Saturday, August 23, 2008

Christian replies that lack substance

Peter: “I wish he’d just given me some sort of proof”
Lucy: “Maybe we’re the ones who need to prove ourselves to him”

Peter: “Why didn’t I see him [Aslan]”
Lucy: “Maybe you weren’t looking”

There are a group of theistic clichés that, at face value, seem quite profound, but under closer scrutiny turn out to be quite vacuous, simply because they fail to set God apart from all other imagined beings. The quotes above, from the movie, Prince Caspian, fall into this category.

I remember another example from the movie, Contact, which is based on Carl Sagan’s book of the same name. Ellie Arroway, the film’s protagonist – who does not believe in God – challenges her friend, Palmer Ross – who is deeply religious – to prove that God exists. He replies by asking if Ellie loved her father, who had died earlier in the film, and when she answers yes, Palmer says “Prove it!” In the movie, Ellie is stumped, and does not reply.

The problem with Lucy’s replies, as well as Palmer Ross’ argument, is that they cleverly sidestep the topic at hand (i.e., evidence for God’s existence), and distract the skeptic by shifting focus onto something completely irrelevant, often onto the skeptic herself, highlighting her motives (e.g., “you don’t want to prove yourself to God”), or perceived deficiencies (e.g., “maybe you are not looking hard enough”). So although these one-liners sound impressive, notice that they don’t actually provide any evidence?

This is what I explained at the TGIF interview about why I reject Pascal’s Wager. Not only does Pascal’s Wager use fear as a motive for belief, as I’ve explained here, but it also doesn’t argue, or provide any support, for the existence of God. Rather, it argues for belief in God.

You see, the human mind can dream up a plethora of gods and mythical creatures that might possibly exist, but which are hidden from our five senses. These creatures and gods all have an equal possibility of existing. To convince me that Thor exists, one of the things you have to do is present arguments that specifically provide support, in terms of verifiable evidence, for Thor. In other words, you have to show that Thor exists outside the confines of the human mind, that the likelihood of Thor’s existence is higher than that of any other imagined being.

A person can believe anything they like, but if they want to convince me that what they believe is true, they have to provide support. Pascal’s Wager, as well as the quotes listed above, fail to do this; they fail to set God apart from all other conceived, possible gods. And this is why these clichés and replies can be used just as effectively to argue for any kind of god: replacing Yahweh or Aslan with Allah or Apollo makes no difference. In other words, what proves too much, proves nothing at all.

29 comments:

CyberKitten said...

KP said: Ellie Arroway, the film’s protagonist – who does not believe in God – challenges her friend, Palmer Ross – who is deeply religious – to prove that God exists. He replies by asking if Ellie loved her father, who had died earlier in the film, and when she answers yes, Palmer says “Prove it!” In the movie, Ellie is stumped, and does not reply.

[laughs] This 'argument' has been used against me a few times... It never ceases to amuse and bemuse me.

KP said: A person can believe anything they like, but if they want to convince me that what they believe is true, they have to provide support.

Spot on. Are we supposed to take *everyone* at their word? I think not!

Another good post.

Laughing Boy said...

"You see, the human mind can dream up a plethora of gods and mythical creatures that might possibly exist, but which are hidden from our five senses."

Sure enough. On the other hand, much of reality is "hidden" from our five senses. This is the point of Palmer Ross's response to Ellie. Which of her 5 senses (or which combination of them) does she use to come to know that she loved her father? This is not a supernaturalist cop-out. It's a question of epistemology, not theology. How do we know what we know? Everybody understands and accepts concepts like memory and intuition, but some people 'forget' them in certain contexts. Ross's response isn't a clever dodge, but an honest challenge to a mistaken view of the mind. The dodge is on the part of the one who sets aside a substantial amount of their accumulated knowledge in order to hold (for a minute or two) to a fallacy.

Of many books on the subject, may I suggest "Ten Philosophical Mistakes" by Mortimer Adler; specifically Chapter 2, "The Intellect and the Senses". Chapter 1, "Consciousness and Its Objects", sets up the fundamental mistake that lead to the school of thought which taught that sense perception is our only means of gaining knowledge.

CyberKitten said...

LB said: On the other hand, much of reality is "hidden" from our five senses.

Indeed it is. The visible spectrum, for example, is vanishingly small compared to the total electromagnetic range. Unfortunately none of this in any way bolsters the belief in God, spirits or the supernatural in general. It is certainly *possible* that the supernatural world exists beyond our five senses (and even beyond the myriad scientific instruments we have developed to help us see beyond our biologically impossed restrictions) but where is the *evidence* that such a realm exists? The simple fact that millions (or even billions) of people *believe* that such things exist is not *proof* that they do so.

