Monday, July 7, 2014

Link: Richard Dawkins and Circular Reasoning

Over at The Cumulative Case, I've made a recent post about Richard Dawkins and his circular reasoning, which echoes a post from a while back here at the Two Books Approach.  In essence, I have attributed a statement to Dr. Dawkins that, if followed to its logical conclusion, means to deny that the fine-tuning of the universe implies the existence of God, is predicated on first assuming God cannot exist.  That is, the probability of God existing is identically zero.  Of course, this isn't logic or reasoning, it is simply blind faith.  Now, I don't suppose I'll know for sure if Dr. Dawkins really holds to this view, so for the benefit of the doubt, I will say that he does not.  Even so, I think it is interesting to unpack what the following statement means: "No matter how improbable this universe is by chance, the probability of God is even less."

An excerpt from the relevant post from The Cumulative Case:
If you start off assuming that God cannot exist, then no amount of evidence, no matter how strong, can budge you.  Dawkins is essentially saying, "I don't care what the scientific evidence for fine tuning says, I will choose to believe that God does not exist." That is not reason or rationality, that is blind belief. Belief, as it were, in spite of the evidence.
For the readers' convenience, I've pasted the relevant point from my old post (note the edit where I have made my statements more circumspect by inserting [many] where the word "all" used to be):
[T]he statement "no matter how improbable this universe is by chance, the probability of God is even less" is tantamount to saying "the probability of God existing is zero." Think about it. The only non-negative number that is guaranteed to be smaller than all positive numbers is zero. This is quite a strong statement. It goes far beyond saying God doesn't exist. It says that God cannot exist. In other words, Dawkins is using an assumption that God cannot exist to try to prove that God does not exist. It is a completely circular argument.
Here's another way to think about it, for the more math-oriented folks. In probability and statistics, the proof we're trying to make is something called a conditional probability. We see an improbable universe around us. What is the probability that God exists given we live in an improbable universe (ie, what's P(G|U))? Using Bayesian inference, we can easily come up with:
P(G|U) = P(G)/(epsilon + P(G)).
Here P(G) is the prior probability that God exists, and "epsilon" is the small chance that this universe came together by coincidence ([many] scientists would agree that epsilon is very small...something like 10^-50 or less). When doing Bayesian inference, you often have to bring in some a priori assumptions to assign prior probabilities (hence the name), so we have to guess at what P(G) is. But you never outright assume that P(G) is identically zero (or one). That would be the same as saying "no matter what our studies tell me, I will choose to believe X." (That's called blind faith.) Usually, when you don't know, you simply set your prior probabilities equal to 1/2. It's easy to see that P(G|U) (the probability that God exists given the universe we live in) would be extremely close to one for any reasonable choice of P(G). The only choice that makes P(G|U) small is P(G) = 0. Which is apparently what Dawkins wants to say.


Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Link: The Inevitable Consequence of An Atheistic Worldview

One of my favorite Christian authors is J. Warner Wallace (Cold Case Christianity), who gave a fantastic lecture here at NC State in December.  I was browsing his blog the other day and came across this piece where he describes an intriguing exchange between some skeptical readers of his blog.

In essence, one of the commenters came out and said in very plain words what the consequences are of an atheistic worldview.  The bottom line is there is no foundation for morality.  I recommend it as a quick read.

Thursday, January 9, 2014

Skeptics don't think Christians think

I have just now come to the realization that, even though there are fantastic arguments in favor of the Christian worldview and of the truth of the bible, many skeptics still think that Christian apologists are charlatans.  That is, these skeptics think that our reasons for belief are grasping at straws, and that our belief comes first, and this faith blinds us to the mistakes we are making in our arguments.  Or worse, that we know our arguments are bad, but we keep advancing them in hopes to keep the faith alive.

This really hit home with me when I considered several bad arguments against Christianity from the starting assumption that all arguments in favor of Christianity were wrong.  (That is, Christians have zero reason for their belief).  Check these out (and these are just a few):

"You just believe because your parents told you to -- therefore, God doesn't exist."  

This is a terrible argument!  But if you start with the assumption that Christianity has no arguments in its favor, then you see why this is compelling.

"You just believe because you were born in Western society.  If you were born anywhere else, you would have adopted the prevalent religion of that location.  Therefore, all religions are false."

This argument is so empty it's hilarious.  First, even if it were true, it doesn't invalidate Christianity.  And second, it's self-refuting: you could apply this argument to atheism (like I do here in "Objection 1").  So why is it so convincing to so many people?  It's because there is the underlying assumption that religions (especially Christianity) have no basis for their belief!  So you can't apply it to atheism, because that has a basis for its belief (so the assumption goes).

Religions are a mind-virus (a meme).  They spread because of societal and cultural pressures.  Therefore, God doesn't exist.

Again, this argument doesn't hold water unless you're already assuming there are no reasons for belief in God.  And again, this argument can be turned against atheism...but the person putting forth the argument doesn't realize that because they don't realize their implicit (and incorrect) assumption: that atheism has evidence for it but religion does not.

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Even in the multiverse, our universe is rare

Last time I ended with the cliffhanger, saying the multiverse (the idea there are a vast number of other universes out there) strengthens the design argument for God.  This discussion stems from the widespread realization, from scientific data, that our universe appears "designed".  The constants of physics and structure of the universe are finely-tuned: they must be just-right in order for life to exist.  Even non-theistic scientists acknowledge this.  (See here for a great website that has compiled many quotes to this effect.)  However, what if there are an infinite number of universes, each with their own random laws of physics?  By sheer numbers then, we should expect at least one bio-friendly universe to exist.

And the fact that we exist says that such a universe exists.

This last point is incredibly important.  It is called a "selection effect".  Even though it's rare that a bio-friendly universe exists, the idea is that it is not rare for observers to note they live in a bio-friendly universe.  The very fact that observers exist (and are living) shows they must be in such a universe.

But here's where it gets weird.  It turns out that, of all possible universes with observers, our universe is still rare.  Because of the extreme degree of fine-tuning necessary to make this universe bio-friendly, it is actually far more probable that a universe composed simply of a star and a host of planets (including the life-friendly one) just popped into existence (POOF!) out of the quantum vacuum.  I repeat: it is far, far more probable that an entire life-friendly solar system just popped into existence with no explanation.

It gets weirder.  Considering those types of universes are more probable, and that presumably in some of those universes, life will have evolved to the point of being technologically advanced, it's actually more probable that we are just in a Matrix-like computer simulation from these advanced life-forms.  In that manner, we'd be "intelligently designed" (but also our world would not be "real").

It gets weirder.  Even more probable than the solar-system-out-of-nothing scenario, by far the most common type of universe with an observer(s) is one in which a single brain pops into existence, looks around and notes the nothingness in which it sits, and then pops out of existence.  (This is called the "Boltzmann Brain".)

All of these then beg the question: why do we live in a universe that is so extremely finely-tuned (to such a degree that it is prohibitively rare, even in a multiverse), when it's far more likely that we wouldn't live in such a universe?  The clear-cut answer is that our universe did not arise by chance.  We are not just a lucky accident of the quantum vacuum churning out random universes.  Our universe was supernaturally designed by the One who has the power and care to undertake such a creative event.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

The Multiverse: science or a cop-out?

Recently, over at townhall.com, columnist Dennis Prager wrote a piece on "Why Some Scientists Embrace the 'Multiverse'".  The article is a good read; in the first part, Prager describes the incredible scientific evidence for the design of the universe for the benefit of life.  The bio-friendliness of the universe is undeniable, and is admitted by scientists of all stripes.  But the "design" of the universe then begs the question: who designed it?  Or, how did it come to be this way?

However, Prager then transitions into a discussion of the multiverse (the idea that there are many, perhaps infinite, universes out there).  If true, the multiverse could get around the problem of the fine-tuning.  After all, if there are an infinite number of universes out there, all with random laws of physics, there would just have to be one in which the laws were "just right" for life to exist.  No matter how improbable it would be for you to hit that bullseye perfectly, given an infinite number of tries, it's bound to happen.  And that's the universe we live in.

But Prager implies the multiverse is solely proposed by scientists in order to get around the fine-tuning.  This is incorrect.  The multiverse hypothesis is a direct inference from the laws of physics.  If we've got the equations of our own universe right, there is a very good chance there are other universes out there.  Just because it's impossible to detect them doesn't mean they aren't there.  And that certainly doesn't mean the multiverse hypothesis is some concoction by atheists to get around the fine-tuning.

So if the multiverse exists, and I don't think we can discount it, where does that leave the fine-tuning argument?  It does seem to provide a nice refutation of fine-tuning pointing to God as designer.  Perhaps that's why it's so popular, and why it gets so much attention.  (And perhaps that's Prager's actual point: that the multiverse is popular with scientists, even though there is no direct evidence for it, because it seems to satisfy their worldview.)  But the reality is, the multiverse only makes the design argument for God stronger.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Is Dawkins spreading propaganda?

