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Come Reason's Apologetics Notes blog will highlight various news stories or current events and seek to explore them from a thoughtful Christian perspective. Less formal and shorter than the www.comereason.org Web site articles, we hope to give readers points to reflect on concerning topics of the day.

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Showing posts with label epistemology. Show all posts
Showing posts with label epistemology. Show all posts

Monday, December 19, 2016

How Does a Naturalist Justify His Reasoning?



Given my blog and public profile, I regularly get internet atheists who try to goad me into debate. My primary goal in ministry is to have honest discussions with people who are open to ideas, so I tend to ignore those who are trolling apologists looking for a debate. However, every once in a while I may engage someone if I think the exchange will be useful as a learning tool for my readers.

Last week, a Twitter user going only by the name Truth who objected to one of my tweets. He claimed "I am open to believe whatever is true." Looked on his Twitter profile and he only describes himself as "Naturalist." I've written previously on how naturalism cannot ground reason. You can see a short article here, or read my contribution to the book True Reason: Confronting the Irrationality of the New Atheism. So, I decided to see how someone who claims to be open to truth understands what truth is. I've reproduced the exchange below:

Started on Dec 18, 2016
Posts You May Have Missed: The Irrationality of Indifference to God t.co/C5EMwP2KqG comereason tweeted on Dec 18, 2016 06:47Reply
@comereason This is absurd. There is no good reason to believe in life after death. gottisttot44 replied on Dec 18, 2016 06:54Reply
@comereason I am open to believe whatever is true The supposed consequences of not believing a specific claim is not evidence for the claim. gottisttot44 replied on Dec 18, 2016 06:56Reply
@Gottisttot44 How do you know what's true? comereason replied on Dec 18, 2016 07:39Reply
@comereason Through the use of reason, evidence etc. gottisttot44 replied on Dec 18, 2016 07:40Reply
@Gottisttot44 Do you ascribe to philosophical naturalism or did I read your profile wrongly? comereason replied on Dec 18, 2016 07:42Reply
@comereason methodological naturalism gottisttot44 replied on Dec 18, 2016 07:42Reply
@Gottisttot44 Thanks for the clarification. So, how can you trust your reason then? comereason replied on Dec 18, 2016 07:44Reply
@comereason do you want to take this conversation to chat? gottisttot44 replied on Dec 18, 2016 07:45Reply
@comereason it's going to take more than a 140 characters to have a debate on presuppositionalism gottisttot44 replied on Dec 18, 2016 07:47Reply
@Gottisttot44 But I'm not a presuppositionalist. comereason replied on Dec 18, 2016 07:47Reply
@comereason I think it is going to be a lot more difficult to debate in full like this but I will if you are not willing to move to chat. gottisttot44 replied on Dec 18, 2016 07:49Reply
@comereason didn't say you were. gottisttot44 replied on Dec 18, 2016 07:50Reply
@Gottisttot44 Who's debating? I'm trying to understand where you're coming from. Why does a methodological naturalist place trust in reason? comereason replied on Dec 18, 2016 07:56Reply
@comereason because it leads to effective results. gottisttot44 replied on Dec 18, 2016 07:57Reply
@Gottisttot44 But effective results doesn't mean it's true, right? comereason replied on Dec 18, 2016 07:58Reply
@comereason it will just boil down to that. gottisttot44 replied on Dec 18, 2016 07:51Reply
@comereason it means corresponding with reality. Which is how I define true. gottisttot44 replied on Dec 18, 2016 07:58Reply
@Gottisttot44 But beliefs can be effective and not true. Michael Ruse holds that morality is a useful fiction. comereason replied on Dec 18, 2016 08:00Reply
@comereason I didn't say that the belief was effective. I said the results were. gottisttot44 replied on Dec 18, 2016 08:02Reply
@Gottisttot44 Right. But my original question was "How do you know what's true?" You answered reason and then proffered effective results. comereason replied on Dec 18, 2016 08:06Reply
@comereason your original question was why do you 'trust' reason and I said because it provides effective results:corresponding with reality gottisttot44 replied on Dec 18, 2016 08:08Reply
@Gottisttot44 My question was based from our prior exchanges: Why do you trust reason to discover the truth. That includes true beliefs. comereason replied on Dec 18, 2016 08:13Reply
@comereason because when I use reason it leads to results that correspond with reality. gottisttot44 replied on Dec 18, 2016 08:14Reply
@Gottisttot44 Again, results that correspond with reality prove neither the truth of a belief nor that your reasoning is correct. comereason replied on Dec 18, 2016 08:16Reply
@comereason I disagree, if you make a claim and it corresponds with reality then the claim is true and belief is justified. gottisttot44 replied on Dec 18, 2016 08:17Reply
@Gottisttot44 Do you see the mistake you made above? What we wish to discern is *whether* the claim corresponds to reality or not. comereason replied on Dec 18, 2016 08:29Reply
@Gottisttot44 You said the way you do this is through reason. I asked why do you trust reason and you said "b/c it corresponds / reality." comereason replied on Dec 18, 2016 08:30Reply
@Gottisttot44 You find truth through reason and you trust reason b/c you say it's true. You've argued in a circle. comereason replied on Dec 18, 2016 08:31Reply
@comereason no. I 'trust' reason because it works. gottisttot44 replied on Dec 18, 2016 08:33Reply
@comereason there is an argument to be made here but not the way you are presenting it The bigger problem is your position doesn't help fix* gottisttot44 replied on Dec 18, 2016 08:35Reply
@Gottisttot44 A man can reason that he must run 3 miles to keep the fat demons away. He tests his theory and it works! comereason replied on Dec 18, 2016 09:18Reply
@comereason Oh ok... so we are done reasoning. gottisttot44 replied on Dec 18, 2016 09:45Reply
@Gottisttot44 All I'm saying is you have expressed no good basis to trust your reasoning will lead you to truth. So, how do we proceed? comereason replied on Dec 18, 2016 09:57Reply
@comereason I told you, the conclusions we get to using reasoning are matched and verified by empirical observation. gottisttot44 replied on Dec 18, 2016 10:03Reply
@Gottisttot44 And I've given you an example that contradicts that. What is the naturalist's explanation for why we should trust our reason? comereason replied on Dec 18, 2016 10:11Reply
@comereason What example? gottisttot44 replied on Dec 18, 2016 10:37Reply
@Gottisttot44 Belief in fat demons keep a mans weight away. comereason replied on Dec 18, 2016 10:41Reply
@comereason How is it reasonable to conclude there are fat demons? gottisttot44 replied on Dec 18, 2016 10:42Reply
@comereason by reason i mean using logic to come to a conclusion based on valid and sound premises. In this example the man did not do this. gottisttot44 replied on Dec 18, 2016 10:46Reply
@Gottisttot44 First of all, arguments are valid and sound, not premises. Premises are either true or not true. Again, arguing in a circle. comereason replied on Dec 18, 2016 11:07Reply
@comereason actually premises are sound or unsound. But yes the argument as a whole is either valid or invalid. gottisttot44 replied on Dec 18, 2016 11:11Reply
@comereason I just ran out of space. gottisttot44 replied on Dec 18, 2016 11:11Reply
@comereason and you still haven't explained how my reasoning is circular... gottisttot44 replied on Dec 18, 2016 11:12Reply
@Gottisttot44 Why wasn't it reason? Bc it wasn't using truth in the premises. Circular. comereason replied on Dec 18, 2016 11:19Reply
@comereason You are making no sense... gottisttot44 replied on Dec 18, 2016 12:08Reply