As to the love 'question'... I suggest that it is indeed possible (indeed likely) that someone can show that they love another person through their actions, their words and through internal feelings (which themselves are rather difficult to prove). But how does any of this even approach the question of Gods existence?

LB said: the school of thought which taught that sense perception is our only means of gaining knowledge.

What other methods did you have in mind as a matter on interest?

Laughing Boy said...

I'll make a distinction between knowledge and proof. Do you doubt that you have knowledge of things you can't prove? For example, can you prove to me that you're an atheist? Don't show me your card, everybody knows they are notoriously easy to counterfeit. :-)

Does Ellie know that she loves her father (pretend he's live in fiction) because she sees herself doing loving things for him, and hears herself saying she loves him? Or are those merely outward expressions of a reality that lies beyond the reach of the sense perception? Do these outward expressions 'prove' anything about the reality of her love? If internal feelings are difficult to prove should we also say that we can't know we love someone else or know that they love us?

What of the actual fictional case that her father is dead. How can she possibly know that she loves him? Perhaps she loves manufactured granite slabs jutting out of the ground! Even more difficult, perhaps even impossible for the 5 senses, is this...how can she know now that she loved him when he was alive? And we're just talking about how she can know it (herself), not how she can prove it (to another)!

Again, this is not a dodge. It is cornering a person caught in a fallacy. People so caught tend to dismiss the challenge as a trick, rarely adding the complimentary adjective 'clever'.

CK: ...none of this in any way bolsters the belief in God

I'm not trying to make a case for God's existence at the moment — I do have other interests :-). I'm pointing out that those who (say they) rely on sense perception for all their knowledge would recant if they gave it a moment's thought. As I said, this is epistemology not theology.

Also in my reply I mentioned two other methods besides sense perception that we all routinely use to gain knowledge.

Laughing Boy said...

KP: Pascal’s Wager...doesn’t argue, or provide any support, for the existence of God.

Pascal's Wager is not intended as an argument for God's existence. Pascal was no dummy and wouldn't benefit from you or me lecturing him on basic logic. It's intended audience is those who would be ambivalent on the topic. Though it falls flat in the face of aggressive disbelief (not the intended audience), it can be quite a compelling in certain situations.

Many (actual) theistic arguments don't argue specifically for the Judeo/Christian God but rather the general concept. The power is in their cumulative effect...sorta like natural selection!

CyberKitten said...

LB said: I'm not trying to make a case for God's existence at the moment — I do have other interests :-).

I'm sure that you do - as do I (actually I find the whole God question rather boring and irrelevant - anyway...) but that was the thrust of the original post (or at least what *I* took as the thrust) that just because we can question how other people gain knowledge and hold knowledge of things - especially non-physical things like ideas, beliefs and feelings - that it somehow validates belief in the supernatural or somehow invalidates non belief in same.

Just because I might have difficulty proving to *you* that I am an atheist (some Christians of course do not believe that atheists exist - we're just pissed off with God or some such nonsense) does not mean that I'm not an atheist. Just as I doubt if you could convince me by argument alone that the God you believe in actually exists.

If you say to me that the Christian God exists but that Thor does not I have to ask how you can *show* one exists whilst the other does not. Mere assertions don't really cut it. The same for the Christian creation myth. Why is it more highly valued that the Aztec one or the Australian Aborigine? What distinguishes between the two or ten or hundred different myths to say that one is right and all of the others are wrong?

LB said: Also in my reply I mentioned two other methods besides sense perception that we all routinely use to gain knowledge.

I must have missed that bit. You mean memory and intuition? I don't think that you can gain knowledge through memory - though you can retrieve it. As to intuition.... that's a *very* hit and miss way of going about things. Isn't it rather... unreliable?

Or did you mean two other methods?

Laughing Boy said...

CK: ...that it somehow validates belief in the supernatural or somehow invalidates non belief in same.

I don't contend that acknowledging the existence of abstractions validates the existence of God. Love, justice, freedom, mathematical concepts and all other purely intellectual constructs or examples of what can't perceive with our senses, yet are acknowledged as real by most of Western civilization. By denying reality to things not verifiable via sense perception a person cuts themselves off from considering the reality of, not only God, but many of the common deliverences of reason. You are correct, there is no valdation of God here, just an invalidation of a principle used to deny God.

