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A Familiar Conversation: Part 2

In my previous post, I analyzed an argument for Atheism and discussed the hidden second premise that “the absence of evidence is evidence of absence.” Didymus is a pseudonym used for our familiar objector. Here I’ll look at three typical responses to my discussion and examine the reasonableness of each.

1:

“Well, if you reason like this then you can’t conclude that pink unicorns, trolls and hob-goblins don’t exist.” [1]

This is no insult or failing of my philosophy. I don’t make the claim that things like trolls don’t exist. Failing to be able to prove something does not exist is no slight. This is why soft agnosticism becomes the safe middle ground – an acceptably moderate position in the absence of evidence.

In similar fashion Didymus adds, if you reason like this you have to take seriously the existence of such things as Lucky Potions and Flying-Purple-People-Eaters. He alludes it is ridiculous to do so in the absence of evidence.

It is good to take such things seriously if there are some good reasons to believe these are credible. As there are none, I am under no such obligation. Thus, I do not have to take seriously things like trolls. Now in the case for God there is no comparison. There are good reasons to believe God is credible. There is philosophical evidence, which is backed up by my own experiential evidence, and without reasonable defeaters for each of these, I am completely rational in believing that God exists.

2:

“Well, there are many intelligent people on both sides of the debate who disagree with the philosophical arguments, and so philosophical arguments are not to be trusted.”

The assertion that many intelligent people would advocate Atheism is false. Most serious thinkers would prefer a soft form of Agnosticism if not Theism.

There is an assumption here that both sides are equally diligent and honest in their quest to find the truth. I make no claim here about motivations of either side (I can only know my own, and perhaps even that imperfectly). The point here is simply to say that to implicitly claim to know that the people on both sides of the debate are genuinely applying serious critical thought into this area of Philosophy of Religion is presumptuous.

The greatest problem with this type of response when arguing for God’s existence is it commits the fallacy of argument ad populum. This is an appeal to the numbers of people who believe in order to prove ones point. What people believe about God’s existence or the arguments for God’s existence makes not a whiff of difference whatsoever about God’s existence. We know in other subject areas that the whole world can be wrong, yet this does nothing to effect the truth or falsehood of any belief.

Finally, the response itself is self-defeating. This is a philosophical argument that has engendered some difference of opinion from both sides of the debate, so by its own merit we should not trust this argument. In short, it is using philosophy to argue against the use of philosophy.

3:

“Well, the point is where there is no evidence it is foolish to believe in something, and it’s not foolish to believe in something if there is evidence.”

Of course, I think there is good evidence for God’s existence; so believing in God is not foolish by this axiom. But the objection holds water like a leaky bucket. If your trustworthy wife told you she spent the afternoon window-shopping, but she did not have any evidence of this, it would actually be foolish not to believe it.

The point of the illustration is not to make a comparison with belief in God, but to show the objection is not axiomatic. On further analysis, one wonders why it was not foolish to believe something in the absence of evidence? The answer is because your wife has proven herself trustworthy in the past and stands in as an expert witness to her afternoon activities. Expert witnesses, though not guaranteeing the truth or falsehood of a belief, nevertheless increase the credulity of the position they advocate. When a five-year old girl in pig-tails fresh out of kindergarten advocates an outlandish belief about her favourite rugby team, she might convince a few of her pairs, but not many others. When Hamish McKay agrees with her announcing on the News in all seriousness that the Chief’s have a good shot at winning the Super 14, this authoritative stamp of approval gives said belief considerable weight.

Christianity of course suffers from no lack of expert witness. Two billion[2] or so people worldwide can testify (with varying degrees of competency) to the life-changing power of Jesus Christ. Miracles are in abundance for anyone who is willing to open their eyes and look for them. A revolution in philosophy in the last 40 years, especially in the Anglophone world, has curtailed the atheistic dominance in the field. Today perhaps one quarter to one third of philosophy professors are theists, and of that mostly orthodox Christians.[3] And of course, God himself in his word, the Bible, provides the ultimate expert witnesses. There he has preserved with other powerful proofs[4] the testimony of the apostles, all eye witnesses to the risen Lord.