Well, despite the sensationalistic title of this post, I think the answer is probably "no, I wouldn't go that far as to say that."  But I have been amazed at some of the things he keeps on saying, held in tension with some things I know people talk to him about.  For example, he continues to deride all believers as people who do not think, yet he is acquainted with one of the greatest proponents for Christian thinking: fellow Oxford professor (and prolific author) John Lennox.

This all came together for me in an "aha!" moment when I read the first four sentences of this article about William Lane Craig (which by the way is a great article in and of itself and I recommend reading it; the first four sentences are almost irrelevant to the rest of the article) where the author depicts Dawkins as decrying the notion of giving a Christian apologist publicity.

This made me wonder: it is really about the search for truth and advancing science and reason for Dawkins?  Or is it about empty rhetoric, sound bytes, and attempting to control what people hear?  The irony of it all is that Dawkins (and now many others) blames the spread of religion on "memes".  Originally, memes didn't have to be funny images with catchy phrases; they can also be just what your parents taught you, or what your friends like, or what's cool at school.  Any cultural element that gets passed from one person to another could be a meme.  Yet, through the use of sound bytes, etc. (which appeal so much to this generation), it is actually atheism that is now propagating* by meme.  Very interesting.

* - By the way, the word "propaganda" has the same root as the word "propagate".  We now come full circle.


Saturday, July 6, 2013

Why am I both a scientist and a Christian?

In this day, it's en vogue to say that if you think rationally, then you give up Christianity.  No doubt this seems true.  In fact, many churches also promote this view (either implicitly or explicitly).  The internet is filled with anecdotes about teenagers who came with the hard questions, yet their pastors/elders/"heroes" in the church just told them to have more faith.

Talk about a recipe for unbelief.

The sad thing is that this is a complete misunderstanding, promoted by both Christians and non-Christians alike.  Last time I professed that I am both a scientist and a Christian, but I didn't say why.  Here it is: Science was birthed out of a Christian world.  It borrows Christian ideas about the world as basic philosophical foundations.  And most importantly (at least for me): scientific, philosophical, and historical evidence undergirds, rather than erodes, the reasonableness of belief in the God of the bible.

But don't take my word for it.  Here are a few sites that would agree (and these are far from exhaustive; they are just the ones that I thought of off the top of my head):
www.reasons.org
www.str.org
www.reasonablefaith.org
www.godandscience.org
www.thepoachedegg.net

Sunday, June 23, 2013

I am a scientist and a Christian

There is a false dichotomy that most people believe in without even thinking about it: that either science is true, or religion (i.e. Christianity) is true, but not both.  For example, according to reviews of "The Unbelievers," that movie implicitly assumes this false dilemma and rides that assumption throughout.

But that doesn't hold water.  I am a scientist and a Christian, and far from internally being at odds with myself, the scientific (and engineering) knowledge I have strengthens my belief in God.

What's interesting is that oftentimes, atheists maintain their lack of belief in any god not for scientific or logical reasons, but for non-rational (emotional) reasons.  Take the oft-quoted Aldous Huxley on Christian morals: "We objected to the morality because it interfered with our sexual freedom."

Or infamous atheist Thomas Nagel: "I want atheism to be true and am made uneasy by the fact that some of the most intelligent and well-informed people I know are religious believers. It isn’t just that I don’t believe in God and, naturally hope that I’m right in my belief. It’s that I hope that there is no God! I don’t want there to be a God; I don’t want the universe to be like that."

(Incidentally, these quotes support what I was saying a few days ago in regard to Objection 4.)

For more, see this post on the Christian Apologetics Alliance webpage.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

A response to "Dear Believer, Why Do You Believe" part 2 of 2

Last time, I began a critique of the popular YouTube clip titled, "Dear Believer, Why Do You Believe".  The thing to keep in mind is that the main premise of this video is that no religious person has adequate reasons to believe.  If this premise were true, then the objections raised in this video actually hold some weight.  However, in that case, the objections would essentially be moot: if no religious person has good reasons for their belief, what is the point of raising more objections.

But instead, religious folk, and Christians in particular, have many reasons to believe!  If you follow my blog, you'll find some of those reasons.


As for the rest of my critique of the video, I have identified six common objections to religion in general, and Christianity in particular, and I offered a response to the first three last time.  Here I will go through the three remaining objections raised in this video.

The problem for the atheist who espouses the views in this video is there are not only many adequate reasons to believe in a god in general, and the Christian God in particular, but these reasons are also immensely compelling.  But even if they were only moderately compelling, the existence of such reasons would totally dismantle this video.  In a way, the narrator is underhandedly delivering a stinging insult to religious people worldwide, saying they live in the dark ages.

Objection 4: “Religions are just crutches to help us feel better.”

I wonder if religions aren’t just ancient constructs, in an attempt to explain unexplained phenomenon.  Though irrational in content, they are not irrational in their emergence.  But we no longer live in the dark; science is ablaze in our world, we no longer live in the cave!  We no longer require comforting stories that make us feel safe, comforted or valued.  Isn’t it time our faith matches our discoveries?  Our ideas our new perspective?  Greater awe in reality rather than in fantasy?
This has many problems, first and foremost that atheists may hold their lack of belief in any gods also as a crutch.  If there is no cosmic being, then who am I held accountable to for my immoral actions?  No one.  OK, not every atheist feels this way, but certainly some do.  In the same vein, not every Christian feels like God is a crutch.  Sometimes, I wish God's influence on my life would just go away so I could be autonomous.  I mean, who doesn't like the idea of being their own master?  Who wants to submit to someone in higher authority than themselves?

On the other hand, again, if there are reasons to believe in God, then crutch or not, it is something to consider.


Objection 5: “It's arrogant to think you have the right religion”

Isn’t it time to stop thinking that we are somehow the reason why this universe was made?  That our culture is somehow better than other cultures?  It’s time to learn how the universe really is, even if that deflates our conceits, and forces us to admit we do not have all the answers.  You must confront these fundamental questions.  
I wonder why this is arrogant?  I've posted on this before, but it bears repeating: ideas aren't arrogant.  If you follow the evidence where it leads, how is that arrogant?  Furthermore, taking the position that the narrator does, how is his position not arrogant? Saying believers live in the dark ages?  The narrator surely thinks he's in a position of privileged knowledge.


Objection 6: “It's arrogant to think we occupy a privileged place in the universe.”

Isn’t it time to stop thinking that we are somehow the reason why this universe was made? That our culture is somehow better than other cultures? It’s time to learn how the universe really is, even if that deflates our conceits, and forces us to admit we do not have all the answers.

Last point, but it's beginning to sound repetitive: this would be valid if there were no evidence that we do indeed occupy a privileged place in the universe (in terms of importance).  But there is evidence.  Perhaps there is still debate going on about that, but the scientific data are fairly clear: there are only a handful of places and times in the universe that intelligent life could exist (and maybe only one unique time and place).  If that is what the data say, then again: how is this arrogant?


Conclusion

Every point made in this video seems nice on the surface, especially if you are already indoctrinated to the ways of the new atheists.  Especially if you accept without question the assumption that science and reason are on one side, and faith (which is blind) on the other.  But just for a moment examine your assumption.  If there are good reasons to believe in Jesus as Lord, then nothing this video says makes any sense.  There are no salient points made.




Wednesday, November 28, 2012

A response to "Dear Believer, Why Do You Believe" part 1 of 2

The popular YouTube clip titled, "Dear Believer, Why Do You Believe" is an attempt to show the fallacy of religion and religious belief. The video is very well done, and has a narrator with a soothing voice calmly raising several objections to religion.  There seems to be real power in this video because the objections keep coming, keep piling up, and if the unwitting believer (or unbeliever) watches, it's really easy to be either bewildered by the objections, if the believer is not ready to answer them, or to say, "Yeah, that's so true!" if you are an unbeliever.

The problem is, this clip is filled with logical fallacies and arguments that are easily shown to be false.  In this blog post, I will go through the main objections to religion raised in this video (which also happen to be commonly used by unbelievers) and show how each one of them fails.

Summary of the video

Much of the video is devoted to the question of why a religious person believes.  The implication is that believers have no good reason to believe.  In fact, you only believe because your parents told you so.  The narrator asks, since there are many religions out there, which cannot all be right, then how would a person choose one religion over any other?  The narrator then claims that this means no religions are indeed correct.

The end of the video pays homage to modern science, saying that "now we know better".  The narrator does not blame ancient peoples for turning to fantasy to comfort themselves, but in this day and age, because of the advent of modern science, we should leave those superstitions behind.  The implication is that, any reasonable and clear thinking person will cut him- or herself free from the fairy-tale of religion and realize the "truth": there is no god.

The irony is that, if you are using reason to help form your basis of belief regarding the big questions, such as, "Who am I?", "Why are we here?", and "Is there a God?", you will soon see that this video has nothing logical to say about it.  In fact, most of the objections against religion raised by this video are self-refuting, a hallmark of poor reasoning.

In this series of this posts, I will go through six objections to religion in general (and Christianity in particular) portrayed by this video.  In each case, I will state the objection as I see it being raised by the video (either implicitly or explicitly), paraphrase (not direct quoting, although I will put it in quote blocks) the relevant parts of the video, and then respond to the objection(s).