CK: You mean memory and intuition?

I'll take a do-over on this bit if you don't mind :-). Of the things mentioned above, love, justice, freedom, etc., by what means do we comprehend these things? Of course we may be able to "see" them in action, but we can also discuss them at length and in detail without referring to any observed or observable particular. How so?

CK: Just because I might have difficulty proving to *you* that I am an atheist...does not mean that I'm not an atheist.

You might have difficulty? That's an understatement! It's absolutely impossible to prove your atheism via sense perception, the very bar at which you insist that God be proven. But, if you would allow for knowledge via pure intellect rather than insisting on sensory validation, then, as Augustine says, what is sought has not been found, but the place has now been found where it is to be sought.

CK: If you say to me that the Christian God exists but that Thor does not...

These seem to be stock atheist talking points not particularly related to the post so I'll wait for a more relevant discussion. :-P. However, the distinguishing charateristics of the various creation myths is an interesting topic. Maybe you could do a post comparing the most popular ones and show us how similar they are and why deciding among them is so difficult. I would be grateful for your efforts.

Lorena said...

You see, the human mind can dream up a plethora of gods and mythical creatures that might possibly exist, but which are hidden from our five senses.

Yeap! The human mind is quite creative.

And even if there were a god out there, the ways in which humans have decided to portray it and worship it are most likely wrong and unnecessary. So, why bother?

CyberKitten said...

LB said: Love, justice, freedom, mathematical concepts and all other purely intellectual constructs or examples of what can't perceive with our senses, yet are acknowledged as real by most of Western civilization.

They are 'real' in the sense that we understand the concepts and can hold them in our minds. They are not real in the same way that rocks & people are real.

LB said: By denying reality to things not verifiable via sense perception a person cuts themselves off from considering the reality of, not only God, but many of the common deliverences of reason.

Only if you are confusing things that are physically real and ideas which are not. They are two *very* different things.

LB said: we can also discuss them at length and in detail without referring to any observed or observable particular. How so?

Because they are ideas and concepts held in common. Once we agree that we are talking about the same thing we can quite happily discuss abstractions. Its why we can tell and understand stories. We can hold, and often enjoy holding, strange ideas in our minds - even ideas which we *know* are fantastical and unreal.

LB said: It's absolutely impossible to prove your atheism via sense perception, the very bar at which you insist that God be proven.

Are you saying then that it is *impossible* to prove anything or just impossible to prove ideas by 'sense perception'? Would it be possible to prove anything through argument & debate? If such things are, as you say, impossible then how can people change their minds/beliefs about something?

Do you honestly think that I am *not* an atheist? If so how did you come to that conclusion? If you do believe that I am an atheist what did I say/type to convince you of that fact?

LB said: if you would allow for knowledge via pure intellect rather than insisting on sensory validation..

The problem with knowledge derived from 'pure' intellect (as if *any* intellect is pure!) is a bit like driving a car with its axles up on blocks - you go nowhere fast. Intellectual endeavour without at least some reference to the real world very easily goes astray.

LB said: Maybe you could do a post comparing the most popular ones and show us how similar they are and why deciding among them is so difficult. I would be grateful for your efforts.

I'll let you know if I ever get around to it.

Laughing Boy said...

Lorena: And even if there were a god out there, the ways in which humans have decided to portray it and worship it are most likely wrong and unnecessary. So, why bother?

See Pascal's Wager.

If most are wrong, does it follow that it's not worth the bother to find out which is right? If you play Russian roulette and you know the the active chamber contains a bullet, wouldn't it be at least worth the effort to give the cylinder a spin?

CK: I'll get back to you soon.

CyberKitten said...

LB said: See Pascal's Wager.

Always good for a laugh that one....

Laughing Boy said...

CK: Always good for a laugh that one....

How so, in the context of Lorena's comment? Remember that it's not an argument for God's existence (so don't bother saying it doesn't prove anything, we know that already) but a purely pragmatic decision based on the possibilities open to the fence-sitting agnostic.

As I've said before, most people I've met on blogs say they are atheists but they won't make any truth claims about God's non-existence, which makes them, IMHO, not atheists but agnostics, who won't admit to more than not being sure one way or the other. For people such as that (as in Lorena's comment), what's silly about Pascal's Wager?

Laughing Boy said...

Re: your previous comments CK, I'm not sure I'm thinking sharply enough to make my point, but I'll try.