CONCLUSION

It seems to me that Didymus is right in that until evidence is found that would corroborate these types of beliefs then one is justified in remaining sceptical, even to the point of disbelief. However, this is where he is wrong. As soon as one claims something does not exist a burden is placed upon them to prove it. If one fails to bear this burden they have crossed the boundary of what is reasonable. Empirical evidence can verify that belief in P is reasonable, but lack of empirical evidence cannot prove that belief in not-P is reasonable.

Unfortunately, in forsaking philosophical evidence because he believes it hopelessly indeterminate, and by ardently requiring tangible evidence such as that which is delivered in a science lab, he has mired himself in a quagmire or illogic, unable to pull himself free from claims he so vehemently makes. These claims are explicit and implicit; respectively, that God does not exist, and that absence of evidence is evidence of absence.


[1] or “Toothfairy, Thor and water-divining,” See comment: # 11 February 2010 at 1:37 pm; Panel Discussion of Stephen Meyers Signature in the Cell

[2] How Many Christians are There Worldwide

[3] Quentin Smith, “The Metaphilosophy of Naturalism” Philo 4/2(2001): 3-4.

[4] Such as fulfilled prophecy

A Familiar Conversation: Part 1

Those familiar with past conversations on this blog will be familiar with the voice of our objector. In this article I shall refer to our objector as Didymus, in memory of the one who doubted the Apostles’ word, but came to believe when Christ appeared to him saying, “Blessed are those who have not seen yet believed.”

The following will seem like we’re treading familiar water. That’s because we will be. This is, as the title declares, a familiar conversation.[1] First, take note of few of Didymus’ statements;

Stuart: Failing to make an argument is failing to reason.

Didymus: I’m not failing to make an argument, I’m refusing to make a philosophical one. . . One argument of mine is that I just don’t see god. This is an evidentiary argument.

In response, making an argument, but not making a philosophical argument is impossible. All arguments require and use in some way philosophy, even if it’s just the basic laws of logic (rules of right-thinking) that are employed. Logic is a sub-discipline of philosophy, and because logic must be used in an argument, refusing to make a philosophical argument is refusing to make an argument.

An evidentiary argument is one that provides evidence. Evidence by itself tells us nothing until reason is applied. Good reason requires good philosophy, and bad reasoning uses bad philosophy. So evidence is always used in philosophical arguments, and this is the case for the cosmological, teleological, moral and historical arguments for God’s existence. Because I look favourably on the use of such arguments, I am an evidentialist apologist. The ontological argument is supposed to only use premises that can be derived purely from inside the mind instead of tangible evidence from the world of sight and sound. Still, one could construe this argument to be evidentiary in the sense that it, as a purely philosophical argument can be used as evidence in the case for God’s existence (that is, if one thinks it is a good argument).

Also take note of Didymus’ response to this question.

Stuart: What arguments for Atheism[2] do you find convincing?

Didymus: I see no evidence for god.

“I see no evidence for god” is supposed to be taken as a serious argument for Atheism.[2] Witness the implied syllogism.

Step (1) I see no evidence for god.
Step (2) Therefore, God does not exist.

Clearly this is not an argument. Arguments need at least two premises to reach a conclusion. There is no logical law of inference that would conclude (2) – that God does not exist – from (1) – I see no evidence for God. In order to conclude atheism one would have to add an extra premise between (1) and (2), bumping the conclusion to step (3). Let us presume that the lack of Didymus finding evidence is reason enough to conclude that there is no evidence for God.

Step 1) There is no evidence for god.
Step 2) The absence of evidence is evidence of absence.
Step 3) Therefore, God does not exist.

Now this is a logically valid argument. That is the argument breaks no formal or informal rules of inference. The argument though is far from sound. For an argument to be sound it needs to be logically valid and have true premises.

The evidence for God is vast. There are two broad categories each with a diverse variety: philosophical evidence and experiential evidence. The philosophical evidence is listed above, and frequently discussed here at the Thinking Matters website. The experiential evidence can be everything from a full-blown Christophany[3] to the quiet witness of the Holy Spirit to the believer. Other experiential evidence might include miracles of healing, signs and wonders, deliverance from demonic activity, the functioning of spiritual gifts such as prophecy or words of knowledge and wisdom.