Objection 1: “You’re only a Christian because you were born in America to Christian parents.”

Is the faith you practice the dominant one within your culture?  Aren't you suspicious that most people adopt the religion of the society in which they were born? Yet remain convinced they've found the one true faith?  Did you know that most people choose it not for reasons, but because they were born into it?  Can it be just an accident of geography?  Did you know nearly all religious devotees believe what they are taught to believe by their parents?
This is the main thrust of the video: religious people around the world have no reason to believe what they believe.  I actually have no idea whether or not the assertions made by the narrator here are true.  Is it really true that most people don't choose their religion for good reasons, but because their parents told them to?  Maybe so.  But this objection to religion commits two fallacies: (1) it is self-refuting (this is the death knell of any argument), and (2) it commits the genetic fallacy.

It is self-refuting because it cannot withstand its own scrutiny.  The implication is that since religious people only believe because they were born in a culture dominated by their chosen religion, then that religion cannot be true.  But the same can be true of unbelievers of any stripe.  You are only a postmodernist because you were born in late 20th-century/early 21st century America.  Or you are only an unbeliever because you were told so by your parents. Yes, I understand that many unbelievers in America (especially young people) grew up in the church, but since there is a trend of young people leaving the faith, I could just as easily say it's a cultural thing for young people to do (and not based on reasons).  Especially if these young people leaving the faith are spouting the same self-refuting objections found in this video.

This objection also commits the genetic fallacy, which says that because a belief's origin is suspect, the belief cannot be true.  But this is incorrect: just because someone's belief in God stems from their upbringing does not necessarily mean the belief is false.  It could be false, but you would have to bring a valid argument against it to show that, not a fallacious one such as this.


Objection 2: “How do you know you have it right?  Have you checked out all the other religions of the world? And if every member of faith feels just as strongly as you do, what are the odds you’re right?”

There are 2 dozen major religions.  Furthermore, did you know there are more than 45,000 denominations of Christianity alone, each claiming to understand ultimate truth better than the rest?  Each member of every faith is just as devoted and sincere and convicted as you? Did you know they also read infallible texts, have airtight apologetics, have experienced miracles, etc.?  Yet, since every religion is mutually exclusive, they cannot all be right, right?  If every member of every faith feels just as you do, what are the odds you’re right?  
In this little tight block of paraphrased-text from the video, the main common objection is that there are also other believers out there; how do you know they're not right, and you're not wrong?  The problem with this objection is clear: just because there are others out there who don't believe as I do, does not mean that what I believe is wrong.  The veracity of a religion, or of any other point of view, is not a popularity contest, in which a position must certainly be false if there are enough people who hold a different position.  This objection has three major problems with it: (1) it is self-refuting, (2) it is internally inconsistent, and (3) assumes the correct point of view is simply a popularity contest.

Before I go into those problems, I would like to commend the narrator for holding a position that is often unpopular among unbelievers, at least among the post-modernist types: that every (or nearly so) religion is mutually exclusive.  No, it is clear that not all roads lead to God.  After all, most of the time, the basic claims of a religion are in direct opposition to the basic claims of other religions.  For more, see this post by Eric Chabot in response to "Dear Believer..."

This objection is self-refuting again because it cannot stand up to its own scrutiny.  Atheism is also a set of beliefs that not everyone holds.  There are many out there whose religious beliefs are just as sincere and convicted as the beliefs held by the atheist. And certainly atheism contradicts most if not all religions.  They can't both (atheism and a given religion) be right, right?  So by this argument, atheism is itself subject to this popularity contest, and if that is the case, hands-down it will lose.  No, in order to advance atheism as a "better" choice than a given religion, you actually have to marshal evidence for it, not just say that there are too many religions out there to pick one for certain.

It is also internally inconsistent.  If we are to take the narrator at his word (and I think this is highly suspect), we note that he makes claims such as, "they all have infallible texts, air-tight apologetics, and have experienced miracles".  First, it is certainly untrue that multiple conflicting religions have air-tight apologetics.  Only one at best can have "air-tight" apologetics.  Furthermore, regarding the infallible texts and miracles, if that is true, that argues far more in favor of at least one religion being correct, or at least that the atheistic worldview is incorrect.  After all, on atheism, there are no infallible texts nor miracles experienced.  What the narrator is doing here is, in a backhanded way, saying that all religions claim to have these things, but they really do not.  If that is true, then yes, let's abandon religion.  But this is a bald assertion that needs to be supported by well-reasoned arguments. No such arguments are put forth here.  Instead, I would argue that Christianity in particular does have air-tight apologetics, making it the clear choice over all other religions, including atheism.  And if Christianity does indeed have air-tight apologetics, where does that leave this argument?  It leaves it lacking any apologetic reasoning of its own.

Finally, it is clear that the correct point of view is not the winner of a popularity contest.  Like I mentioned above, if that were true, then Christianity would be the winner.  On this view, the atheist should "reasonably" abandon his faith in atheism and turn towards the God of the bible.  In fact, this objection is at direct odds with his first objection in the video.  If "truth" is voted in, then Christianity would always be the winner, since people (according to the narrator) choose their faith based on what their parents (or some other meme) told them.  How then would a majority-dominant religion (and thereby the "correct" religion by the narrator's point of view implicit in this objection) ever be overturned?  It's correct because it's popular, and then it's passed on to the next generation as the majority religion by meme.  The final irony with this is that the narrator clearly does not believe that the best belief set is chosen by popularity.  If you watch the whole video, he espouses using reason, testing, and logical thinking to test which worldview is correct.  So, in the end, he answers his own question: "How do you know you have it right?"  The answer is: because of logic, reason, and testing the spirits.


Objection 3: “You're an atheist too, just for one less god than I am.”

I've been told my unbelief is guarantee of missing heaven and going to hell, but whose heaven/hell? Should I, just to be safe, accept God? But whose God?  Given so many options, what are the chances?  Might I be better off wagering on no God rather than the wrong God? What if you’re wrong?  What if not Jehovah, but Allah?  Or Wu-tan?  Or some other god on the other side of the planet you've never even heard of? 
Truth is, you already know what it’s like to be an atheist for all gods but your own.  The way you view them (other people) is the same way they view you.  Every devout Hindu, for example, has embraced his faith for the exact same reasons you've embraced yours. Yet you do not find his reasons compelling, nor do you lose sleep at night wondering whether you’ll wake up in his hell.  Given this, is it so hard to see why some of us just take our atheism one God further?
I am often amazed at this line of reasoning, which I have heard several times before.  It seems so inane to me, I am surprised that people still use it.  It's so baseless, yet frequent, that I often wonder whether there is some subtle point here that I am missing.  If so, I would like to have someone explain it to me more fully.  For now, I will simply critique it as it appears in the video.  This objection fails because the definition of atheism is belief in no god, not belief in one to the exclusion of other (possible) gods.  It also fails because there are actually very good reasons to believe in at least some general deity, which of course rules out atheism.

So, how could one who believes in at least one god (a "religious" person) at the same time not believe in any god (an atheist)?  The entire premise of this objection is absurd in the strictest sense of the word.  It is, by definition, contradictory.  However, I think it might be best to give the benefit of the doubt and simply assume the narrator was using a turn-of-phrase to really call into question how a believer knows that he has the "right" god.

In that case, the narrator is trying to argue that all religions have the same evidential basis: zero.  If that is the case, then he is right starting from Objection 1: we have no reason for choosing our own set of beliefs except that they have been thrust on us.  So then, how can we possibly look down on others in the world that also believe for no reason?

However, this objection falls flat on its face because it only holds water if there are no good reasons for belief in a particular god.  But it actually gets worse for the atheist: not only are there good reasons to believe in the God of the bible in particular, but there are also good reasons to believe in at least some personal, transcendent, omnipotent, omnibenevolent, omniscient god in general, including the cosmological, moral, teleological and arguments, as well as the argument from reason.  These would clearly rule out atheism as a foundation for belief, but not the major monotheistic religions of the world.





Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Do extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence? (Part 2)

Summary

Last time I introduced the topic, claiming that miracles do not need miracle-level evidence to support them.  The reason: you cannot assume your conclusion before the argument begins!  That is the mistake that atheists make (perhaps not realizing it) when they state that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.  But like I said last time, you cannot a priori assume that miracles cannot happen; if you do this, there is no reason to have the discussion. 

Below, I show this rather rigorously using Bayes' Theorem, in a combination with a very simple analysis of the prior probability of a miracle happening.  I also put forth the Resurrection as a concrete example.  Some skeptical readers may be disgruntled with some of the numbers I put to things.  But even so, keep in mind that I'm not after some mathematical proof  beyond a shadow of a doubt that a given miracle did occur. No, I am simply showing that the statement "extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence" is false.  Indeed, you'll find that, even with very conservative assumptions, miracles can be plausibly supported by ordinary evidence.

But readers be forewarned: there is a lot of math below!


The mathematics of Bayes' Theorem

To put things mathematically, Bayes theorem tells you how to evaluate P(A | B): the probability of a proposition, "A", given (i.e., in light of) another proposition, "B".  To see this, note that the definition of such a conditional probability is:

P(A | B) = P(A & B)/P(B).

