts that “To think that objective moral obligations exist is reasonable.” To my dismay and disgust, the one comment he makes in support of this statement is that “It is enough to note that many people think there are such obligations.”

If my premise is true, then the conclusion I hope for is true. I’ll hope my premise is true, and take my conclusion as proven.

Summing up

Ganssle’s bits of evidence are every bit as flimsy as his setup led me to expect. He begins by excusing himself from looking for real (ie, observable, empirical) evidence. Then he leads us through four arguments, all leaning on wishful thinking in various ways. He concludes by reassuring his readers that Dawkins’ best argument “does not deliver”.

Ganssle fails utterly to provide actual evidence for his conclusion, and so leaves the field to actual scientists, who have documented a whole lot of evidence that is less surprising under a naturalistic hypothesis than under a theistic one. Dawkins, for all his lack of philosophical ambition and subtlety, carries the day.

Footnotes:

* I had another thought about the argument from reason, which I won’t elaborate on here. It boils down to this: exactly how ordered is the universe, and how ordered would you expect it to be under the appropriate theistic and naturalistic hypotheses? After all, there certainly seems to be a fair amount of chaos in the universe, from quantum uncertainty to the apparent intractibility of many psychological and sociological phenomena.

** Well, one flavour of theism anyway. I have a Calvinist friend who might disagree. But I would guess that most modern, Western theists would be libertarians, so we’ll let this one pass. But note that this is yet another subtle narrowing of the theism hypothesis, rendering it just that bit more unlikely to begin with.

Contending with evolutionary naturalism

2012/08/16

This is a review of the fifth essay in the book Contending with Christianity’s Critics.

The Moral Poverty of Evolutionary Naturalism by Mark D. Linville

The point of this essay is clear: evolutionary naturalism (that is, belief in evolution without belief in god) undermines belief in moral truth. (For important subtleties that this summary overlooks, check out the essay yourself.)

Linville does a competent job of arguing that, under the theory of evolution, the human moral sense doesn’t seem to connect causally with any moral order that exists fundamental to the structure of the universe. In other words, evolution undermines the warrant for belief in transcendent moral absolutes.

Here’s the argument in brief: if we evolved, then evolution had just as much chance to shape our moral intuitions as it did to shape our bodies in order to help us survive; therefore, our values have been shaped by our evolutionary history. So we cannot use our moral intuitions as guides to find some moral reality that might underlie reality.

He is basically pointing out the is/ought dilemma: that moral facts cannot be derived from physical facts. David Hume is most famous for identifying this dilemma. Linville’s formulation can be summed up as follows:

Theory X (evolution) describes how we came to have the moral values/beliefs we have. However, as a statement of physical facts, it cannot be used to justify claims about moral obligation.

Now, Linville’s alternative is of course theistic: if our moral sense was given to us by a god, then our values and beliefs are causally connected with that god’s values and beliefs. Therefore, if such a god exists and gave us our moral sense, we have good reason to trust our intuition that transcendent moral absolutes exist, and we can know about them.

Let me sum up this argument in another way – see if you can spot the problem I spotted:

Theory Y (theistic creation) describes how we came to have the moral values/beliefs we have. Therefore, it can be used to ground claims about moral obligation.

If you don’t see the problem, let me spell it out: “God did it” buys you no more in terms of moral absolutes than does “evolution did it”. You must insert, either explicitly or implicitly, some further ethical premises. For example, I suspect Linville’s hidden premise here is “God has reliable access to moral absolutes (part of his nature, seen by his omniscience, whatever), and would wish to share those moral absolutes with us by printing them on our moral sense.” For him, and many theists, this may be obvious enough to leave out. For me, it’s a huge bundle of claims that I have absolutely no reason to swallow – from the existence of a creator god to its moral perfection to its intentions regarding the rest of us.

But that’s not all.

Linville frames his arguments regarding evolution in light of atheism. Unfortunately for him, they work just as well under any view that accepts the vast evidence for evolution – whether that view includes a god or not. If we evolved, then evolution will have tinkered with our moral intuitions (ie, built them from scratch). The only way that belief in a god can get you around this is if you assume that your god directly intervened in the construction of your moral intuitions. Neither Linville nor the whole army of Intelligent-Design creationists have offered good evidence to suggest we should accept this.