So as there is evidence for God, premise (1) is false. Nothing more is needed to invalidate the argument. However, you will recall that we were operating under Didymus’ belief that there is no evidence for God. So more important for my purpose here is to point out that premise (2) is also false. The absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.

When there is an absence of evidence for belief P it may be reasonable to remain sceptical or doubtful about belief P, but to conclude from only this that there is an actual absence of P is to overstep the boundary of what one can rationally claim. There are many cases where the failure to provide evidence does not mean said occurrence did not happen, or said entity does not exist. Four examples shall suffice.

(A)

A body is found. Investigators are able to deduce a time and cause of death, and come to suspect that it took place in a well-known haunt where other illegal activity often occurs. As it happens, the murder did occur there and their suspicions are correct, though they do not know it. The problem is the place they suspect is clean of all the expected bloodstains and bullet casings. They find no evidence that the crime was committed there. This is because the murder scene was scrubbed clean and put in perfect order by an expert team, who then fled the country leaving no witnesses. Scenarios like this make “The absence of evidence is not evidence of absence” an axiom in forensic science.

(B)

Prior to the advent of heliocentricism,[4] championed by Copernicus and Galileo, it was thought by more than a few that the earth was the centre of the Solar System and that the sun revolved around the earth. Suppose heliocentricism was proposed before any of the evidence for it was found. One would understandably be sceptical, as this new idea would be totally different from what had always been taught and previously believed by everyone else. The people who ask for evidence get no reply – none yet has been discovered. They conclude then that geocentricism[5] is better because there is no evidence for heliocentricism. In this case the inability to prove something was not proof that that something was false.

(C)

Take the moral claim “cannibalism (to eat another human’s flesh) while the person is still alive is wrong.” When asked to prove this moral assertion, the person making the claim is not able to do it. One argues that is wrong to knowingly inflict harm on someone else, and thus this case of cannibalism is wrong, but this response itself relies on other unproven and un-evidenced moral assertions. The point here is you can know something is wrong, without knowing how something is wrong. Morality is very much an instinctual process, and one grasps that something is wrong without necessarily reasoning out the “why?” beforehand. So here you have a moral claim that is true but is unable to be shown to be true, yet it remains reasonable to believe true. Again, the inability to prove something was not proof that that something was false.

(D)

Before the Seventeenth Century it was supposedly thought that there was no such thing as a black swan. However, during the expansion of Europe people traveled widely and, lo and behold, some black swans were discovered. Prior to this there was an absence of evidence for black swans, but this did not mean that there were no such things as black swans.

Next time in Part 2 we shall continue with this familiar conversation, and see how Didymus generally responds to this.


[1] My reason for posting here is so when this argument again pops up, as it inevitably will, I can simply refer said proponent to this post.

[2] Atheism is the idea that God does not exist

[3] An appearance of Christ in the flesh, such as to Saul/Paul on the road to Damascus.

[4] The belief that the earth revolves around the sun.

[5] The belief that the earth is in the centre of the universe, and all revolves around it.

Plantinga's Warranted Christian Belief now available online

Christian Classics Ethereal Library has made Alvin Plantinga’s Warranted Christian Belief available online in full. Published in 2000, Warranted Christian Belief is Plantinga’s third entry in his series on epistemology and represents an important work in the debate about the rationality of theistic belief. Plantinga suggests that the many common arguments against Christianity can be divided into two categories: the claim that Christian belief is false (de facto objections) and the claim that Christian belief is irrational or intellectually unacceptable (de jure objections). In his book, Plantinga focuses on the de jure objection and defends the view that belief in God may not only be rational, but rational without supporting beliefs or arguments.

Expect an intellectual work out – the argumentation can be complicated at times, but it is worth the investment. Plantinga is one of the great philosopher’s alive today and his writing has had a massive effect on the way scholars have approached questions in metaphysics, epistemology and philosophy of religion. William Lane Craig has suggested that Plantinga’s 1967 book, God and Other Minds, was the turning point in the debate about the death of God.

