Friday, February 26, 2010
The book may be described with one or more of the following adjectives: excellent, fantastic, superb. These adjectives apply to Kris' work in several senses: First, Kris' book is an honest, objective, and thoughtful attempt to explain the origins of Christianity. It is not angry or unduly biased by ideology. Second, the book is very concise (a mere 151 pages excluding the index, references, and bibliography) but at the same time it is packed with numerous references, extensive quotations, and overall shows that the author has examined voluminous material concerning that about which he writes. Third, I believe that the positions laid out in the book are mostly correct and represent the most probable explanations available for Christian origins. However, the views that I disagree with in the book do not affect the book's main conclusion: the rise and spread of early Christianity is completely explicable (and best explained) in non-supernatural terms.
However, I do think that the book could be improved slightly. Kris never addresses the question, "If Jesus never rose from the dead, and the disciples knew it, then why did they die for a lie?" Of course this question is completely illegitimate (as I will show) but nevertheless it is a widespread myth that Kris should have addressed (perhaps he could launch a companion site or blog to answer questions like these).
The question "Why would they die for a lie?" is not legitimate for many reasons: first, there is no solid evidence that any of the disciples were martyred for their belief in the resurrection, much less any evidence that they were given a chance to recant. As Kenneth Daniels says in his book Why I Believed:
"[T]he assertion that Jesus' disciples died for their faith has no historical foundation; it is mere hearsay, as Bart Ehrman informs us:
"'And an earlier point that Bill made was that the disciples were all willing to die for their faith. I didn't hear one piece of evidence for that. I hear that claim a lot, but having read every Christian source from the first five hundred years of Christianity, I'd like him to tell us what the piece of evidence is that the disciples died for their belief in the resurrection (Craig and Ehrman 2006, 28-29).'
"What Erhman is saying is that we have no historical grounding for the martyrdom of even one of Jesus' disciples. All details regarding their manner of dying emerge years later in accounts that are far removed from the actual events. Even if it could be proven historically that some of the earliest disciples were martyred, we would still be unable to look into their minds and know they died specifically for their belief in Jesus' Resurrection.
"Joseph Smith was murdered by a mob in 1844 in Nauvoo, Illinois. Latter Day Saints believe he was martyred for his unwavering conviction that God revealed himself through golden tablets that Smith had discovered in 1830. Many non-Mormons believe he was killed because he was a criminal. If the facts are so readily disputed for a relatively recent and well-documented event like Joseph Smith's death, how can we say with any confidence how or why Jesus' disciples perished, let alone what was in their minds when they died?"
Another point that Kris does not address is the claim that the resurrection hypothesis is simpler than all secular explanations of the facts surrounding Jesus' death. This claim is commonly made by William Lane Craig and Gary Habermas, and I would imagine that they would make the same point to Kris if ever they engaged him in debate: Isn't the single hypothesis of Jesus' resurrection simpler (and therefore more likely to be true) than Kris' multi-hypothesis explanation of the origins of Christianity (Kris' hypothesis requires numerous hypotheses, such as grief hallucinations to the individual appearances of Jesus after his death, plus postulating that Paul's report of an appearance to the 500 is a fringe legend and not at all factual, and so on)?
Of course Kris could easily counter this question: Occam's razor (the principle of simplicity) states that all things being equal, the simplest explanation is most probably correct. But all things are not equal in this instance: Each of Kris' hypotheses occurs with relatively high frequency (people exaggerate, hallucinate, etc. all the time) while resurrections either never occur or occur on a mind-bogglingly low basis (so low that we know of no other cases). So even the conjunction of all of Kris' hypotheses together is a lot more likely than the resurrection. The only way that a Christian could get out of this is if he could successfully show that Kris' hypothesis was less likely than the existence of a miracle-working God of the sort who would actually want to raise Jesus from the dead. Any takers on that one?
Sunday, February 21, 2010
"I am very skeptical that there is anyone who fits the images that Lee Strobel and people like him have created for themselves. Let me explain.
"[S]ome prominent Christian figures–notably Lee Strobel and Josh McDowell–have risen to fame by painting self-portraits in which intellectual considerations dragged them kicking and screaming into belief. Notice what they’re doing: they’re essentially claiming to be Christian versions of Lukeprog et al. But if you look at what Strobel says in his pre-Case for… book Inside the Mind of Unchurched Harry and Mary, you get a somewhat different picture: Strobel started going to church because his wife wanted him to, found it emotionally moving, and then started reading Christian apologetics to assure himself it was all true. It’s unclear Strobel read any non-Christian books in his 'journalist’s investigation...'
