arguments for God

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Resource Review: “Flight: The Genius of Birds”

FLIGHTBRD-1Flight: The Genius of Birds” is the latest from Illustra Media, “a non-profit 501 (c)(3) corporation specializing in the production of video documentaries that examine the scientific evidence for intelligent design.” In this film, the argument is made that the complexities of avian flight present a challenge to naturalistic scenarios in which such mechanisms may have arisen.

The Complexity of Birds

The film traces the incredible development of birds from single cells into babies and the way in which their bodies must work in order to achieve flight. One of the people interviewed in the film notes that flight is not an incremental phenomenon; the entire body must be set up in order to accomplish it. The way feet work, the shape of the wing, the structure of muscles, and the weight of bones are all factors which must come into play in order to make up an animal capable of flight.

Hummingbirds

“Flight” presents a number of different birds as case studies the complexity which the systems that make up a bird show. Hummingbirds’ flight muscles comprise, on average, 43% of the bird’s body mass. This allows the birds to have an enormous amount of precision in order to move in the ways that they can, such as hovering, moving backwards, laterally, etc. The hummingbird generates lift both on the back and the front strokes of their wings. This capability is grounded in the shoulder joints found in the bones which are at the bases of the wings. The hummingbird’s heart must beat at an enormous rate, which means that it also must eat quite a bit in order to sustain the energy level required for the bird’s metabolism and constant movement. The hummingbird’s tongue is particularly interesting, for it has a number of functions on it which allow it to draw up nectar far more efficiently than had been thought.

European Starlings

These starlings, sometimes flying in groups in the hundreds of thousands, move in a stirring, beautiful way, seeming to shift as if they comprised one organism. The way that these birds continue flying without running into each other is by monitoring those starlings which are closest to each other. Rather than monitoring the entire formation, they simply move when those around them move, which lends itself to the movement of a flock as one kind of organism. Their movements must take place within very minuscule spans of time in order to maintain the formation. They follow air flows to minimize the turbulence they encounter, and their formation also serves as a defense mechanism.

Arctic Terns

Arctic terns have the longest migration of any animal on earth. They cross the planet from pole-to-pole to seek out nesting and feeding grounds. From the North Atlantic, they head south, eventually splitting as half go along the African coast while the other half goes along the coast of Brazil. In the south, near Antartica, they feast upon small fish before heading back north. They must arrive back near Greenland and other areas in the north for a nesting period of about 8 weeks. Then, as winter sets in in the north, they head back south.

How did the complexity arise?

The film here presents an argument that a materialist must use Darwinian evolution to explain the unique functions of flight. No design may be invoked in order to explain these things in a materialistic worldview. Dinosaurs were the precursors of birds, and natural selection selected for those dinosaurs which began to develop better means by which to avoid predators and catch prey.

The Feather

One feather may contain around a million individual parts, from the shaft to the individual strands, barbs, which compose the feather, and each of these are made up of barbules. These are constructed in such a way as to interlock with each other. Yet the feather is but one of the many factors which must go into the mechanisms required for flight.

Other Mechanisms

Other than those already noted (muscles, bones, etc.), birds require a navigational system which allows them to migrate and follow food. They must have instincts to cue and direct their movements across continents and even oceans. One could see how these latter functions came into play in the case study of the Arctic Terns.

Natural Selection?

The film makes the argument that natural selection cannot account for the mechanisms required for flight. The primary problem presented by “Flight” is the “lack of foresight.” Natural selection cannot look ahead and select for various factors in order to put them together into an integrated whole. The argument is that the multiple and independent functions needed in order to get a functional bird which would have some chance at survival is impossible to get to by means of a process which is blind.

Evaluation

First, I have to say that there were moments I found myself with my mouth hanging open and the gorgeous imagery in “Flight.” This was particularly the case following the starlings’ movements, the icy regions the terns flew through, and the overall imagery related to the hummingbirds.

The use of particular case studies over the middle section of the film was particularly effective at showing the problems which may come up when trying to describe certain characteristics and behaviors which birds exemplify that cannot be explained so easily by naturalistic mechanisms.

The film also did a good job of noting that there are presuppositions when it comes to the scientific enterprise. Given naturalism, neo-Darwinism is the only game in town. However, as was asked repeatedly throughout the film, if one is capable of acknowledging design and intelligence when it comes to certain things, why should one preclude the possibility of an intelligent agent when it comes to higher orders?

One problem with the film can be found in the format. It is necessarily short, making only the briefest points and only touching upon those things which it discusses. I suspect that those who hold to a naturalistic worldview will be largely unimpressed, while those who hold to the possibility of intelligent agency in biology will see it as backing their own positions. However, those who may be on the fence will see that there are reasons to ask questions.

Overall, “Flight: The Genius of Birds” is a good way to introduce the topic of intelligent design. It is a beautiful film which raises a number of questions. However, it does so in such a way as to ground these questions in very real conditions. By using case studies focused around particular birds and the problems they may present to those operating with a naturalistic worldview, “Flight” paints the debate in such a way as to allow either side to present their case for meeting the challenges head-on.

Disclosure

I was sent a copy of Flight: The Genius of Birds to review by Illustra Media. They neither asked nor required any specific type of feedback regarding the film. My thanks to Illustra Media for the opportunity to review the film. My thanks also to them for providing the above image.

SDG.

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The preceding post is the property of J.W. Wartick (apart from citations, which are the property of their respective owners, and works of art as credited) and should not be reproduced in part or in whole without the expressed consent of the author. All content on this site is the property of J.W. Wartick and is made available for individual and personal usage. If you cite from these documents, whether for personal or professional purposes, please give appropriate citation with both the name of the author (J.W. Wartick) and a link to the original URL. If you’d like to repost a post, you may do so, provided you show less than half of the original post on your own site and link to the original post for the rest. You must also appropriately cite the post as noted above. This blog is protected by Creative Commons licensing. By viewing any part of this site, you are agreeing to this usage policy.

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William Paley (1743-1805) – Historical Apologist Spotlight

William_Paley_by_George_RomneyWilliam Paley (1743-1805) is a name which echoes through history. His Natural Theology continues to have a profound and lasting impact on the argument from biological design. His Evidences of Christianity  challenges readers on a historical and exegetical level with arguments for the faith. Unfortunately, too few have thoughtfully interacted with his arguments. Here, we will first look at Paley’s views and life. Then, we will examine his major works and arguments. We will discover there is much to learn from this intellectual giant. Note that this post is necessarily brief, and that readers are greatly encouraged to go to the primary sources found below.

