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Showing posts with label philosophy. Show all posts
Showing posts with label philosophy. Show all posts

Wednesday, September 02, 2015

If You're Skeptical of Miracles, Then Why Not Morality



Is it unreasonable to believe in miracles? Numerous atheists I've spoken to over the years not only don't believe in miracles, they consider any belief in miracles as illogical. Most point to David Hume's Of Miracles in his An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding as to why belief in miracles should be considered unreasonable.

I don't find Hume's arguments at all convincing. Still, many atheists hold Hume in the highest esteem when it comes to matters of reason and conviction. They believe Hume's skepticism is the model to be followed as a foundation for rationalism. However, there is one area where Hume's reasoning leads to uncomfortable conclusions, that is in the area of morality.

Christians argue for the necessity of God's existence given the fact that objective moral values and duties really exist. If there is no God to ground them, no binding moral values and duties exist. Hume came to a similar conclusion. Book III of his Treatise of Human Nature focuses on the question of morality and Hume begins by dismissing the concept of morality as being derived by reason at all. He writes:
It has been observed, that nothing is ever present to the mind but its perceptions; and that all the actions of seeing, hearing, judging, loving, hating, and thinking, fall under this denomination. The mind can never exert itself in any action, which we may not comprehend under the term of perception; and consequently that term is no less applicable to those judgments, by which we distinguish moral good and evil, than to every other operation of the mind. To approve of one character, to condemn another, are only so many different perceptions.1
Hume explains that reasoning shouldn't be colored by a man's passions. Whether or not a proposition is true is irrelevant to the feelings one has about that statement. You may be passionate about your hockey team winning the game, but your feelings don't affect the score in any way. As Mark Linville put it, Hume "maintained that belief in objective moral properties is, at best, unwar­ranted, and talk of them is, in fact, meaningless."2 Here's Hume discussing how even murder cannot be considered objectively wrong:
Take any action allowed to be vicious: Wilful murder, for instance. Examine it in all lights, and see if you can find that matter of fact, or real existence, which you call vice. In which-ever way you take it, you find only certain passions, motives, volitions and thoughts. There is no other matter of fact in the case. The vice entirely escapes you, as long as you consider the object. You never can find it, till you turn your reflection into your own breast, and find a sentiment of disapprobation, which arises in you, towards this action. Here is a matter of fact; but it is the object of feeling, not of reason. It lies in yourself, not in the object. So that when you pronounce any action or character to be vicious, you mean nothing, but that from the constitution of your nature you have a feeling or sentiment of blame from the contemplation of it. Vice and virtue, therefore, may be compared to sounds, colours, heat and cold, which, according to modern philosophy, are not qualities in objects, but perceptions in the mind.3
So Hume holds that there really isn't any objective morality; moral laws are simply our feelings projected outwards trying to get people to not do things we feel are disgusting. It's all about what we personally like or don't like. Reason has nothing to do with the matter.

As Linville notes, modern Darwinists, such as Edward O. Wilson and Michael Ruse agree with Hume, holding that objective morality is a "useful fiction" that evolution used in order to increase survivability.4 If it is a fiction, a falsehood, then it isn't reasonable to believe morality at all.

Both miracles and moral laws make sense if God really exists. Without God, miracles are a contradiction and moral laws are nothing more than the outward voicing of feelings of discomfort or dislike. If atheists are going to be skeptical of miracles, then why wouldn't they be just as skeptical of morality?


References

1. Hume, David. "Moral Distinctions Not Derived from Reason." A Treatise of Human Nature. The University of Adelaide, 3 July 2015. Web. 02 Sept. 2015. https://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/h/hume/david/h92t/B3.1.1.html.
2. Mark D. Linville. "The Moral Argument." The Blackwell Companion to Natural Theology. By William Lane. Craig and James Porter Moreland. Chichester, U.K.: Wiley-Blackwell, 2009. 393. Print.
3. Hume, 2015.
4. Linville, 2009.
Image courtesy Andreas Schamanek and licensed via the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0 License.

Friday, August 28, 2015

Discovering God the Way Sherlock Holmes Would



I recently received a comment on my post on how the origin of life creates a significant problem for the naturalist. I was charged with making a "God of the gaps" argument. While a reading of the actual article displays no such breech in logic, it did begin an exchange with my critic that proves all too familiar: any logical argument that ends by inferring a supernatural actor as the best explanation of the facts at hand is easily dismissed as "God of the gaps" while any assumption that "science will one day figure it out" is supposedly rational.

This is an old canard that I've dealt with before (here and here), but I tried to take a different tact in this engagement. I wanted to place the burden on my objector, so I asked "Can you tell me the distinction between a valid inference for God and what you would classify as a God of the Gaps argument?" His reply is telling:
I'm not sure there is one. Abduction seems to be little more than a guess until a better explanation comes along. Science may well provide an answer to the origin of life in the future. (Which is something we may conclude through induction, a much stronger epistemology than abduction.)
There's so much wrong with this statement that it's hard to know where to being. First, let's unpack some terms. There are two ways we can draw conclusions based on reasoning, known as deductive reasoning and inferential reasoning. In deductive reasoning, the conclusion is inescapable from the facts presented. The oft-used example is given the facts that all men are mortal and Socrates is a man, one is forced to conclude that Socrates is mortal.

Understanding Inferences

While Sherlock Holmes is well known for what's Doyle's books called "the science of deuction," he actually didn't deduce things. He used inferential reasoning. An inferential argument takes what is generally understood to be the case and applies it to the greater whole. For example, people have observed that like electrical charges repel each other and opposite charges attract. Thus, when English physicist Joseph John Thomson saw that cathode rays would bend certain ways based on whether a positive or negative magnet was placed near it, he inferred that the cathode ray was made up of negatively charged particles. The electron was discovered.1

The argument that Thompson used is known as abduction, which simply means reasoning to the best explanation. We take the facts that we know and try to get at the truth. Usually, that means applying a rule we already understand, such as the laws of magnetism, and seeing if it does a good job of explaining the specific circumstance we see. Your doctor does this all the time, such as when he prescribes penicillin for your bacterial infection. Prescribing penicillin isn't "little more than a guess" but is based on what is most likely, though not necessarily the case.

Abductive Arguments Drive Science

Because deductive arguments are few and far between in the real world, most of science is built on inference to the best explanation. Ironically, my critic got induction and abduction kind of backwards; induction in this sense is actually the weaker of the two. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy clarifies the difference:
You may have observed many gray elephants and no non-gray ones, and infer from this that all elephants are gray, because that would provide the best explanation for why you have observed so many gray elephants and no non-gray ones. This would be an instance of an abductive inference. It suggests that the best way to distinguish between induction and abduction is this: both are ampliative, meaning that the conclusion goes beyond what is (logically) contained in the premises (which is why they are non-necessary inferences), but in abduction there is an implicit or explicit appeal to explanatory considerations, whereas in induction there is not; in induction, there is only an appeal to observed frequencies or statistics. 2

Closed to the Best Explanations

I explain all this to make sure you understand that the arguments like the one inferring God from the origin of life are not merely guesses or "God of the gaps" claims. They are just like those abduction arguments that are the cornerstone of scientific and medical research. Human beings have observed life throughout our history. Never once in all of that time observing life have we ever seen life come from non-life. In fact, Louis Pasteur's science shows life doesn't spontaneously arise from non-living material. Therefore, it is reasonable to conclude that all life comes from other living beings and therefore the first life came from a living being. That's abduction.