Oh, Linville and his coreligionists are free to believe that it happened. And, once you take on that belief, the rest may follow. But given the evidence before us, all we know is that evolution happened, and it almost certainly acted to shape our moral intuitions. So we are left with no reason to think our moral intuitions track any transcendent moral absolutes.

At bottom, I think the disagreement I have with Linville is over the value of these transcendent moral absolutes. He seems to think that without them we’re wallowing in a sea of wishy-washy relativism. Certainly, many religious people I have encountered in person and online seem to think this way.

I think that human nature is stable enough. Even if our morality is only reliable relative to the current state of most humans’ moral instincts, we have enough to go ahead with. I acknowledge that I do not have a watertight moral theory that can oblige everyone to follow my pragmatic moral rules. But then, neither does Linville. The weakness of my moral stance is that it is relative. The weakness of his is that it is built on wishful thinking.

Which do you prefer?

Contending with a trick of the brain

2012/08/13

This is a review of the fourth essay in the book Contending with Christianity’s Critics.

Belief in God: A Trick of our Brain? by Michael J. Murray

This essay gives a pretty good account of why we should expect god-belief even in a naturalistic universe. It draws on psychology, evolution, etc. There are well-evidenced biases that suggest the common human intuition that gods exist is unwarranted. That is, a similar intuition could be expected whether or not any god actually exists. After a clear exposition of these biases, complete with a presentation of their epistemological implications, Murray closes with a casual reference to the cosmological argument, and so ends by asserting theism.

This left-field ending reminds me of the closing of Ecclesiastes. (Though in this case I’m less inclined to blame the editors.) My wife, Deena, doesn’t share my sense of the disjunction here, and I recognize that not everyone feels the end of Ecclesiastes is out of place.

Whatever one’s aesthetic take on the final argument, it seems to me to tacitly acknowledge one thing. All the psychological predispositions discussed in the first part of the essay do not provide good evidence for the existence of a god. If they did, the author would have said so rather than reaching out to cosmology to salvage his preferred belief system.

Oh well. At least the biases toward god-belief have been given a mostly unpolluted airing. Baby steps, right?

Contending with reason

2012/08/10

This is a review of the third essay in the book Contending with Christianity’s Critics.

The Argument from Reason by Victor Reppert

This is a closely-argued essay which was difficult to follow. Reppert draws on several philosophical terms and concepts that are unfamiliar to me, without explaining them. I will react to what I do understand.

The conceptual setup is intriguing: he points out that there are two types of worldview we can consider: mentalistic and non-mentalistic. Under a mentalistic worldview, mental entities (such as human minds) are considered basic, and other entities (such as trees, rocks, planets, etc) must be explained in terms of mental entities. Under a non-mentalistic worldview, non-mental entities are basic (be they atoms, quarks, superstrings, whatever), and all entities (trees, rocks, minds) must be explained in terms of those basic elements.

This setup is quite interesting, because it taps one of the key differences between naturalistic and theistic pictures of the universe. I am even inclined to let the fundamental either-or fallacy slide. Is “mental vs non-mental” a meaningful division? I would say that, under evolution, there is a very gradual slope of distinctions between things that are clearly non-mental (for example, the behaviour of single-celled bacteria) and things that are clearly mental (human behaviour, and that of some other complex organisms).

At one point, Reppert seems to betray a misunderstanding of the point of science:

Nor could one argue that one should be supremely confident that use of the scientific method will result in an accurate understanding of reality. (p 32)

Who ever claimed this for science? Science is not about establishing absolute certainty; it is about finding the most probable answers, having acknowledged the limits of our unaided senses and intuitions. It is about trying to overcome those limits as far as we can, while realizing that those attempts are constrained by our human nature too. This point is, so far as I can tell, tangential to his main argument. But it still bugs me. Scientists are not trying to claim absolute knowledge. That’s what relgious dogmas are for.

