Duty and futility

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?


11 Responses to “Duty and futility”

  1. A new challenge | Friendly Humanist Says:

    […] Duty and futility – In which I ponder the value of carrying on once it has become clear that the Christian apologists in the series are largely leaning on the same tired old arguments. […]

  2. bob davis Says:

    what exactly are you tring to find ? Are you in some kind of crisis? Do you want to escape from athieism? What is your hurry?

  3. Timothy Mills Says:

    Bob, I’m quite content with atheism, and the humanist, skeptical worldview that it comes out of.

    But just because I’m comfortable with a belief doesn’t mean it’s necessarily true. Being willing to question everything, and look for evidence against my beliefs is an important part of being a rational, honest person.

    It’s difficult. That’s the main point of this post. But it’s important. That’s life for you: many of the most important things are difficult.

  4. bob davis Says:

    Do you prefer to be called Timothy or Tim? I am a Christian however i cannot convert anyone.I prefer to keep my faith to myself.I do not know you if I hung around in your circle i would be respectful of your beliefs we would probabably have a few laughs. If you are content with atheism i would not try and change your mind nor would i disrespect your point of view. We have to live on this great big rock, but it seems that you are still looking for answers and not getting them.Respectfully if you are content does that not mean you have all the answers you need? I once saw a movie called hell in the pacific there was only two actors in the movie one claimed he was a christian and the other was a buddhist they both did nasty things to each other then they decided they needed each other but they could not understand each other at the end the japanese guy saw pictures of japanese people being killed in a magazine he got upset the american got mad and wondered why he did not believe in jesus and a bomb came down and blew them both up. I am saying it did not change either ones mind . A blog is created for a reason is it for actual dialog or to spread ones ideas. I hope you dont find what i am saying is offensive. Sincerely Bob

  5. Timothy Mills Says:

    Most people call me Tim, but I’m happy with Timothy too if you like. To answer your last question, no: I don’t find your words at all offensive.

    To your earlier question: yes, I have all the answers I need, at least at the level of basic worldview. I’m always working to learn more about how that plays out in my day-to-day life: how can I best apply my values of compassion and reason to the daily practice of living well? (Because reason is central to my values, I have to remain open to the possibility that any belief I have may be questioned. But that doesn’t mean that I expect them to be overturned. It just means I must not run away from ideas that may challenge me.)

    I would say that the greatest source of discontent with me is a failure of empathy. I often find it difficult to see why people believe (or even want to believe) many of the things that other worldviews promote. If I could understand my neighbours better, that would make me a more complete person. It would not, I think, make me agree with them any more, but it would be nice to see where they are coming from.

    As with many who broadcast their ideas into the digital ether, I would be delighted if someone found my thoughts persuasive. But converting others is neither my goal nor my expectation.

    I called my blog “Friendly Humanist”, not because I think I’m a particularly friendly person, but because I want to remind myself how I want to approach the dialogue. I want people like you, Bob, to feel comfortable asking questions without fear of being dismissed or attacked as idiots. If you’ve been reading the posts, you’ll see that I’m not sugar-coating things: if I think an idea is unworthy, I’ll say so. But I won’t go out of my way to ridicule a bad idea, and I try very hard not to reject the person even when I am rejecting an idea they propose.

    The fact is, as you say, we need to live together in this world. I want you to understand me, so that I seem less strange and threatening to you; and I want to understand you, so that you seem less strange and threatening to me. If I can achieve those two things, then the blog is worthwhile.

  6. bob davis Says:

    Well thank you I apprieciate your kind words as I read your response.Who knows We can come to an understanding of each other as I say i dont try to convert. Excuse my punctuation I flunked english spanish and german if its a lanquage i flunk it. I have looked at various atheist websites there appears to be angry atheist, friendly, and even tolorant atheists. One of my bosses is an atheist we have a very friendly relationship She is nice to me and I am nice to her. I dont look down on her she is a human being.well where I came from. I was not looking at Christianity actually I was looking at eastern religions I was in a rock and roll band I was thinking that playing music was the ultamate thing to do what actually turned out was it was full of drugs the rock songs promoted drugs but inside I was looking for something better. I had a empty spot in my heart. I read everything I could get my hands on I was searching if I was at the launrymat I read JW matierial Iread self help books I was into self hypnosis which led me into edger cayce some of the stuff i learned helped for a while I even started thinking about UFO possibly saving this planet if it got too bad.My life was empty I was a Beatle freak and started looking into TM ifound by imagining a egg and thinking about its texture for twenty minutes you can get the same results as TM one night as I passed by a church it was wed night I was drinking and depressed I listened to them sing hymns a voice told me come there was no one there so I went in I also accepted jesus through Billy Graham and I had great peace you would not believe it. I have walked with Jesus for over 30 years has it been easy no. I dont know what your life is like as we are new to each other I had a painful divorce wound up in a psych ward for 5150 I have been a single parent for the last 14 years and now my daughter has schizophrenia it has knocked the@#$% out of me but i have had my low times but jesus still gives me strength to do what I have to do and sometimes I dont know how its going to turn out. Now I realize that my faith is subjective to my experience. Sure I have looked at Atheism but for me I still believe in God. I read a good article in wired Magizine on the New Atheism Dawkins Harris penn and teller and the writer who wrote the article was raised around Christianity and was agnostic was looking at both camps but was not ready to concede either way it was a good article. you might have read it have a good day I enjoyed you response thank you and I sahall call you TIM

  7. bob davis Says:

    hey Tim I hope you are doing well I do look at your blog from time to time and hope things are going well. And I hope you have a good day

  8. bob davis Says:

    you have not been sick i hope you are all right something going down

    • Timothy Mills Says:

      Bob, I am alright. Thankyou for your concern. I’m sorry – I have not had much time lately for the blog. When I get busy with home or work life, the blog is the first thing to fall off the to-do list.

  9. bob davis Says:

    well i am glad i things happen and im glad you are ok

  10. bob davis Says:

    have a happy 4th

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