Notice that when asked for a distinction as to what would make a valid inference for God's existence, my critic replied "I'm not sure there is one." That answer is as telling as the rest of the conversation. He has rejected any argument that leads to the conclusion that God exists at the outset. That's his prerogative, but doing so is anti-logic, anti-science, and inconsistent.

References

1. Douven, Igor. "Abduction." Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Stanford University, 09 Mar. 2011. Web. 28 Aug. 2015. http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/abduction/#UbiAbd.
2. Douven, 2011.

Friday, August 14, 2015

Bluffing is for Poker, Not Apologetics


A few days ago I wrote a blog post arguing one mustn't be a biologist to comment on the evolution debate. The post was well received, but also gathered a few comments, such as a gentleman who responded, "I agree that people shouldn't be prohibited from opining on [evolution] just because they aren't biologists but they should familiarize themselves with the subject matter. Both sides often do not do so which leads to so many angry, pointless arguments." I saw more than one response that commented similarly.

It's interesting that this particular issue generated the responses it did, all basically stating while one needn't be a biologist, they should have taken some time to understand the arguments of evolution before criticizing it. One person even noted that uninformed Christians can make silly arguments, such as "If we evolved from apes, why are there still apes?" I've heard such cringe-inducing objections, and they are more damaging than helpful.

Though the article made the argument that non-experts have a chair at the table, I never meant it to mean that one doesn't have to study the subject matter. One should know something about evolutionary theory and the state of the debate before commenting. In fact, I would say the caution offered by my commenters don't go far enough.

It isn't simply evolution where Christians need to dig in and make sure they have a proper understanding of the issues at hand. It's any issue where one wishes to engage in a thoughtful defense of the Christian worldview. If you are going to discuss the origin of the universe, the existence of the soul, the historical nature of the resurrection, or any other topic where you are seeking to change minds, you should not try and convince others by faking an answer that you do not know. Bluffing may be a good strategy for poker, but not for apologetics. Apologetics is all about clearing away objections and showing others the truth of Christianity. Pretending you know something about a topic you really don't is contradictory to searching out the truth. So, it means Christians must study these topics to some degree to talk about them intelligently.

Degrees of Knowledge is OK

Realize I'm not saying that one must put in years of study before one can have an opinion on an issue or voice that opinion in public.  That isn't what I'm saying at all. Knowledge is not a binary thing where one is either an expert or an ignoramus. There are degrees of knowledge and understanding.  For example, I'm not a biologist, so I didn't argue with that biologist objector using his area of study. I argued in my original post and also answered him using a philosophical argument, an area in which I have much more experience. That allows me to make statements more confidently and know that I won't fall into a "gotcha" moment because I do know what I'm talking about. It also demonstrates that topics like evolution are not "siloed" into a biology-only or paleontology-only discussion. There are other ways to approach the question.

The Critique Cuts Both Ways

While this article is directed towards Christians, there is one more thing you should realize; this critique cuts both ways. In fact I've found all too frequently that those with whom I've engaged have a very shallow or distorted idea of theology and philosophy. They dismiss a position that looks nothing like what I actually believe. They criticize me for not being an expert, yet they haven't taken the time themselves to familiarize themselves with even the essential Christian beliefs that have been consistently held for centuries.  The New Atheists are famous for their knocking down theological straw men. Such actions have caused thoughtful atheists like Michael Ruse to write articles entitled "Why I Think the New Atheists are a Bloody Disaster."

In all, don't be afraid to speak your mind on a subject. However, if a person brings up a specific fact or point with which you're unfamiliar, don't be afraid to ask for more of an explanation. Find out how just what their objection is. Ask them for some materials where you can read more about that topic. If they are not bluffing themselves, they should be able to help you understand their claim and point you in a direction where you can study it in more detail to see whether it's a valid objection and if there's an answer to the charge. When you study in this way, you will grow in both your knowledge and your faith. But you will know the material; you will have the truth to pull from and the confidence it brings with it.

Sunday, July 19, 2015

The Importance of the Soul

The immortality of the soul is a matter of such importance to us; it affects us so deeply that we must have lost our wits completely not to care what it is all about. All our actions and our thoughts must follow such different courses depending on whether there are eternal rewards to hope for or not, that it is impossible to take a single step with sense and judgment unless it is determined by our conception of our final end.1
~ Blaise Pascal

"I think it not only important to know that man has a soul, but that it is important that he should know that he has a soul."2
- John Gresham Machen

References

1.Pascal, Blaise. Pascal's Pensées. Translated by Martin Turnell. London: Harvill Press, 1962. 103.
2.J. Gresham Machen, The Christian View of Man. New York:  Macmillan, 1937. 159.

Monday, July 06, 2015

Must the Creator Have a Reason for His Existence?

This morning I had a quick discussion with a person who was trying to argue that the complexity of the universe is evidence against the existence of God. He claimed that if a Christian was to argue that the complexity of the universe points to God's existence, then as God is infinitely more complex than the universe (his actual term was "complex to infinity"), it makes it even more probable that God was created. He wrote, "less complex things have a far better chance of being eternal than an almighty god."

Such an objection isn't uncommon among atheists. I've seen it frequently myself. As with a lot of retorts, this objection looks sound upon first glance. However, there are at least three rather large mistakes in reasoning in his assertion, they are important for Christians to recognize.

Not Everything That Exists Must Be Created

The first problem is one I've dealt with quite a bit. The questioner assumes that if one claims the universe has some kind of cause for its existence, then in order to be consistent, it's fair to ask what was God's cause? But the assumption itself is wrong. Christianity has never taught that whatever exists must have a cause. That would lead to a fallacy condition known as an infinite regress. For example, if one assumes the argument "because the universe exists, it requires a creator which is God," then the next step would be to ask what brought God into existence. Based on the premise, the answer must be some kind of "God-creator." But of course, the following question is "What created the God-creator?" The premise forces one to answer "A God-creator Creator?" The conversation would devolve into an endless series of "but what create THAT?" with no resolution in sight.

This is why Christians don't argue "Whatever exists must have a creator." Christianity holds that whatever begins to exist must has some kind of cause for its existence. That's a far more reasonable claim.

It Isn't Necessary to Explain the Explanation

The second problem in this objection is much like the first. To assume that in order to believe something one must explain all aspects of its existence is to ultimately appeal to an infinite regress. For example, in our discussion above, my interlocutor asked, "How would you know anything is created let alone by a specific entity?" Such a question struck me as odd. Most people have no problem identifying most things that are a product of intelligence versus those that are a product of nature. Archaeologists make their trade on such distinctions. Even when initial appearances are deceptive (like the face on Mars), identifying the hallmarks of intelligence are for the most part intuitive.