I'll leave aside his confusion with soundness and validity for the moment. What you should pick up on is how he keeps switching his understanding of truth. He states that truth is "that which corresponds to reality, which is the definition of the Correspondence theory of truth. However, when asked why one should believe that reason is a trustworthy tool to arrive a truth, his response is "because it provides effective results," which is the Pragmatic theory of truth. This is the basis of his confusion.

I don't know if my interlocutor believes that all truth claims must have some kind of empirical point of verification. I do know that he cannot escape his circular justification for his beliefs, though. Not all naturalists would hold to his view; some would rightly believe that there are certain things one can know directly and immediately without even using reason (such as the laws of logic themselves!) But, even there, a naturalist is stuck in justifying such a belief.
Image courtesy Bart Everson and licensed via the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0) license.

Thursday, December 01, 2016

The Intellectual Cowardice behind 'Agnostic Atheists'



For certain questions, the answer seems so obvious they feel ridiculous to ask. Questions like: "Who's buried in Grant's tomb?" Or (usually asked after you've rammed into something and are doubled over in pain) did that hurt? The answers for each are pretty evident.

What about the question "How Just how much meat do vegetarians eat?" This question strikes one to be much like the others, with the answer being "None, of course!" But in reality that isn't the case. A 2003 study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition reports that two thirds of those who self-identified as vegetarians ate meat, fish, or poultry on at least one of the two specific days they were polled on.1A Daily Beast article cites other studies with similar findings.2

It may seem bizarre those who eat meat on a semi-regular basis would identify themselves as vegetarians or vegans, but as the author of the Daily Beast article, himself a vegan , states: "some vegetarians like the taste of meat, and we sometimes do things we want to do even when we know we shouldn't."3



This is all nonsense. As I've explained before, the term agnostic atheist is self-contradictory. The theist believes in some type of God, the atheist does not believe in some type of God, and the agnostic makes no claim either way; he neither believes nor denies God's existence. His answer is a simple "I don't know." The so-called agnostic atheists try to claim that while the term atheist describes the beliefs of a person, the term agnostic describes the knowledge claim of the person. They do this by abusing the term agnostic by breaking it down to its Greek gnosis which translates into the English knowledge. I've explained all of this in my article.

I bring this up to prove a point; sometimes people will use labels for themselves that are not true to reality but as a way of expressing what they would like the facts to be. That's what I'm finding with a relatively recent movement with the atheist community. Within the last five years or so there has been a growing number of people who define themselves as "agnostic atheists." They claim to be agnostic in that they don't know if a God exists but an atheist because they don't believe a God exists. They even use cute little drawings to demonstrate their point.

Dodging the Need to Support a Belief

So, why would atheists begin to try and change the meaning of agnosticism and atheism to be somehow compatible? What is the advantage? Simply put, the so-called agnostic atheists don't want to bear the burden of proving what they believe. By claiming that they believe in no God but they don't know whether or not He exists, they think they have removed themselves from having to justify their non-belief. "I can lack a belief in God, but I don't claim to have any knowledge of a god or Gods' existence" is the way many would frame it.

Such statements are intellectually cowardly. If anyone claims any kind of believe and also claims he or she has no basis for that belief is to say the belief is entirely ungrounded and may be disregarded. The so-called agnostic atheist will quickly respond "I didn't claim a belief, I said I lacked belief." Ah, but that's a poor attempt at dodging the question. As I argue here, any reasonable aware person understands the concept of God, the concept of ultimate beginnings, and the fact that effects have causes. By claiming to be an atheist, they are negating the claim that God does exist. They aren't neutral but they are saying "I have heard of this concept of God and my belief holds it isn't true." Thus they are making a claim of their own and they need to provide evidence for why they disbelieve the theist's claim.

An intellectually honest person who has no knowledge of something would say he doesn't believe one way or another. For example, I don't follow baseball, so if two baseball fans who disagreed asked me who I think was going to win the World Series next season, I would be agnostic on the question; I have no belief on the subject. But if they both provided me with relevant information and their reasoning, I can make a decision based on that knowledge. It may not be a great decision due to my lack of experience, but I can at least tell them which in my mind is the more likely conclusion based on what I now know. At that point, I am no longer agnostic. I have reasons upon which to base my belief. This is all explained in my article "If You Want to be Reasonable, Then You May Have to Believe."