"Are there any other good candidates for being Lee Strobel, other than Strobel? In a discussion at Ed Feser’s blog, one commenter suggested Joshua Rasmussen and Trent Doughtery as examples of people became theists because of arguments, but based on scanning online for things Joshua and Trent have written about that, as well as exchanging a few e-mails with them, it’s pretty clear to me their situation wasn’t quite what the commenter made to sound like: both started out as fairly serious believers, wavered towards agnosticism, and report going back for intellectual reasons."
I concur with Hallquist's observations. In a recent debate (about ten and a half minutes in), Mike Licona mentioned Dr. Craig Keener, another "former atheist" who became a Christian because of the overpowering evidence. But take a look at Keener's story, from his own website:
"One day when I was 15, as I was walking home from school, a couple students from a fundamentalist Bible college cornered me and asked me if I knew where I would go when I died. I argued with them for 45 minutes, as they tried to explain about Jesus’ death and resurrection bringing salvation, something that made no sense to me. Finally I hit them with what I thought was the ultimate question: “If there’s a God, where did the dinosaur bones come from?” If one asks a stupid question, one usually gets a stupid answer. They replied that the devil put them there. I was so annoyed that I started to walk off, and they warned me that if I kept hardening my heart against God, I would end up in hell...
"Although I tried to shake off their words, I found myself terrified the entire way home. Despite the nonsense about the devil planting dinosaur bones to fool us, they had given me the true message about Christ. I had wanted God to give me empirical evidence, but instead God confronted me with the reality of God's own presence. I had studied various religions and philosophies in the encyclopedia, but what I was experiencing now was on a completely different level. As I got to my room, I was so overwhelmed by God’s presence and the demand it made on my life that I felt only two options—I had to either accept or reject the demand of my Creator, and God was not going to let me alone until I did one or the other.
"My knees buckled out from under me, and I cried out, "God, I don’t understand how Jesus dying and rising from the dead can save me—but if that’s what You are saying, I’ll believe it. But God—I don’t know how to be ‘saved.’ So if You want to save me, You’re going to have to do it Yourself.” Suddenly I felt something rushing through my body like I had never felt before. I did not understand what had just happened, but I knew that God was real and that I must now give God everything I was and everything I had.
"By the age of nine I was asserting that I was an atheist. Although I thought I had sound philosophic reasons for my view, I did not disrespect all religions (and especially enjoyed studying ancient Greek and Egyptian ones), if I believed that those who followed them had some genuine reasons for their belief. Yet it seemed to me that of all the religions of which I was aware, only Christians did not take their faith very seriously (a perspective I unfortunately extrapolated based on the assumption that most Americans were Christians); I reasoned that if one really believed that there was a God, one would give God everything one was and everything one had."
It ought to be clear from the context of Licona's use of Dr. Keener that he was being dishonest. Dr. Craig Keener was not someone who changed his mind as a sober minded adult. He was a kid who originally ridiculed God (maybe to make himself feel good or to be rebellious) and later had an emotional experience as a teenager that caused him to change his mind.
Another guy that I've seen cited like this is Lionel Luckhoo. In an internet video that I wasn't able to locate currently (I've watched it before) Lee Strobel cited Lionel Luckhoo as this fantastic defense attorney (which he was) who had carefully examined the evidence for Jesus with the same rigor that he examined evidence in court cases. But if you read Luckhoo's pamphlet Did Jesus rise from the dead? The Question Answered, you'll see that Luckhoo constantly (and question-beggingly) assumes complete or near complete reliability of the gospel accounts to arrive at this conclusion. Luckhoo might have been a Guinness record holding attorney, but that does not excuse such sorry reasoning in this instance.
So I agree completely with Chris Hallquist that there does not seem to be any case of an objective, soberminded, fully-informed person looking at the evidence and coming to the conclusion that Christianity is true.
On the other hand, I'm not sure how many examples we have of atheists who came to the conclusion of atheism free of passion and without plausible psychological motive. I didn't. Charles Darwin best summed up one of my reasons for questioning my faith which lead me to atheism:
"I can indeed hardly see how anyone ought to wish Christianity to be true; for if so the plain language of the text seems to show that the men who do not believe, and this would include my Father, Brother, and almost all my best friends, will be everlastingly punished. And this is a damnable doctrine."