There are certain times one may question whether a structure was caused by natural processes or an intelligence. In those instances, the proponent of a particular view can offer reasons for his position. But if you must give reasons for your reasons, and then reasons for those reasons, you are again caught in an infinite regress. Something like a watch is clearly the product of an intelligent mind. One doesn't need to supply reasons for that conclusion; it's obvious to all but the most obstinate skeptic. When I responded my interlocutor, I simply asked him if he can tell that a watch found in the dirt is designed. He didn't seem happy to answer this question.

Tomorrow I will take up the last problem in the argument that a complex creation like the universe requires an even more complex God to be created. For now, realize that not every explanation needs an explanation of its own. To believe so is a mistake in thinking.

Thursday, April 30, 2015

The Problem of Accounting for Morality From Evolution



J.P. Moreland commenting on the problems with attempts to base morality on evolutionary principles:
One could argue that the evolutionary account of morality commits the genetic fallacy—it confuses how morality came about with what morality is and what justifies it. There is a point in this rejoinder. Taken by itself, the evolutionary account of morality is an example of the genetic fallacy. But there are some cases where the genetic fallacy is not really inappropriate. These are cases where the causal account of the origin of an idea serves to discredit that idea in some way. In a trial, if the testimony of a witness comes from someone with bad motives, then one can rule out his testimony because of where it came from. His testimony could still be true, but it is unlikely. In the case of the mirage, one can rule out the veridicality of this experience by citing what caused it (hot air waves), even though it could still be an accurate experience.

If evolutionary theory is all there is to the development of the cosmos from the big bang to man, then any view which postulates the brute existence of morals would seem to do so in an ad hoc way. The general background theory would count against the veridicality of the claim to know that morals exist, even though it would still be logically possible for them to exist. If theism is true, one's background theory explains the existence of human morality. But if one denies God and accepts evolution, then it would seem more reasonable to accept an evolutionary, subjectivist view of morality. The existence of objective values would still be possible, but it would be unlikely and ad hoc, given this background theory.

References

Moreland, James Porter. Scaling the Secular City: A Defense of Christianity. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1987. Print. 125.
Photo courtesy John LeMasney and licensed via the Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-SA 2.0) license.

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Where Do Moral Values Originate? (video)



Most people recognize that moral values and obligations are real. However, they disagree strongly on where moral values come from. In this clip, Lenny explores the three possible origins of moral obligations: they are either determined by nature, they are designed by men, or they are discovered as something independent of ourselves and our world. See which concept makes the most sense.


Saturday, April 11, 2015

Why it Is Reasonable and Scientific to Consider the Soul

A 2008 article in the magazine New Scientist by Amanda Gefter criticized several Christian philosophers for rejecting a purely physicalist account of consciousness. However, Dr. Angus Menuge provides a compelling rebuttal as to why it is both reasonable and scientific to consider a human being as one who is made up of both a body and a soul:
At any given time, scientists should infer the best current explanation of the available
evidence, and right now, the best evidence from both neuroscience and rigorous philosophical analysis is that consciousness is not reducible to the physical. Churchland’s refusal to draw this inference is based not on evidence, but on what Karl Popper called "promissory materialism," a reliance on the mere speculative possibility of a materialistic explanation. Since this attitude can be maintained indefinitely, it means that even if a non-materialist account is correct (and supported by overwhelming evidence), that inconvenient truth can always be ignored. Surely the project of science should be one of following the evidence wherever it leads, not of protecting a preconceived materialist philosophy. Isn’t it that philosophy—the one that constantly changes its shape to avoid engagement with troublesome evidence, either ignoring the data or simply declaring it materialistic—that most resembles a virus?
Gorra, Joseph. "EPS Philosophers Respond to New Scientist Article On 'Creationism' and Materialism."  EPS Blog. Evangelical Philosophical Society, 23 Oct. 2008. Web. 11 Apr. 2015. http://blog.epsociety.org/2008/10/eps-philosophers-respond-to-new.asp

Saturday, March 28, 2015

The Incomprehensibility of Naturalism (Quote)

Dallas Willard spoke at an academic symposium in 1998 dealing with the topic of "The Christian University in the Next Millennium." Willard's paper, entitled "The Redemption of Reason," laid out a powerful argument, with his thesis being "only the body of Christian knowledge and intellectual method can redeem reason. There, Willard said:

This is the fundamental fact of our time, from which reason must be redeemed: the incomprehensibility of reason and knowledge in naturalistic terms. Reason and knowledge are not to be found in the sense-perceptible world. It’s just that simple. If you have to understand everything in terms of the sense-perceptible world, reason and knowledge are gone. That is why you have the many strained and forced interpretations of knowledge and consciousness and reason, including all of the creative arts, and all of the areas of expression of the human spirit that we study in the academy—the forced interpretations of these as sociological, as behavioral, or even chemical. Even the interpretation of love has to be put in a naturalistic mold. I’m reminded of a man who said "Sawdust is wonderfully nourishing if you will substitute bread for it." When you try to put truth into the naturalistic mold, it’s gone. It is the same when you try to put evidence, when you try to put logic, logical relationships, probability, all of these fundamental things into a naturalistic mold. There are many dimensions of evidence, and many of them fall in a very variegated way within what we would call "sense-perception," but not sense-perception in the narrow sense that the naturalist wants to take it. And so we have to simply understand that the sociological, behavioral and chemical attempts to treat knowledge, reason, and creativity are due to the fact that the only categories available are the ones posed by the naturalistic world-view.

So of course, that’s why I say only the Christian knowledge-tradition can save knowledge in our time. If we don’t have that, we have a constant struggle within our Christian schools with what one writer has called "the problem of stemming the drift". The question comes up, "What is it about higher academic life that seems to make it such a hard-and-fast rule that given enough time, any institution, no matter how rooted in orthodoxy, will sooner or later slip away from its anchors?" In an article that appeared in "World Magazine" in May of 1997, Joel Beltz tries to address this. He quotes Gaylen Byker, President of Calvin College, on the problem. "The problem" is: How do you secure faculty for first-class programs in Christian colleges, without losing them to the secular mindset? When you’re hiring faculty you begin to think thoughts like, "Is it really important that a math professor hold to his school’s theological position?" With regard to experts in the various subject matters, Byker comments—and it’s very true in this simple statement he makes—"It’s hard to justify hiring a third-rate Christian when you can get a first-rate non-Christian." Those are his words, and I think we all understand this is a serious problem, not something to be dismissed.
Check out the rest of Willard' paper here.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

What Do We Mean by Morality?



It's quite popular today to believe that morality is not something that stands above all of humanity but that moral laws are themselves created by humans. Consistent Christians should deny this view; the Bible teaches that moral duties come from God and are therefore objective and not relative to an individual or to a culture. Yet, most people don't have a good understanding of what we even mean by morality or what is necessary for certain values and duties to be considered moral at all.

In this video clip, Lenny reviews three specific components that must be accounted for in any moral framework: how do moral obligations obtain, does the person have real moral freedom, and is there a genuine responsibility that attaches the obligation to the person in question. Any theory of morality that is missing one of these components cannot explain morality in any meaningful way.

Photo by Joe Mabel (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Being Moral Without God: What's Required?

Is being a moral person important? I don't know of anyone who doesn't think so. No one wants to trust a person who is ruthless, untrustworthy, and narcissistic. Even people who believe moral truths are fictional seem to still believe these are necessary fictions that help us survive.1 Vanity and selfishness are never held to be ideals to which one should aspire.