Brief Biographical Note*

Paley went to school at Christ’s College and Cambridge. At the latter, he was awarded multiple times for his scholarship. He eventually became the Senior Dean at Christ’s College and was awarded a Doctorate of Divinity from Cambridge. Bishop Barrington of Durham granted him the rectory of Bishop Wearmouth. His life was strewn with accomplishments.

He was a utilitarian with deep Christian convictions. Throughout his life, he remained controversial. His utilitarianism was condemned, as was his critique of the often extreme defenses of property ownership. His anti-slavery was unpopular alongside his support of the American Colonies in the Revolutionary War.

The powerful nature of Paley’s works is revealed in the fact that his major work on utilitarianism, The Principles of Moral and Political Philosophy, became mandatory reading at Cambridge. His Natural Theology continues to be discussed in courses on philosophy of religion. The man was acclaimed by some within the church, who praised his defense of the faith despite others’ objections to his metaethical views.

His contributions to Christian apologetics are the focus of this piece, and we shall turn to them now.

Natural Theology

Paley’s most famous work nowadays is undoubtedly Natural Theology. In this work, he makes his well-known case for the design argument. He utilizes the analogy of a watch. If one finds a watch on a beach, one knows instantly that someone made the watch. Paley applied this same notion to life; one sees the sheer complexity and life and can infer that it, like the watch, was designed.

Many have dismissed Paley’s work here, noting that at points he relies on scientific explanations which have been discredited, while at others his examples have been explained. Yet the genius of his work is found in broader principles, which moderns should note. First, he argued that simply never having observed design in action on a biological level does not preclude any possibility of arguing for that same design (Natural Theology, 8, cited below). Second, evidence of things “going wrong” within a design does not invalidate the design of an object in and of itself. Third, higher level natural laws which may lead to order does not explain away the order itself. Fourth, when something appears to be designed, the burden of proof is upon those who assert an object is not designed.

These points seem to me to hold true to this day. I am sure none of them are uncontroversial, but Paley places his defense of this points squarely within his analysis of those artifacts which he considers to be designed (i.e. the eye and ear). A full treatment of these points thus must turn to his own arguments, but for now I would provide the following brief defenses. Regarding the first, this point seems obvious. If I have never seen someone construct a car, that does not in any way mean that I cannot conclude that someone had to have made it. The second point should be well taken within the context of the debate between Intelligent Design and Darwinian forms of evolution. The point is that simply pointing out a flaw in a design does not mean an entire object is undesigned. The third item seems correct because if something exhibits order, and that order is shown to be based around an ordering principle, the very order in and of itself has not been explained; instead, it is only the mechanism for generating that order which is observed. Finally, the fourth point is likely to be the most controversial–after all, appearances may deceive. Yet it does seem to be the case that if, a priori, something appears designed, then to conclude that something is not designed one must have defeating evidence for this appearance.

A View of the Evidences of Christianity

Paley’s Evidences (commonly known as “Evidences of Christianity”) became almost instantly famous. The work generated a number of summaries and expositions by other authors who were delighted with its style and the arguments contained therein. It is easy to see why, once one has begun a read through this apologetic treatise. Paley presents a number of arguments in favor of the Christian worldview. These evidences are largely historical in nature and include the suffering of those who spread Christianity as evidence for its truth, extrabiblical evidence for the truth of the Gospels, the authenticity of our Gospel accounts due to the early practices and beliefs of Christians, undesigned coincidences, and many more. Paley also provides a dismantling of David Hume’s argument against miracles.

It seems to me that any and all of these arguments retain the force they had in Paley’s own day. Consider the argument from the suffering of Christians. Well of course those of other faiths are willing to even die for that which they believe is true. But Paley rightly pointed out a huge difference between those of other faiths dying for their beliefs and the early eyewitnesses of the events surrounding Christ dying for their own beliefs. Namely, these people would know for certain whether that which they believed were true. That is, they either saw the resurrected Christ or they did not. If they did not, then explaining their willingness to die for this profession of faith becomes extremely difficult. However, if they did actually see that which they declared, their willingness to suffer unto death for this belief makes perfect sense. Many miss this important distinction even to this day. The rest of Paley’s arguments found in the Evidences is filled with insights similar to this.

Horae Paulinae

An argument which has largely been neglected within modern apologetic circles is that of “undesigned coincidences.” I have made an exposition of this argument already, and it should be noted that the best places to discover it are in the realm of historical apologetics. William Paley dedicated this work, Horae Paulinae, to discovering undesigned coincidences within the Pauline corpus alongside Paul’s history as written in Acts.

Now, the argument from undesigned coincidences takes quite a bit of work to properly outline. It is, in essence, a matter of looking through the Scriptures and finding how incidental details in one account fill in the blanks of another account. However, this description is so brief as to be simplistic. Paley himself acknowledged a number of the difficulties with describing undesigned coincidences in this way. Regarding the Pauline corpus, for example, it could be that someone invented letters from Paul but based them upon his history found in Acts. But the argument itself takes this into account and generally serves as a defeater for this notion by sheer weight of evidence. That is, the more coincidences are found, the more credulity is stretched if one wishes to assert forgery.

Paley buries the objections to undesigned coincidences in this fashion throughout the Horae Paulinae. The sheer volume of coincidences he finds, and the way they seem so clearly to be incidental, serves to dispel doubts about their genuine nature.

Other Works

Here, we have surveyed Paley’s major works, but he was a prolific writer who published sermons and of course his (in)famous work on utlitarian ethics. The preeminence of Paley as a scholar and writer is unquestionable. It is time we acknowledge how much we have to learn from those who have come before us.

Conclusion

We have seen the diverse array of arguments which Paley offered in favor of Christianity. These ranged from biological design arguments to undesigned coincidences to historical arguments in favor of the Gospels. Paley was a masterful writer whose arguments continue to influence apologists and draw ire from atheists to this day. Although the arguments have not been unscathed, I have offered a few reasons to reconsider some which have long been dismissed or forgotten. Paley’s influence endures. 

I would like to dedicate this post to Tim McGrew, who introduced me to the vast field of historical apologetics. Without his bubbling delight and enthusiasm in the field, I would never have known much–if anything–about people like Paley. It is my hope and prayer that you may also be persuaded to pursue historical apologetists/apologetics. Be sure to check the links for some good starting places.