To be a true vegan and shun the consumption of all animal products is really tough. It requires dedication and sacrifice. You can't honestly call yourself a vegan if once a week you indulge in a juicy In-n-Out Double Double. Similarly, the person who uses the term "agnostic atheist" is trying to have it both ways. He or she wants to deny God's existence, but doesn't want to bear any burden for the justification of that disbelief. The so-called agnostic atheist is hoping push all of the work onto the theist. But that isn't reasonable. Any moderately intelligent person understands the concept of God and at least some of the reasons for why people believe he exists. They should have the intellectual honesty to at least stand up for their own non-belief.

References

1. And, Ella H Haddad. " What Do Vegetarians in the United States Eat?" American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. American Society for Clinical Nutrition. 01 Sept. 2003. Web. 01 Dec. 2016. http://ajcn.nutrition.org/content/78/3/626S.full.
2. Chituc, Vlad. "Why Drunk Vegetarians Eat Meat." The Daily Beast. The Daily Beast Company, 10 Oct. 2015. Web. 01 Dec. 2016. http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2015/10/11/why-drunk-vegetarians-eat-meat.html.
3. Chituc, Vlad. 2015.

Thursday, February 18, 2016

Why Science Cannot Ground All Knowledge



Is science the best, most assured way of learning about reality? In the minds of more and more people, the answer is "yes." Yesterday, I highlighted a quote from scientist Peter Atkins on how he relies upon science to inform him about the world, dismissing even the consideration of God's existence as "lazy." But, relying on science as the only arbiter for judging the verity of truth claims will never work, because science cannot function as one's starting point.

When explaining reality, everyone must have a starting point. For example, one may observe an event, such as a strike of lightning, and ask "what makes that happen?" A person may respond by describing how a storm cell moving across the land scrapes off electrons until the charge is to such a degree they rush back to the ground, which is reasonable scientific. The first person would be justified in asking "how do you know that?" More conversations could ensue about the structure of atoms, experimental testing and predictions, etc. But each tome, the questioner could ask for further justification for the facts being presented. Sooner or later, there must be a starting point for science.

Four Assumptions Scientist Must Hold

Assuming the questioner drives his respondent back further and further (i.e. "But, how do you know that?") one will quickly see the scientific method relies upon several assumptions. The first is the world will behave consistently. Scientists assume that because electrons have behaved in a certain way in the past, they will also do so tomorrow, and next week, and fifty billion years from now. Science cannot prove this; the scientist must assume it to make predictions.

Secondly, in order to draw any conclusions at all, scientists must assume logic takes us towards the truth. Without logic, one could never infer anything. How can one infer any electron in the universe will behave in the same manner as the electrons creating the lighting strike if one cannot build an argument? The scientific method is really a logical argument offering support for its premises by way of experimentation and concludes with its hypothesis either confirmed or denied. The scientist gives reasons for his conclusion!

Thirdly, the scientist must assume ethics are important. Much research today draws its conclusions not simply from its own findings but from prior research and publication. Falsifying data to arrive at the conclusion one wants is considered wrong. Even unintentional bias and flawed research methods can corrupt results. That's why there's a real concern that so much of what's being published in scientific journals is irreproducible.  Without assuming ethical standards of truth-telling and the importance of solid methodology, scientific endeavors would be a confusing mishmash of conflicting data, with everyone's opinion held as equally valuable.

Lastly, the scientist must assume that his or her own mind is reliable in reporting how the world works. This is a key component to the scientific process and it also poses the biggest problem in cutting God out of the picture. If your brain is the product of mutations whose only benefit to its host is that of survival, then why should you trust it? Survival is not the same thing as truth-telling. In fact, lying can make survival much easier in many circumstances. As long as survival is the outcome, it doesn't matter whether you believe you need to run from the tiger because you're in a race or because it may eat you. If you get away, the same result is achieved. So, if we evolved from some primate species, why trust our "monkey-brains" to tell us the truth? How could one argue that a mindless, random process would even act in an orderly way?

God Grounds the Starting Points

Going back to pour first point, one must assume some intentional ordering of universe in order to ground the assumption of a consistent universe. Christianity teaches that God is a consistent God. He would create his universe in such a way that it would be consistent as well. This gives us a reason to believe in the consistency of the universe, a reason which science cannot offer. Scientists certainly assume the universe is consistent in its laws, but they have no basis for doing so, other than that's what they've seen. But even our dreams have an air of consistency to them until we wake up. Then we realize how inconsistent they are. To assume

Secondly, in the assumption of logic, God also becomes the starting point. If God is the logos—that is Reason itself—then logic and reason are built into the universe as reflections of his nature. Logic works because God is a logical God and we, as rational creatures, bear his image. Thus, we can understand and use reason to discover truths about the created order.

Thirdly, morality must have its grounding in God. The concept of classifying things as right or classifying them as wrong is central to theology. One cannot have the absolute standards of right and wrong without appealing to a being who transcends all of creation. That is God.

Lastly, the fact that a God of reason created us with the capacity to reason gives us grounding for believing our capacity for reason itself. AS part of God's created order, we can experience it in meaningful ways.

Science is a wonderful tool that tells us much about a very small slice of reality: the natural world. But the world is much bigger than its mechanics. Logic, ethics, aesthetics, relationships, mathematics, abstract concepts, and spiritual realities also comprise our lives and our experiences. Not only can science not explain these things, it must assume them before it gets going. It cannot explain its own assumptions, and therefore shows its incapacity for being the proper starting point.

Image courtesy Longlivetheux - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0

Monday, January 11, 2016

It's Crippling to Believe Only in Science



I've written several times on how today's culture holds an over-inflated view of science. Science is a great tool that helps us to learn about one very specific subset of knowledge: the mechanics behind the natural world. It cannot tell us about other crucial pieces such as what constitutes knowledge, what constitutes a meaningful relationship, or how to stop people from being evil. Given its limited scope, therefore, science is of a certain limited value.