Given that behaving morally is recognized as an important part of being human, it amazes me how little people actually consider what morality is or how it is grounded in reality. Christians ground moral truths in the character of God. Atheists cannot do so, yet atheists like Phil Zuckerman claim to find their morality in "empathetic reciprocity." Others, like philosopher Marc D. Hauser, hold that morality is the outcome of evolutionary forces and thus a physical and chemical outworking of biology and history.2

Can morality be rooted in a physical cause? What gives moral principles their authoritative power? This is where most people falter in that they haven't considered just what is required to consider an action moral or immoral. Why is my choice to cheat on my taxes immoral while cheating on my diet isn't?

When speaking of what makes an act fall into the sphere of actions that may be considered morally significant, we must have some basic ideas of morality itself. This means that any moral system or moral framework must include at least three components. These are the recognition of moral obligations and duties as real, the moral freedom of the agent to choose to obey those moral duties and obligations, and the genuine responsibility of the agent as that duty presents itself. Let's look at the first of the three today and we'll take the other two in subsequent posts.

Understanding Moral Obligations

The first piece in understanding morality is the easiest to understand. There are real obligations, laws, duties that we are required to obey. As a comparison, we can look to the legal system. People are required by law in the United States to drive on the right side of the road if the street allows for two-way traffic. Usually, there is also a maximum speed limit that people must obey. However, there are some areas like portions of the German Autobahn that have no speed limit. In those areas it is not illegal to drive at even 200 miles per hour.

Turning back to morality, moral laws must exist of a person is to be held accountable to them. Just as the Autobahn above, one cannot be said to be morally culpable if there is no moral law that a one is violating. Because human beings recognize that honesty is a moral virtue to which we should all adhere, it becomes binding on the individual who seeks to cheat at a test. While cheating on one's diet may not be good sense, it is not in itself dishonest and doesn't violate a moral law. If you were to lie about your diet-cheating, you could then be morally culpable, but the cheating itself is morally neutral.

Moral obligations exist apart from their acceptance

Moral laws and obligations are things we are required to do and any system that claims to account for moral values must also account for real, binding laws and obligations. This isn't as easy as it may appear. If these values and duties are truly obligatory, it means that their existence is independent of their acceptance. Just because no one obeys the speed limit on California freeways doesn't mean the speed limit doesn't exist nor does it mean that you cannot get a ticket because you were "going as fast as everyone else." They are all wrong and you are, too! Moral obligations may be held by some people, all of the people, or no one, but that doesn't change the fact that they exist.

Moral obligations may conflict with our desires

One unique aspect of moral duties and obligations is that of they are real, it may be the case that they are distasteful to us. In other words, it is sometimes necessary to relinquish personal pleasure for the sake of doing the good. ;As an example, let's use the concept of not cheating on one's taxes. No one likes to pay taxes and being honest may cost people discomfort, especially those who are struggling to get by in the first place. However, because there is a real moral duty to be honest, one should not cheat on one's taxes. To be moral doesn't mean we only accept the moral laws that we like or that don't cause us discomfort. In fact, we applaud those like Mother Teresa who make great sacrifices to their own comfort in order to obey a higher moral principle. Real moral obligations may mean being honest even when it costs you something.

Moral obligations focus on our motivations

One additional aspect of looking at moral obligations is the fact seeking to be moral is a focus on the will as much as it is a focus on specific actions. David Baggett and Jerry Walls make this point in their book Good God: The Theistic Foundations of Morality. They write, "Morality confers obligations and constraints not only on our behaviors but even on our motivations."3 For example, imagine you were t see a man such into a burning building and pull out a trapped child. The local press captures the act and the man is lauded as a hero. However, if it is later found out that the man knew the child would be trapped and he rushed in to gain the accolades of the press, his selfish motivation basically nullifies his actions, even though in both cases the child is saved.

In all, what anchors morality must be able to account for real moral obligations. If one grounds his or her morality in naturalism, then he must come up with a convincing account of what moral obligations are, why they are objective (that is they sit apart from both our acceptance of them or our desires), and ;how they bear upon our motives as well as our actions. That's much easier to do on theism than naturalism, but that isn't the only factor involved. See my next post on why people must be morally free agents and genuinely responsible for their actions are also required.

Read part two here!

References

1. See Michael Ruse's belief that "morality is a function of (subjective) feelings; but it shows also that we have (and must have) the illusion of objectivity" from "The Moral Argument in a Nutshell". Come Reason's Apologetics Notes. 03/14/2015. http://apologetics-notes.comereason.org/2014/03/the-moral-argument-in-nutshell.html
2. Baggett, David, and Jerry L. Walls. Good God: The Theistic Foundations of Morality. New York: Oxford UP, 2011. Print. 22.
3. Baggett, 2011. 16.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Answering the Bias Objection

There's a concept held by many today that neutrality is to be valued when discussing important ideas or events. It seems to pop up in diverse conversations about abortion, the reliability of the Gospel accounts, or the debate over creation versus evolution. The claim that because one holds a particular position makes them "biased" and therefore unqualified to objectively weigh a matter is widely assumed, but it's completely mistaken. While biases can lead people to ignore or deny certain facts, biases are absolutely necessary to be an informed human being.


What is a bias?

Just what is a bias? The word has become associated with the concept of prejudice or, as Wikipedia puts it, the inclination to "hold a partial perspective, often accompanied by a refusal to consider the possible merits of alternative points of view."1 Yet, that's not the only definition of what bias is. Bias can be any leaning or predisposition towards a point of view as the Oxford English Dictionary definition notes.2 In other words, anyone who leans towards one position over another in any field will have some kind of bias. But that isn't a bad thing. For example, Jonas Salk had a belief that the same approach to developing an influenza vaccine could be applied to polio, even though prior polio vaccination attempts had been disastrous, causing paralysis and even death in those who had taken it.3  Salk assembled a team and worked for seven years creating a dead-virus version of the vaccine that ultimately proved hugely successful, and it was Salk's bias towards the vaccine method that drove him to keep trying.

It makes sense that bias would be necessary for advancement in a field like medicine. It is simply unreasonable for a person who after years of study and research and to remain neutral and uncommitted about his or her specialty. We expect experts in their field to have some bias towards certain theories or procedures. Bias in this sense is a good thing. As Robin Collins puts it:
Not every bias distorts: some biases can help us decided ahead of time what's worth paying attention to and what is not… I am biased against the possibility that the number of puppies in a litter has anything to do with the number of legs the father has, so I would never pay anyone money to study what the relationship is."4

The myth of being "bias-free."