Be sure to check out the links at the end of this post as well as the resources from Paley.

Links

Like this page on Facebook: J.W. Wartick – “Always Have a Reason.” I often ask questions for readers and give links related to interests on this site.

Library of Historical Apologetics- Here is where I got started, with Tim McGrew’s phenomenal collection of works. In particular, the “annotated bibliography” will set you up with some fine works. The site features a “spotlight” on the main page for various fantastic reads. Browse and download at will. Also check out their Facebook page.

On the Shoulders of Giants: Rediscovering the lost defenses of Christianity- I provide a number of links as well as an annotated list of historical apologetics works which are great jumping off points for learning more about the vast array of arguments which have largely been forgotten within the realm of apologetic argument. I consider this one of the most important posts on this site.

Forgotten Arguments for Christianity: Undesigned Coincidences- The argument stated- Here I outline the argument from undesigned coincidences and explain how it can be used within apologetics.

Sources

William Paley, Evidences of Christianity (this is a free link for the item on Kindle, note that it is also available for purchase in a hard copy). Also see here for a few links to PDF versions of the book.

—-, Natural Theology (Oxford World’s Classics) - This link is for the Kindle edition which I used for this post. I highly recommend this specific edition due to the helpful introduction and other information included in the text. It can be found for free here.

—-, Horae Paulinae - this link is to the kindle version. It is also available for free here.

*I am indebted to the discussion of Paley’s life found in the introduction of the Oxford Classic’s edition of Paley’s Natural Theology, which I have cited above.

SDG.

——

The preceding post is the property of J.W. Wartick (apart from citations, which are the property of their respective owners, and works of art as credited) and should not be reproduced in part or in whole without the expressed consent of the author. All content on this site is the property of J.W. Wartick and is made available for individual and personal usage. If you cite from these documents, whether for personal or professional purposes, please give appropriate citation with both the name of the author (J.W. Wartick) and a link to the original URL. If you’d like to repost a post, you may do so, provided you show less than half of the original post on your own site and link to the original post for the rest. You must also appropriately cite the post as noted above. This blog is protected by Creative Commons licensing. By viewing any part of this site, you are agreeing to this usage policy.

Debate Review: Fazale Rana vs. Michael Ruse on “The Origin of Life: Evolution vs. Design”

rana-ruse-dbFazale Rana recently debated Michael Ruse on the topic of the origin of life. Essentially, the question of the debate was whether the origin of life is best explained by naturalism or design. Here, I will provide brief comments on the debate.

Please note I make no claims to being a scientist and I am fully aware that I evaluate this debate as a lay person.

Michael Ruse Opening

Michael Ruse was careful to note that he is not keen on saying design is not possible. Rather, his claim is that naturalism is the most plausible explanation for the origins of life.

Ruse’s argued that design is implausible. Specifically, he noted that if design is the hypothesis put forward, there are any number of ways that one might consider that hypothesis. Is the designer a natural being within the universe or a supernatural being like God? Is there only one designer, or was there a group of designers (and he notes that a group of designers seems more plausible because automobiles require many designers to bring them about)? Finally, he raised the issue of bad design choices. He asked why, if there were a “hands-on” designer, would that designer not grant immunity to HIV and the like.

Ruse also argued that one can fall into the fallacy of selective attention- if one focuses upon only one example in isolation, then one might come to a conclusion that certain laws/theories may not be correct. But placing these same problems in context shows that they can be explained against “the background of our knowledge.”

Finally, Ruse ended with a number of examples for how problems which were seemingly insoluble were explained by naturalistic means. He also argued that one of the popular arguments for design, the flagellum, has so many different varieties (and is sometimes found to be a vestigial organ), and so cannot be shown to be designed.

Fazale Rana Opening

The problems which must be accounted for within an origins of life model are numerous. One must account for self-replication, the emergence of metabolism, the formation of protocells, the synthesis of prebiotic materials, the formation of life’s building blocks, and more.

Rana then turned to some primary models used by researchers to explain origin of life (hereafter OOL). First, there was the replicator-first model, which was problematic because in order for a molecule to be a self-replicator, it must be a homopolymer. But the complexity of the chemical environment on early earth rendered the generation of a homopolymer on the early earth essentially impossible. Next, the metabolism-first model runs into problem due to the chemical networks which have to be in place for metabolism. But the mineral surfaces proposed for the catalytic systems for these proto-metabolic systems cannot serve as such; Leslie Orgel held that this would have to be a “near miracle” and Rana argues that it is virtually impossible. Finally, the membrane-first model requires different steps with exacting conditions such that the model is self-defeating.

Rana argued positively that OOL requires an intelligent agent in order to occur. The reason is because the only way that any of these models can be generated is through the work on OOL in a lab. Thus, they can only be shown to be proof-of-principle and the chemistry breaks down when applied to the early earth. The fact that information is found in the cell is another evidence Rana presented for design. The systems found in enzymes with DNA function as, effectively, Turing machines. Moreover, the way that DNA finds and eliminates mistakes is machine-like as well. The fact that the needed component for success in lab experiments was intelligence hinted, according to Rana, at positive evidence for design.

Finally, Rana argued that due to the “fundamental intractable problems” with naturalistic models for the OOL and the fact that the conditions needed for the OOL and the processes required to bring it about have only been demonstrated as in-principle possible with intelligent agents manipulating the process.

First Cross Examination

At this point, Ruse and Rana engaged in a dialogue. Ruse first challenged Rana to show how the OOL model based on design could actually be based upon Genesis, as he quoted from Rana’s book (written with Hugh Ross), Origins of Life. He pointed out a few difficulties with using the Genesis account in this manner. Rana answered by putting forth his view of the Genesis account as an account of the origins of life on earth–a view which sees the Genesis account as corresponding with the scientific account (concordism). Yet the Genesis account is itself written from the perspective of a hypothetical observer found on the face of the earth rather than a perspective above the earth.

Rana asked Ruse for his thoughts on how much impact philosophy has on the debate over the OOL. He noted that it may be a presupposition of naturalism which lends itself to interpreting the OOL. Ruse answered by saying it is a good point and that philosophy cannot be denied a role in the discussion. But the question is not simply one of “gut commitments” and that one has to also take into account the scientific evidence and a “pragmatic reason” for holding to naturalism: naturalism works. It continually explains problems, even if it takes time.