I’m afraid I can’t give a judgment beyond this. There are points where Reppert seems to be confusing personal with metaphysical certainty: he can’t see how we could explain somthing naturalistically, therefore we fundamentally cannot do it. (For example, in the section titled Irreducibility of propositional content). But I can’t say. Sorry I can’t give you more – perhaps a philosopher familiar with the essay could wade in here?

Note this response to the idea of ontologically fundamental mental states, by Eliezar Yudkowski.

Another side of the argument from reason is given in the last essay of this section, which I’ll write about soon.

Contending with the multiverse

2011/07/25

This is a review of the second essay in the book Contending with Christianity’s Critics.

At home in the multiverse? by James Daniel Sinclair

Sinclair sets his sights on the multiverse, one of the leading contenders for a sound naturalistic explanation of apparent fine-tuning. I will pick out some highlights.

First, let me say that the fine-tuning argument – the latest and least ambitious incarnation of the ancient argument from design - has always seemed to me to be the strongest argument for the existence of a god. But, having read accounts of it from both sides, I’ve come to feel that its strength lies mainly in our anthropocentric biases rather than any logical superiority it possesses. (See Luke Muehlhauser’s discussion of Fine Tuning at Common Sense Atheism.)

Sinclair also commits some curious blunders. For example, he says that science flatly rejects gods as impossible. Certainly, few modern scientists consider gods as possible explanations. But that is largely because they’ve learned the lessons of history. Early scientists (such as the ancient Greeks, Newton, and Darwin in his youth) did believe – at least in some deistic lawgiver, if not a full-on personal god. But those beliefs got them nowhere in terms of explanation, so modern science tends to skepticism about the usefulness of gods as explanations. Also, look at Dawkins. Sure, he rejects the god hypothesis, but he does so only after evaluating it within a scientific framework. There are scientists, even atheistic ones, who assert that god is outside their purview, but that is not a universal belief among scientists.

As another example, I will share an interesting passage that presents a multiverse version of the ontological argument.

Jay Richards asks us to consider another refutation of an atheist Many Worlds: Christian Alvin Plantinga’s modal version of the ontological argument. In the strong version of the SAP, all possible worlds are considered actual. But if this is so, then if it is even remotely possible that God (the necessary being) has reality (i.e., He is in one possible world), then this necessity implies He must be present in all possible worlds. In essence, an atheistic attempt to produce a necessary universe produces God-as-computer-virus which propagates to “infect” every world! As Richards states, “Such can be the penalty for toying with notions such as possibility, necessity, and infinite sets.” (pages 22-23)*

This argument suffers not only from the linguistic defect of Anselm’s original ontological argument; it also commits a fatal equivocation. Anselm’s key error was to treat “existence” as the same sort of property as “redness”. That error is repeated here. The equivocation in the multiverse version above has to do with whether the god exists separately for separate universes, or exists transcendently, a single presence spanning them all. On the one hand, if the god’s existence in universe A is a different question from the god’s existence in universe B, then it is true that the probability of the god existing in some universe increases as the number of universes increases. On the other hand, if the god is equally present across all the universes by definition, then the probability of its existing is unaffected by contingent details like the number of universes. The above argument switches definitions at a crucial point. In a more valid form, the argument can give you either a probably-existing contingent god in a small subset of universes, or a very unlikely god that is present across all universes.

In truth, I don’t know if a multiverse approach is worth pursuing. I don’t know if it solves the apparent problem of fine-tuning. But then, after reading Luke Muehlhauser’s thoughts on the issue, I’m not convinced that fine tuning is a legitimate “problem” for naturalism that requires a solution.

At any rate, I don’t see that this essay gives any reason to shift my beliefs.


Footnote:

* Sinclair references this online paper by Richards as the source of this argument.

Contending with Dawkins (1)

2011/07/18

This is a review of the first essay in the book Contending with Christianity’s Critics.

Dawkins’s Delusion by William Lane Craig.