What I'm trying to get at is the fallacy of the requirement of empirical verification of all truth. Kevin, it seems, wants God to be seen or heard (or smelled or touched, or tasted). Since God is not forthcoming in meeting Kevin's requirements Kevin seems to think he can confidently conclude that God does not exist...solely on the fact that God is not perceived by the 5 senses, as if God were some object in the universe.

We all know that there are realms common enough to us all that are not empirically verifiable yet we claim knowledge about them. For example, your atheism. Now you can, of course, speak audibly and we could hear you say "I'm an atheist". You could write it down the words and we could see it. (Neither of these are actual representations of your state of mind, but let's not worry about that.) Is your atheism a fact before you present evidence for verification or only after the evidence has been seen and verified? Is it a fact only because it could be verified (if it could be) or is it a fact regardless? If not, why not? If so, how so?

Your indulgence of my dullness is appreciated.

CyberKitten said...

LB said: Remember that it's not an argument for God's existence (so don't bother saying it doesn't prove anything, we know that already) but a purely pragmatic decision based on the possibilities open to the fence-sitting agnostic.

Oh, there are *so* many problems with Pascals Wager....

Firstly he makes a fundamental assumption (and major error) by posing the issue as an either/or proposition. Either believe in God (and hopefully be saved) or don't (and possibly be damned). Damnation obviously being *much* worse than wasting your time believing in something that possibly might not exist - basically the risk is just too great....

Except that things are really not that simple... It is not just a case of choosing between the Christian God and non-belief. What happens if God is not the Christian variety? What if God is actually Zeus who would be mighty peeved with you if you chose the Christian God over Him? In that case taking the Wager gets you precisely nowhere.

Then of course there is the issue of *why* you're making the choice - through fear of the consequences you hedge your bets by believing in God. If *I* was God I'd get rather annoyed at that kind of cynical calculation. It would definitely *not* be a way into Heaven in my Universe! [laughs]

That's two reasons off the top of my head why the Wager is silly and quite laughable.

LB said: As I've said before, most people I've met on blogs say they are atheists but they won't make any truth claims about God's non-existence, which makes them, IMHO, not atheists but agnostics, who won't admit to more than not being sure one way or the other.

AFAIK an Agnostic is someone who does not think that the God Question can be answered and therefore withholds making a definitive statement about His existence. An Atheist meanwhile simply does not believe in God. Some Atheists actively say that God does not exist. I have been known to make these statements myself. However, a more defensible position is that I do not believe that God exists because there is no evidence (that I am aware of) nor any credible argument (that I have heard) to convince me otherwise. I am not an Agnostic because I believe that the God Question can indeed be answered with sufficient confidence.

LB said: Kevin seems to think he can confidently conclude that God does not exist...solely on the fact that God is not perceived by the 5 senses, as if God were some object in the universe.

I agree with him. There is no evidence for the existence of God. Therefore it is reasonable to conclude that God does not exist - in the same way that we can conclude that Elves do not exist...

LB said: We all know that there are realms common enough to us all that are not empirically verifiable yet we claim knowledge about them.

Realms?

LB said: Is your atheism a fact before you present evidence for verification or only after the evidence has been seen and verified?

It is a fact *before* I present any evidence. It is a belief that exists within my own mind. If I never told anyone else I would still be an Atheist. If I hid my belief and went through the motions of religious practice because of fear of persecution I would still be an Atheist. If it could not be verified by anyone else I would still be an Atheist. My Atheism is not an object in the universe, it is not a 'thing' that can be examined or dissected. It is a belief. I guess that it might be theoretically possible to examine the neural pathways in my brain to show where my Atheism was though - which is a fairly interesting thought.... [muses]

Laughing Boy said...

[Sorry guys, somehow this bit escaped my notice. I apologize, CK, for accusing you of tossing out stock atheist talking points when it was plainly in the original post and relevant. I'm getting old or something. CK: I have not read your latest response yet.]

Kevin/CK: To convince me that Thor exists, one of the things you have to do is present arguments that specifically provide support, in terms of verifiable evidence, for Thor. In other words, you have to show that Thor exists outside the confines of the human mind...