This isn't to say the study of science is of no value or marginal value. Some of our gravest problems do come from mechanical interactions. Illness would be one example. But it is wrong to think that because one can claim "science says so" and therefore the discussion should end. With politically contentious and highly complex issues like how modern humanity may be affecting climate, a large degree of caution is warranted.

The fact is science doesn't always get it right. Thomas S. Kuhn explained scientific advancements do not come in a pattern of smooth upwards growth, but in a very herky-jerky set of fits and starts, as those holding to old paradigms are hesitant to give their particular views up. Even if there is a strong consensus of opinion on how some particular point, scientists are still people and people are capable of being wrong and being persuaded by others who are also wrong.

Here are just a few areas where claims based on accepted science were either rushed, fraudulent, or simply wrong:
  • AETHER: Aether was believed to be an element permeating the universe. The view was held by a consensus of scientists for many centuries, including names such as Issac Newton, Thomas Young, Maxwell, and Lord Kelvin. In the 19th century, more and more scientists held to the theory of luminiferous aether as the all-encompassing medium through which waves of light traveled. So strongly was the theory held that published student references works would claim: "The cumulative evidence for thinking space filled with a ponderable medium of exceedingly minute density grows stronger every day."1

    However, the entire enterprise and the many, many well-thought explanations of how our universe works were completely overthrown after an 1887 experiment couldn't detect the aether2 and Einstein showed the medium wasn't necessary. It is now considered scientifically obsolete, however it took decades for the theory to be completely abandoned as the 1914 student reference work demonstrates.
  • PILTDOWN MAN Palentologists in Britain announced Piltdown Man in1913 as a find of one of the "missing links" between ape and man. The general accepted it for years, but in 1953, Piltdown 'man' was exposed as a forgery. The skull was modern and the teeth on the ape's jaw had been filed down.3
  • ACADEMIC FRAUD: The US National Institutes of Health investigatory panel found the immunologist Thereza Imanishi-Kari had fabricated data in a 1986 research paper authored with the Nobel prize winner David Baltimore. The findings claimed in the paper promised a breakthrough for genetic modification of the immune system.4
  • N-RAYS: A French physicist, RenĂ© Blondlot, claimed to have discovered a new type of radiation, shortly after Roentgen had discovered X-rays. American physicist Robert Wood, however, revealed that N-rays were little more than a delusion. Wood removed the prism from the N-ray detection device, without which the machine couldn't work.5
None of these events show that all of science is corrupted or questionable, but it does illustrate that science has no claim on being the only way to really know something. That's why anyone who says they only believe in "science" has crippled him or herself from the truth before they've even begun to search for it.

Evolutionist Stephen Jay Gould said "Scientists cannot claim higher insight into moral truth from any superior knowledge of the world's empirical constitution."6 I always take exception when in conversation an atheist will claim to "only believe in science."

References

1. Beach, Chandler Belden, Frank Morton McMurry, and Eleanor Atkinson. "Ether." The New Student's Reference Work: For Teachers, Students and Families. Vol. II. Chicago: F.E. Compton, 1914. Online. https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/The_New_Student%27s_Reference_Work/Ether
2. "Michelson–Michelson–Morley ExperimentMorley Experiment." Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 23 Nov. 2015. Web. 11 Jan. 2016. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Michelson%E2%80%93Morley_experiment.
3. "Piltdown Man." Natural History Museum. The Trustees of the Natural History Museum, London, n.d. Web. 11 Jan. 2016. http://www.nhm.ac.uk/our-science/departments-and-staff/library-and-archives/collections/piltdown-man.html.
4. Research Integrity Adjudications Panel ."Thereza Imanishi-Kari, Ph.D., DAB No. 1582 (1996)." Departmental Appeals Board, Department of Health and Human Services, 21 June 1996. Web. 11 Jan. 2016. http://www.hhs.gov/dab/decisions/dab1582.html.
5. Carroll, Robert Todd. The Skeptic's Dictionary: A Collection of Strange Beliefs, Amusing Deceptions, and Dangerous Delusions. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley, 2003. 63. Print..
6. Gould, Stephen Jay. "Nonoverlapping Magisteria." Natural History 106 (March 1997): 16-22; Reprinted by The Unofficial Stephen Jay Gould Archive. 1998. Web. 11 Jan. 2016. http:

Monday, January 04, 2016

Belief without Evidence is Crucial for Knowledge



Being a reasonable person is a great goal; no one wants to be thought of as foolish or gullible. But does being reasonable mean one needs to have reasons for all of one's beliefs? I've run onto many people who would answer "Yes" to that question. I mean, even the word "reasonable" contains the root of "reason!" How could one be reasonable without having reasons for one's beliefs?

This kind of thinking is prevalent in the online conversations I have with atheists. I recently offers one in this example. But not only is my interlocutor unreasonable in asking for evidence for what would be rather benign claims (like a person's academic achievements in casual conversation), he is wrong about what constitutes reasonable belief at all.

Principle of Credulity

In the introduction of his book The Evolution of the Soul, Philosopher Richard Swinburne lays out some key principles we all use in our reasoning. The first is the Principle of Credulity. Swinburne defines it as "in the absence of counter-evidence probably things are as they seem to be."1 This principle holds that we should basically trust what our senses tell us. While sometimes our sense can be wrong, we trust them to tell us true things about the world, for that's simply how we observe the world. As Swinburne points out:
Without this principle, there can be no knowledge at all. If you cannot suppose thigs are as they seem to be unless further evidence is brought forward—e.g. that in the past in certain respects things were as they seemed to be, the question will arise as to why you should suppose the latter evidence to be reliable. If ‘it seems to be' is good enough evidence in the latter case, it ought to be good reason to start with. And if ‘it seems to be' is not good enough reason in the latter case, we are embarked on an infinite regress and no claim to believe anything with justification will be correct.2
This is the key point in when debating with a person who will only accept something based on evidence or that evidence only counts if it is scientifically testable.