In the first essay, William Lane Craig outlines what appears to be Dawkins’ main argument against belief in god from The God Delusion. Here is the structure, as Craig presents it:

  1. There is an appearance of design in the universe.
  2. A designer is one way to try to explain the appearance of design.
  3. Positing a designer raises the question of who designed the designer.
  4. The best explanation we have for the emergence of complex things is evolution by natural selection.
  5. We have no equivalent explanation for physics.
  6. We should maintain hope that such an explanation may turn up.
  7. Therefore, God almost certainly does not exist.

Craig correctly points out that this is a crashingly bad argument. The conclusion does not follow from the premises, and point 3 in particular seems to raise the spectre of an infinite regress of explanations. But is this a fair assessment of Dawkins’ argument?

No. It ignores the very important aspect of explanations that they be simplifying. That is, you have a simpler account of things after adopting the explanation than you had before. Dawkins harps on about this rather a lot in his book. Craig may not agree that simplicity is a key virtue of a successful explanation, or that a creator god fails the simplicity test; but he really should acknowledge that this is part of Dawkins’ argument. This answers, I think, the problem of the infinite regress of explanations. What I read Dawkins as meaning is that, if your explanation fails to simplify things, then the only reason we would have to adopt your explanation if, behind it, there isanother explanation that does simplify things.

Now, I realize that this may be me projecting rather than successfully reading Dawkins’ original intent. But that doesn’t really matter. The point here is not an atheist apologetic (“What is the true meaning of the text?”) but an attempt to get the best understanding of reality. So here is my reformulation of Craig’s version of the argument.

  1. The universe exhibits the appearance of design.
  2. A designer is one purported explanation of the appearance of design.
  3. Generally speaking, appeals to a designer fail as explanations because:
    1. they fail to systematically predict actual observed phenomena and rule out phenomena we do not observe, and
    2. they fail the test of simplicity, relative to naturalistic alternative explanations.
  4. In the past, comparable design arguments have been countered by the very powerful and well-evidenced theory of evolution by natural selection.
  5. Although not yet as evidentially-supported as evolution, naturalistic explanations of the appearance of fine-tuning – such as the multiverse – are available and being explored.
  6. We therefore have good grounds for optimism that naturalistic explanations will prove more empirically successful than theistic explanations for the appearance of fine-tuning.
  7. Therefore, we should prefer the more parsimonious no-god hypothesis until substantial contrary evidence arises.

I know, it is not watertight. Nor is it a deductive argument. Like any scientific argument, it is inductive – seeking the most likely explanation of the observations available.

And despite my disclaimer, I do think that it is closer than Craig’s version to the actual arguments presented by Dawkins. (But again, I don’t want to pretend that my goal is to faithfully parrot Dawkins; please don’t attribute any of my errors to Dawkins. If you want to know what Dawkins says, read Dawkins.)

So much for the first essay in the series.

Contending with Christianity’s Critics

2011/07/18

This post introduces the fourth book in the philosophy challenge that Deena and I began last year.

Contending with Christianity's Critics

Contending with Christianity’s Critics.

  • ISBN: 978-0805449365; ISBN10: ; B&H Academic; Pages: 304; [Amazon]

Edited by Paul Copan and William Lane Craig

This book contains a collection of essays by various apologists, responding to various criticisms of Christian belief.

The previous apologetic book in the series began with high ambitions and a promising premise. In this book, our expectations were set low from the opening paragraph. The editors begin their introduction by pointing out that the recent popular “New Atheist” books are less philosophically and historically solid than much of atheist philosophy, previously and currently. It is these New Atheist books that the current volume aims at.

I can understand the desire to counter the more prominent voices, rather than the stronger ones. And I am sure that, aside from Deena and me (and the others who have accepted Luke’s challenge), very few atheists will be reading this book. It is aimed at other believers and apologists, not at atheists. Nevertheless, the admission that this book aims philosophically low disappointed us.

On the other hand, we looked forward to at least one essay in this volume: Daniel Wallace’s piece critiquing Bart Ehrman on the reliability of the New Testament as a record of historical events. I mentioned in my review of Ehrman’s book that I would like to see what arguments are raised against it, because I am unqualified and not strongly motivated to see for myself any errors he commits. Perhaps this essay would help balance my impression?