Of course, the corollary to the "bias is always bad" myth is that there are certain disciplines that are somehow bias-free. Folks assume that journalistic standards or the scientific method can provide unbiased observations about the world. This simply isn't true, either. I've written before about how one man's bias became scientific dogma that we are only now finding to be false. His resilience influenced other scientists, and his bias was accepted as the scientific consensus, shaping national dietary guidelines and doctor recommendations for some fifty years. That's just one example. In any experiment, one cannot measure every aspect of a scenario, so scientists look to measure the "relevant" factors and exclude any "irrelevant" ones. But it is one's previous biases, as with Collins' dog litter example above, that shape what one considers relevant. Thus, he notes "Some biases can distort: people who think that all human behavior can be explained by our genes have a bias that blinds them to moral realities. So, we cannot promise that science is without bias; and we have to assess—by critical thinking—whether that leads to sound or unsound conclusions."5

Looking for the truth value

So, bias is not the determining factor in finding out truth. Some biases, like Salk's, help us to discover new things. Others are unwarranted and lead us away from the truth. The big question is the one Collins asked: can we use our critical reasoning to weigh these things and determine if the biased are appropriate or simply prejudice? That means examining the facts, something that tends to be missing from the conversations of those who seek to shut you down with the simplistic objection of "you're just biased."

References

1. "Bias." Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 23 Feb. 2015. Web. 25 Feb. 2015. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bias.
2. "Bias." Oxford English Dictionary. Oxford University Press, Jan. 2005. Web. 25 Feb. 2015. http://www.oed.com/view/Entry/18564?rskey=S5Ld2w&result=1#eid.
3. Brodie, M., and W. H. Park. "Active Immunization Against Poliomyelitis." JAMA: The Journal of the American Medical Association 105.14 (1935): 1089-093. Web. 25 Feb. 2015. http://jama.jamanetwork.com/article.aspx?articleid=1154662.
4. Collins, C. John. Science & Faith: Friends or Foes? Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2003. Print. 30.
5. Collins, 2003. 31.
Image "Research Bias"  courtesy Boundless.com and licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0 with attribution required. 

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

What is Science, Anyway?

What is science? That may seem like a simplistic question, but the answer is neither easy nor unimportant, especially in this day and age. We live in an era where the scientist has become the one assumed to hold the answers to a wide diversity of questions, even those that are not scientific. Michael Shermer just published an article where he credits "scientific thinking" for human moral progress since the enlightenment.1 I've had people ask me to prove God's existence scientifically, and of course discussions on creation of the universe or the emergence of life on earth put science right in the middle of the debate.



Given how modern society places its nearly unquestioning trust in science, it's easy to see why someone would seek to dismiss God's existence or intelligent design with a wave of a hand and the claim of "that's not science." But just what is science, then? As a recent video by Stephen C. Meyer (included below) points out, science has been notoriously difficult to define. Let's take a look at some definitions of what supposedly qualifies something to be science.

Collecting data through observation

One of the more common definitions of science pivots on how one goes about gathering their evidence for their hypothesis. Robin Collins writes , "I remember being taught as a boy that 'science' is, at its simplest, collecting data from observations of the world, and then organizing those observations in a way that leads to a generalization called a 'law.'"2 Meyer states in the video that "If a theory is going to be scientific, it must not invoke unobservable entities." Yet, as he then references, the entire field of theoretical physics is currently dealing in objects and concepts that by definition are unobservable. No one can see quarks. Quantum vacuums are unobservable. Does that mean that Stephen Hawking and those in his field should not be considered "doing science" when they invoke such causes?

The criteria of falsifiability

A second definition is one that philosopher of science Karl Popper made famous, the concept of falsifiability. Yet, falsifiability is really the other side of the observability coin. Popper, who had a "teenage flirtation with Marxism,"noted that Marxist explanations of history conformed with observed facts, such as the greater economic influence of the lower classes. However, competing economic models used the same set of historical data to fit their explanations as well. Later, Popper found that Freud's theory of psychoanalysis was too capable of explaining every situation. There was never a situation where Freud's theories would be shown to be false; every circumstance could be justified in some way. Thus Popper came to the conclusion that a theory is scientific if there's a way to prove it false.4 The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy sums it up this way:
If a theory is incompatible with possible empirical observations it is scientific; conversely, a theory which is compatible with all such observations, either because, as in the case of Marxism, it has been modified solely to accommodate such observations, or because, as in the case of psychoanalytic theories, it is consistent with all possible observations, is unscientific.5
The problem here, though, is similar to the one above. If certain fields of study are unobservable, how can someone observe their falsification? Modern evolutionary theory posits mutations and intermediate forms that, as Meyer points out, are unobservable. We cannot see into the past and there is no way to know that one fossil is a transaction from another, those are all inferences. Therefore, using this criteria, Neo-Darwinian theories are not based on science, but (as Popper labeled them) pseudo-science.

The truth-value of a proposition

All of this discussion on what makes us science is valuable, but it isn't the most important thing we need to worry about. We should be primarily concerned about whether or not something is true first. As I've previously written, science is not the only way we know things. It isn't even the best way to know certain things. Meyer makes the same point in the video:
I don't care whether intelligent design is considered to be science or not. That is not the most important question. That is a semantic question. The most important question is whether it is true, or whether it is likely to be true, or most likely to be true given the evidence we have. What people have done to avoid answering that most important question is repair to these semantic arguments. "Intelligent design is not science; therefore we don't have to consider the case for it. I don't think that follows."
Watch the whole thing here:


References

1. Shermer, Michael. "Are We Becoming Morally Smarter?" Reason.com. Reason Foundation, 17 Feb. 2015. Web. 24 Feb. 2015. http://reason.com/archives/2015/02/17/are-we-becoming-morally-smarte/.
2. Collins, C. John. Science & Faith: Friends or Foes? Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2003. Print. 30.
3. Thornton, Stephen. "Karl Popper." Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Stanford University, 13 Nov. 1997. Web. 24 Feb. 2015. http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/popper/#BacHisTho.
4. Thornton, 1997.
5. Thornton, 1997.
Image courtesy GeoffAPuryear and licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Is God Existing Before Time Illogical?

Yesterday, I had a short online conversation with someone about the existence of God. Specifically, we discussed what could be reasonably inferred from the Kalam Cosmological Argument. The argument is simple:
  1. Whatever begins to exist has a cause.
  2. The universe began to exist.
  3. Therefore, the universe has a cause for its existence.
The challenge came when my interlocutor questioned how the cause of the universe (whatever that may be) can be timeless itself. He asked, "Wouldn't a cause require time?" I think this is a fair question and one that needs unpacking a bit. The concept of time and God's relation to it is pretty misunderstood by most people, but with a little explaining, I think we can gain a little clarity.


How to Define Time

Has anyone ever asked you to define time? Think about how you would answer that question. Can you come up with a definition that doesn't include the word time in it? Defining time using its units of measure (hours, minutes, seconds, etc.) doesn't really help since their definitions include "a unit of time." So, how does one define time?

Basically, time may be defined as the succession of moments. That sounds a little obtuse, but it means whenever there is a change, time has passed. If a point A things are one way and then at point B things are different (no matter how slight) time has elapsed. Basically, if there is a before and an after, you will have time. For our universe, molecules are always in motion so time is always moving forward.

Modern science agrees that with the creation of matter, time was also created. Einstein's General Theory of Relativity demonstrated that time and space are linked.While time passes more quickly or slowly based on one's speed and mass, everything in our universe and the universe itself experiences some kind of passage of time.