What Counts as Evidence?

Take a claim like the one Paul made in 1 Cor. 15:5-7 that the resurrected Jesus appeared to Peter, then all of the apostles, then to James, and then to five hundred people, and lastly to Paul himself. Paul is offering evidence in the form of eyewitness testimony, both his own and of others. If one discounts that as evidence, by what criteria are they doing so? If it is because eyewitnesses can get things wrong, then why ever allow them in courts? What about scientist who base all of their research on visual observation of events or instruments. Doesn't it follow that their eyes could deceive them as well?

The objector might claim, "My problem with that testimony is we simply don't observe people rising from the dead!" But that objection really begs the question, as Swinburne notes. If observation cannot be trusted, why should we trust the observation that people don't rise from the dead?  Maybe they have in the past and we missed it!

If you press for evidence before you believe anything, you will never reach a starting point. There is always the question of "What is the evidence that backs up the evidence you're presenting? Why should I believe that to be true?" It becomes as Swinburne said an infinite regress, where one can never justify anything at all.

In the next post, I highlight another of these principles, one that states why in the absence of any evidence to the contrary testimony specifically should be believed. Stay tuned.

References

1. Swinburne, Richard. The Evolution of the Soul. Oxford: Clarendon, 1986. Print. 11.
2. Swinburne, 1986. 12.
Image courtesy jon crel and licensed via the Cretive Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0) License

Friday, September 04, 2015

There's Only One Reason to Hold Any Belief



Every person has many beliefs. Beliefs are central to our worldview and we can't function without them. Still, people don't understand what beliefs are and why we should hold them. They think beliefs are merely personal things, something that gives us comfort or assurance. The concept of belief has been twisted and contorted to a point where most assume they are preferences akin to ice cream flavors—which ever one you like, you should choose.

This reminds me of a conversation I had with a Jehovah's Witness that came to my door several years ago. Upon answering, I complimented him on his dedication to his faith. Here he was, not watching football on a Saturday morning, but trying to discuss his faith with others.
I then asked him, "Tell me, in going door to door, you must've heard a lot of reasons why people believe what they believe, right?

"Oh, absolutely!" re responded.

I offered some examples: "Have you heard things like 'Well, This is the way I was raised' or 'I'm really comfortable in my beliefs' or 'I'm an American, so I have to be a Christian?'"

He smiled and said, "I've heard all those, and more, too!"

I replied, "Can we both agree that those are terrible reasons for believing in something? I mean, there's only one good reason to believe anything."

"What do you mean?" he asked inquisitively.

I explained: "The only good reason to believe anything is if it's true. Beliefs must be true, even if they are what some would call 'harmless' beliefs. Take the idea of Santa Claus for instance. It's a nice belief and it makes kids happy. And they have some reasons to hold to it, right? Their parents have told them about him. It benefits them since on Christmas morning there are presents and there's empirical evidence; the cookies are gone and the milk is drunk. It's a nice belief that doesn't hurt anyone."

He chuckled as I continued: "But what would you think of a 37 year old man who still believes in Santa Claus? Would you want to spend a five hour plane flight sitting next to him? Of course not! Not because his belief is dangerous, but because it isn't true. We should only believe what is true."

The man agreed with my foundation for belief and stated that the Jehovah's Witnesses have the truth of God. I went on to explain that I have also studied the Watchtower's history and its beliefs. For example, they held that Jesus was coming back many times, including 1881, 1914, 1918, 1925, 1942, and 1975."1

At this point he interrupted me. "You must realize that those dates are coming from men and men can be fallible."

"I agree with you," I said. "However, these same men also claimed that Jesus is not Jehovah God, but a lesser being created by God. What if in 100 years, they reverse themselves on this issue like they have with the prediction of His return? Now, we are talking about something that is crucial to the salvation of you and me. What happens then?"

He dismissed the idea quickly. "I don't think that would ever happen!"

"But what if it does?" I countered. "What if I could show you from the Bible right now how the Watchtower is wrong on this issue? Would you abandon your belief in the Jehovah's Witnesses?"

The man denied that it's possible, but I pressed again. "If I could conclusively show you that Jesus must be the eternal God, would you stop being a Witness?"

He thought a second and answered honestly. "You know, I've been a Witness for some seventeen years now. I've never found more meaning and satisfaction in my life except by being a Witness, so no, I don't think I would."

I looked right at him and said, "Wait a minute! Didn't we both agree that is a terrible reason for believing something?"

The words hung in the air as the man took a step back. His eyes worked back and forth as he tried to process the discussion. He seemed to think that I had played some kind of word trick on him, but he had no way of getting out of it. Finally, the man wished to go and I asked him to come back next week so we could continue our discussion. He never did.
This one conversation shows how much we've confused the motivations for why believe something with good reasons for believing. There is only one good reason to believe anything and that is if it is true. We may not be 100% certain of the truth, but we can still be reasonable in holding to one belief over another. Just don't confuse feeling s or desires for reasons. One supports a belief. The others don't.

References

1. A good summation of these dates and others may be found on the JWFacts.org page "Changed Dates, Failed Predictions" at http://www.jwfacts.com/watchtower/1800s.php

Thursday, August 20, 2015

If You Want to be Reasonable, Then You May Have to Believe



I've had the opportunity to interact with many people who would classify themselves as either atheists or agnostics. (Sometimes, they try to classify themselves as both, but that's an untenable position. ) While theists and atheists will argue back and forth on the legitimacy and support for each one's position, it is the agnostic position that intrigues me the most. Many agnostics claim to be reasonable people who rely on evidence and rationality to come to a conclusion about God. But is the person who withholds a belief always more reasonable than one who accepts it? In a word, no.