Anyway, this is a book of essays, so I will review them individually (for the most part). I will maintain a list of links here pointing forward to the reviews as they go up:

Part 1: The Existence of God

1. Dawkins’s Delusion, by William Lane Craig

2. At Home in the Multiverse? by James Daniel Sinclair

3. Confronting Naturalism: The Argument from Reason, by Victor Reppert

4. Belief in God: A Trick of Our Brain? by Michael J. Murray

5. The Moral Poverty of Evolutionary Naturalism, by Mark D. Linville

6. Dawkins’s Best Argument Against God’s Existence, by Gregory E. Ganssle

Part 2: The Jesus of History (single review for whole section)

7. Criteria for the Gospels’ Authenticity, by Robert H. Stein

8. Jesus the Seer, by Ben Witherington III

9. The Resurrection of Jesus Time Line, by Gary R. Habermas

10. How Scholars Fabricate Jesus, by Craig A. Evans

11. How Badly Did the Early Scribes Corrupt the New Testament? by Daniel B. Wallace

12. Who Did Jesus Think He Was? by Michael J. Wilkins

Part 3: The Coherence of Christian Doctrine

13. The Coherence of Theism, by Charles Taliaferro and Elsa J. Marty

14. Is the Trinity a Logical Blunder? God as Three and One, by Paul Copan

15. Did God Become a Jew? A Defense of the Incarnation, by Paul Copan

16. Dostoyevsky, Woody Allen, and the Doctrine of Penal Substitution, by Steve L. Porter

17. Hell: Getting What’s Good My Own Way, by Stewart Goetz

18. What Does God Know? The Problems of Open Theism, by David P. Hunt

(I will also provide a summary of the volume at the end.)

50 reasons people give for believing in a god

2011/07/11

50 reasons people give for believing in a godThis post introduces the third book in the philosophy challenge that Deena and I undertook last year.

50 reasons people give for believing in a god. ISBN: 978-1-59102-567-2; Prometheus Books; Pages: 330; [Amazon]

by Guy P. Harrison

In the introduction, Harrison says, “This book is not an attempt to prove the nonexistence of gods.” So believers are free to simply read his responses as “Here’s why I don’t find your reasons for belief persuasive,” rather than, “Here’s why you have no justification for your beliefs!” By the same token, non-believers cannot pretend that Harrison’s responses to the 50 reasons are anything close to disproofs of gods’ existence.

So, as an entry in this Truth-Seeker’s challenge, this book may seem a little irrelevant. I can imagine a believer reading it with the same impatience I had reading Letters to Doubting Thomas. Many of the points it puts forward for atheism are answerable by more sophisticated apologetics.

But I think such a response may fail to see the value (and purpose) of the book. Remember Harrison’s disclaimer. He’s not out to soundly disprove the best philosophical defenses of theism. He’s interested in responding, as a regular atheist, to the reasons regular believers give for their belief.

Harrison draws on extensive travel, not only to spice his book with interesting anecdotes from around the world, but to demonstrate that he’s not just setting up convenient straw men to tackle. He really is responding to the reasons most people give for believing. If I, as an atheist, do not understand these reasons and have a quick reply ready, I am unlikely to influence anyone’s belief. And if you, a believer, have not seen the casual atheist reply to some of these claims, you are unlikely to influence atheists’ beliefs. For both of us, seeing these in-the-trenches arguments, presented respectfully and succinctly, may help avoid a certain amount of talking past each other. They may help us see more clearly where the points of difference lie.

I think that, for a challenge that is aimed at non-philosophers, this book maps out some of the important philosophical foothills that we’d need to navigate before we try to tackle the more rarefied heights addressed (I hope) in the remaining books (all of which are written or contain contributions by professional philosophers).

To sum up, this book does not directly tackle the question at the heart of the challenge: “Which belief is most reasonable?”

But to the question “Do people generally believe in gods for good reasons?” then this book makes a good case for the answer “No”. This seems to be Harrison’s project – he is not pretending to be a philosopher. For that reason, and because of the entertaining presentation and many anecdotes from Harrison’s extensive travels, I’m glad we’ve read this book, and glad to have it on my shelf for future reference.

 


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