The Before and After of Creating the Universe

Given all that, it raises the question of how God could have created the universe before there was any time. To ask, "What's before that, before time?" strikes one as nonsensical. There can't be a before time since time itself deals with before and after. Yet, the argument for God's existence above makes the deduction that God created the universe. That means God existed prior to the universe's creation; but wouldn't that also imply there was a time before time? The answer is not in the way you're thinking. This is where our use of language can get us into trouble, so I want to be careful in my explanation.

God's existence does precede the creation of the universe in some sense. God must exist to do the creating. Prior to time, it would be technically wrong to say that God existed before creation, but that God existed beyond creation. Philosophers will speak of God existing logically prior to the universe, not temporally prior. The best way for me to illustrate the distinction is by illustration, one I heard William Lane Craig use.2 Think of a bowling ball resting on a pillow on a bed. The ball makes an impression on that pillow; the pillow has a rounded dent in it. Yet, it doesn't have to be the case that the ball was at some point not making the impression on the pillow. Imagine now that the ball had been resting on the pillow from eternity past; the dent will still be there. The ball is the cause of the dent, but that doesn't necessitate the ball needing to exist prior to the dent. Similarly, a truss can be the cause of one's roof not falling down even if the truss and the roof were built simultaneously.

Because we can have a cause that doesn't have to exist chronologically prior to its effect (of holding up the roof or making the dent in the pillow), we speak of the cause being prior to the effect only in the logical sense. The ball must be there or the dent never forms. Thus the ball is logically prior to the dent, but not chronologically prior. When we apply this to God, we can say that God existed in a timeless state prior to creation. It was only Him and since God does not change, then there is no before or after and time doesn't exist. At the very moment God chooses to create, time becomes a reality. From that instant on, events have a before and after and they exist in time.

References

1. "The Relativity of Space and Time." Einstein Online. Max Planck Institute for Gravitational Physics, n.d. Web. 28 Jan. 2015. http://www.einstein-online.info/elementary/specialRT/relativity_space_time.
2. Craig, William Lane. "God and Time." ReasonableFaith.org. Reasonable Faith, 2 Dec. 2007. Web. 28 Jan. 2015. http://www.reasonablefaith.org/god-and-time.
Image courtesy Andrew Shiva [CC BY-SA 3.0 ], via Wikimedia Commons.

Friday, January 23, 2015

What's a Christian to Think of the Killing in American Sniper?

The film American Sniper, which dramatizes the career of Chris Kyle, one of the deadliest snipers in U.S. military history, has smashed box office records. The movie is said to be well made and scenes like the one featured in the trailer highlight some of the impossible decisions snipers face.

However, given the nature of what a sniper's job description is, some Christians are wondering if it is appropriate to see the movie or how we as followers of Jesus should view such a position. One person was sincerely seeking an answer, noting the sixth commandment of "Thou shalt not kill," but also the larger teaching within Christianity of not taking vengeance into our own hands but allowing God to repay.



I haven't yet seen American Sniper, nor read the biography, so I cannot comment on the specific situations it portrays. However, I can comment on the general question of Christianity and the use of force, even in war situations.

The laws of the Old Testament can be a little confusing because some of them are applicable to individuals while others apply to a governing authority. It is important to remember that the Ten Commandments were give as a guideline for individuals to follow. Thus, the commandment not to kill in Exodus 20:13 loses a bit in certain English translations. The Hebrew word ratsach implies killing without proper justification. The command may be translated "thou shalt not murder" just as fairly; which is exactly how both the NASB and the ESV render it. It doesn't exclude things like capital punishment as the Levitical law calls for capital punishment in certain situations, including the concept of a kinsman redeemer to avenge a murder of a relative.

Another situation where this wouldn't apply is killing another in self-defense or to protect the life of a third party. Think of the 2012 San Antonio Theater incident where off duty officer Lisa Castellano shot a gunman who had entered the theater and began shooting randomly, injuring one patron. One would expect Castellano to protect others because of the fact that she was armed. In fact, if an attacker was threatening to kill a stranger and you were armed, it would be your moral obligation to shoot an attacker and stop him or her from killing an innocent victim.

Snipers and Just War Doctrine

Some may say the imminent harm of a shooter justifies deadly force, but a sniper hiding on a rooftop hundreds of yards away is different. I don't think it is. In the case of war, we have an extension of the attacker and the innocent victim. The sniper's job is simple; hew is to protect his fellow troops. If they would be threatened by a terrorist or enemy combatant, they are obligated to remove that person as a threat against their comrades. The difficulty comes, as the clip above shows, in recognizing who is a combatant and who isn't.

The role of the sniper is a small part of a much bigger discussion on Christians' involvement in the act of war. While some believe that Christians should be pacifists, the Bible doesn't teach this. Certainly God called Israel to fight on his behalf many times in the Old Testament. Even in the New Testament (Romans 13), Paul tells us that God gives the sword to the government for protection and punishing the wrongdoer. When one country threatens the population of another, it is like a man who threatens your family. Even third parties like the United States may be justified in stepping in to ensure that justice prevails. Of course, this power of the sword can be misused by evil men, but that makes it even more important that nations who care about justice step in to ensure abuse doesn't run amok.

In the history of Christianity, there has been a lot written about the concept of a Just War. Christian thinkers like Augustine and Thomas Aquinas thought carefully about both what justifies engaging in war and what it means to wage war in a just manner. These can be summarized as:
  1. Obey all international laws on weapons prohibition.
  2. Discrimination and Non-Combatant Immunity. That is soldiers are only entitled to use their (weapons to target those who are engaged in harm.
  3. Proportionality. Soldiers may only use force proportional to the end they seek.
  4. Benevolent quarantine for prisoners of war (POWs).
  5. No Means Mala in Se. Soldiers may not use weapons or methods which are "evil in themselves," such as mass rape campaigns; genocide or ethnic cleansing; using poison or treachery (like disguising soldiers to look like the Red Cross); forcing captured soldiers to fight against their own side; and using weapons whose effects cannot be controlled, like biological agents.
  6. No reprisals. A reprisal is when country A violates these precepts in a war with country B. Country B then retaliates with its own violation of the rules.1
If a sniper follows these basic principles, he is engaging in proper wartime activities. Much of the problem our troops face today is that many enemies do not follow a Just War doctrine. They target civilians, they enlist the help of civilians, and they disguise themselves as non-combatants in order to achieve their own ends.

For more on Christians and war, see this article on the Come Reason web site: http://www.comereason.org/religion-and-war.asp

References

1. Orend, Brian. "War." Stanford University. Stanford University, 04 Feb. 2000. Web. 22 Jan. 2015. http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/war/#2.2.
Image courtesy MOD (Ministry of Defence) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

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."

Saturday, December 27, 2014

Why Thinking About God Matters

Philosopher Greg Ganssle on the "big questions" of life and why thinking about God matters:
Why think about God? After all, no one knows whether there is a God, much less which God is real. Well, I am not as sure as you that no one knows. If God exists, then he knows, to be sure. He would have no identity crisis. Besides, we ought not claim that no one knows that there is a God until after we have done our thinking about God. So one reason to bother thinking about God is to see if you can find good reasons to think that there is a God. Another reason is to see if you can find good reasons to think there is no such person as God.