I'm not saying that I'm an atheist because I don't like Christianity. I justify atheism through observation and logic. But I am aware that I have a bias against Christianity because I believe its doctrine of hell is awful and wicked.
And I think the same applies to many atheists. John Loftus, whom Hallquist seems to think of as someone who came to atheism through reason alone, neglects the fact that what lead John to question his faith was being treated badly by his Christian friends after an affair. And besides, there's really no way to ever be sure that someone was free of bias when they left Christianity. We don't know their thoughts, nor does anyone else. And of course after the de-conversion they may try and portray themselves as completely bias-free. After all, most people are not true-to-reality enough to realize or even report (for fear of discrediting themselves) any bias they may have had.
So my conclusion is that there is no Lee Strobel and probably could not/never will be enough evidence for a Lee Strobel or an atheistic version thereof.
**Just one other thing: You may think that I've contradicted myself in stating that we can't ever really know the thoughts of another but also coming up with psychological reasons that John Loftus may have left Christianity. I'm not: I'm not saying that I know John Loftus became an atheist for psychological reasons, I'm simply saying that it is plausible to think that he did, or to think that psychological reasons played a significant role in his deconversion.
Monday, February 15, 2010
Sunday, February 14, 2010
I got two questions wrong, although I can explain why I disagree. I agreed with the following statement: "As long as there are no compelling arguments or evidence that show that God does not exist, atheism is a matter of faith, not rationality."
You see, I define atheism as the view that God does not exist (either probably or definitely). I know, I know, we can quibble about definitions all day. But that is my definition. Now, I think that in the absence of positive evidence for God, one can justifiably disbelieve in God because of Occam's razor (the simplest explanation is most probably correct) because God not existing is simpler than God existing. If the Occam's razor argument were somehow disproven (and there were no good arguments for or against God's existence) then we would be stuck with agnosticism. Not believing in something is a matter of faith if you have no reason to disbelieve it. However, in many cases, when there does not seem to be any positive or negative evidence/arguments for or against some hypothesis, we often forget that Occam's razor is the only reason we can disbelieve something in the absence of positive evidence.
Here's the other one I got wrong: "You say that God does not have the freedom and power to do impossible things such as create square circles, but in an earlier answer you said that any being which it is right to call God must be free and have the power to do anything. So, on your view, God is not free and does not have the power to do what is impossible. This requires that you accept - in common with most theologians, but contrary to your earlier answer - that God's freedom and power are not unbounded. He does not have the freedom and power to do literally anything."
In my view, illogical actions (like creating a square circle) are not actions at all, but merely words that purport to describe an action but do not in fact describe an action. So a being can be omnipotent without being able to perform illogical actions (which are not actions at all).
Thursday, February 11, 2010
"In a new communication to Current Biology, Adam Hart et al. report the discovery of a letter written to Darwin by the British entomologist Albert Brydges Farn (1841-1921). Farn lays out in his letter the evidence that color variation and change in the moth Gnophos (now Charissa) obscurata, called the “annulet,” reflected the action of natural selection. It’s the peppered-moth story in a different species. Had Darwin followed this up, say Hart et al., he would have apprehended a crucial piece of evidence missing from his theory: observation of natural selection in action." Click here to read more:
Sunday, February 7, 2010
Berg's first argument from atheism goes something like this: God is a being who is omnipotent, the creator of the universe, supremely good, and so on. But it must be statistically improbable for the creator of the universe to also possess attributes like supreme goodness which must occur in very few (if any) beings. To see this argument with more clarity, try thinking about it this way: suppose that tomorrow one person will win the lottery and one person will be struck by lightning. What are the odds that the lottery winner will be one and the same as the person who gets struck by lightning? Obviously, the odds are incredibly low that two improbable occurances will happen to the same person. Likewise, the odds that a rare (or perhaps even non-existent) attribute like supreme goodness will happen to exist in the unique being who created the universe is also improbable.
I think that Berg's argument is a valid one, but it only goes to show that the existence of God is a priori improbable. Of course, with enough a posteriori support, the existence of God might be deemed probable in spite of its a priori improbability. Fortunately Berg seems to realize this and he attempts to show that the God hypothesis can recieve no a posteriori support in another argument, which we will examine next.
