Letters to Doubting Thomas

This post introduces the secondLetters to Doubting Thomas book in the philosophy challenge that Deena and I undertook last year.

Letters to Doubting Thomas. ISBN13: 9780195308150 ISBN10: 0195308158; [Amazon]

by C. Stephen Layman

It is difficult to sum up my very mixed reactions to this book in the space of a single blog post.

Layman’s book claims two excellent ideas as its organizing principles: it is written as a dialogue; and it is an argument to the best explanation.

Dialogues have a long and distinguished history in philosophy, and I looked forward to seeing this format applied to such an interesting topic. And, to the extent that an argument to the best explanation adheres to the rules of its big brother, probability theory, it represents one of the most reliable ways of deriving new beliefs from existing knowledge.

So I dared to hope that here, at last, was a book that might embody that ideal of an accessible, balanced approach to the perennially muddy question of the existence of a god.

Alas, no.

In terms of the dialogue – the back-and-forth between characters on either side of this debate – Layman falls flat. His characters are a theist philosopher (understandably, someone much like Layman himself), and an atheist layman (named Thomas, of course). Sadly, the arguments reflect the characters’ unbalanced backgrounds. The theist character draws on modern scholarship; the atheist cites Freud and Nietzsche. The theist is confident and verbose in defense of his intuitions. The atheist rolls over and accepts the most absurd assertions – such as:

The Principle of Credulity (p45): Accept what experience suggests unless special reasons apply. (p43)

It was not a robust back and forth between equals; it was a teacher-student exchange. I don’t mind that the characters end up agreeing in favour of theism; what bugs me is that only the most superficial straw-man version of naturalism is given time in the book.

In terms of the positive case that Layman tries to build for theism through the book …

Let’s begin with the “principles” that he offers early on – principles which seem custom-made to elevate human bias and wishful thinking above the objective, dispassionate weighing of evidence. In addition to The Principle of Credulity above, he offers these gems:

The Starting Principle (p45): Accept what seems to be so unless special reasons apply.

The Principle of Testimony (p49): Accept what others tell us unless special reasons apply.

Clearly, these principles make life easier. Instead of questioning everything, we can simply accept things at face value. Most of us live by such principles most of the time. But of course, they stand directly in the way of advancing knowledge – of learning new stuff, and correcting old errors.

Or, put another way, centuries of scientific investigation have taught us that special reasons very often apply. Our experiences can be misleading; our intuitions about “what is so” are often crashingly wrong;and the testimony of others is confounded by such a host of conscious and unconscious biases that uncritical acceptance of another’s report can be downright irresponsible.

Let me offer a couple of highlights. One is the theist’s assertion (which receives only token resistance from the naturalist character) that libertarian free will obviously exists. Because Layman offers nothing more than his gut feeling that his is true, I am content for now to counter it with nothing more than my own gut feeling that it is false.

Another is Layman’s suggestion that naturalists have a problem grounding the concept of “evil”. He even has the temerity to claim that this problem negates theism’s disadvantage due to the theistic problem of evil.

It was difficult to finish this book. It became clear early on that Layman wasn’t really interested in pitting the best theistic philosophy against the best naturalist alternative. He was content to conjure up a straw man out of his own imagination, or perhaps from randomly selected Internet chatrooms discussing religion.

Deena and I were left hoping that the next apologetic book in this series will contain a bit more bite.

But I’ve also had the germ of an intriguing idea: maybe I could do some part of what Layman so completely failed to do. Maybe I could construct a probabilistic comparison of the theism and naturalism. A proper comparison. Involving, you know, actual numbers, instead of the vague statements offered by Layman.

Given the subjective nature of many of the concepts involved, anything I came out with would, like the famous Drake equation, certainly not be a definitive or persuasive argument. But it would be an interesting exercise in probability theory. Also like the Drake equation, it might be a useful spur to further refinement and improvement, with the hope of eventually producing a more robust calculation.

I’ll get to work on it, and let you know what I come up with.

In sum, I can’t say this book was a total loss. It has inspired me to learn more about probability. It also gives an interesting, if not terribly impressive, initial idea of what passes for philosophy in religious circles.

Next up, stay tuned for Guy Harrison’s fast-paced romp through popular reasons for believing in gods …



3 Responses to “Letters to Doubting Thomas”

  1. A new challenge « Friendly Humanist Says:

    […] Letters to Doubting Thomas […]

  2. 50 reasons people give for believing in a god « Friendly Humanist Says:

    […] 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 […]

  3. Contending with Christianity’s Critics « Friendly Humanist Says:

    […] previous apologetic book in the series began with high ambitions and a promising premise. In this book, our expectations were set low […]

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