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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 Web site articles, we hope to give readers points to reflect on concerning topics of the day.

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Thursday, December 05, 2013

Some Problems with Consequentialism

This month, I got to interact with students at a local college, as part of a panel hosted by The Well club. Four of us answered questions from students about the nature and evidence of Christianity. One questioner, the president of the newly-minted atheist club on campus, engaged in a discussion on morality. I've maintained that if morality is objective it must be grounded in God.  He said that he held to an objective moral standard based on "ethical consequentialism." In a separate discussion at a later time, another atheist also offered consequentialism as a basis for morality.

For those that don't know, consequentialism is an ethical system that seeks to root moral values and duties in the consequences one's actions will produce. In other words, an action is moral if it produces consequences that are seen as beneficial in some sense. Utilitarianism is the most well-known version of consequentialism, with philosophers like Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill arguing that what is moral is that which promotes the greatest good for the greatest number. I don't think any kind of consequentialism works to ground moral values and I want to offer three initial reasons why.

1. Consequentialism results in immoral acts being identified as moral

The first thing one should realize is that consequentialism makes the claim that rightness and wrongness are not found in any action itself, but in the consequence of the action, that is what the action will produce. So, adultery isn't in itself wrong, it is wrong only when the result is one that causes adverse effects, like the harm it causes the offended spouse. But what if a "Same Time Next Year" scenario were to present itself? In this film, the once-a-year tryst not only produces no adverse effects on the marriage the rest of the time, but each participant actually helps the other through different emotional trials. In such a case consequentialism would say that their adultery is the moral thing to do and it would be immoral to withhold this meeting form either party. Calling adultery moral shows the absurdity of consequentialism played out consistently.

2. Consequentialism asks too much

Another problematic aspect of consequentialism is the fact that one must determine one's consequences when performing any action. How are we to do this? Many times, seeing what the actual consequences of an action are is nearly impossible! How could one see all the ramifications of a simple lie? Sometimes it amounts to nothing; other times it can have devastating effects on a third party, perhaps a party whom you never realized would be privy to the lie at all! And is it reasonable to ask people to really reflect on every consequence of all their actions or should they do the right thing for no other reason than it's the right thing to do? If the consequences in question are not personal but are weighed at a societal level, the problem becomes even more egregious. No one could possibly know the outcome their actions would inflict  upon an entire culture. Such knowledge would truly require a form of omniscience, but then we're arguing for God.

3. Consequentialism fails because it assumes what it is supposed to prove

While the two problems above are serious issues with consequentialism as a workable moral system, the biggest problem is with the understanding of how consequences benefit either the individual or the society. You see, by appealing to actions that produce a benefit, the consequentialist has smuggled in a concept of good and evil to measure against. But you cannot do that if you are talking about a system that is supposed to define what good and evil are in the first place.

Consequentialist will say, "We can know what is good because those things allow humans to survive and flourish." But this doesn't solve the problem. First, why is it "good" that all of humanity flourish instead of just the individual? Who says that one should sacrifice one's life for the sake of the society? Just because I would want someone to feed me when I'm hungry doesn't mean that I want to go hungry for the sake of someone else. If I can achieve the first and not the second, I have advanced the good for myself.

Secondly, where did this idea of advancing "the good" for all humanity come from? Philosopher Peter Singer argues that when we think this way, we are committing a kind of speciesism and other species hold the same rights as humans. Maybe by allowing humans to thrive we are denying the cockroach a chance to evolve into the next ruling species on the planet!

No matter which base point one chooses for "the good" consequentialism has no way of answering "why that point and not this one over here?" Instead of defining what is "the good", consequentialism assumes the good and begins to argue from there. It becomes question-begging! Therefore, consequentialism can never really be considered a basis for understanding good and evil. It is simply another subjective viewpoint that doesn't ground right and wrong, but describes them based on assumptions of the individual espousing it.

Morality must be prescriptive if it is to be binding. Consequentialism fails to be even descriptive, since it cannot ground ultimate concepts such as "the good." Most consequentialists are moral, but only because they borrow from Christian ideas, like the inherent worth of persons, in order to begin their calculations of end results. Thus, consequentialism fails as a basis for true morality.