To Hold a Justified Belief

The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy identified Roderick Chisholm as "one of the most creative, productive, and influential American philosophers of the 20th Century."1 Chisholm studied an area of philosophy devoted to understanding how we know things, called epistemology. His book A Theory of Knowledge provides a strong framework for what constitutes a rational belief. There, Chisholm explains that to have not simply a belief (which anyone can hold about anything—reasonable or not), but to have a justified belief is to "say something about the reasonableness of that belief." 2 Chisholm goes on to explain that when we make statements like "one who believes in X is at least as justified as one who withholds belief in X" we are making a claim that each position is equally reasonable; that is there is just as much reason to withhold that particular belief as there is to affirm that belief.

However, Chisholm makes the point that if arguments or evidence are presented that argue for a particular belief, the equation changes. To withhold a belief is to be neutral, not to take sides either way. For example, I'm completely neutral as to whether I think the Philadelphia Phillies will be playing in the World Series. I do not follow baseball closely and I don't know the standings of the teams. But after I look at the standings, even for a moment, I would no longer be neutral. Given the Phillies are last in their division and have a record of 47 wins versus 73 loses, it would be unreasonable for me to remain neutral on this question. Knowing the standings doesn't give me certainty about my belief, but I'm more justified in holding to the belief that the Phillies won't make it to the World Series.

Chisholm argues in a similar way when he writes that "St. Augustine suggests that, even though there may be ground to question the reliability of the senses, most of us are more justified most of the time believing that we can rely upon them than believing that we can not rely upon them" (emphasis in the original).3 Because there is good evidence that our sense tell us the truth about the world most of the time, it is more reasonable to believe what our senses tell us rather than doubt that they are providing truthful information. If additional evidence is offered (i.e. the person is having an extraordinary sensory experience and has taken a hallucinogenic) then we can adjust the justification to that additional information and say one may be more justified to not believe their senses in that instance. However, neutrality, what Chisholm calls counterbalanced, is a difficult position to maintain.

Can Agnostics Be Counterbalanced?

Given the fact that arguments and evidence changes the equation of belief, I must question those who claim to be agnostic on their position. It is not reasonable to withhold a belief if there are facts that argue either for or against a position. The agnostic wishes to stay neutral on the question of God's existence, but we know quite a bit that makes neutrality a less reasonable position than that held by the theist. We know that something doesn't appear from nothing. We know that consciousness has never materialized from non-conscious material. We know that at least some people have reported seeing miracles and we know that includes the reporting of seeing the resurrected Jesus. All these facts point to the existence of a God. If one were to argue against these as evidence for God's existence, then the burden would be upon that person to show why their approach isn't assuming atheism rather than agnosticism. But to simply claim to withhold belief given the facts above is simply not justified. It is what Chisholm would call unreasonable.

References

1. Feldman, Richard and Feldman, Fred, "Roderick Chisholm", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2015 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/spr2015/entries/chisholm/.
2. Chisholm, Roderick M. Theory of Knowledge. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1989. Print. 8
3. Chisholm, 1989. 8.

Thursday, July 30, 2015

Should an Atheist Sit on a Jury?



Should an atheist suit on a jury? The question seems bigoted; why should anyone want to exclude atheists simply because of their denial of the belief in God? I wouldn't disqualify someone simply because he or she identified as an atheist. Atheists as much as anyone else should be able to do the things jurors are called upon to do: weigh testimony, weigh evidence, and deliberate with other jurors to seek a just and impartial decision for the case at hand.

In order to do those things a juror must be have some kind of criteria for what counts as evidence and what doesn't. But upon what standards do they rely in order to accomplish this? What is the juror's understanding of evidence and is it important? Of course it is, which is why our legal system has a practice of voir dire in selecting the jury. Voir dire is a French term for the preliminary portion of the trial when potential jurors are called to the courtroom and the attorneys for both sides ask them questions to see whether they may be biased or somehow otherwise disqualified from serving on that particular case. If a potential juror would say something like "I won't accept a verdict of guilty through eyewitness testimony; I must have physical evidence or see the crime committed myself!" you can expect that person to be eliminated from the jury.

A Strained Epistemology

I bring this up because I recently had a conversation with an atheist that led me to question his understanding of what is reasonable evidence for belief in anything. He claimed that while he was an atheist, "I can think of lots of things that would make me believe - nothing too difficult would be needed." When asked for an example, he replied that saying "hello" would do and a chat with him and his wife would be better. I then asked if God appearing only to his wife and having her relay the appearance to him would be sufficient. "No I don't think that would do. I'd want more than second-hand evidence." I pressed and asked what if his wife's claim was corroborated by multiple others. He replied, "I can't really tell, but I doubt if the claims of the other people would really make any difference. Lots of people think they know when someone is lying. But they can't. It's why evidence is essential." He defined his term , too. "I meant corroborating evidence. E.g. photos, DNA, records."

This is where I would ask the gentleman to be excused from the jury. There is nothing appropriate about holding to criteria where knowledge on big questions can only be gained from direct, first-hand experience. The criterion isn't even consistent within itself. First, how do you know the evidence wasn't faked? Must one follow the chain of custody personally to prove it was gathered, stored, and analyzed without tampering or is he going to accept the testimony of the witness presenting the evidence that this is so? Even if one grants the evidence is factual, how do we know that it actually points towards the defendant? Is my atheist friend an expert in DNA and genetics or is he taking the word of someone else? Why does he know that DNA analysis cannot provide a false positive? How does he even know which genetic markers were tested and how unique they are? All of this is trusting in the testimony of another person!

A Faulty Deliberation

Another issue arises once the trial is concluded and the jury is sent to deliberate the case. Now, you have to listen to the opinions and thoughts of eleven other jurors who are also weighing the evidence and the testimony. Will he discount their views on what makes up convincing evidence if they believe in God? Is that appropriate to do? The skeptical stance of rejecting testimony because "people can lie" is unreasonable. Worse is characterizing those who believe in God as "believ[ing]in magic," and dismissing their testimony or opinion in the jury room. This is in no way a reasonable foundation upon which to weigh truth claims.