If we multiply through by "P(B)" then we get:

P(A | B)*P(B) = P(A & B).

Since "A" and "B" are interchangeable in the right hand side of this equation, you can also write:

P(A | B)*P(B) = P(A & B) = P(B | A)*P(A).

Moving P(B) back to the other side:

P(A | B) = P(B | A)*P(A)/P(B).

Let's put some concreteness to this.  Say "A" is the proposition that some miracle happened (for simplicity, call it "M" instead of "A").  Now say "B" is the quite ordinary evidence for said miracle (and call it "E" for evidence).  Now:

P(M | E) = P(E | M)*P(M)/P(E).

In other words, the probability that a miracle happened, given you have evidence for that miracle, is how well the miracle can explain the evidence, weighted by how likely you think the miracle and evidence should occur on their own.  These are called prior probabilities. That is, P(M) is, "What do you think is the probability of a miracle happening before you consider the evidence?"  And P(E) is, "What do you think the probability of the evidence happening is, without considering a miracle happened?"  Since the evidence is "ordinary", P(E) is probably not too small.

But it seems we're stuck with this nasty prior probability, P(M).  Surely the probability of a miracle happening is so small (by definition) that you must then conclude that P(M | E) is never going to be large enough to convince someone, right?  That is, unless P(E) is super-duper small.  Unless the evidence is also extraordinary.  Hence, the conclusion that to prove a miracle you need miraculous evidence.

This is where you have to question your presuppositions. This is where you have to take a second look at what goes into the prior, P(M).


Why you don't need miraculous evidence to prove a miracle.

The probability of any proposition, A, can be split up into two parts contingent on another proposition, B:

P(A) = P(A | B)*P(B) + P(A | ~B)*P(~B),

(where "|" means "given," and "~" is a negation).  In our case, what's P(M), the prior probability of a miracle, M?  It can be split up into two parts; the probability of a miracle happening given that God exists (G) and the probability of a miracle happening given God does not exist (~G):

P(M) = P(M | G)*P(G) + P(M | ~G)*P(~G).

This is mathematically true, and also philosophically sound, because if you are arguing about whether or not miracles are possible (and usually it's an argument between a theist and an atheist), you cannot a priori assume that God does not exist.  That is the basis of the whole argument.  If someone assumes the other person's position is impossible (probability zero), then there can be no discussion.  So you cannot assume P(G) = 0.  You can assume it is small, but not arbitrarily small (as Dawkins attempts to do).

So let's look at the terms that make up P(M).  I argue (and so would the atheist) that P(M | ~G) is essentially zero.  A miracle is not going to happen if God does not exist, because by definition it is an extraordinarily rare or impossible event.  So the second term disappears, and we're left with:

P(M) = P(M | G)*P(G).

I think we can successfully argue that P(M | G) (ie, the probability that the miracle in question would happen assuming God exists) is not vanishingly small. (If we are specifically saying G = God of the Bible, and M = the Resurrection, then I would say P(M | G) = 1.)  So the only way you end up with a zero prior for a miracle happening is if you assume that God cannot exist (ie, P(G) = 0).

Note that this is different from believing God does not exist.  Atheists believe God does not exist, but no self-respecting atheist believes God cannot exist.  If you ask someone whether they think P(G) = 0 and they say yes, the conversation is over.  That person believes that God cannot exist and therefore nothing you say can convince them.  You always must leave room for your beliefs to be falsified.

So P(G) > 0.  If you are talking about any God, then P(G) should be higher than 1/2, since more than half of all people believe in a god of one form or another (and if we're just basing our priors off of low-shelf statistics, which is what you normally do).  Along those lines, if you're talking about the God of the Bible, then P(G) is more like 1/3.  But even if you are speaking to a hardened atheist, such as Richard Dawkins, then P(G) is as high as 1 - 6.9/7 = 0.0143.  I would be willing to make that allowance.

You can evaluate P(M | G) in various ways.  If the god you are talking about has a holy text that claims the particular miracle in question (as in, the Bible and the Resurrection), then I would say P(M | G) = 1 (for all intents and purposes). On the other hand, if you are just attributing some random "miracle" to some random god, then it gets tricky.  For the sake of argument, let's say P(M | G) is a conservative one out of ten.  This means P(M) is rather high: one out of a thousand!  We take insurance policies out against probabilities more remote than that.  We play the lottery on the hope of winning big with probabilities far more remote than that.

If you are still disgruntled at my analysis of P(M), keep in mind that my argument for P(G) is essentially unassailable.  If you deny that argument, you are entering into the land of logical fallacy.  You may question my choice for P(M | G), however.  In that case, let's just leave P(M) equal to "some small number" p.  That way, we can see later what Bayes' Theorem does, and try to agree on a value for "p" later.  (Just remember: you can't make p = 0 a priori.)


Finishing the analysis

Now that we are armed with the knowledge that p can't be equal to zero, let's go ahead and complete our analysis using Bayes' Theorem.  We last left Bayes Theorem as:

P(M | E) = P(E | M)*p/P(E).

We can split P(E) up in the same way that we split up P(M), but this time we will condition it on "M":

P(E) = P(E | M)*P(M) + P(E | ~M)*P(~M),

or,

P(E) = P(E | M)*p + P(E | ~M)*(1 - p).

Putting this back into the equation for P(M | E):

P(M | E) = P(E | M)*p / (P(E | M)*p + P(E | ~M)*(1 - p)).

If we rearrange the P(E | M) factors:

P(M | E) = p / (p + (1-p)*P(E | ~M)/P(E | M)).

Now we see there are two operative variables here: "p" (the prior probability of a miracle; remember, this cannot equal zero), and the following ratio:

R = P(E | ~M)/P(E | M).

This last term is the explanatory power of the miracle.  How much more likely is it that the evidence would have happened if miracle did not occur over if the miracle had occurred?  If the miracle happening makes the evidence more likely to occur, then R < 1.  If the miracle happening makes the evidence less likely to occur, then R > 1.  Obviously, if you are marshalling evidence for a miracle, let's hope you've chosen something that favors the miracle happening, so then R < 1.  How much less than one, of course, depends on the particular miracle you are investigating and what evidence you have for it.

At any rate, this gives us a very simply formula for the probability of a miracle happening given the evidence at hand:

P(M | E) = p / (p + (1-p)*R).

To make things concrete, let's choose a specific example.

A concrete example: the Resurrection 

Let's now suppose the miracle, M, we're investigating is the Resurrection.  Of course Habermas and Licona have presented five "minimal facts" that most biblical scholars, skeptical and conservative, agree upon in regards to the events surrounding Jesus' death.  However, since this is an internet blog and not a scholarly work, and since that means there are many hyper-skeptics out there who might visit and comment on this blog, let's just stick to one piece of evidence: the conversion and martyrdom of the early church fathers.  And, let's just stick with two church fathers: Paul and James.

In this case, the probability P(M | E), what we wish to find, is the probability that the Resurrection occurred, given the (ordinary historical) evidence that Paul and James were both converted from hostility/skepticism and were both martyred for their beliefs (never renouncing the claim that they saw the risen Lord).

The probability p = P(M) = P(M | G)*P(G), where P(G) is the probability that the God of the Bible exists, and P(M | G) = 1.  So your prior p is essentially how likely you think it is that the God of the Bible exists.  Remember: the world's most famous atheist says this is about 0.01 (more or less. I admit that if he were interviewed, he might say the particular God of the Bible is even less likely to exist than any random god, but then why does he spend so much time focused on Christianity?).

So the question boils down to: what's R?  In words, R is the probability that Paul and James would die for their beliefs given the Resurrection did not happen, divided by the probability that the they would die for their beliefs given the Resurrection did happen.  It seems extremely, extremely, extremely unlikely to me that, if the Resurrection did not happen, then both Paul and James would be converted and go to their deaths proclaiming Christ is King.  But if it is even just 10 times more likely for the Resurrection to make more sense about either man dying for Jesus, then R = 0.01, and we get:

P(M | G) = 0.01 / (0.01 + 0.99*0.01) > 0.5

Now, you may not agree with me that Paul and James actually did convert and actually did die for their beliefs.  You may not even agree with me that the Resurrection makes more sense of them dying for their beliefs over the Resurrection not happening.  But what you are now forced to accept is that it does not take much in the way of "extraordinary" evidence for even a miracle to be plausible.  Remember, I took the position of the most die-hard atheist and a pitiful collection of historical evidence (compared to the wealth of historical evidence that we do have), and a conservative estimate of what that might mean, and I still am forced to arrive at the conclusion that the resurrection is more than 50% likely.

Conclusion

In these posts (including last time), I have shown, using careful (and conservative) mathematical and philosophical arguments that it does not take extraordinary evidence to back and extraordinary claim.  This is based on the recognition that you cannot assume your conclusion before you start. (That is the only way that you could ever arrive at the conclusion that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.)  Once you give even a little ground to the possibility that God exists, and you must do so for intellectual honesty, you are forced to accept the fact that, given enough ordinary evidence, such as well-attested to historical facts, or personal testimony, that miracles actually can be plausible.  And while it is true that the evaluation of some of these probabilities are subjective, keep in mind this was not meant as a mathematical proof of any particular miracle, only a demonstration that, even with very conservative assumptions, miracles can be plausibly supported by ordinary evidence.