Berg's second argument is the 'Comprehension Gulf' Argument. Berg asserts that since God is, by definition, immortal and infinite, that man can never recognize God and prove that God exists because man is finite and mortal. Man, being finite in both lifespan and knowledge, can never attain direct proof that something has existed for eternity. Therefore, we can never know if some being actually is God. At best we could only attain proof that some very powerful being exists who might be God, but who also might be simply a very powerful and long-lived spirit (who did not quite meet the definition of 'God').
Now this is a very interesting argument. If it is valid, it would go along very nicely with Berg's a priori proof that God is highly improbable because it effectively destroys any hope the theist might have of supporting the God hypothesis through a posteriori means. But is it valid? I don't know. If it were the case that all of humanity met some spiritual being who could stop bombs from exploding, make pink unicorns appear out of thin air, rearrange the planets of the solar system, and cause my little sister to be a little less stubborn, would we be irrational for reasoning inductively that this being was all-powerful?
The problem is analogous to another: if you have ever heard of Olber's paradox, then you will understand that, if the universe were infinite, we can predict that there would be an infinite number of stars, and thus the sky ought to glow at night because of the infinite starlight. Since the sky does not glow, we may take this as a falsification of the infinite universe theory. But what if the sky did glow? Would that mean that the universe was infinite? Not necessarily. What if the number of stars was not infinite, but just extremely large? How would we know the difference? On empirical grounds we would not know. But on logical grounds we might be able to make a decision. Richard Swinburne advocates the position that the simplest numbers are zero and infinity. Since zero represents no being at all, it follows that the simplest being we could come up with would be an infinite one. I believe that Swinburne was on to something here.
Most readers of philosophy are aware of the age-old problem of induction: inductive reasoning (or generalizing from a limited number of experiences) is not self justifiying, and it certainly is not logically necessary that what we generalize from a limited number of our experiences will hold true in all cases. For instance, if every swan that I have ever seen is white, it does not necessarily follow that all swans are white. Likewise, just because I have always observed the sun rising from the east does not necessarily mean that the sun didn't rise in the west ten million years ago or a hundred million years ago or five hundred million years ago. So why is it that inductive reasoning is valid? I believe that the answer lies in Occam's razor: the principle which states that the simplest explanation is most probably correct. Since it is simpler for the sun to rise from same direction throughout the history of sunrises than for it to rise from one direction for half of its history and another direction in another half, we can rightly say that the simplest (and therefore most probably correct) hypothesis is that the sun always rose in the east.
This piece of philosophy is completely applicable to Berg's argument. Suppose that there was a God who was only too willing to prove to us that he was omnipotent, and the God did all kinds of fantastic things like rearranging the stars, raising the dead, etc. After numerous demonstrations of power it would be simpler to suppose that, as had always happened before, the God's power would prevail over anything and everything, and therefore this God would be all-powerful.
Berg's third argument against the existence of God is the 'God has no explanatory value' argument. The argument has a very familiar feel to it. All too often I am asked, "If there is no God, why is there something rather than nothing?" I often respond by asking "Why is there a God rather than nothing?" Berg has taken this reply, which is applicable to so many theistic arguments, and actually used it as an argument against God's existence. Berg argues that if we are positing a God in order to explain questions that the God hypothesis does not really answer, then we ought to apply Occam's razor (the simplest explanation is most probably correct) and avoid postulating God in the first place. Theoretical entities should not be postulated when they explain nothing, so let us avoid them and arrive at the simpler (and more probably correct) explanation: atheism. I agree with this line of reasoning completely.
Berg's fourth argument is a brilliant variation on the age-old argument from evil. If we define God as an all-powerful and all-good creator of the universe, then it follows quite naturally that such a being would be expected to create this world in its best possible state. This world must be the best of all possible of worlds if God created it. If it is not the best of all possible worlds, then God did not create it. Berg observes that the world has improved quite a bit over the ages. After all, few of us would care to live in the Middle Ages or in the iron grip of the Roman empire. If I may bring up a quick point, I remember PBS airing a series called The 1900 House, a reality series in which a family lived in a house with conditions like those of the beginning of the twentieth century. After watching that series, I am very grateful that I was not born in that time period. And the reality series did not even fully recreate what that era was like, since many things had to be altered slightly from the way they actually were back then due to health and safety concerns. Anyway, back to the argument: Berg observes that, since the world has been improving, it follows that the world was not created in the best possible state (by definition you cannot improve something that is perfect). Therefore God does not exist.