 Now I want to be fair and note that he did later qualify his answer. He said, ""[It] depends on the claim being made. If someone says they had toast for breakfast I believe them." That's fine. By what criteria does one judge where testimony is no longer sufficient? Unfortunately, we had to end our conversations before I could ask that question. But the problem doesn't go away. My guess, given the "belief in magic" comment, is only discussions about the supernatural rise to that level of incredulity. But such a distinction is arbitrary; there's no reason to exclude the supernatural from being evidenced by testimony. It simply shows bias on the part of the atheist, and as a biased party he cannot be relied upon to provide an unbiased verdict on the question of God. The juror is excused.

Photo courtesy CALI - Center for Computer-Assisted Legal Instruction and licensed via the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0) License.

Tuesday, January 06, 2015

How to Have a Justified Belief

The concepts of belief and knowledge are woefully confused today by both Christians and non-Christians. Some of this has to do with anti-theistic rhetoric made popular by the New Atheists, some is the prevalence of Internet memes that make slick sounding but fallacious charges, and some is just the general ignorance. For example, here's how Christopher Hitchens tried to separate himself from beliefs:
And here is the point, about myself and my co-thinkers. Our belief is not a belief. Our principles are not a faith. We do not rely solely upon science and reason, because these are necessary rather than sufficient factors, but we distrust anything that contradicts science or outrages reason. We may differ on many things, but what we respect is free inquiry, openmindedness, and the pursuit of ideas for their own sake.1
First of all, everyone has beliefs. For Hitchens to say that he doesn't have a belief is simply ridiculous. He believes he should rely on science and reason alone and he believes he should distrust other forms of knowledge.  His entire book is a treatise on what he believes and what he believes you should believe, too! So, let's set aside any nonsense that one can hold to facts without beliefs. As I showed yesterday, any claim of knowledge requires one to believe that the claim is true.



Yesterday, I was asked, "To what degree do you think it's possible to be 'belief-free'?" It's simply impossible to be belief free, since beliefs are a core part of our knowledge. The famous philosopher Rene Descartes developed a thought experiment where he tried to doubt everything. He even doubted his own senses, considering the possibility that they may be manipulations of a deceiving spirit (think the Matrix).  But he found that he couldn't doubt the fact that he was doubting! He had at least found one belief—that he was capable of thinking and doubting—he held to always be true.

What is a Justified Belief?

All people hold beliefs, but that doesn't mean that all beliefs are equal. There is a difference between a justified belief and an unjustified belief. For example, I may mention to you that I believe a certain sports team will win in the playoffs this year. You would naturally ask, "Why do you believe that?" If I respond with statistics about the team or how they have performed against their opponent, you would know that my belief isn't based on nothing, but I've come to my conclusion using information appropriate to make a decision. Even if you disagree with me, you wouldn't say my belief was arbitrary. It is rational given the facts presented. My belief is justified. It was derived based on relevant data, and it is not an unreasonable conclusion.

However, if I were to tell you that the team will win because I picked them out of a hat, or I liked their team colors, or even because they are "my team," then you could conclude that my belief is not justified. Team colors or a person's allegiance doesn't affect the outcome of a professional sporting match. They have no influence on the performance of the players.

Of course, there are degrees of justification, too. The strength of the facts presented and how well the belief explains other things we know give a belief more justification than one that rests on just a few facts. Roderick Chisholm breaks justification into six degrees of positive belief (Certain, Obvious, Evident, Beyond Reasonable Doubt, Epistemically in the Clear, and Probable) and defines each one to show how one belief may be stronger or weaker than another.2

One Cannot Justify Science and Reason without Belief

All people have beliefs and some of those beliefs concern how one understands God, life, and the world around us. These are important beliefs, as they make up our worldview. If one's beliefs can be shown to be justified and they don't contradict one another, then that person has a coherent worldview.  Hitchens' has a problem, however. He holds that science and reason are good and beliefs are bad. Yet, one cannot have science or reason without beliefs. That means that Hitchens' worldview is contradictory; he wants to reject beliefs and uphold rationality when rationality forces one to choose whether to believe a claim or not.

Beliefs matter and they are fundamental to knowledge. To discount belief is to know nothing at all.

References

1. Hitchens, Christopher. God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything New York: Twelve Books, 2007. Kindle Edition. 8.
2. Chisholm, Roderick M. Theory of Knowledge. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1989. Print. 8-17.

Monday, January 05, 2015

You Can't Be an Atheist Without a Belief

It all started with a tweet.

Yesterday, I tweeted:
The idea was to provide an example of the distinction between the terms agnostic and atheist. As I said before, this idea that one can be both an atheist and an agnostic makes no sense. Of course, not everyone who identifies as an atheist or as an agnostic believes that one can be an "agnostic atheist," but the concept has become more and more popular, even though it’s nonsense. My tweet was what I thought a simple way to demonstrate that.


Then the atheists responded.

One tweeted:
Uh, sure. But that doesn’t solve the problem. Breaking down the prefix of the words does nothing to show how an atheist can also be an agnostic. The "without" of agnosticism doesn’t mean "without a positive belief in," it means "without any beliefs for or against." It means you either don’t know or cannot know. Either way, one cannot be an atheist and hold that God does not exist.

Philosophers understand that claiming to have any kind of knowledge about a thing, you must hold to some beliefs about that thing. Using my football example, if I claim to know that  Team X will not make it to the Superbowl, that knowledge must be predicated on the belief that they will not be victorious in the conference final against Team Y, or something like that. If I have a belief it is either that they will win or they will lose. Knowledge requires that I have some kind of belief. Therefore, if one holds no beliefs, such as my neutrality regarding football playoffs, then one cannot make a claim to know about them.