Wednesday, December 04, 2013

Separating What's Possible from What's Reasonable

Man: Oh look, this isn't an argument.

Mr. Vibrating: Yes it is.

Man: No it isn't. It's just contradiction.

Mr. Vibrating: No it isn't.

Man: It is!

Mr. Vibrating: It is not.

Man: Look, you just contradicted me.

Mr. Vibrating: I did not.

Man: Oh you did!!

Mr. Vibrating: No, no, no.

Man: You did just then.

Mr. Vibrating: Nonsense!

Man: Oh, this is futile!
I've always been a big Monty Python fan. The Pythons' ability to mix thoughtful, intelligent subjects with all-out silliness has never been matched. One of their most famous sketches is "The Argument Clinic" where a man pays for the service of having an argument. Unfortunately, his results are not what he expected. If you're unfamiliar with the sketch, you can watch it below.

The discipline of apologetics is all about giving reasons for your faith. I've engaged with many people, both in person and online, who are skeptical about the claims of Christianity or the Bible. They demand evidence for things like God's existence or the resurrection of Jesus. They say that "blind faith" should be avoided and reason should hold sway over our beliefs.

In such conversations, I usually agree. Christianity has never promoted a blind faith, but one based on certain evidence. Then, depending on the objection raised, I demonstrate this by explaining the evidence I have for my view. If we're discussing God's existence, for example, I talk about the fact that something cannot come from nothing, that we see clear signs of design in the conditions of the universe, and so on.

Like the man in the Argument Clinic, my reasons have been sometimes met with "but it isn't impossible that the initial conditions of the universe just happened to be set that way" or "it may be the case that the universe came from something else that we don't know" or "it could be possible that certain chemicals came together to form a living organism." Others will respond with claims that although science offers no answers for us now, it will someday; we just need to give it more time.

The problem with such replies is that they are not seeking to answer the question the skeptic originally raised. The person has asked you to defend the reasonableness of your belief. If you can show that your belief is built upon evidence, then you have at least met the initial query. The question now becomes is there any counter-evidence to rebut the evidence you have provided. This is a crucial step. It isn't good enough to say "Well, we don't know what happened so there could be other possibilities." Of course there could, but the burden of proof has just shifted to the one who is dismissing your evidence. He or she must do more than posit "just-so" scenarios.

Just-so scenarios are just that: ideas without any evidence behind them. As such, they put the objector in the very same category as that to which they are objecting: offering a case with nothing to support it. Part of being a rational person is to draw a distinction between what is possible and what is reasonable to believe.

There are a lot of things that may be possible in the world, but are highly unlikely: such as dealing oneself a royal flush in poker two times in a row. Of course mathematics shows that such an event is possible, but it isn't reasonable to believe that such a thing happened without deliberate intervention. If I'm playing poker and I see you dealt two royal flushes, I'm going to accuse you of cheating. That would be the reasonable thing to do. Similarly, seeing the strong evidences for a creator from the natural world, one is reasonable to infer deliberate intervention.

The man in the Argument Clinic sketch recognizes that he is not getting what he paid for. He complains:
Man: An argument isn't just contradiction.

Mr Vibrating: It can be.

Man: No it can't. An argument is a connected series of statements intended to establish a proposition.

Mr Vibrating: No it isn't.

Man: Yes it is! It's not just contradiction.

Mr Vibrating: Look, if I argue with you, I must take up a contrary position.

Man: Yes, but that's not just saying 'No it isn't.'

Mr Vibrating: Yes it is!

Man: No it isn't!

Man: Argument is an intellectual process. Contradiction is just the automatic gainsaying of any statement the other person makes.
"Just-so" responses are really a form of gainsaying. The person is simply dismissing the evidence that you have just presented.  As the man in the sketch said, it isn't an argument, but a childish way to escape the evidence that you may present.

Tuesday, December 03, 2013

Arguing from Ignorance

After posting my podcast series "Why the Origin of Life Requires a Creator," I received a response from an atheist friend of mine who charged me with committing a logical fallacy. In the comments section he wrote, "It is all a logical fallacy called 'Appeal to Ignorance.' 'Not knowing' isn't evidence for, nor against, the existence of God."