Of course, there are some theodicies that might pose some difficulty for this argument: for instance, Richard Swinburne might counter that God did not create the world in the best possible state because he wanted to give man the responsiblity and freedom of choice to improve it (Swinburne sees these things as being good in and of themselves). Then again, such a defense seems to presuppose a libertarian or contra-causal account of free will, which I personally have chosen to reject because I view it as incoherent and unintelligible (see Daniel Dennett,Freedom Evolves, and Richard Carrier, Sense & Goodness Without God, Section III.4).
Overall, I agree with Berg's 'Best Possible World' argument, but I believe that he should make a more thorough and exhaustive attempt to defeat threatening theodicies which may, in the eyes of some, nullify his argument.
Berg's fifth argument is the 'Universal Uncertainty' argument. He argues that God must have certain knowledge of anything (if it is to be called 'God'), but that there some to be some things that God could never be certain about. How would God know if he is not simply one of many Gods who exist separately from one another and unaware of one another? However, I think a theist could suggest that perhaps God has some self-evident, a priori proof to answer these questions. Although it seems unparsimonious to postulate the existence of unknown a priori proven answers to difficult questions like the one mentioned previously, I don't see any reason to suppose it is impossible, and therefore I don't find this argument too convincing.
Berg's final argument does not feel like a single argument as much as it does a few left-over arguments slapped together to make a sixth chapter. He argues that God cannot exist because some of God's defining qualities cannot exist. Berg moves through several qualities, from his previously discussed argument against omniscience to the old argument against omnipotence (As J.L. Mackie put it: "Can God beings that he cannot control?"). He even suggests that God could not be anything more than a "grand showman" if God is not capable of giving meaning to human life (which Berg argues is impossible). It seems to me that he does not argue this very well, and does not justify it very well on logical ground. Moreover, I think Mackie's argument against omnipotetence is not very convincing: an omnipotent being could indeed make beings that he could not control. Prior to creating the uncontrollable beings the God would be omnipotent; after creating the uncontrollable beings he would not be.
Overall, Berg's book is very thought-provoking, original, and convincing. I highly recommend it to philosophers of the amateur and professional stripes.
You can purchase it here.
Saturday, February 6, 2010
Presuppositionalism is one of the strangest, and indeed, one of the most difficult-to-understand approaches to defending the existence of God. The basic idea is that you cannot believe that something (i.e. the uniformity of nature or the reliability of your mind) unless you presuppose the existence of God. The reasoning behind all of this is very peculiar and seldom clearly stated by its proponents.
Are the Laws of Logic Proof of God?
Matt Slick, a well-known supporter of Presuppositionalism, has attempted to break down the line of reasoning behind his form of Presuppositionalism (The Transcendental Argument for the Existence of God, hereafter known as TAG). I think Slick has simplified it about as well as can be done, although I feel he ought to have put it into a standard syllogistic form. I’m going to attempt to do this, as I feel it will make it much easier for us to understand where the argument goes wrong.
Allow me to define some terms before I begin: I’m going to use LA to stand for “logical absolute” by which I mean the Law of non-contradiction (actual contradictions cannot be true), the law of identity (things are what they are and they are not what they are not), the law of excluded middle (something cannot be both true and not true), Etc. By “conceptual” I mean a mental representation of an actual or possible thing. Here is the series of syllogisms which comprise the TAG:
1. LAs do not arise from matter, motion, time, space, etc.
2. Something that does not arise from matter/motion/time/space/etc. is not physical (by definition).
3. Anything that is not physical is conceptual.
4. Therefore, from 1-3, LAs are conceptual.
1. Conceptual Things depend on a mind to exist.
2. LAs are conceptual.
3. Therefore, LAs depend upon a mind to exist.
4. LAs exist.
5. Therefore, one or more mind must be authoring LAs (follows from 1-4).
1. LAs are authored by a mind.
2. Minds are either perfect or they are not.
3. LAs are not authored by a non-perfect mind or mind. Follows from the principle of sufficient reason: A cause cannot be greater than its effect, so a concept could not be more perfect than the mind creating it. Since human minds are universally imperfect, human minds could not create LAs, which are completely perfect.