Ruse Rebuttal

The difficulty with the OOL debate is that it is too easy to take things out of context in order to show how many problems there are with a model. He argued that it is “peculiar” to take the results of a group of researchers and yet somehow go “flatly” against the “overall interpretation that each and every one of these people” would have taken from the research.

Despite all the difficulties, Ruse argued, researchers are starting, slowly, to get some view of how to explain the OOL. He pointed to some successes within the OOL sciences to show how eventually we may discover a naturalistic explanation.

Rana Rebuttal

Rana began with the notion of a creation model. He argued that models are not always drawn from the data, but rather models and theories are constructed from a number of different points.

Regarding the science itself, Rana noted that there is no established source of prebiotic materials on the early earth. The popular theories for how these materials might be generated fail for a number of reasons.

The argument, Rana said, is not a god-of-the-gaps argument. Instead, it is an observation of the breadth of scientific evidence which shows that in-principle experiments have been successful, but when applied to the scenarios for the early earth, the only way for success to be achieved is through intelligent agency (scientists in a lab manipulating the conditions).

100_1912Second Cross Examination

Rana asked Ruse to respond to the notion that OOL research is similar to literary criticism in that all the different theories continue to be debated but none have come into dominance or can be established over the others. Ruse responded by noting that OOL research does have some “just so” stories but that science has taken seriously the criticisms and come towards the possibility of answering some of the questions.

Ruse asked why God would not intervene for things like cancer. Rana answered by noting that in the broad scope of a model with intelligent agency, poor design is no problem. But because Rana believes it is the God of the Bible, he says it may be a legitimate criticism of the design position. However, things which appear to be bad designs can turn out later to have some reason for the way they are used. Moreover, once a creator has put in place designs, they are subjected to the laws of nature and so they could become decayed or break down.

Ruse Closing Argument

Ruse argued that when one takes a “Biblical position” one is “not doing science any more.” If one wants to assert that the science points to miracles, then Ruse said he would argue that the nature of our experience is not “blank” in relation to the OOL, but rather that the previous successes of naturalism means we should fall back upon naturalism regarding the OOL because it has worked in so many other areas. Thus, the problem with the OOL is not with the problems themselves but rather with our own ability to solve the problems.

Rana Closing Argument

The OOL and complexity of the cell require an intelligent agency in order to account for the OOL on earth, Rana maintaned. The problems with naturalistic accounts appear to be intractable, and the role of intelligent agency in lab work cannot be ignored because that same agency is what leads to the allegedly naturalistic successes. The information found in biological systems also give evidence for design.

Finally, methodological naturalism turns science into a game to be played in which the goal is always to find a naturalistic explanation, even if none is forthcoming. Instead, science should be, in practice, open to the possibility of agency within the natural world. Ruse’s argument is essentially an appeal to the future in which the notion is just that one day the answers will come forth.

Analysis

First, I would note how pleased I was with the nature of this dialogue. Unlike some other debates, Ruse and Rana were largely cordial and even amiable towards each other. It is clear that they each had respect for the other’s work and arguments.

The debate itself was very interesting. Fazale Rana continually went back to the science and pointed out the difficulties which remained, while Ruse seemed to continually appeal to the overall success of the naturalistic paradigm. Regarding Ruse’s position, I think it was perhaps disingenuous to conflate naturalism with science,  particularly considering that very point was largely at the center of the debate. Is it indeed the case that we must be methodological naturalists? It seems that even Ruse agreed that our answer to this question will largely shape one’s interpretation of the problems and reactions to the problems brought up.

Regarding the science itself: Ruse brought up several successes which scientific research has yielded, but it seemed clear that none of these offered evidence which countered Rana’s arguments of the intractable problems for the OOL. Rana did an excellent job showing how the models which are in vogue right now for the OOL all fail on a number of levels to account naturalistically for the OOL.

Moreover, the fact that current research does rotate around the actions of intelligent agents. Given that such intelligent agents are necessary to bring about even the in-principle results for the OOL, it seems that Rana’s argument that this hints at an intelligent agent in the overall OOL schema was largely successful. It seems to me to count as positive evidence for design.

Overall, I have to say this was a great debate. I think one’s conclusions regarding the outcome of the debate largely will come down to a matter of worldview.

Links

Be sure to check out my extensive writings on the origins debate within Christianity.

The debate can be found here. It is worth a watch/listen due to the complexity of the issues involved. Or you could just watch it here:

Be sure to check out the Reasons to Believe web site, which is the organization Fazale Rana is part of.

SDG.

——

The preceding post is the property of J.W. Wartick (apart from citations, which are the property of their respective owners, and works of art as credited) and should not be reproduced in part or in whole without the expressed consent of the author. All content on this site is the property of J.W. Wartick and is made available for individual and personal usage. If you cite from these documents, whether for personal or professional purposes, please give appropriate citation with both the name of the author (J.W. Wartick) and a link to the original URL. If you’d like to repost a post, you may do so, provided you show less than half of the original post on your own site and link to the original post for the rest. You must also appropriately cite the post as noted above. This blog is protected by Creative Commons licensing. By viewing any part of this site, you are agreeing to this usage policy.

Aliens that believe in God: The theological speculations of Robert Sawyer’s “Calculating God”

The interplay between worldviews and science fiction is very strong. In any writing, an author’s viewpoint will show through, but I think that it is particularly true in sci-fi. For in science fiction, the author is most frequently presenting a view of the world as it should be or as it should not be. The speculative future can be used as a foil through which the reader views reality in a new way. Often, science fiction will touch upon theological issues.

Robert Sawyer’s Calculating God utilizes science fiction in an extremely thought-provoking way to discuss the possibility and meaning of God in our universe. Before diving in I need to make to things clear. First, just because I analyze a book like this does not mean that I think that everything in it is theologically sound by any means (and believe me, it is not). Second, there will be extremely HUGE PLOT SPOILERS ahead. For those who are just interested in seeing how science fiction can explore faith issues, read on!

Fine Tuning

The most immediately striking and pervasive theme of Calculating God is that aliens show up on earth, and they believe in God. In fact, they take the existence of God to be a scientific certainty. The main character of the book, a paleontologist named Tom Jericho, is very skeptical throughout. Here’s the kicker, though, the aliens have been convinced of the existence of God through the evidence–specifically, the fine-tuning argument. Said argument is presented throughout the course of the book in interactions between Tom and Hollus, an alien paleontologist.