Sunday, August 26, 2012

Do extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence? (Part 1)

Summary

How many of you have heard the statement, "Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence?" This is a common soundbyte from skeptics to try to discredit the existence of miracles.  But more often than not, it's used incorrectly, and that sort of disappoints me, because it shows that folks are not thinking logically.  Those who hold to this claim are essentially saying that they require evidence that is as miraculous as the miracle itself for them to be convinced a miracle happened.  Do you want to convince someone of the Resurrection?  It would take something on the order of lightning in the sky that spelled out, "Jesus rose from the dead," to convince such a skeptic.

It is actually rather simple to show this argument against miracles is false: it's because the argument only holds when you first assume miracles cannot happen.  And if you assume miracles cannot happen, then of course you are going to conclude that no evidence is enough to prove a miracle.  This is the mistake Hume made, the mistake the Jesus Seminar folks made, and the mistake that Bart Ehrman makes.

But you cannot a priori assume that miracles cannot happen; if you do this, there is no reason to have the discussion.  It is a form of circular reasoning.  Therefore, you must instead make an allowance (however small) that they can happen.  If they can happen, then any sort of everyday evidence could be evidence in favor of a miracle.  The question would then become whether the evidence is sufficiently in favor of a miracle to make someone believe, not whether something as commonplace as eyewitness testimony could be evidence of a miracle.

This can be shown rather rigorously using Bayes' Theorem, which I will do next time.  (Be forewarned: it can be a bit technical, but if you like math, or even if you don't, but you don't mind getting out a pencil and paper and following along, it should be pretty straightforward.)  Below I just give a brief, intuitive introduction to Bayes Theorem.

The intuition of Bayes Theorem

First of all, I love Bayes Theorem.  I've talked about it several times on this blog, mostly because it's really good to show that indeed, miracles can happen.  It's also super-easy to use; you just have to know a few things about probability, which are all taught in high school (I think).

Bayes Theorem is what helps us answer questions about what might be true (i.e., the converse of what we know to be true). Here's what I mean.  Let's say we know that for sure, the statement "if A then B" is true.  This means that if we know that A is true, then B must be true. But this does not mean that if B is true, then A must be true. But it seems like "B" being true adds some weight to "A" being true.  Bayes Theorem is how we figure out just how much weight that is.

Here's an example in which "B" being true definitely does not imply that "A" is true.  Let's say the statement "If I am swimming a race against Ryan Lochte (A), I will lose the race (B)" is true. Then let's say I swim in some race, and later tell my friend that I lost (B).  Can my friend infer that I must have been swimming against Ryan Lochte (A)?  Of course not.  There are many other swimmers out there that I would lose to.  In this case, B does not even come close to implying A.

On the other hand, here's an example where it seems B almost implies A: If you stand out in the rain (A), you will get wet (B).  Here, A implies B.  Does that mean if someone is wet, they stood outside in the rain?  No, but what happens if you add further evidence to the scenario?  You are in a shop, and someone comes in from the outside and they are dripping wet.  You'd probably conclude that it is indeed raining outside.  Adding further evidence, what if everyone who came in either had a wet umbrella, a wet raincoat, or was just wet (on their clothes)?  Now add the fact that when you went into the shop, you noticed dark clouds in the sky.  So yeah, you don't need to actually see the rain to be pretty sure it's raining.  (Thanks to pleaseconvinceme.com for inspiring this example.)

That's a brief, intuitive example of how Bayes' theorem works.  The more evidence that's in favor of an event (A) above and beyond other explanations, the more you can be certain that, given said evidence (B), A is true.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Exclusivity and Arrogance

In our postmodernist/relativist/pluralistic culture, much has been made about the exclusive truth claims of Christianity.  A common complaint about this claim is that Christians are arrogant to say that only they know the truth, and that only through their God can people go to heaven.  With this complaint, the implication is that Christianity is therefore untrue.

This criticism of Christianity's exclusivism is totally understandable, as exclusive claims do not sit well in our culture.  But at its core, this criticism completely lacks logical/reason-based support.

A summary of my points

Here are three reasons why this argument has no ground to stand on (note: the first two were inspired by a recent WLC podcast that I listened to, although I had heard these arguments before.  I claim the final argument as my own musings):
  1. It is a classic example of the logical fallacy called an "ad hominem" attack: whether or not someone is arrogant has nothing to do with whether their claims are true.
  2. It is a double-edged sword: people criticizing the claims of Christianity based on their exclusivity are often religious pluralists, and pluralism is itself an exclusive truth-claim.
  3. It is actually arrogant to deny God: when there is ample evidence that a creator-God made the universe and humanity itself, to claim that we have figured out there is no God (or that we don't need our creator-God) is quite an arrogant claim.
For the interested reader, below I go into more detail about each of these three points.

It is an ad hominem attack

The heart of this argument is that someone who is claiming Jesus is the only way is arrogant, and therefore, you can discount their claim.  However, put this way, this argument clearly holds no water.  Just because someone is arrogant is absolutely no reason to consider their claim to be false. I could be the most arrogant person in the world, but I could also be completely right about things.  There are probably plenty of really arrogant professors out there who know their own field of research really, really well.  The fact that they are arrogant does nothing to discredit the truth of what they say.

Another way to expose faulty thinking is to put the argument into a syllogistic form.  In such a form, fallacies become obvious.  Here is the implied syllogism:

(1) All claims made by arrogant people are false.
(2) Because Christians say Jesus is the only way, they are arrogant.
(3) Therefore: Their claim that Jesus is the only way is false.

The logic is correct, but clearly both premises (1) and (2) are false, making the conclusion completely unverified by this argument.

Rebuttal: "But the complaint is not that the person who makes the truth claim is arrogant, but that the truth claim itself is arrogant!"

Response: How could a claim, which is a proposition that can be either true or false, be arrogant?  This is a category error.  People are arrogant.  Truth claims are either true or false.  However, it is an exclusive truth claim, but this has nothing to do with whether that truth claim is true or false.  Its exclusivity may be unpalatable to our pluralistic culture, but that does not prove it to be false.

It is a double-edged sword

In my informal study of philosophical arguments for and against God, I've found that many times, false arguments are self-defeating.  That is also true of this particular criticism of Christianity's exclusivism.  To understand this, you have to realize that religious pluralism, the worldview from which this criticism originates, is itself an exclusive truth claim, and therefore, by this argument's own standards, originates from an arrogant person.

The religious pluralist, as I understand it, says that all religions are equally true (or equally false).  However, it cannot be the case that all religions are equally true, as the foundational beliefs of most religions are mutually exclusive.  Therefore, to claim that all religions are equally true is either demonstrably false, or it is watering down the world's religions beyond recognition.  In either case, you are taking a position that is either clearly false, or one that is making a claim that only the religious pluralist really knows what all the world religions are all about: that they are all the same.

On the other hand, claiming  that all religions are false is equally exclusive.  The biblical stance is that only Christianity is fully true.  Based on that, the Christian would take the point of view that all opposing religions, worldviews, and philosophies are false.  The pluralist is saying that only hard pluralism (that all religions are false) is true: but clearly this is an exclusive truth claim!  Therefore, the argument against Christianity's exclusivism is a double-edged sword, which can equally be applied to the critic of Christianity.

It is actually arrogant to deny God

If you have read this blog enough, you have probably encountered my writings that describe the scientific reasons for a belief in God.  In fact, I think the scientific data are so compelling that they really force the God of the bible as their only logical explanation.  In that case, then to deny the sovereignty of God is to basically put yourself as god of your own life: quite an arrogant maneuver if indeed you owe your existence to your Maker.  It reminds me of Isaiah 29:16, which says,
Shall what is formed say to the one who formed it, “You did not make me”?  Can the pot say to the potter, “You know nothing”?
Look at it this way.  It would be quite self-centered for a teenage boy to say to his parents, "You never did anything for me!"  This is to his parents who brought him into the world, cared for him when he was completely dependent on them, gave him a place to live, clothed him, fed him, brought him up with love and discipline, etc.  For him to deny that would be ludicrous.

In the same way, there is ample scientific evidence that shows God created this universe specifically for us to live here on earth at this time.  The fine-tuning necessary for something resembling human life anywhere at any time in the universe's history is staggering.  This care and "effort" that God has invested in our lives through creation, not to mention through the incarnation and atonement, goes far beyond what any set of parents do for their children.

Now, you may or may not agree with me that there is ample evidence to believe in a God.  If not, then convincing you of that would be the subject for another time.  But at least understand this: if there is ample evidence that the God of the bible exists (and thus the universe was created by Him), then to specifically deny this evidence so you can deny his existence so you can be lord of your own life could be taken as highly arrogant.  This means that the argument against Christianity's exclusive truth claim can only be validated when first the critic examines and plausibly/reasonably rejects the implications of the scientific evidence for God.  And even then, the other two (above) defeaters of the argument still hold.