There are other reasons to think about God besides trying to figure out if there is such a person. What you believe and think about God affects nearly every area of your life. Many of the big and deep questions that shape how each of us sees the world are very closely related to questions about God. For example, it is a big and important question whether life has any meaning or purpose other than whatever meaning we give it ourselves. If we push this question very far, we will wind up thinking about God. If there is a God who created us and knows us, then whatever purpose we have will probably be related to whatever purpose he has for us. Another big and important question has to do with the nature of moral reality. Are there things that are right or wrong regardless of the opinions of others? Again, if God has a purpose for us, it might be that his purpose involves our living up to or reflecting moral reality. You can see that the question of God is a central question. If we want to think well about our lives, we will want to do some of our best thinking about God.
From Ganssle, Gregory E. Thinking about God: First Steps in Philosophy. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2004. Print. 16.

Monday, December 08, 2014

The Absurdity of Describing Oneself as an Agnostic Atheist

Imagine meeting a man who traveled to your town from a far country after his nation was destroyed by a war. All the records of civil ceremonies had been wiped out. In talking with this gentleman, you ask if he has a wife. He answers, "I don't know if I am currently married, but I know that I'm a bachelor!"



You'd probably look at them with more than a bit of confusion. "How can that be?" you ask.

He replies, "Well, I may or may not have gone through a marriage ceremony in my home country. However, there's no way to tell, since all the records are destroyed. However, you don't see me with a wife now, I like to date a lot, and I don't want to answer to a wife or have to check in every night. Therefore, I've chosen to be a bachelor, but I may be married, too."

"But you don't understand," you reply. "The very concept of being a bachelor precludes you from being married. You are either married or you aren't, regardless of what records exist. Therefore, if you don't know whether you're married, then you don't know whether you're a bachelor. Conversely, if you know that you're a bachelor, you then know that you aren't married. "

He replies, "No, I am a bachelor who is open to the fact that I may also be married."

 You try to persist. "The word 'bachelor' refers to whether or not you have committed to another person in marriage. That either happened or it didn't. Claiming that you may be a married bachelor is just as absurd as saying you may have found a triangle with only two sides! I can tell you right now that such a triangle doesn't exist and neither does a married bachelor. Your standing regarding marriage defines whether or not you're a bachelor."

Defining Theism, Atheism, Agnosticism

While the above conversation seems farcical, I have been running into a similar issue recently with people who describe themselves as "agnostic atheists." As a Christian, I describe myself as a theist. A theist is someone who believes in God. There are many types of theists (Jews, Muslims, Deists, etc.) They all fall within the category of someone who holds that God exists. Being a theist doesn't mean the person can argue for or even prove that God exists; it simply defines the fact that they believe God exists.

On the other end of the spectrum are atheists. The word means "One who denies or disbelieves the existence of a God" and, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, came from combining the word theist (belief in God) with the negative prefix "a-" meaning without1. So, "without " + "belief in God" = atheist. Simple, right?

But there is a third term that can be used to describe ones relation to a belief in God, and that's the word "agnostic." That word derives from the same "a-" (without) but the second word is gnosis, which is a Greek word for knowledge. So an agnostic means someone who is without knowledge on a topic or issue. If you don't know whether there's a God (or perhaps you don't care), you would be considered an agnostic.

Because the word agnostic simply means one who doesn't know, it is used in contexts other than God's existence. For example, as a hockey fan, I am agnostic towards which teams will play in the Super Bowl this year. I am not rooting for one over another, and I don't have any knowledge as to which ones stand the better chance. If my wife asks whether she should buy chicken sausage or turkey sausage at the store, I would tell her "it doesn't matter at all; I'm agnostic on that issue." However, if I have even a slight leaning towards one choice over the other, then I am no longer agnostic. My indifference is gone and I do have a belief, albeit a small one.

Thus the Oxford English Dictionary's primary definition of agnosticism reads, "A person who believes that nothing is known or can be known of immaterial things, especially of the existence or nature of God. Distinguished from atheist."2

Notice that even the OED states that the term agnostic is to distinguish lack of knowledge as to whether God exist as opposed to atheist which says one disbelieves in God's existence.  While I don't believe the OED is the end authority on this matter, philosophers have been using these terms in a similar way for many years as well. (The irony here is that Huxley coined the term agnostic by borrowing from Paul's speech about God in Acts 17:23)3.

So as more and more atheists describe themselves as "agnostic atheists," they are simply trying to claim too much.  Each of these terms describes a single state of belief: whether one believes in God, one doesn't believe in God, or one simply doesn't know whether God exists. It doesn't matter whether you can prove His existence or if you even care to. To be agnostic is to make a claim that distinguishes one from an atheist. It is just as incoherent to claim to be an agnostic atheist as it is to be a married bachelor or finding a two-sided triangle. Such contradictions don't demonstrate a value for rationalism but quite the reverse.

References

1. "Atheist." Oxford English Dictionary. Oxford University Press, n.d. Web. 08 Dec. 2014. http://www.oed.com/view/Entry/12450.
2. "Agnostic." Oxford English Dictionary. Oxford University Press, n.d. Web. 08 Dec. 2014. http://www.oed.com/view/Entry/4073.
3. Smart, J. J. C. "Atheism and Agnosticism." Stanford University. Stanford University, 09 Mar. 2004. Web. 08 Dec. 2014. http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/atheism-agnosticism/.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Beyond Science: Understanding Real Knowledge

In previous articles, I looked at how many people make the mistake of assuming that science is the only way we can know something is true. We showed how this view, known as scientism, must be false since it is self-refuting. This time, I thought we'd look at the idea of how we know that we know anything at all and how to better understand the differences between knowledge and beliefs.

Types of Knowledge

Philosophers have spent a lot of time on understanding what it means when we say we know this or that. In their book Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview, J.P. Moreland and William Lane Craig identify three basic types of knowing. The most basic type is knowledge by acquaintance which is simply that you have had some type of direct experience with an object or idea and therefore know it to be true. The authors offer an example of "I know the ball is in front of me." Because the ball is directly present in your conscious experience, you can confidently know that statement to be true. 1

A more debated aspect of this type of knowledge is basic mathematic statements and logical deductions. Some philosophers argue that we know 2+2=4 in the same sense that we know a ball is in front of us. It is directly perceived as true. You don't have to go out and observe 2+2 in different environments around the world or around the universe to confidently hold that he product will always turn out to be 4. We understand that it just is that way. Similarly, we experience the same type of understanding when we argue in this way: All men are born. Socrates was a man; therefore Socrates must have been born. That is a logical argument, but we know it to be true directly.

A second way we know something is through know-how. Know-how defines certain skills or abilities one may possess. When someone claims "I know how to play golf", they are expressing knowledge of ability. Moreland and Craig point out that knowledge of the laws or mechanics is not necessary to hold this type of knowledge. They write "For example, one can know how to adjust one's swing for a curve ball without consciously being aware that one's stride is changing or without knowing any background theory of hitting technique." 2

The third type of knowledge is what is usually debated the most. Known as propositional knowledge this type of knowledge deals with statements that make some kind of claim to fact. Statements such as "I know Abraham Lincoln was the sixteenth president of the United States", "I know our Sun is 93 million mionles away" or "I know humans evolved from apes" are all propositional statements.