What is surprising is how much depth the book goes into while exploring the argument. Yes, Sawyer does fudge the argument a bit by allowing the aliens the possibility of a grand unified theory of science as well as a few other fictionalized aspects of the argument, but overall the fine-tuning argument he presents is very similar to the modern fine-tuning argument.

Not only that, but the characters Sawyer created go to great lengths to explore objections to and defenses of the fine tuning argument. For example, there is a discussion on p. 144ff (mass market paperback edition) in which Hollus and Tom discuss some objections to fine tuning. Tom is arguing against the probability of God:

“All the actions you ascribe to God could have been the doing of advanced aliens” [said Tom].

“There are… problems with your argument,” said Hollus, politely. “[E]ven if you dispense with the need for a god in recent events–events of the last few billion years; events after other conscious observers had emerged in this universe–you have done nothing to dispense with the relative strengths of the five fundamental forces [its science fiction, so there is an extra force], who designed the thermal and other properties of water, and so on. And therefore what you are doing is contrary to the razor of Occam you spoke of: you are increasing, not reducing the number of entities that have influenced your existence…”

The book is replete with debates like this, and the inevitable conclusion is that, shock of all shocks, God exists. I don’t say that sarcastically, I mean that I was genuinely surprised that the book affirmed God exists. But what kind of God?

God Exists… but?

It should be clear that in Calculating God, God is nowhere near the God of classical theism. In fact, one could almost argue that what Sawyer has offered here is a materialistic supplanting of God. The “god” of this work is essentially a super-powerful alien which is capable of swallowing the enormous energy output of a supernova, while also capable of designing our biology and fixing the constants of the universe during the early stages of the Big Bang.

God’s action is described purely in non-transcendent language. For example, the aliens confirm that god caused ice ages and mass extinctions on all the planets with intelligent life. The way this was accomplished was a matter of some speculation–perhaps God generated a dust cloud by using particles from across the galaxy to shield the planets from light and lower the temperature, or perhaps God redirected an asteroid or two to send them hurtling at the planets with life that needed a ‘jump start’ of evolution (146ff).

So why think that this is an image of god supplanting the classical theistic God? Well, clearly many who use the teleological argument are intending for it to point towards a creator God. What Sawyer has offered is a more naturalistic explanations of these events. Yes, there is a ‘god’ in the sense of a being capable of tampering with the very fabric of our universe, but that ‘god’ is itself trapped within the spatio-temporal boundaries of the known universe. In fact, god is said to subsist by recreating itself via a kind of reproductive method and passing one generation through a Big Crunch (think of a bouncing universe model).

Now what?

Calculating God offers a unique look at theology from a science fiction perspective. The fine tuning argument is presented in full force–even enhanced by some fudging of the science–and it leads to the inevitable conclusion that god exists. Yet this ‘god’ is not at all amenable to the god of Christianity or classical theism. So what should we do with this book?

Well, it is important to note that it is a work of fiction. The author clearly adds in some extra ‘fluff’ to make the fine tuning argument more powerful than it is (and I think it is quite powerful as it stands). And really Sawyer’s shoehorning in of a materialistic entity that is able to fiddle with physics boils down to hand-waving. Again, it is fiction, but it is important to note that Sawyer’s attempt to supplant the God of classical theism simply doesn’t work. Think of it this way: how would a purely physical being, however powerful, manage to transcend the physical universe in such a way as to literally rewrite the laws of physics? Extremely interesting science fiction? Yes. Compelling argument? No.

So where are we left? Sawyer does present the fine tuning argument in a way that is quite compelling, even when one strips away all the layers of fiction over it. It seems to me that, at a minimum, readers are left with a rock in their shoe: how do we explain away all this fine tuning without going beyond the cosmos? Sawyer’s own proffered answer, while entertaining fiction, remains that: fiction.

Other Issues

I have not yet even begun to delve into the depths of Sawyer’s Calculating God. The book covers an extremely broad array of topics related to science and faith as well as the secular-religious [false] dichotomy.  For example, he discusses abortion in a few places, and I think the view the characters favor is very inconsistent. There is also some clear portrayal of the religious “other” as only a fundamentalist who seeks to halt scientific advancements. Yes, Sawyer panders to Christians in a few places, but the overall look at religious persons seems to be fairly negative (apart from Tom’s wife).  I wish I could do justice to each of these topics, so I think I may follow this post up with another touching on more. For now…

Conclusion

Ultimately, Sawyer’s work is a simply phenomenal read. The amount of scientific, ethical, and religious issues upon which it touches is stunning, and readers will be forced to deal with the argument. Sawyer has done an excellent job using fiction for what I think it is called to do: inspire, entice, and force thought. Readers will be uncomfortable. The work will challenge people to really think about the arguments, and to think about the offered solutions.

Links

I have discussed the use of science fiction in showing how religious persons act. Check out Religious Dialogue: A case study in science fiction with Bova and Weber.

What would it mean if we discovered life? I have reflected on the possibility: Alien Life: Theological reflections on life on other planets.

Our Spooky Universe- I make the case for the intelligent design argument for the existence of God, which is heavily used throughout Calculating God.

Check out my other looks at popular level books. (Scroll down to see more!)

Source

Robert Sawyer, Calculating God Mass Market Paperback Edition (New York: TOR, 2000).

SDG.

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The preceding post is the property of J.W. Wartick (apart from citations, which are the property of their respective owners, and works of art as credited) and should not be reproduced in part or in whole without the expressed consent of the author. All content on this site is the property of J.W. Wartick and is made available for individual and personal usage. If you cite from these documents, whether for personal or professional purposes, please give appropriate citation with both the name of the author (J.W. Wartick) and a link to the original URL. If you’d like to repost a post, you may do so, provided you show less than half of the original post on your own site and link to the original post for the rest. You must also appropriately cite the post as noted above. This blog is protected by Creative Commons licensing. By viewing any part of this site, you are agreeing to this usage policy.

Our Spooky Universe: Fine-Tuning and God

The Fine-Tuning Argument for the existence of God has been acknowledged as one of the most powerful arguments for theism. Proponents of this argument, also known as the teleological argument note that our universe is “spooky.” So many facets of our universe appear designed. It is startling to me to read about many of these in literature and realize that the very fingers of God seem apparent in these qualities of our universe. The way that these pieces fit together should not be viewed as independent variables. Any theory which seeks to explain the features of our universe must take into account the full range of factors.