Does "outside of the human mind" mean "some place on earth"? If we want to verify the existence of an distant galaxy, we need to look where we'd expect to see it, through a telescope in a certain part of the sky, and not expect it to come to us on our terms, right? We can't just sit on the sofa and say "prove yourself, Alpha Centauri!" Given the proposed nature of Thor, how would we expect him to be made manifest? How and where would we "look" for this verification? This is not a rhetorical question. What methods of verification would be in keeping with the nature of the substance of Thor and which would not? There must be some methods, right? Even if Thor exists only in the confines of the mind, isn't it still be possible to determine whether or not Thor is a rational proposition? Is the mind off limits to rational investigation? Why abandon such investigation by simply requiring that all existing things show themselves to our senses?

These creatures and gods all have an equal possibility of existing.

I don't think so. If simply positing some undetectable creature was all it took to confound our system of logical deduction and reasoning we'd be in sorry shape.

CyberKitten said...

LB said: Why abandon such investigation by simply requiring that all existing things show themselves to our senses?

But how can we investigate something if we have nothing of substance to investigate? We can think about the *idea* of something but where does that get us? How can we determine if something exists unless there is evidence that it exists?

LB said: Even if Thor exists only in the confines of the mind, isn't it still be possible to determine whether or not Thor is a rational proposition?

How exactly would we determine if Thor, God or Pixies are rational propositions? In the 10th Century I'm sure that Norsemen thought that belief in Thor was very rational. I'm pretty sure that today most Scandinavians would not agree.

Laughing Boy said...

How can we determine if something exists unless there is evidence that it exists?

I agree that there must be evidence, but must that evidence be physical in nature? What physical evidence is there for quarks? There is only indirect, inferential, and theoretical evidence. Philosophical evidence, if you will. They explain observed effects and therefore are ascribed certain attributes as required to fulfill that function. Electrons are, I believe, another example. Are quarks and electrons therefore fictional? Could they be anything we want them to be? Could we ascribe attributes willy-nilly without recourse?

I'm sure that Norsemen thought that belief in Thor was very rational. I'm pretty sure that today most Scandinavians would not agree.

Are you saying that Scandinavians today have sensory evidence unavailable to their 10th Century ancestors and that alone is why they have (or so we assume) ceased to believe in Thor? Was the philosophical case for Thor compelling in the 10th Century? Is it compelling now but for modern science? I get the feeling you doubt that Thor's existence could be refuted philosophically, and that we must go to meteorology (and learn of the natural source of thunder) to do so.

Socrates made a case against the multitude of Greek gods in his day without the aid modern science or any reliance on physical evidence. We should be able to do the same, whether it's to refute a proposition or to endorse it.

CyberKitten said...

LB said: I agree that there must be evidence, but must that evidence be physical in nature?

It certainly helps...

LB said: What physical evidence is there for quarks? There is only indirect, inferential, and theoretical evidence. Philosophical evidence, if you will.

I wouldn't call it 'philosophical' evidence. Indirect, inferential, and theoretical yes.... (and probably mathematical too as much is at that level of reality...)

LB said: Electrons are, I believe, another example. Are quarks and electrons therefore fictional?

Now *that* is an interesting question!

LB said: Could they be anything we want them to be? Could we ascribe attributes willy-nilly without recourse?

I don't think it works that way...

LB said: Are you saying that Scandinavians today have sensory evidence unavailable to their 10th Century ancestors and that alone is why they have (or so we assume) ceased to believe in Thor?

I shouldn't think so. Just that what people thought of as rational 1000 years ago is not what (most) people think of as rational today.

LB said: Socrates made a case against the multitude of Greek gods in his day without the aid modern science or any reliance on physical evidence. We should be able to do the same, whether it's to refute a proposition or to endorse it.

Indeed. But after the intellecualising then what? Can a good *theoretical* idea stand on its own? Not without reference to the real world I think....

Trey said...

LB, I have a strong appreciation for the argument that you’re making, but I ultimately fall more in line with CK. Here’s why (and please forgive the length of the response):

When it comes to Alpha Centauri, I can, without too much difficulty, (1) obtain research, documentation, photographs, and data regarding current knowledge on Alpha Centauri, and (2) interview others in the field as to what they know about Alpha Centauri. The cross-section of all this information would tend to prove that Alpha Centauri exists rather than not. However, we could all be raving lunatics and suffering from mass hallucination at the same time. Even in light of this possibility, one could state that Alpha Centauri exists within a certain confidence interval. One might also say that Pixies do not exist for the same reasons (i.e. no documentable evidence and no personal experience of Pixies), although, again, we could all be raving lunatics and it is our mass hallucination refusal-to-see-the-Pixies that prevent us from understanding the “Truth”. (Some good fantasy/sci-fi is sometimes based on this premise)

In fact, one could argue that all knowledge in based upon this basic premise. While I have not run experiments myself to demonstrate General Relativity to my personal satisfaction, debated with Socrates as to what exactly is “Justice”, or met George Washington personally, I can say that all of these things exist or have existed based upon information I can find and people who are experts – at least with a reasonable degree of certainty that allows me to live my life without constant questioning. With UFOs and Pixies, on the other hand, I feel confident in reserving judgment.