One more set of thoughts I'd like to leave you with.  You should keep in mind that most people do not specifically deny God for this reason (so they can be lord of their own lives), or at least, most do not admit as such.  But I think in light of this evidence that God exists, each person at least owes it to him or herself to examine that evidence very carefully, and with cautiously-guarded reasoning.














Monday, June 4, 2012

Returning from vacation

After a couple weeks of vacation, I feel a bit rested now, and with the summer being here, and my teaching load gone, I hope to write a bit more.

I was just musing the other day about the way my post topic have been trending for the past year or so, and I realized that I have gone very far away from what used to be my passion: science apologetics (or evidential apologetics).  Instead, philosophical and "presuppositional"-type arguments have caught my fancy of late, which is sort of a dangerous thing since I am definitely not an expert in these things.  But take, for example, something that's been on my mind lately, which is the common atheist soundbyte: "extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence."  Definitely a pet peeve of mine, and something that I will be blogging about in the near future.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

A funny blog post on How to Refute Christianity

I was browsing through JW Wartick's blog page (Always Have a Reason), and found this on one of his really recommended posts:


How to Refute Christianity: A Handy Guide

Quite humorous, and although not exactly scientifically or logically sound, it's not meant to be. It's just supposed to be funny.  I recommend reading.

Monday, April 23, 2012

Rahab and unbelief

Something occurred to me the other day whilst listening to a sermon on Joshua 2, about Rahab.  It's something that happens relatively frequently in the bible, but this time it came through to me loud and clear: even when people know that the God of Israel is the One True God, they still refuse to worship Him.

In vv. 9-11, Rahab says to the Israelite spies:
I know that the LORD has given you this land and that a great fear of you has fallen on us, so that all who live in this country are melting in fear because of you. 10 We have heard how the LORD dried up the water of the Red Sea for you when you came out of Egypt, and what you did to Sihon and Og, the two kings of the Amorites east of the Jordan, whom you completely destroyed. 11 When we heard of it, our hearts melted in fear and everyone’s courage failed because of you, for the LORD your God is God in heaven above and on the earth below.
This is in context of the Israelites having come out of Egypt with signs and wonders, wandering through the wilderness for 40 years, conquering a few kingdoms along the way, and eventually arriving at the Jordan across from Jericho.

From this speech to the Israelite spies, I think we can conclude that everyone in Jericho knew that the God of Israel was real, powerful, and the Lord of heaven and earth.  Yet only one person in all of Jericho, that is, Rahab, turned from her ways and trusted in God.  What does this mean about everyone else's choice to continue in rebellion, in spite of the fact that they knew who the real God was?

Just food for thought.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Reason Rally: the "True Reason" response in a new ebook


Today, the Christian response to the "Reason" Rally, which is coordinated through the website www.truereason.org, just published an ebook titled "True Reason: Christian Responses to the Challenge of Atheism" (Patheos Press).  The book is the equivalent of about 150 pages, and can be bought through Amazon's Kindle Store and Barnes and Noble (link not yet live) for a modest price.

Please take note: This book is not primarily evangelistic, although it does provide some positive arguments for the existence of God.  No, the primary goals of this book are to (1) expose the leading arguments of the New Atheists for what they are: completely devoid of reason -- and (2) show that, contrary to the popular notion fronted by the New Atheist movement, the Christian worldview is actually the one based on reason.  And the book achieves these goals, completely dismantling arguments from Dawkins, Harris, and others, while in so doing, filling the void left behind by their empty rhetoric with the reasonableness of the Christian worldview.

Now, let there be no mistake, if you are not a believer, it will probably be a difficult book to get through.  However, becoming a believer in the God of the bible is not the only way this book could change your thinking.  At the very least, it should show that the leaders of the New Atheists have a long way to go before reason is on their side.  I encourage everyone to download a copy and read it.

Here, I will offer a similar response in my own words.  These words can also be applied to the so-called Reason Rally, because that event is also guilty of the same folly as what I say below.

The Misonmer of the "Reason Rally" and other New Atheist Maneuvers

It is one of the great ironies of this "secular vs theism" debate that rages these days that secularism (or humanism, atheism, naturalism; whatever you choose to call it) claims to have reason on its side.  Indeed, many of the leading secular programs or institutions have the word "reason" or something like it in their title.  Harris's "Project Reason," Dawkins's "Foundation for Reason and Science."  When the arguments from the New Atheist camp are examined critically, however, this self-claimed moniker could not be more of a misnomer.

To be sure, the arguments look nice on the surface.  Sound bites such as, "If God created the universe, then who created God?" or, "Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence," or, "Faith by definition is belief in something without, or perhaps contrary to, the evidence," or, "I cannot believe in a God that would condone slavery," or, "Morals don't come from religion; many atheists are moral people," (the list goes on) appear to be critical, knock-down blows to the validity of Christianity.  Yet each of these "blows" either have been easily answered (some many years ago), are irrelevant, are appeals to emotion, or are clearly false.  That's the great part about it: none of these sound-bite-type arguments are actually based on sound, reasoned thinking!  (For a more in-depth discussion on these sorts of topics, see my previous Reason Rally posts.  Or pony up $3 and get the ebook!)

So if that is true, if atheism simply does not have reason on its side, then how did reason come to be exclusively associated with atheism?

Perhaps an explanation of the gross misnomer is the word "reason" now does not mean what it used to?  Perhaps by "reason" what we mean nowadays is no longer the use our logical and argumentation faculties to arrive at a conclusion based on sound thinking.  Perhaps nowadays "reason" simply means atheism?  The irony of this of course is that this maneuver in and of itself is a logical fallacy.  An argument that violates, or at least ignores, our reasoning capacities.  It is the logical fallacy of equivocation: using a word in two different contexts that give it two different meanings, but glossing over the fact that it has those different meanings in the different contexts.  An example would be saying slavery was permitted in the bible, and then using the anger about how atrocious slavery was in nineteenth century America to convince people to disbelieve in the bible (this would also be an appeal-to-emotion fallacy).  The problem is, the word "slave" in those two different contexts have completely different meanings.  (And BTW: Chapter 15 of the ebook gives a fantastic treatment of the biblical view of slavery.)

But maybe that's not it.  Maybe the explanation is that when the New Atheists put a claim on this the word, it was simply a marketing ploy?  "See those Christians over there?  They have (blind) faith.  We have reason."  Well, this maneuver is another logical fallacy called "poisoning the well."  Before your opponent even gets a chance to describe his position, you have already galvanized the audience against them by (mis)characterizing their position in a negative light.  Again, ironic because the Atheists' self-claimed association with reason is an example of a logical fallacy.

Conclusion:

The word "reason" has been unreasonably co-opted by atheists.  It is not only an unfair, implied branding of Christianity as illogical, but it is also strangely enough not demonstrated by the leading New Atheists, the ones who so stridently claim to be on the side of reason.  For more on this topic, check out the ebook.

Related Posts:



Saturday, March 10, 2012

Reason Rally: Misunderstanding Atheism? (Part 4 of 4)

This is the last sub-post in the response to "reviewers' comments" on my first Reason Rally post.  Before I discuss the last three of James's points, I'd like to just take a step back for a moment and do a longview of things.

I've noticed that these internet blogs and comments are largely...shall we say contentious?  It seems like we often talk past each other.  I am sure that some of the things I am saying, whether I want them to or not, will really rile some people up.  Even if I am completely convinced that my points are valid, my arguments grounded, my reasoning sound, some on the other side will think there's a fatal flaw.  And when I read posts by atheists, I (think I) can see right though the fallacies in their arguments.  So what gives?

I think it's really crucial realize how much is actually riding on this question.  For the Christian and the non-Christian alike, it's their way of life that is being threatened by the other side.  At the end of it all, if a Christian is convinced that no God exists, they may be tempted to look back on their life and say, "I did all of that for nothing?"  Alternatively, a Christian may be currently looking at their life and say, "I sure wish my belief system let me do [fill in the blank].  Maybe it's not true."  The atheist, if somehow convinced there is a God, would say, "You mean I have to give up what I've been enjoying for so long?"

Now, I'm not saying this is the driving force behind everyone's opinion.  But I am saying that none of us are unbiased.  We all have a dog in the fight, and we should.  None of us can step back and say, "I am a biased judge in this case, so I will step down in favor of someone else."  No.  Everyone is biased.  So what do we do?  We try to be as unbiased as possible.  Let's cast aside our emotional appeals, the consequences on our own lives, and our desire to win any argument at all costs, and look as soberly as possible at the arguments themselves.  At the data.

Easier said than done.

Anyway, on to the last three points.

Point 6: Who created God?

I am actually quite surprised that James brought this up.  He says, "If our universe had to have a creator, the creator had to have a creator as well."  This is just plain false, but I have to say it's a very common objection I hear from atheists.  I'm a bit baffled by it, because it doesn't make logical or philosophical sense, yet it keeps popping up over and over again.  (BTW, Answers in Genesis, a young earth creationist organization, keeps a list of young-earth arguments that have been roundly proven false by science, theology, or philosophy.  They keep the list so young-earthers won't still use those arguments and get embarrassed by someone who knows what they're talking about.  I think someone should start keeping a list of arguments atheists should no longer use; this would be at the top of the list.)