The Argument Stated

The fine-tuning argument for the existence of God can be stated fairly simply:

1) The fine-tuning of the universe is due to either physical necessity, chance, or design

2) It is not due to physical necessity or chance

3) Therefore, it is due to design (Craig 1, 161 cited below)

The first premise turns on the notion of “fine-tuning”–something which is widely acknowledged to exist. It is the explanation of this fine-tuning that becomes controversial. Before trying to offer a way forward in this controversy, it will be prudent to list some of these evidences for fine tuning. Finally, before diving it it should be noticed that this argument can be seen probabilistically: that is, one should view it in light of which is more probable- are the properties we observe more probable in a universe that came about by chance, design, or necessity?

Various Evidences for Fine-Tuning

There are any number of independent, fine-tuned factors which make our universe capable of sustaining life. Without these factors in place, our universe would be uninhabited, and we would not exist.

Low Entropy

If the entropy in our universe were high, then the energy required for life to function would be distributed in such a way as to make the complexity required for life impossible. In order to determine the likelihood of a life-permitting range for a universe, Roger Penrose calculated the total entropy in our universe as “equal to the total number of baryons (protons and neutrons) in the universe… times the entropy per baryon… which yields a total entropy of 10^123.” This means that our universe falls within a range of accuracy regarding entropy of one part in 10 to the 10th to the 123rd power, 10^10^123. As Penrose put it, “the Creator’s aim must have been… to an accuracy of one part in 10^10^123″ (quoted in Spitzer, 58).

The Existence of Matter

The very existence of matter is something which cries out for explanation. Why? Well, to put it as simply as possible, the basic particles of matter, quarks and anti-quarks form via pair production. They annihilate each other.

However, during the Big Bang, a slight asymmetry in this pair production resulted in approximately 1 extra particle of matter for every 10 billion produced.

It turns out that this 1 in 10 billion ratio of “leftover particles” happens to be the exact amount of mass necessary for the formation of stars, galaxies, and planets. As much as 2 in 10 billion, and the universe would have just been filled with black holes. As little as 0.5 in 10 billion, and there would not have been enough density for galaxies to form. (Bloom, cited in Rodgers).

The Nuclear Binding Force

If the nuclear binding force were much about 2% stronger, then the universe would form mega-elements which would make life impossible. Our universe would be filled with black holes and neutron stars. Furthermore, if it were weaker by about 5%, we would eliminate a large portion of the periodic table…. in fact, it would reduce it so much as to make the universe composed entirely of hydrogen (Bloom, cited in Rodgers).

Rock_StrataThe Properties of Water

Water is required for life. Don’t take my word for it: just look into the works of those who are working on investigating the origins of life, people like Iris Fry or Paul Davies. Yet water itself has a number of very unique properties. Water is a simple compound to form, but it is enormously versatile and unique. For example, it takes up more space a solid than as a liquid, which is extremely strange. This allows there to be liquid water that doesn’t freeze from the bottom of the oceans. If water froze from the bottom, it would turn planets like Earth into a frozen wasteland because the water would never melt–there wouldn’t be enough energy to melt all the ice. Furthermore, the chemical structure of water suggests that it should be a gas as opposed to a liquid at the temperatures that it remains a liquid. Water being liquid at its temperature range also makes it optimal for life, because the temperature that other compounds would be liquid would be prohibitive for life. Water also has an unusual specific heat, which means that it takes a lot of energy to change its temperature. Water also becomes more dense when it is liquid than when it is solid, which is highly unusual.

Water also has high adhesion which is critical for plants to grow. They rely upon capillary action with cohesion to grow upwards. This would be impossible if water were less cohesive. Water is a universal solvent, which is important for life because life relies upon a medium for chemistry to occur. If the medium were gas, the interactions would be too far apart, while if it were solid the interactions would occur to slowly or there wouldn’t be enough movement within the substance for chemical interactions needed for life to occur. Perhaps most “spooky” of all, a more recent discovery hints that water has quantum effects which cancel each other out, reducing the effects of quantum indeterminacy on the covalent bonds in water. This allows for water to have many of the properties outlined above.

There is no set number to assign to this chemicals of water, but it should be seen that property after property regarding water lines up exactly with the needs for life.

For a more in-depth discussion of the “spooky” properties of water, see the RTB Podcast on the topic.

Gravity

If gravity were increased by a significant margin, complex life could not exist due to their own weight. Even if life only came to be in water, the density of such life would have to be high simply to resist gravitation, which would again make complex life impossible. The lifespan of stars would also be reduced if gravity were increased by about a factor of 3,000 (or more). Robin Collins, in noting gravity as fine-tuned, argues:

Of course, an increase in the strength of gravity by a factor of 3,000 is significant, but compared to the total range of strengths of the forces in nature… this still amounts to a… fine-tuning of approximately one part in 10^36 (Collins, 190, cited below).

More

There are more of these requirements for fine tuning found in a number of the sources I cite below. But even looking at those I have outlined here, the possibility for our universe to exist as a life-permitting universe is absurdly low. It is so small that it baffles the imagination.

exoplanet-2The Fine-Tuning is Neither Chance nor Necessity

Robert Spitzer outlines the argument which leads from these constants to design:

1) The values of universal constants… must fall within a very narrow, closed range in order to allow any life form to develop

2) …the possible values that these universal constants could have had that would have disallowed any life form from developing are astronomically higher (falling within a virtually open range)

3) Therefore, the odds against an anthropic condition occurring are astronomically high, making any life form… exceedingly improbable. This makes it highly, highly unlikely that the conditions for life in the universe occurred by pure chance, which begs for an explanation (Spitzer, 50, cited below)

Thus, the argument turns on this  contention: is it reasonable to think that the fine-tuning we observe in our universe is based merely upon chance? Now it is important here to realize that any of the three proposed explanations for the fine-tuning of our universe must carry the burden of proof for their position. That is, if someone puts “chance” out there as the explanation for the fine-tuning in the universe, they must defend their position as being more probable than the hypotheses of necessity and design.

Therefore, it is not enough to simply say that “anything is possible.” The key point is that any theory must take into account the full range of intersecting evidences for fine tuning. To make the inference for design, furthermore, is not a failure to attempt explanation. Instead, it is itself an explanation. The argument is that design is the best way to explain the evidence for fine-tuning in the universe.