“Aha!” says the Theist, “I’ve got you! God exists as evidenced by (1) the Bible and (2) the indwelling of the Holy Spirit through believers, whom you can interact with! (and possibly (3) Prayer, although this may fall somewhere between (1) and (2)).”

The problem here is that what I have described previously is a more “objective” experience, while the Theist is arguing from a more “subjective” experience. Admittedly, while I can not convince flat-earthers that the world is indeed spherical, I can review the same data and testimony with the flat-earther in “real time”. I could theoretically rocket out into space with the flat-earther for us both to see the Earth for ourselves. Yet, they may still say the Earth is flat, because from far enough away the Earth looks like a flat disk! But I digress…we can reach a consensus on the best information that is currently available and draw a conclusion – rightly or wrongly.

In comparison, the Bible, being a collection of documents some 2,000 to 6,000 years old, is hardly “real time” and describes many things that are just simply not the common experience of many people or things that can be independently verified. Of course, I don’t mean things like archeological ruins underneath present-day Jerusalem or the existence of the Isrealites today (which one could argue the Bible does verify) so much as talking donkeys, angels, burning bushes, “fire from heaven”, a world flood, virgin births, a day that was lengthened to more than 24 hours or even, dare I say, a literal Resurrection. And, while I can interview other Theists on their deeply held convictions and personal feelings, these are still not things we can all gather round and independently verify no more than I can demonstrate that I love Rocky Road ice cream (and therefore you should, too). Consequently, some would, in an unkind fashion, call the Theists raving lunatics suffering from mass hallucination. I generally am uncomfortable doing so, yet I am not comfortable signing up with the Theist, either.

In other words, the Universe seems more or less willing to lay itself open to common experience and respectful examination. God, or Gods, or Pixies, on the other hand, apparently don’t. I don’t mean this as a power play or anything intentionally disrespectful, it’s just that the alleged revelation seems lacking. Yes, there is the “God has been revealed through what he has made, such that men are without excuse” (my bad paraphrase from Romans) and similar Biblical ideas, but these are still old, faith-based assertions without verifiable evidence. Arguably, an entity such as God cannot be known to limited human beings without his willing participation and direct revelation, and allegedly He has done this…in a very elusive way? Through a Resurrection 2,000 years ago? Through a parting of the Red Sea 5,000 years ago? Through a world flood some indeterminate time ago? Through the subjective individual experience of prayer and “miracles”? With no apparent revelation in our time (unless, of course, the Mormons or some other religions are correct)?

So, while I believe LB’s points on epistemology are very well taken, at the same time all we can do is do the best we can with what we have as limited human beings. And based on what we have, I can’t say the Christian is any more “right” that the Muslim, the Pagan, or the Atheist. I’m not trying to call God out and demand that he submit to my will or anything, but compared the vast world around us readily available, God still seems to be, in KP’s apt words, the “Omnipresent Recluse”.

“First of all, you must understand that in the last days scoffers will come, scoffing and following their own evil desires. They will say, "Where is this 'coming' he promised? Ever since our fathers died, everything goes on as it has since the beginning of creation." (2 Peter 2:3-4) “Then the LORD answered Job out of the storm. He said: "Who is this that darkens my counsel with words without knowledge? Brace yourself like a man; I will question you, and you shall answer me. Where were you when I laid the earth's foundation? Tell me, if you understand. Who marked off its dimensions? Surely you know! Who stretched a measuring line across it? On what were its footings set, or who laid its cornerstone- while the morning stars sang together and all the angels shouted for joy?” (Job 38:1-7).

With all due respect, I don’t consider myself a scoffer, neither am I trying to elevate myself above God. Perhaps, ultimately, I am somewhat sad about the fact that since I have honest questions and difficulties, the Biblical text (and other Christians) make me out to be a troublemaker.

Laughing Boy said...

CK: I don't think it works that way...

Nor do I. That's why the Flying Spaghetti Monster, the Celestial Teapot, and other similar fabrications don't bear any weight. Given the evidence that the proposition is intended to explain, it must have certain characteristics, must not have others, and still others might be irrelevant. These characteristics can then be tested against current and future discoveries.