Basically, the answer to this is, "Well then it must be turtles all the way down."  (I love that quote.)  One of the tribal myths for the creation of the universe is that we are just riding on the back of some cosmic space turtle.  But that begs the question, what is the cosmic space turtle riding on?  Well, it must be riding on an even bigger cosmic space turtle.  Well, what is that turtle riding on?  This is the classic example of an infinite regress. There cannot be an infinite regress of causes; indeed, there must be an uncaused cause.  Philosophers call this the "Necessary Being."  There must be some level of reality that is eternal and uncaused.  For Christians, this is God.

Now, I understand if, as an atheist, James does not believe the uncaused cause is God.  For centuries, everyone thought the universe was eternal.  Thus, the universe itself was the uncaused cause.  We now know that is not true; the universe began to exist approximately 13.74 billion years ago.  So there must be an uncaused cause that started the universe.  If you don't think this is God, that's fine.  That's the subject of a different argument.  All I am pointing out here is that the statement, "If our universe had to have a creator, the creator had to have a creator as well," it clearly false.

James goes on to say, "[God is] just another layer of complexity that doesn't have evidence and isn't necessary. It may be plausible that our universe is just one of an unlimited number of universes in the multiverse."  What's funny about this statement is this is actually more an argument in favor of God than in the multiverse.  (Not that I'm saying James believes in a multiverse; if you read his quote in context, it's clear he's agnostic about it.)  Here's what I mean.  We know this universe had a beginning; it is caused, so there must be a Causer.  Similarly, the multiverse also had a beginning and also requires a causer (as argued by Borde, Vilenkin, and Guth).  So the multiverse itself is another level of unneeded complexity, while the uncaused cause is not. Furthermore, there is abundantly more evidence for God than for the multiverse.

Now again keep in mind that I'm not saying there is not a multiverse.  All I'm saying is that by James's own reasoning, the non-existence of the multiverse is more preferrable than the existence of such, because it's another level of complexity that is not necessary.  On the other hand, while God (or the non-God uncaused cause) may be considered to be another level of complexity, He is in fact necessary.

Point 7: Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.

This is a very common rallying cry from the atheist camp, and I am quite sure it is used incorrectly 99.9% of the time.  From talking to many atheists, it seems like when this line is used, what the atheist means is that "I can't believe in miracles because I've never seen one."  Or, "if you want me to believe miracles are possible, I must see one with my own eyes."

James's analogy is, if he claims there is an invisible dragon in his garage, that claim needs proof.  He is implying that Christians want non-Christians to take the existence of God on faith, and when challenged, we say the atheist can't prove that God does not exist (so there!).  He goes on to say this is why the burden of proof is with the Christian, who is making said extraordinary claim, and that this is why skeptical inquiry is so important. I couldn't agree more!

Well, I sympathize with him here a great deal.  I am a skeptic.  I only believed in God after the evidence was presented to me.  And I think these questions, especially about "burden of proof," are really tricky to handle.

So there are two misunderstandings here.  The first is with the nature of evidence.  The notion that you need to see a miracle to have convincing evidence that one has happened is false.  The second one is with the term "burden of proof."  Both problems can be resolved with a bit of straight thinking.

When evaluating the evidence of a particular hypothesis, you first come up with your initial probability that your hypothesis is true.  (This is called the prior probability.) Then you compare this initial probability with how that changes when you add new data.  If the probability of your hypothesis goes up, then it is supported by the data.  If not, then it is not.  (There is a well-defined mathematical formula for this, and this procedure is called Bayesian Analysis.) This is usually being performed in the background of an already-accepted hypothesis (the "null" hypothesis; your own hypothesis is called the "alternative" hypothesis).  Since you are going up against the already-accepted hypothesis, the burden of proof is yours.  In fact, most scientists won't even talk to you unless your alternative hypothesis is at least 95% likely (as compared to the null).  Depending on the field, they may want you to be up to 99.99% confident in the alternative.  Do you see the burden of proof at work here?  But once the alternative supplants the null, that becomes the new null hypothesis.

How does this relate to our two misunderstandings, and to the question of miracles?  It's simple.  As long as we can use evidence to support our hypothesis, we can reason whether or not our hypothesis should supplant the null.  Note that the evidence itself doesn't have to be extraordinary evidence; it just has to be enough to overcome the low, prior probability of an extraordinary claim.  And an abundance of evidence, even if it is "only" circumstantial evidence, will eventually be enough to support an extraordinary claim.  Once there is enough of this evidence to support this extraordinary claim, that claim becomes the null hypothesis.  At that point, the other side then has the burden of proof.  So you see, who has the burden of proof does not have to do with the nature of the claim.  It has to do with which side has shown enough supporting evidence to be considered the null hypothesis.

So the question then becomes, which side now has the burden of proof?  Is there enough evidence for Christianity, even though it makes "extraordinary" claims, that it should be considered the null hypothesis?  The answer is yes.

If you feel like I just hoodwinked you, then consider this.  (And you can consider this notion regardless of whether or not you are a believer.)  If we look at the fine-tuning of our universe, the fact the universe requires a transcendent cause, the fine-tuning of our environment for life to exist, those data fit much better into a worldview in which God exists.  If that is the case, then the extraordinary claim becomes the notion that God does not exist.  If the atheist wants to make that claim, then he has to answer how all of the fine-tuning arose, what non-god entity caused our universe, why such an improbable environment exists that could support life (the list goes on).  Now, whether or not you find the fine-tuning argument, the cosmological argument, or the environmental anthropic principle convincing, you can at least take a step back and see the logic of this scenario.  If all of our data point to there being a God, then the non-existence of God becomes the extraordinary claim.

And that is how you should look at burden of proof and the nature of evidence.

Point 8: There has been no evidence of answered prayer.

This is in particular a sticky subject that has many facets.  I have to apologize but I will just not be able to do it justice.  I'll summarize what has been said on this topic in two points.  First, this is simply false.  There is evidence of answered prayer.  And second, due to the nature of miracles, those who look for "extraordinary evidence" for answered prayer will never find it.

Here's what I mean by point 1.  I have had answered prayer in my life.  My wife has been miraculously healed.  I know many people who either claim to have been healed, or who know of someone else who makes that claim.  I know of several people who claim to be able to cast out demons.  Supposedly, in some third world countries where the gospel is just now reaching people for the first time, there are a ton of cases of answered prayer and healings.  So the whole claim is false.

But then you say, "Wait a minute.  All of those are just-so stories.  What I want is real proof.  I want the x-ray before and after and the doctor's signature that something happened, and proof the x-rays weren't doctored, and a psychologist to examine the doctor to make sure he wasn't delusional, and..."  But here's the thing.  To the skeptical mind, no amount of proof of miracles will be enough.  Furthermore, we are not talking about evidence that some esoteric physical law takes place.  We are talking about hard evidence that the God of the universe, who is both all-powerful and all-knowing, has acted in the world.  He himself knows we are searching for such evidence.  It's not like prayer is a series of magic words such that, were we to say them in the right order, God is compelled to heal this or that amputee.  No.  God has his reasons for healing some and not others.

Yes, I understand that answer is completely unpalatable to those who are demanding evidence.  Completely unpalatable. Believe me, I was an atheist for most of my life, and therefore I can easily put myself in the shoes of an atheist, and that pat answer would not satisfy me. So I am not going to defend that.    (And by the way, this is just me sounding off.  I am not an expert in these things, and what I just said, I am convinced it is true, but I have not fully developed the idea yet, so please accept it in its infancy.) This is a point where we will simply have to disagree and move on to other things, because the perceived lack healings is not proof positive that God does not exist.  He has given us abundant proof of his existence in our own moral consciences, in nature, in logic and rationality, in prophecy, in eye witness accounts of the resurrection, the list goes on.  But if you do not accept those abundant evidences, which I think are very convincing, then (1) as I pointed out in the previous paragraph, no amount of proof of miracles will be enough, and (2) we can discuss these abundant evidences and get to the bottom of what I mean.  Of course, that is a topic for a whole 'nother series of blog posts.

Conclusion

Just as I discussed in my four posts, all of James's points either completely miss my points in my previous posts, or are easily shown to be false.  In particular, his arguments do not touch whether or not atheism's logical conclusion is a lack of values, and whether an objective moral standard must necessarily come from a transcendent being.  Furthermore, his points about Christianity lacking evidence or reason are patently false.  Finally, he does not even address my points about the atheistic worldview lacking a foundation of reason.

Now, keep in mind that I am not saying my points are completely unassailable.  I am only saying that so far, these points have not been sufficiently addressed.  I look forward to more thoughtful comments like the ones James left, because all of these things give us reason to stretch our minds and to make sure we are thinking clearly about these issues rather than following red herring arguments or other logical fallacies.

