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.


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?