CK: ...what people thought of as rational 1000 years ago is not what (most) people think of as rational today.

How has the definition of rationality changed in the intervening millennium? I believe the definition has not changed, but that ideas once considered rational may become irrational with the discovery of previously unknown facts. This is certainly the claim most atheists make against theism, that it has become untenable in the face of scientific discoveries. I haven't heard that the foundation of rationality has moved (except by adherents of some form of relativism which might deny rationality—but a consistent atheist probably can't also be a relativist.)

CK: Can a good *theoretical* idea stand on its own? Not without reference to the real world I think....

I agree. Without reference to the real world a good theoretical idea, though it may be true (by sheer luck), is meaningless. We may be drifting into waters deeper than the topic at hand requires (or that I am able to tread). I'd be satisfied if I've made my point that requiring physical, sensory evidence for any belief is not only mistaken, but that it's not actually practiced even by those who espouse the view—and further that it is impossible to do so.

john said...

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CyberKitten said...

LB said: I'd be satisfied if I've made my point that requiring physical, sensory evidence for any belief is not only mistaken, but that it's not actually practiced even by those who espouse the view—and further that it is impossible to do so.

Erm.. I think you're yet to make that point. Sure you *can* believe things without any evidence but so what? I can believe I can fly - but that doesn't help much as I'm falling from a 10th story window. When erroneous beliefs meet reality its the beliefs that end up covered in their own blood.

Beliefs are verifiable - at least *some* are. If I believe that the sun will come up tomorrow morning all that I need to do is wait for it to happen. If however I believe that 3,000 years ago one of my ancestors was Zeus who impregnated my great, great great great etc grandmother in the form of a swan... I'm going to have a hard time proving that - though it might have no impact on my belief in its veracity.

LB said: This is certainly the claim most atheists make against theism, that it has become untenable in the face of scientific discoveries.

Theism has most certainly suffered at the hands of science - unless the theist goes through all kinds of contortions. Many have retreated into a 'God of the gaps' stance - except that year on year the gaps get smaller and smaller. Theism, I think is being left with progressively less and less explanatory power. What exactly is Theism good for any more? Nothing as far as I'm concerned.

Lorena said...

"If most are wrong, does it follow that it's not worth the bother to find out which is right? If you play Russian roulette and you know the the active chamber contains a bullet, wouldn't it be at least worth the effort to give the cylinder a spin?"

I think that people who play Russian roulette are idiots. And if there is a God, I doubt it that She'd be an idiot. So your logic really doesn't follow.

Laughing Boy said...

CK: Sure you *can* believe things without any evidence but so what?

Why do you keep responding as if I advocate holding beliefs without evidence? Where have I said this? We just differ (I think) over what constitutes evidence. I think it includes more than just sensory observation.

CK: Theism has most certainly suffered at the hands of science...Many have retreated into a 'God of the gaps' stance - except that year on year the gaps get smaller and smaller.

Nobody's 'retreating' into a god-of-the-gaps stance due to scientific advance. That doesn't even make sense! Why would anybody retreat to a position to escape the erosion of that very position?

God-of-the-gaps (GOTG) has rightly collapsed, as it untenably posited God as the immediate cause of unexplained phenomena when He is, of course, the ultimate cause of all phenomena, explained or not.

The idea that closing the gaps with scientific understanding is simultaneously destroying all reasons for God is based on a faulty understanding of the concept of God. In a way I'm glad most atheists (even the most prominent and supposedly 'bright') train all their fire on that target, since it was never of any real value and has no effect on any 'properly positioned' theist. It has the additional benefit of closing off that blind alley for the next generation of theists, forcing them to take more promising paths.

Thank you, Richard Dawkins!

CyberKitten said...

LB said: We just differ (I think) over what constitutes evidence. I think it includes more than just sensory observation.

That's certainly one crux of the matter - What exactly counts as credible evidence? I've had discussions before with Theists where I have asked for any evidence for their stand and received some *very* strange examples of what they consider to be evidence!

LB said: Nobody's 'retreating' into a god-of-the-gaps stance due to scientific advance. That doesn't even make sense!

Again I have debated with Christians online who have done exactly that. I agree with you that it makes no sense.

LB said: it untenably posited God as the immediate cause of unexplained phenomena when He is, of course, the ultimate cause of all phenomena, explained or not.

Easy to say - impossible to prove.

Laughing Boy said...