So, I just want to leave a thank you to James, I think he provided some really great discussion material and I hope he answers my blog posts again.  Perhaps in the future we'll converge on answers we both agree on?

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

The Real Issue: Sam Harris' Book on No "Free Will" Will Be Unreasonable Rhetoric

I know I've posted previously about the vacuous logic of those who take the stance that we have no free will, but I just read this post and it bears repeating. It's from Rob Lundberg's blog:

The Real Issue: Sam Harris' Book on No "Free Will" Will Be Unreasonable Rhetoric

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Reason Rally: Misunderstanding Atheism? (Part 3 of 4)

Before I go further, I want to comment that I am not doing a personal attack on James.  I am very grateful to him that he took the time and effort to read my post and comment so thoroughly on it.  But I do think there were some fallacies in his arguments, and I wanted to discuss where those fallacies were.  This is  because we all think we are right.  I think I'm right, you think you're right.  We all think we have good reasons for what we believe.  But James intimated that the reasons why he left Christianity were because of reason and evidence.  As such, I just want to make sure those reasons of his were sound, because if they were similar to the reasons he gave, those are no reason to leave Christianity behind.  In fact, I am wondering whether he was fully thinking through his arguments for atheism.

The same can be said of those attending the Reason Rally.  I am not saying that they have no reasons for their atheistic beliefs.  I am saying I wonder whether they really think through those reasons.  As I argued in the past, atheism may seem like it is supported by reason, on the surface, but when you dig deep enough, you find a bunch of problems.  Because of that, I am slightly amused at the use of the term "Reason Rally" to describe this event.

On that note, we shall now continue with our discussion of James's points.  In this post, I'll tackle some that are near and dear to my heart; some that specifically deal with the question of whether Christianity and reason go together.

Point 3: Faith is blind.

As I mentioned before, this is simply incorrect.  The commenter Kenny also makes this point in my last post.  However, I do sympathize with James for his thinking this.  After all, as I said above, this misconception is not propagated by atheists (who stand to benefit from it), but instead by much of the older generation unltra-conservative Christians.  (I am sorry, sorry, sorry if I've incorrectly categorized anyone with this statement.  This is a broad generalization and has many exceptions.)  Because this point of view is not only prevalent in the ultra-conservative church, but is also promoted, many younger Christians (perhaps James?) turn to atheism when they don't receive good reasons to hold onto their faith.  What I am hoping, and I think we are seeing it all around us, is that this incorrect view of biblical faith is going to be replaced by a more accurate view.

In a comment on my previous post, Kenny left some representative bible passages that demonstrate that biblical faith is based on reason, which I will not repeat.  But I will say that the Greek pistis translated "faith" in the NT implies a faith built on reason.  Additionally, as you read through the old and new testaments, you repeatedly see that God uses evidence in the real world to inspire people to faith in Him.  Many of Paul's and Peter's sermons in Acts start with the Exodus story, which has always been viewed as central to Jewish history, and has been regarded as evidence of God's hand acting in the world to inspire His people to belief in Him.  Many of the Psalms describe this as well for the same reason.  In Hebrews, the author gives us a definition of biblical faith: "Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen (Heb 11:1, NKJV)."  Thus we see that biblical faith is in something not seen, because of the evidence.


Additionally, many times, Jesus says if you don't believe his words, at least believe because of the evidence: his miracles.  In I Cor 15, Paul gives a number of names of those who profess to have seen the risen Christ. He concludes that passage by saying that most of these people are still alive, though some have passed away.  Because the context of this statement is his first letter to the Corinthains, scholars agree that Paul was telling them to go and check out the testimonies of these folks.  To test whether what Paul was saying was true.  No, biblical faith is not in the absence of, or contrary to, the evidence.  It is in light of the evidence.

Furthermore, if you read James's comments regarding faith, reason, science, and secularism, he does nothing to refute my statements (which I have backed up in earlier blog posts) that "reason, logic, and the rationality of the universe find a much nicer fit within theism."  Nor have his arguments refuted my statement that "[a]s far as we can tell, each of these things [the laws of physics, the laws of logic, and the rationality of the universe] is an immaterial, transcendent reality, something that makes no sense in a materialistic worldview."  All he has done is describe some examples where the Christian church has erred in science.  However, many of these examples are caricatures of the actual historical events.  For example, we now know the Galileo affair was more of a political disagreement than a scientific one.  Moreover, the young-earth creationism branch of Christianity is not historical Christianity; it has only arisen in English-speaking countries since the early 1800s, and is mainly based on a single errant interpretation of the bible.  On the other hand, as Kenny rightly points out in his comment on my previous post, most if not all of the fathers of modern science were Christians.

Point 4: Christianity has no evidential basis.

Here James argues there is no evidence of "a talking serpent, a staff turning into a snake, or a Jewish zombie..."  In a way, I sympathize with him.  After all, some of these miracles are difficult to visualize actually happening, especially the first two.  I would add to his list a burning bush, waters parting and standing up like walls, a talking donkey (by the way, the snake and the donkey are the only two talking earthly animals in the whole of the bible), and a man killing 1000 men with a donkey's jawbone.  These are all things the bible claims to have happened.  How do we square this with our own personal experiences?

Before I go on, I would like to rebuke James for his rhetoric, which I am sure he knows does not reflect the historical view of the resurrection (a Jewish zombie?), and which I am sure he is choosing on purpose to try to make the Christian point of view seem more ridiculous than it really is.  We should not need to use those tactics when describing the opposing position if the position we are defending really is on solid ground.  Let the arguments speak for themselves rather than an intentional mischaracterization of the other side's arguments.

Again, back to the question at hand.  Does Christianity have an evidential basis?  The answer of course is yes, it does.  I understand if many are not convinced by the evidence, but it is out there.  In fact, as I pointed out in my last post, I describe 18 very strong lines of evidence that favor a theistic worldview in general, and Christianity in particular.  For example, the universe had a beginning, which implies it had a beginner.  (I know that James attempted to refute this argument.  Stay tuned until next time to see my discussion of it.)  The laws of physics of the universe must be exquisitely finely-tuned for life to exist.  (See below for my discussion of James's point about this.)  The environment we live in (the earth, the moon, the sun, the other planets in our solar system, the solar system's place within our galaxy, the type of galaxy we live in, the list goes on and on) must also have been exquisitely finely-tuned for life to be possible.  The timing of life is exquisite. Etc.  The statement that there is no evidence in favor of Christianity is clearly false. I am not saying that many people do not try to wiggle their way out of it, claiming plausible deniability on each of these points, but that does not mean there is no evidence for Christianity.

So, what should we do with this evidence?  (See the next point.)

Point 5: One should avoid God of the gaps arguments.

One thing we should definitely not do with the evidence is make a God-of-the-gaps argument.  I think James is implicitly making this point when he says, "Just because we don't know why there are laws of physics doesn't point at all to there being some intelligent design behind it."  However, that is not my argument.  I am not saying that we don't know where the laws of physics come from, therefore there must be a God who made them.  No, I am saying that the existence of transcendent, immaterial, and real entities argues for the existence of a transcendent mind.  This is not an argument from ignorance, it is a positive argument for something beyond our universe.


OK, so perhaps, as James suggests, there is a large enough sampling of "alternative" universes in a mother multiverse that explains away the fine tuning.  In my original post, I state that that presents us with a bigger problem. If you have to fall back on an unlimited number of universes to explain away the data that you do not like, then you are in effect appealing to an ad hoc mechanism that can explain anything.  Do you see the problem with that?  The multiverse explains too much.  Why in the world would the multiverse explain such a gross violation of our probabilistic expectations in one case, but in all other cases (ie, the reliable operability of the laws of physics, chemistry, etc on a day-to-day basis) we claim rationality?  This is exactly what I was saying when I stated that atheism does violence to our reason.  Let's just say something astronomically improbable is the "cause" of the universe, and then go from there.  This is not an explanation; it's voo-doo magic.


The multiverse has a series of other insurmountable problems for the atheist.  First, a trio of scientists have shown that even the multiverse requires a beginning.  Second, the multiverse also requires fine-tuning.  Third, if the multiverse were true at the level required to explain the fine-tuning of our universe, we end up in absurd situations, such as our universe being simply a computer simulation. 


James said that "[i]t may be plausible that our universe is just one of an unlimited number of universes in the multiverse.  But as of yet, like with god, there's no solid evidence to support it."  His point here was that we shouldn't jump to conclusions without solid evidence. Let's wait and see. But the problem with this is there is enough evidence to conclude some things.  This is what I've just done.


Finally, one may argue that we should never insert God into our gaps in knowledge, no matter whether the evidence points to a God or not.  We should always hold out for a naturalistic explanation.  But why so?  If we peel back the facade of this argument, we see that what the person is really saying is that no matter how unlikely the naturalistic explanation, no matter what the evidence is in favor of a God, we should always favor the naturalistic explanation.  But as I've argued elsewhere, this is precisely the definition of blind faith.  Think about it.  This position is saying that I don't care what evidence you put forth, I will never believe you because I've already made up my mind about it.  Now, be careful here, I am not saying this is James's position.  But I am saying this is a common pitfall; don't fall into it.