Give that background, I received this response:
What followed was an extended Twitter conversation where I tried to show how knowledge requires belief. Feel free to read it. I think a lot of this confusion stems from how many "atheists on the street" mis-define knowledge and belief. They seem to confuse knowledge with facts and belief with feeling.Thus I had one atheist tell me:

That's confused. If you believe that your team will win the Conference finals, you may hold that belief based on their previous record, the analysis of the opposing team, and other factors. You may know know they will will, but you can certainly believe so, based on the facts.

Yet, some people persist in mis-defining agnosticism, atheism, knowledge, and belief. It’s why one atheist actually said:
To which I replied: "You believe that you don't have any beliefs! That's at least one."

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Scientism tries to Turn Man into a Monkey

Many Christians are familiar with the classic book The Pilgrim's Progress by John Bunyan. For those of you who aren't, it's an allegory of growing in Christian faith where the protagonist named Christian meets some friends (such as Evangelist and Faithful) as well as many unsavory characters like Mr. Worldly Wiseman, Hypocrisy, and Talkative in his walk down the narrow path. While Bunyan wrote in the mid 1600's,the book is amazingly poignant for today.

One particularly striking section dealt with a character named Shame. Christian's friend Faithful recounts to him Shame's accusations against believers. Specifically, Shame claims the religious are basically weak-minded individuals, not living in the real world. He goes on to point out how successful and intelligent people don't believe in such things and how believing in Christianity forces one to ignore the scientific advancements and knowledge of the day. "He moreover objected to the base and low estate and condition of those who were chiefly the pilgrims of the times in which they lived; also in their want of understanding in the natural sciences." 1 So, Shame accuses the Christians of being willfully ignorant. Ignoring what he holds to be the true knowledge of science, Shame charges Christian with substituting the crutch of religion to salve his wounds.

Our Popular Conception of Science

Today, we are even more apt to hear such objections to believing the biblical message. This is in large part due to the over-emphasized view science is given in our modern culture. Science is understood in today's world to be the only reliable source of truth. One has only to look at the advertisements we use to sell products to see how much we esteem the concept of scientific veracity. If you really want to make your case for the potency of a product, just have your spokesman wear a white lab coat, begin his name with Dr., or explain how "tests have shown" the item to be more effective. If science has shown something to be true, then it must be true. And if there is a conflict between beliefs and what science has shown, then most people will assume that it is our beliefs that are in error, not science.

These assumptions are unfortunate, but not altogether unsurprising. As I've said before, science has helped humanity in incredible ways. Our lifespan have been extended by decades, we can modify our environment if we're too hot or too cold, and technology has made our daily chores easier. Our learning has also increased exponentially; we better understand the way the world works, we can predict certain phenomena and we've even visited the moon! So with all science has proven it can do, how could it not be real way to know truth?

Scientism's Claim to Truth

There are two problems we run into when discussing science and the way we know things to be true. The more egregious error is the one the easier to identify and argue against. That is the belief that only things that are scientifically verifiable are truly knowable and everything else is opinion and conjecture. This view is known a Scientism, and has had proponents such as Carl Sagan, Stephen Hawking and the late evolutionist Stephen Jay Gould. Noted skeptic Michael Shermer defined Scientism as "a scientific worldview that encompasses natural explanations for all phenomena, eschews supernatural or paranormal speculations, and embraces empiricism and reason as the twin pillars of a philosophy of life appropriate for an age of science." 2

The proponents of Scientism hold that "only things that are scientifically verifiable are truly knowable", is a true and knowable statement. However, that statement is itself unverifiable scientifically. One cannot construct a hypothesis to test for the statement's veracity. There's no way to go into a laboratory and run this idea through a battery of tests to see whether it can be falsified. Scientism, by setting a standard that cannot itself meets, undercuts its own existence. It becomes what we call a self-refuting statement. Because it does so, Scientism should rightfully be rejected as illogical.

Who Chooses the Standard of Comparison?

The main problem with our popular view of science, though, is more subtle and it therefore takes more care to identify. Because science has taken such a high role in our society, statements that are couched in a scientific approach are thought to hold more weight than other types of assertions. However, many who are purporting to advance a scientific view are really making philosophic statements - and they're making a lot of assumptions along the way.

A good example of this is one that Christian philosopher Francis J. Beckwith related to me at dinner one evening. He told of how he had become engaged in a discussion on origins through an Internet bulletin board whose members were primarily biologists and other scientists. One member was asserting the fact of evolution by noting how science has shown human DNA and chimpanzee DNA to be 98% identical. The biologist then concluded that this proves humans and chimps share an evolutionary ancestor.

Dr. Beckwith countered this claim by asking a simple question: Why do you choose genetics be your basis of comparison? It seems an arbitrary choice. Why not any other field of science, say quantum mechanics? Dr. Beckwith went on to explain that if you examine humans and chimpanzees at the quantum level, why then we're 100% identical! Our atoms move and act in exactly the same way as the atoms of the chimp! Of course, human atoms and the atoms of the table where I'm writing this also act identically. How about if we examine each via physics? Again, we're identical: each species will remain in motion unless enacted upon by an outside force, for example.

The scientists had a very difficult time understanding Dr. Beckwith's point, but it was simply this: one cannot start with science to understand the world. Science relies on certain philosophical rules in order to work at all. What was happening is the biologist was making philosophical assumptions and then using science to try and support them. The assumption in the claim above is that all life can be reduced to its genetic make-up, and everything you need to know about any living thing can be deduced from its DNA. It's this assumption that's flawed. It doesn't follow that if humans share 98% of their DNA with chimps that evolution is therefore a fact. But the scientists today aren't trained in logic or philosophy, so they have a lot of difficulty understanding that they are making flawed philosophical arguments and packing them in scientific facts.

References:

1. Bunyan, John The Pilgrim's Progress
Baker Book house, Grand Rapids, MI 1984 p.89
2
. Shermer, Michael "The Shamans of Scientism" Scientific American June 2002
Accessed online at: http://www.sciam.com/article.cfm?articleID=000AA74F-FF5F-1CDB-B4A8809EC588EEDF
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