William Lane Craig notes that it is important to take into account that the probability in play in the teleological argument is epistemic  probability. That is, is it reasonable to believe that our life-permitting universe occurred merely by chance (Craig 2, 169)? Again, turning to Spitzer’s contention above and taking into account the enormously huge range of possibilities that turn against a life-permitting universe, one has to take into account the fact that it is almost infinitely more probable that a universe would be lifeless than to be one that has life. Yet Spitzer’s point is also that there is a “closed range” for values which are life-permitting. That is, there is only a limited set of values which will allow for their to be life. Yet the range of values which are life prohibiting is essentially open–that is, it is infinite. Therefore, the fact that our universe exists and is life permitting makes it reasonable to believe that it was designed. Design is the only explanation which can account for the full range of the evidence, for it explains why our universe would fall within a specific set of parameters which all must be aligned in order to meet the end of life. In the set of possible worlds, purposeless chance would give us an extraordinarily higher probability of having a lifeless universe, while necessity fails to provide any explanation at all. Only design provides a reason to believe that a life permitting universe would be the one to be brought into existence.

One may object by saying “well of course, but our universe is life permitting, so it appears that we hit the jackpot.” It should be seen now that that just begs the question. The person who makes this argument is in fact assuming that chance is the explanation without providing any evidence to think this is the case. Again, when one considers how vastly improbable our universe is, the most reasonable conclusion is that it is not, in fact, a random occurrence. As John Bloom put it, it would be like throwing a dart from outer space and hitting a bullseye on the surface of the earth that is smaller than a single atom. In other words, it is statistically impossible.

One may also object by noting that all universes are equally improbable, so our universe had to have some values. But again this misses the point. The argument is not that our universe is improbable, but rather that our universe, as life-permitting, is part of a limited set of possibilities against the much larger realm of possible worlds. In other words, the fact that our universe is life-permitting rather than life-prohibiting is what is surprising–not the brute fact of its existence. Although the fact of the universe’s existence is itself something in need of explanation.

Yet what about necessity? Is it possible that our universe simply has the constants that it has due to some kind of necessity? Here, mere physical necessity will not do as an explanation. For something which is physically necessary is not metaphysically necessary. That is, something can happen due to laws of nature and the like, while not being something required by logical necessity. Thus, it seems the burden of proof in this case is upon the one claiming that the universe is metaphysically necessary to show their case to be more reasonable than the chance and design hypotheses. Frankly, I think that the prospect is quite bleak.

Conclusion

We have noted a number of scientific evidences for the fine-tuning of the universe. These form our data set that any theory needs to explain. Chance has been found epistemologically wanting. It is simply not reasonable to say that chance is the explanation. Necessity seems to fare no better. There is no way to account for the necessity of the universe, and in fact our universe seems to be apparently contingent. Therefore, the most reasonable explanation for the apparent design in our universe is to infer that there is, in fact, a designer. Our universe is not so much spooky as it is spectacular.

Links

Evidence for God: A Fine-Tuned Universe- Matt Rodgers gives a great summary of a talk by John Bloom I attended as well. This post gives a really concise summary of a number of the evidences for fine-tuning.

The Teleological Argument- I present Robin Collins’ version of the fine-tuning argument and briefly defend it against a few objections. The Past, Probability, and Teleology- I answer a few objections to the teleological argument.

What about the multiverse? I have answered a number of issues related to the multiverse in my previous posts on the topic.

Max Andrews offers a discussion of the multiverse and the fine-tuning argument, wherein he notes that the existence of a multiverse does not undermine the argument.

Sources and Further Reading

John Bloom, “A Fine-Tuned Universe.” Lecture given at the EPS Apologetics Conference, 2012.

Robin Collins, “Evidence for Fine Tuning” in God and Design (London: Routledge, 2003),178-199.

William Lane Craig 1, Reasonable Faith (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2008).

William Lane Craig 2, “Design and the Anthropic Fine-Tuning of the Universe” in  God and Design (London: Routledge, 2003), 155-177.

Fazale Rana, “Science News Flash: ‘Water Fine-Tuned for Life’” (October 27, 2011). Reasons to Believe.

Matt Rodgers, “Evidence for God: A Fine-Tuned Universe.”

Robert Spitzer, New Proofs for the Existence of God (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 2010).

SDG.

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The preceding post is the property of J.W. Wartick (apart from citations, which are the property of their respective owners, and works of art as credited) and should not be reproduced in part or in whole without the expressed consent of the author. All content on this site is the property of J.W. Wartick and is made available for individual and personal usage. If you cite from these documents, whether for personal or professional purposes, please give appropriate citation with both the name of the author (J.W. Wartick) and a link to the original URL. If you’d like to repost a post, you may do so, provided you show less than half of the original post on your own site and link to the original post for the rest. You must also appropriately cite the post as noted above. This blog is protected by Creative Commons licensing. By viewing any part of this site, you are agreeing to this usage policy.

Debate Review: Greg Bahnsen vs. Gordon Stein

Advocates of the presuppositional approach to Christian Apologetics have long hailed the debate between Greg Bahnsen (the late Christian theologian and apologist, noted for his achievements in presuppositional apologetics and development of theonomy–a view of the Law for Christians, pictured left) and Gordon Stein (the late secularist noted for his links to Free Inquiry among other things, pictured below, right) as a stirring triumph of presuppositional apologetics over atheism in a point-by-point debate. Recently, I listened to the debate and thought I would share my impressions here.

Debate Outline

Bahnsen Opening Statement

From the outset, it was clear this debate was going to be different from others I’d listened to or watched. Bahnsen outlined what he means by “God,” outlined a few general points about subjectivism, and then quickly dove into a presuppositional type of argument. He began with an attack on the idea that all existential questions can be answered in the same way:

The assumption that all existence claims are questions about matters of fact, the assumption that all of these are answered in the very same way is not only over simplified and misleading, it is simply mistaken. The existence, factuality or reality of different kinds of things is not established or disconfirmed in the same way in every case. [All quotes from the transcript linked below. My thanks to "The Domain for Truth" for linking this.]