Some endorsements for Warranted Christian Belief:

“Warranted Christian Belief is a tour de force … it will be a welcome summary of an important movement, and for anyone interested in debates about the rationality of religious belief, a reference book for many years to come.” – Books & Culture

“This is an impressive book … Every philosopher interested in epistemology should read it and every philosopher should be interested in epistemology.” – Australasian Journal of Philosophy

“The book is full of philosophical and theological interest and is an exciting book to read… Throughout the book the writing is clear and entertaining, parts of it written with a controlled passion and enthusiasm, and with hafts of sarcasm, self-deprecation and other assorted humour. Plantinga has command of a vast range of philosophical and theological material.” – Mind

James Anderson has written a helpful introduction and review of the book here.

(HT: Patrick Chan at Triablogue)

An Atheistic Argument from the Big Bang

The Big Bang event may be one of the most important scientific discoveries about the origin of our universe. Observations by American astronomer Edwin Hubble in 1929 and the final discovery of cosmic microwave background radiation in 1964 confirmed predictions by Friedmann and Lemaître and convinced scientists of the expansion of the universe from a denser, hotter, primordial state. It was a turning point in the history of science. No longer was the universe thought to be a static, timeless, unchanging entity. The Friedmann-Lemaitre model gives the universe a backstory and more than that: a beginning. Physicist P. C. W. Davies explains: “most cosmologists think of the initial singularity as the beginning of the universe. On this view the big bang represents the creation event; the creation not only of all the matter and energy in the universe, but also of spacetime itself.”

The idea of an expanding universe has not only revolutionized the field of science and been a unifying theme in cosmology but has had profound implications beyond those disciplines. According to the British astronomer Stephen Hawking, “If the universe is really completely self-contained, having no boundary or edge, it would have neither beginning nor end: it would simply be”. But he admits, “so long as the universe had a beginning, we could suppose it had a creator”. This has been too uncomfortable a conclusion for some. Robert Jastrow, physicist and founding director of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, comments:

“There is a kind of religion in science. . .This religious faith of the scientist is violated by the discovery that the world had a beginning. . .as a product of forces or circumstances we cannot discover. When that happens, the scientist has lost control. If he really examined the implications, he would be traumatized. As usual when faced with trauma, the mind reacts by ignoring the implications – in science this is known as ‘refusing to speculate’ – or trivializing the origin of the world by calling it the Big Bang, as if the universe were a firecracker.

Consider the enormity of the problem. Science has proven that the universe exploded into being at a certain moment. It asks, what cause produced this effect? Who or what put the matter and energy into the universe? …And science cannot answer those questions…The scientist’s pursuit of the past ends in the moment of creation.” (God and the Astronomers, pps 113-15)

But while the fact that our universe both has a beginning and arose from nothing provides powerful evidence for a personal Creator (see Stuart’s post on the Kalam Cosmological Argument), Quentin Smith, philosophy professor at Western Michigan University has put forward the unique claim that the Big Bang is incompatible with God’s existence. In the book Atheism, Theism, and Big Bang Cosmology, Smith sets out this argument:

1. If God exists and there is an earliest state of the universe, then God created that earliest state of the universe.

2. God is omniscient, omnipotent, and perfectly benevolent.

3. A universe with life is better than a universe that does not contain life.

4. Therefore, if God created the universe then the earliest state of the universe must either contain life or ensure that life will eventually emerge.

5. There is an earliest state of the universe and it is the Big Bang singularity.

6. The conditions of the earliest state of the universe (infinite temperature, infinite curvature, and infinite density) were hostile to life.

7. The Big Bang singularity is inherently unpredictable and lawless and consequently there is no guarantee that it will produce a universe where life can emerge.

8. Therefore, there is no guarantee that the earliest state of the universe will produce a universe where life can emerge.

9. Therefore, God could not have created the earliest state of the universe.

10, Therefore, God does not exist.