4. Therefore, LAs are authored by a perfect mind.
1. LAs are authored by an absolute mind.
2. Minds must exist to author concepts.
3. Therefore, the absolute mind authoring LAs exists.
Questionable Premises of TAG
The first questionable premise is A (1). Logical absolutes do not “arise from” physical things, rather logical absolutes are expressed by physical things because everything (whether possible or actual) must follow logical absolutes (for example, all possible or actual things must be what they are and cannot be what they are not). In fact, for something to even be considered “possible” it must, by definition, be in accord with the laws of logic (it must be what it is and not what it is not).
The second questionable premise is A (3). Just because something is not physical does not automatically mean that it is conceptual. Perhaps logical absolutes constitute a category in and of themselves and are not part of the categories of ‘conceptual things’ or ‘physical things’. They aren’t physical. And they are not conceptual: something that is conceptual is a mental representation of an actual or possible thing. But the mental representation of, for example, the law of non-contradiction, is not identical with the law of non-contradiction itself. The law of non-contradiction is an objectively true statement that applies to all possible or actual states of affairs.
A Strange Similarity
While I was thinking about TAG, I noticed that it had a striking resemblance to another argument I had once heard. Alvin Plantinga put it this way:
“[It] seems plausible to think of numbers as dependent upon or even constituted by intellectual activity; indeed, students always seem to think of them as "ideas" or "concepts", as dependent, somehow, upon our intellectual activity. So if there were no minds, there would be no numbers.”
Plantinga goes on to talk about how all numbers are probably not due to human intellectual activity, and so Plantinga draws the conclusion that they must be due to some higher intellectual activity (i.e. God’s intellectual activity) therefore God exists.
This argument is wrong for reasons similar to the reasons that TAG is wrong: It confuses the mental representations of numbers with numbers themselves. Numbers are simply amounts of some type of thing. And the amount of some type of thing is not the same as our mental representation of the amount of that thing. So numbers are fundamentally not conceptual, and since they are not conceptual, we do not need to account for them with a mind. If we do not need to account for them with a mind, then we do not need to account for them with God’s mind.
The Argument from the Uniformity of Nature
Dr. Jason Lisle of Answers in Genesis summed up the argument this way:
1. Science requires uniformity.
2. Uniformity requires a biblical worldview.
3. Therefore, science requires a biblical worldview.
The first premise is definitely true, although I wonder how creationists think they can advocate the uniformity of nature while simultaneously proposing that the rates of radiometric decay were super-fast in the past (to explain away radiometric dates).
The entire argument really hangs on the second premise: Uniformity requires a biblical worldview. The reasoning Lisle offers in support of this is:
“The Christian worldview gives us a reason to expect uniformity: a God who is beyond time, who upholds the universe in a consistent fashion, and who has told us so.”
How would a God beyond time give us reason to expect uniformity? I suppose that Lisle might be thinking that since physical laws are changeless they must have come from something changeless (like a changeless God). But what about all the things that God allegedly made which can change? Did changing things come from a changeless God? If so, then it seems that there is no reason to expect uniformity on the basis that there exists a timeless God.
Besides, I would claim that one can be completely justified in believing the uniformity of nature without reference to a Creator. Ask yourself: Is uniformity simpler than variety? Is it simpler for things to behave the same way throughout all time rather than behaving several different ways over the course of time? It certainly is, and since Occam’s razor tells us that “the simplest explanation is most probably correct” then it follows that certain regularities in the behavior of matter that we observe today were very probably the same in the past, and very probably will be the same in the future.
This brings us to another question: atheists and agnostics may be justified in believing that nature is uniform because of their experience, but wouldn’t it still be true that theists have a reason to expect a uniform universe in advance while atheists do not? Perhaps so, but then again there is no more reason to presuppose that a consistent God exists (prior to examining the real world) than there is to suppose that a consistent universe exists (prior to examining the universe).
Lisle’s third point, that he has reason to expect a uniform universe because God told him so, is simply ridiculous. The men who wrote the Bible would have been perfectly aware that the universe exhibits some regularity (as all people are) and so sticking such a thing in there is not really a sign of divine inspiration.