For those who are not familiar with the discipline of logic, there are two types of fallacies one can commit when advancing an argument: one is a formal fallacy, which is when the conclusion one presents doesn't follow from the premises. In casual conversation this sometimes happens, but one is more apt to run into an informal fallacy. An informal fallacy is one where you present something as evidence that really isn't evidence for your conclusion at all.

The fallacy known as appeal to ignorance (formally argumentum ad ignorantiam) was first coined by philosopher John Locke in his Essay Concerning Human Understanding. The Lander University Philosophy Dept. web site gives us a good definition:
  1. Argumentum ad Ignorantiam: (appeal to ignorance) the fallacy that a proposition is true simply on the basis that it has not been proved false or that it is false simply because it has not been proved true. This error in reasoning is often expressed with influential rhetoric.

    The informal structure has two basic patterns:
    • Statement p is unproved.

      Not-p is true.
    • Statement not-p is unproved.

      p is true.
  2. If one argues that God or telepathy, ghosts, or UFO's do not exist because their existence has not been proven beyond a shadow of doubt, then this fallacy occurs.
  3. On the other hand, if one argues that God, telepathy, and so on do exist because their non-existence has not been proved, then one argues fallaciously as well.
Of course, anyone who has listened to the series would know that I don't claim that God exists because no one has proven otherwise. However, I've heard this charge before, that by claiming a creator I am somehow committing an appeal to ignorance. In my conversation, my friend said:
"If caveman are sitting around talking about what causes thunder, and one says it is the gods in the sky fighting, and the other says he doesn't know, does that prove it is the gods fighting (inference to the best conclusion)? We don't know anything about origin details just like the cavemen... running to belief in superstition doesn't equate to discovering truth.

"I agree we should always use 'inference to the best conclusion' but in these categories no one knows. So to claim this as evidence for god is the fallacy of 'appeal to ignorance.' It is a classic example of that basic fallacy."
Notice the equivocation in the example above. The "cavemen" not only know nothing about the origin of lightning, but they also know nothing of the nature or property of lightning. Understanding the nature of a thing can help us to identify or eliminate its origin. Knowing the nature of a thing is real information that must be considered when weighing the cause.

My friend Jim Wallace recently explained to me that a homicide detective, when confronted with a dead body, knows that there are only four explanations for a person's death. The person may have died of natural causes, he may have died from accident, he may have committed suicide, or he may have been a victim of homicide. If there are no witnesses and no recording of the events, the detective doesn't know which scenario is true. However, homicide requires there to be another person present, where the other three causes do not. If you can examine how the person died and show that this person could not have died without the actions of another, then you are reasonable in holding homicide as a viable option.

When arguing with my atheist friend, I used a similar analogy:
"If I were to say 'The origin of a bullet in a man's heart requires a shooter,' would that also be an appeal to ignorance? There's evidence and there is an inference to the best explanation of that evidence. That is not a logical fallacy, but an inductive argument."
You see, we know that bullets don't just grow inside of people. We also know that life requires certain initial conditions. We can understand what replication entails, how DNA to mRNA to amino acid strings to their folding a certain way in order to create required proteins necessary for life. We know about chirality in amino acids and sugars and the long odds of homochirality happening randomly. All of these points I brought up in my series, and they all argue that life simply could not have arisen through only natural processes.

It is easy to throw out the charge of fallacy, such as "you're appealing to ignorance!" but by misusing the term it simply becomes a dodge to avoid the evidence presented. Argumentum ad Ignoraniam takes a very specific form. Don't fall for the charge of committing a fallacy when the fallacy doesn't apply.

There are many of these informal fallacies, and the Internet is awash in lists of them. For those who wish to dig deeper into learning about logic and critical thinking, including identifying fallacies, I recommend The Thinking Toolbox and The Fallacy Detective, both by Nathaniel and Hans Bluedorn.

And in all of your reasoning, "Let's be careful out there."

Monday, December 02, 2013

How Teaching Answers Fails Christian Students

This morning, I talked with a friend of mine who teaches at a local Christian college. The students he instructs come from traditional evangelical homes, and the parents pay high tuition to send their kids to a school that will provide a solid, biblical framework during their higher education. But something still bothered him.