Justified True Beliefs

One of the reasons propositional knowledge has been debated is because it has been more difficult than other types of knowledge to define completely and accurately. One of the most foundational definitions of propositional knowledge is the concept of "justified true beliefs" that Plato offered in his writing "Theaetetus". Plato said that if we claim to know something, then what we claim must indeed be true. If a claim is not true, then we didn't really know it; we were mistaken. Further, if we claim to know something we must actually believe the claim to be true. It makes no sense to know something but not to believe it. If I say, "I know the ball is on the floor, but I don't believe the ball is on the floor" I've spoken nonsense.

So truth and belief are what we would call necessary conditions for knowledge. For knowledge to exist, they must both be present. However, they are not sufficient conditions for knowing. Many people believe things, and those beliefs may in fact be true, but that doesn't mean they know those things. Take the statement "I know Jones had roast beef for dinner last night." Now, it may be the case that Jones did indeed have roast beef for dinner, and it may be the case that I truly believe Jones had roast beef for dinner, but by making that assertion without any basis, I've just guessed the right answerand thus cannot be taken as knowledge.

In order to truly know something, there must be some acceptable reason to hold that belief. Justified true belief is believing something that is true with good reason. If I claim to know Jones had roast beef for dinner last night because it's a Monday and he always has roast beef on Mondays, and I smelled roast beef coming from his home, I have good reasons to believe Jones in fact had roast beef. That is a justified belief that can be counted as knowledge. If, however, I claim to know Jones had roast beef for dinner last night because I consulted my Magic 8 Ball, that's not knowledge since the reasons I've given are spurious. It becomes the same as guessing.

Knowledge and the Limits of Science

So why does all of this knowledge stuff matter? Because it helps us understand what is real knowledge and what isn't. When looking at scientific propositions, we understand we can know certain things like the speed at which an object falls or what chemical reaction is necessary to produce nitro-glycerin. Science deals with observations of the material world, so these are justified beliefs; we can say we can know such things through science. However, for other claims, such as whether God exists or whether DNA is the proper basis for measuring the similarities between humans and other animals, science has no justification to make claims of knowledge.

You see, science can only tell us facts about the material world. By definition, science has no way of meaningfully commenting on the many other ways we know things. Science can tell us whether a person's heart is beating faster and he is sweating, but it must fall silent as to whether the cause of that reaction is lying or love. Similarly, science cannot tell us about the most unique aspect of humanity, that is the human soul. When looking at propositions such as the existence of God, science has no way of "testing for God-ness". However, I can know through reasoning that universe began to exist and whatever begins to exist must have a cause. 3 I can therefore conclude that if whatever exists must have a cause and the universe began to exist, then the universe must have a cause: God. That is a belief that has strong justification for it. It is knowledge that is outside the scope of science, but it is probably a more authoritative basis for knowing.

So, even though popular culture looks to the scientist to tell them "the facts" about all things, science is really woefully inadequate to explain many aspects of reality. Scientists may presupposes certain things like miracles cannot happen or there is no God, and then formulate other theories. But that's not knowledge, that's presupposition. Personal experience, emotions, reason, logic, and revelation all address truth-claims and all can be justifiable in their proper instances. To limit one's self to science in order to gain knowledge is like trying to build a house with only a hammer. A hammer can pound nails, but you wouldn't want to use it to drive a screw and it would be completely useless to cut wood.

References

1.Moreland, J.P. and William Lane Craig Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview
(Downers Grove, IL:InterVarsity Press, 2003). 72.
2. Ibid. 73.
3. See my article "What the Kalam tells us about God's existence"

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Arguing God's Existence Even When There are No Atheists

Today, Christians can run into many people who doubt God's existence. While books by the New Atheists like Dawkins, Hitchens, and Harris are the most well-known, many "Internet atheists" will comment about the lack of evidence for God's existence or the supposed incredulity of a Supreme Being.


Most Christians who defend God's existence have quite a few different arguments from which to draw upon. Apologists can recount arguments based on the fact that something exists rather than nothing (cosmological arguments), the design evident in creation (teleological arguments), the existence of moral values and duties (axiological arguments), as well as the argument from contingency, the argument from reason, the argument from consciousness, and even arguing that the greatest possible being must exist (ontological arguments).

The amazing thing isn't that as veritable smorgasbord of arguments for God's existence exist within Christianity, it's that arguments for God's existence have existed for millennia, while atheism as we know it is a relatively new phenomenon. In his book, Atheists: The Origin of the Species, Nick Spenser writes that while some of the seeds of atheism had developed through the Renaissance, it really wasn't until ‘the end of the eighteenth century, in which a handful of pioneers, most prominent in France, put forth the first openly and unapologetically atheist arguments since the classical period." 1 Yet, 1200 or so years before Hume and H├ębert,  Augustine was offering arguments for God's existence in his On Free Choice of the Will. In the 11th century, Anselm came up with his famous Ontological argument, and during the 13th century, St. Thomas Aquinas wrote his Summa Theologica which included the famous Five Ways arguments for the existence of God.

There were no atheists in Christianized Europe during the Middle Ages. There may have been people branded as heretics and there were definitely many different faith traditions, but no one was actively pushing the non-existence of God. So why would some of the most famous collections of arguments for God's existence be written then?

The answer is simply that Christianity has always been a faith based on evidence. Jesus commanded us to love God with not only our hearts and souls, but with our minds as well. Paul also instructs Christians to "test everything; hold fast what is good." Christianity is built for intellectual inquiry. It should be no surprise, then, that Christians such as Augustine, Anselm, and Aquinas would explore questions of God's existence even if there were no atheists to object to their claim that God does indeed exist.

Frederick Copleston, in commenting on Aquinas' arguments makes an interesting observation:
To us indeed living in a world where atheism is common, where powerful and influential philosophies eliminate or explain away the notion of God, where multitudes of men and women are educated without any belief in God, it seems only natural to think that God's existence requires proof… St. Thomas, however, did not live in a world where theoretic atheism was common, and he felt himself compelled to deal with not only early Christian writers which seem to imply that knowledge of God is innate in man, but also with the famous argument from St. Anselm which purports to show that the non-existence of God is inconceivable.2
Copleston says that Aquinas was arguing against other Christian writings, examining them and calling them out where he felt they were deficient. He was providing some intellectual checks and balances as it were. The fact that intellectual Christians would scrutinize their own teachings and offer rebuttals or counter-evidence demonstrates that leaders like Aquinas were interested in the truth.

Socrates is famously quoted as saying "the unexamined life is not worth living." Christianity is not an unexamined faith. It has been examined not only by its detractors, but by its proponents as well. It is probably one of the most scrutinized worldviews in all of history, yet it continues to offer a complete and cogent understanding f our world.

So the next time you hear an argument against God's existence, don't fear. Chances are it has been examined carefully by Christians already, and found wanting.

References


1. Spenser, Nick. Atheists: The Origin of the Species.(London: Bloomsbury Publishing Plc., 2014). xvii.

2. Copleston, Frederick, SJ. A History of Philosophy Volume II: Medieval Philosophy. (New York: Image Books, 1993). 336.

Image provided by David Shankbone and licensed under the Creative Commons 3.0 Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unportedlicense.

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