Bertrand Russell mentions further problems with Lisle’s argument:
“[W]here you can get down to any knowledge of what atoms actually do, you will find they are much less subject to law than people thought, and that the laws at which you arrive are statistical averages of just the sort that would emerge from chance. There is, as we all know, a law that if you throw dice you will get double sixes only about once in thirty-six times, and we do not regard that as evidence that the fall of the dice is regulated by design; on the contrary, if the double sixes came every time we should think that there was design. The laws of nature are of that sort as regards a great many of them. They are statistical averages such as would emerge from the laws of chance; and that makes this whole business of natural law much less impressive than it formerly was.”
Must We Presuppose the Existence of God Before We Can Trust Our Own Thoughts?
C.S. Lewis once asked, “If thought is the undesigned and irrelevant product of cerebral motions, what reason have we to trust it?” Well, perhaps because the process of natural selection has, in a sense, ‘designed’ our brain and nervous system to give us accurate information about the world.
Alvin Plantinga has attempted to resuscitate this argument by arguing that unguided evolution probably will not produce a reliable brain. Plantinga says,
“Perhaps Paul [a prehistoric hominid] very much likes the idea of being eaten, but when he sees a tiger, always runs off looking for a better prospect, because he thinks it unlikely the tiger he sees will eat him. This will get his body parts in the right place so far as survival is concerned, without involving much by way of true belief. ... Or perhaps he thinks the tiger is a large, friendly, cuddly pussycat and wants to pet it; but he also believes that the best way to pet it is to run away from it. ... Clearly there are any number of belief-cum-desire systems that equally fit a given bit of behaviour.”[i]
But wouldn’t natural selection favor reliable and accurate memory? Does accurate memory not increase an organism’s chances of survival? Wouldn’t our prehistoric hominid Paul eventually realize that running away from the tiger is not the best way to pet it (since he could remember how things turned out the last time he ran away from the tiger)? A plethora of other problems exist which completely undermine the plausibility of Plantinga’s argument, which I do not see the need to go into here, since they’ve been covered elsewhere.[ii]
Presuppositionalist arguments are often difficult to refute on the spot if you’ve never heard them before. Chances are you haven’t heard them before, because Presuppositionalism represents a minority view that has only recently made a splash on the scene of Christian apologetics. I suspect that Christians are now using these arguments precisely because of their obscurity: the rarity and complexity of these arguments are such that many atheists won’t be able to respond to these arguments immediately, whereas more traditional arguments like the first cause argument and the argument from design are arguments that practically every atheist can immediately tear down (because atheists have heard these arguments used so much). However, once presuppositionalist arguments are carefully examined, they can quickly be shown to be fallacious and invalid. So my advice to fellow atheists and agnostics who frequently argue with Christians is this: be familiar with these arguments and be prepared to expose the errors in them whenever you hear them. Chances are that sooner or later you will come across someone in person or on the internet who uses these arguments. Please take my advice and arm yourself in advance.
[i] Alvin Plantinga, Warrant and Proper Function, (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993), pp.225-226.
[ii] See Stephen Law, "Plantinga's Belief-Cum-Desire Argument Refuted" forthcoming in "Religious Studies". Also: Paul Draper "In Defense of Sensible Naturalism"
And Section III.9 of Sense & Goodness Without God: A Defense of Metaphysical Naturalism
by Richard Carrier.
Thursday, February 4, 2010
Here's an excerpt I liked:
In the prologue to his book Signature in the Cell, Stephen Meyer states that it is an attempt to make a comprehensive, interdisciplinary argument for the Intelligent Design view of the origin of life. But as the author himself concedes (in an appendix on page 496), the discovery of a precursor to DNA (such as RNA) would demolish the whole edifice. A “key prediction” is that “Future experiments will continue to show that RNA catalysts lack the capacities necessary to render the RNA world scenario plausible”. It is Stephen Meyer’s bad luck to have published his book in 2009, the very year that the RNA world scenario became eminently plausible. In February of that year came the discovery of the self-sustained replication of an RNA enzyme, by Lincoln and Joyce (Science, Vol 323, pp1,229–32). In March came the identification of the prebiotic translation apparatus (a dimer of self-folding RNA units) within the contemporary ribosome, by Yonath et al (Nature Proceedings, Posted March 4, 2009). Finally, in May came the discovery of the synthesis of activated pyrimidine ribonucleotides in prebiotically plausible conditions, by Powner et al (Nature, Vol 459, pp239–42). I am afraid that reality has overtaken Meyer’s book and its flawed reasoning.