He had given his students the assignment of presenting an argument for some cultural topic or issue of the students' choice, and one of his brightest students chose to discuss the morality of embryonic stem-cell research. She read her paper in front of the class, arguing that the embryo is a human being; thus destroying an embryo for research is destroying a human being and is wrong. She provided reasons for her position and did well in supporting her view.

All of this sounds great, but what happened afterward has me deeply concerned. Because the students presented their papers orally, each student was to leave five minutes for questions and answers at the end of their presentations. When asked to clarify what she means when she said it was wrong, she responded, "Well, I mean it is wrong for me. I wouldn't fund any type of research like this but I couldn't impose my moral views on another person who may want to do so."

I've commented many times on why moral relativism fails as a true way to measure the rightness or wrongness of an action, but my bigger concern is this strange contradiction between the paper this student presented and her about-face during the Q&A. I mean, think about it: if moral claims are subjective and personal, then they don't need to be argued for or against. No one has to provide three reasons why they choose soup over salad for their dinner. We understand that these are subjective choices that cater to the taste of the individual, therefore supplying reasons to make such a choice is superfluous.

So, after all the effort this student put forth in defending her moral objection to the practice of embryonic stem cell research, she simply undercut her whole argument by saying that the case is only applicable to herself. Why would she do such a thing? I think it is because young Christians today compartmentalize their beliefs instead of integrating them. This particular student was very capable at doing the assignment given to her. She knew where to look for the "right" answers to the question she was engaging, and she knew how to create an argument to support her views. She may have even been taught this position in her church youth group, but she didn't really understand it because she didn't really know was right and wrong means.

If this student had truly understood that moral values and duties must be prescriptive, that is people should conform to them, she wouldn't have relativized her response. If the issue was, say, requiring a one race to drink out of a separate water fountain from another, I don't think she would say, "Well, that's wrong for me personally, but I wouldn't want to push my views on other people." No, such a requirement should be rightly condemned and anyone seeking to segregate in such a way should be punished. That means we would force our moral point of view on the segregationist, telling them that they must conform to the proper action. It doesn't matter regardless of what that segregationist believes.

All of this leads me to three points that Christian leaders, and especially leaders of young people, need to be sensitive to if we're going to make a difference in the lives of our students and in our culture:
  1. Christianity is a worldview rooted in objective values. Christians need to understand that the claims that Jesus made were not his personal opinion. When he said "If your brother sins, rebuke him" in Luke 17:3 it didn't carry an asterisk saying "but only if he believed it was wrong." Right and wrong are objective, regardless of what we think.
  2. Christians may say the right thing, but it doesn't mean they get it. Just because our students can answer a question on abortion or sex outside of marriage with the right responses doesn't mean that they have internalized those ideas. They may know what to say, but we as teachers need to see if they really believe what they're saying. This means that students need to feel secure enough to ask tough questions in church and know that they can explore their own positions without being condemned or being dismissed.
  3. Christian leaders need to focus in integrating Christian teaching with Christian living. We need to begin breaking down these different "boxes" that people erect today when discussing faith. Christian teachers need to explain why certain positions matter and how they make a difference to the person in the pew. For example, if an embryo is a human being, then stem-cell research that destroys an embryo is sacrificing a living human being to science. Is such a sacrifice worse than forcing someone to drink out of a separate water fountain? Does the soul of a human being matter? Let's dig deeper into what our parishioners actually believe instead of waiting for them to volunteer the information.
As an apologist, I'm keenly aware that I can assume nothing when talking with people, even those who identify themselves as Christians. I cannot provide "how to answer this" type information without first establishing why such issues matter, why morality is binding, and why Jesus sought to remove their hearts of stone and replace them with hearts of flesh for those with whom He engaged. Without laying a proper foundation, all the apologetics in the world will be nothing more than an academic exercise.

Sunday, December 01, 2013

Why the Origin of Life Requires a Creator

How did life arise on earth? What are the key elements we need to focus on when talking with an evolutionist? What questions remain unanswered? Listen to all four parts of this recent podcast that focuses specifically on the beginning of life and explains why, given the evidence, belief in a creator makes the most sense.

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