CK: ...impossible to prove

Unnecessary to prove. It's not a scientific hypothesis.

***

This has been interesting thread. Though there is much more to say, I'd like to add just one final thought.

Are there such things as fundamental beliefs? A fundamental belief would be fundamental in the sense that it is not founded or built on another belief. In other words it is a belief that is argued from but cannot be argued to.

(Kevin, I hope you don't mind if I use you as an example.)

Kevin has said that he believes in Cori because he can see, hear, and touch her. But all he can prove from that is that there is a physical object in the universe that occupies the space designated as 'Cori'. However I think Kevin would agree that Cori is more than an object. Cori has a mind from which proceeds her unique personality. I assume Kevin believes in Cori's mind as well as her body, yet he does so without any of the evidence he has sited for believing in her. (I don't fault Kevin for this since no one has yet offered a good argument confirming the existence of other minds...and many of the 'best' philosophers have tried.) So is it not rational for Kevin to believe in Cori's mind (or even his own!)? I assume not.

This is a fundamental belief. He did not withhold judgement on Cori's (or anyone else's) having a mind until he had gathered sufficient evidence. He perceived it, he believed it. He also perceived her physical appearance with other senses. Why then should Kevin, or anyone else limit valid (i.e. rational) perceptions to those coming through the eyes, the ears, etc.?

Cutting to the chase, why can't God be perceived in the same way we perceive other minds? (Which is not to say without evidence!) Why can't belief in God be foundational? Why should the theist be required to provide "pre-foundational" support for her foundational belief in God in order to earn the stamp of rationality?

***

Making this idea clear requires, as Parmenides said, "an ocean of words" and I have neither the time, nor the will, nor the requisite grasp of the concepts to do so.

I especially wanted to respond to Trey's comments, but that will have to wait. I hope to write my own post in response shortly, but may be a week or so until I have time. Keep an eye on my blog if you're interested.

Laughing Boy said...

Lorena: I think that people who play Russian roulette are idiots. And if there is a God, I doubt it that She'd be an idiot.

In my analogy it's not God who's playing Russian roulette, but the fence-sitting agnostic. God, in this case, is the gun.

CyberKitten said...

LB said: Unnecessary to prove. It's not a scientific hypothesis.

Indeed it isn't.

How about: Easy to say, impossible to demonstrate....

LB said: Are there such things as fundamental beliefs? A fundamental belief would be fundamental in the sense that it is not founded or built on another belief. In other words it is a belief that is argued from but cannot be argued to.

You mean beliefs without foundations? I understand that Euclidian geometry is one such 'belief' as the foundations are actually assertions or assumptions. So I suggest that it is certainly possible to have such fundamental beliefs - the problem remains though as to how exactly you would *demonstrate* these beliefs - short of simply asserting them.

LB said: Cutting to the chase, why can't God be perceived in the same way we perceive other minds? (Which is not to say without evidence!)

Actually we have no direct evidence for other minds - all of our evidence is circumstantial and indirect along with a heavy dose of assumption. Yet we have *much* more reaon to believe in their existence than in the existence of God - for which even a whiff of circumstantial evidence does not exist.

LB said: Why should the theist be required to provide "pre-foundational" support for her foundational belief in God in order to earn the stamp of rationality?

Because without any kind of support a theist is merely *asserting* their belief and nothing else. I think that's why they call it faith and that's why I reject it.

LB said: I hope to write my own post in response shortly, but may be a week or so until I have time. Keep an eye on my blog if you're interested.

I actually check your Blog most days....

LB said: In my analogy it's not God who's playing Russian roulette, but the fence-sitting agnostic. God, in this case, is the gun.

A gun I do not believe exists - nor which I would respond to by believing in God because of its perceived threat - something which I do not respond well to.

gip-k said...

Even as a Christian, I couldn't agree with you more that Pascal's Wager is utter nonsense. I don't want to be a Christian "just in case" Christianity may be right and I "might" go to hell. Otherwise, I should be afraid to reject Islam- as most Christians do, often in a very casual and offhand manner- because I might miss out on their paradise. Or, I could be missing out on the real Messiah, because, as Jews believe, Jesus wasn't it. Pascal's Wager could be used to argue for any God, anywhere.

Though, like a previous poster said, I doubt that Pascal ever intended to prove the Christian God by this- if he had any sense in his head- but rather he wanted to challenge you that there might be "something." Once you believe the basic thing, that maybe there is "something" it opens you up to perhaps believing in the Christian God.