Does this argument succeed? There are several problems that are immediately apparent (for a full discussion read William Lane Craig’s response in that book), but two weaknesses are serious enough to undermine its conclusion:

Firstly, God is not obligated to create a universe that contains life. It does not follow from premise 2 and 3 that God must create a universe with life. God could indeed have a reason for creating a world with life. He may, in fact, freely choose to create a world because of the good He may want to bring about. But just because God possesses a reason for creating a universe, this does not impose a necessity on Him. Furthermore, the Christian theist will deny that in order for God’s goodness to be expressed, He must create a universe with life. Apart from creation, God is neither lonely nor in need of objects for his benevolence. Within the Trinity and the fellowship of three persons united in one nature, God’s benevolence is fully and perfectly expressed.

Secondly, God could guarantee life through His subsequent intervention. The assumption that God must pre-programme life-hospitable conditions into the initial stages of the universe is perhaps the most significant problem for this argument. Why must God embed this capacity for life into the universe from the very start? It is not at all illogical for God to causally direct the evolution of life through his subsequent providence and care. This is, in fact, quite consistent with the classical Christian view that God not only created the world but remains living and active within it (Matthew 6:26; Ps 147:8-9; Job 38:41, etc).  According to Smith, however, this would be “a sign of incompetent planing . . . The rational thing to do is to create some state that by its own lawful nature leads to a life-producing universe.” However, this is an arbitrary and anthropocentric constraint on God. Why think that God is incompetent because he does conform to our standards of efficiency? In his response to Quentin Smith, William Craig cites the American philosopher and professor at the University of Notre Dame, Thomas Morris:

“Efficiency is always relative to a goal or set of intentions. before you know where a person is efficient in what she is doing, you must know what it is she intends to be doing, what goals and values are governing the activity she is engaged in… In order to be able to derive the conclusion that if there is a God in charge of the world, he is grossly inefficient, one would have to know of all the relevant divine goals and values which would be operative in the creation and governance of a world such as ours.”

Not only is efficiency proportional to the ends desired, but efficiency is only a significant value to someone who has limited time or power.  For a God who lacks neither, Smith’s complaint against God’s intervention into the natural order of causes is unwarranted. Furthermore, there are many reasons why God might choose to be causally engaged in the activity of creation. Craig points out two: (i) God could delight in the work of creation and (ii) God might want to leave a general revelation of Himself in nature.

Smith has failed to show that the Big Bang is logically incompatible with God. Instead, the theistic explanation of the initial cosmological singularity remains superior to its atheistic  rival. To believe that our universe simply came into being out of nothing without a cause, furnished with a set of complex initial conditions so bizarrely improbable as to to ridicule comprehension, then accidentally evolved to fall into delicate balance with life-permitting conditions must be taken as wildly implausible at best, and plainly absurd at worst. The Big Bang, rather than taking us away from God, brings us closer to the Creator of Christian theism.

Notes:

Reason and Religious Belief by Michael Peterson,  William Hasker, Bruce Reichenbach and David Basinger, Oxford University Press, 2009.

Atheism, Theism, and Big Bang Cosmology by William Lane Craig and Quentin Smith, Oxford University Press, 1995.

Eminent Atheist Changes his Mind: The Antony Flew Story

By Ron Hay

The December 2004 headline was eye-catching – “Famous Atheist Now Believes in God.” The Associated Press story went on to say, “A British philosophy professor who has been a leading champion of atheism for more than a half century has changed his mind. He now believes in God…based on scientific evidence.”

The professor in question was Antony Flew whom many rate as the pre-eminent British philosopher of the last half century, so his change of mind was certainly major news. Strangely, though, his story received the barest mention in the New Zealand media. Would that have been the case if a notable Christian, say Billy Graham, had announced that he had just become an atheist?

Overseas, the interest in Antony Flew’s announcement was huge. One commentator wrote: “Few religious stories have had such an impact.” Many welcomed the news. Francis Collins, former director of the Human Genome Project, wrote: “His colleagues in the church of fundamentalist atheism will be scandalized by his story, but believers will be greatly encouraged, and earnest seekers will find much in Flew’s journey to illuminate their own path towards the truth.”

Others were, as Collins predicted, “scandalized” by the news and reacted angrily. Richard Dawkins accused Flew of “tergiversation,” that is, apostasy or betrayal, and made disparaging comments about this being a change of mind made in “old age.” Read more