Bahnsen then mounts an argument which is perhaps the most important innovation of presuppositional apologetics: the attack on neutrality. He notes that Gordon Stein in his writings puts forth a case for examining evidence in order to determine if God exists. He relies upon the laws of logic and seems to think that this avoids logical fallacies. Yet, Bahnsen argues, Stein has just argued in a circle as well. By presupposing the validity of the laws of logic and other forms of reasoning, he has fallen into the trap he has stated he is trying to avoid. As such, Stein’s outlook is not neutral but it is colored by his presuppositions. Bahnsen notes:

In advance, you see, Dr. Stein is committed to disallowing any theistic interpretation of
nature, history or experience. What he seems to overlook is that this is just as much begging the question on his own part as it is on the part of the theists who appeal to such evidence. He has not at all proven by empirical observation and logic his pre commitment to Naturalism. He has assumed it in advance, accepting and rejecting all further factual claims in terms of that controlling and unproved assumption.

Now the theist does the very same thing, don’t get me wrong. When certain empirical
evidences are put forth as likely disproving the existence of God, the theist regiments his
commitments in terms of his presuppositions, as well.

Therefore, what Bahnsen presses is that it is only on the Christian theistic presupposition that things like the laws of logic, the success of empirical sciences, and the like can make sense. He makes the transcendental argument for the existence of God:

we can prove the existence of God from the impossibility of the contrary. The transcendental proof for God’s existence is that without Him it is impossible to prove anything.

Gordon Stein Opening Statement

Stein opens by clarifying what he means by “atheist”: “Atheists do not say that they can prove there is no God. Also, an atheist is not someone who denies there is a God. Rather, an atheist says that he has examined the proofs that are offered by the theists, and finds them inadequate.”

Stein then argues that the burden of proof is definitely in the theist’s court. He goes on to address a number of theistic proofs and finds them wanting. In fact, the rest of his opening statement is spent addressing 11 separate arguments for the existence of God, including the major players like the moral, cosmological, and teleological arguments.

Cross Examination 1

In the first cross-examination, Bahnsen asked Stein whether the laws of logic were material or immaterial. Stein finally, quietly, admits that the laws of logic are not material. Yet then Stein turns around and in his own cross examination presses triumphantly a point he thinks will be decisive. He asks Bahnsen, “Is God material or immaterial”; Bahnsen responds, “Immaterial.”; after a brief segway, Stein poses the following question which, by the tone of his voice, he seems to think carries some weight: “Apart from God, can you name me one other thing that is immaterial?” To this question, Bahnsen responds quickly, “The laws of logic.” The crowd erupts. Stein lost that one.

First Rebuttal: Bahnsen

Bahnsen spends most of his rebuttal arguing that the laws of logic are not mere conventions, and that Stein cannot make them such. If Stein does, then, argues Bahnsen, he can’t actually participate in a logical debate, because they could each declare a convention in which they each win the debate.

He goes on to re-stress the transcendental argument and point out that Stein failed to address it. He develops it a bit further by attacking the notion that an atheistic worldview can make sense of logic:

And that’s because in the atheistic world you cannot justify,you cannot account for, laws in general: the laws of thought in particular, laws of nature,cannot account for human life, from the fact that it’s more than electrochemical complexesin depth, and the fact that it’s more than an accident. That is to say, in the atheist conceptionof the world, there’s really no reason to debate; because in the end, as Dr. Stein has said, allthese laws are conventional. All these laws are not really law-like in their nature, they’re just,well, if you’re an atheist and materialist, you’d have to say they’re just something that happensinside the brain.

But you see, what happens inside your brain is not what happens inside my brain.

Stein First Rebuttal

Stein argues that laws of logic are indeed conventions, saying:

The laws of logic are also consensuses based on observations. The fact that they can predict something correctly shows they’re on the right track, they’re corresponding to reality in some way.

Oddly, Stein continues to act as though Bahsnen’s argument was a variety of cosmological argument. He argues that before we can ask “what caused the universe” we must ask whether the universe is actually caused. He then tries to address the argument more explicitly, saying that it is “nonsense” and that various cultures do indeed have different logic. His most direct argument against the trasncendental argument is that “If matter has properties that it behaves than we have order in the universe, and we have a logical, rational universe without God.”

Debate Segment Two

Stein Opening 2

Stein argues that the problem of evil is an evidential argument against the existence of God. He states that it raises the probability that there is no God. He asserts that there is no physical evidence for God. Stein then argues that God has not provided evidence for his existence, but that He should do so. Finally, he turns to the problem of religious diversity, asking why God would allow other religions if there is only one God.

Bahnsen Opening 2

Bahnsen argues that Stein placing the laws of logic into a matter of consensus undermines their usefulness and in fact  defeats the purpose of rational inquiry and debate. He argues further that Stein’s definition of laws of logic within pragmatic terms doesn’t come close to the extent of the laws of logic.

Stein Rebuttal

Stein argues that bahnsen hasn’t actually done anything to explain the laws of logic. He argues that simply saying they are the thoughts of God doesn’t mean anything, and that it does nothing to explain them. He therefore argues that Bahnsen fails to provide an adequate explanation for the facts of the universe.

Bahnsen Rebuttal

Bahnsen presses the point that Stein’s entire system is based upon presuppositions which he cannot justify. Induction is undermined in an atheistic worldview because there is no reason to believe that things will continue to happen as they do currently happen. He briefly addresses the problem of evil by saying that within an atheistic universe there simply is no evil, so it makes no sense from Stein’s perspective to press that issue.

Closing Statement: Stein

Stein’s closing statement seems to be more of a rebuttal than anything. He argues that there can be evil defined in an atheistic universe as that which decreases the happiness in people. Yet even this, he says, “We don’t know”–we don’t know that there is evil in an atheistic universe, rather it is a consensus and pragmatically useful.

He argues that we can know about induction because of statistical probability: it is highly improbable that the future will be different from the past because it has been similar in activity to the past for as long as we know.

Closing Statement: Bahnsen

Bahnsen finally presses the transcendental one last time. He argues that while Stein has called it hogwash and useless, he hasn’t actually  responded to it. Bahnsen states that once more the atheistic worldview can’t make sense of itself. For example, saying the future will be like the past due to probability begs the question: there is nothing in the atheistic worldview to say that probability can help determine what the future will be like. It might work pragmatically, but it fails to give any explanation. Finally, Bahnsen argues that you cannot be a rational, empirical human being an an atheistic universe.

Analysis of the Debate

It is abundantly clear throughout this debate that the presuppositionalist takes a very different approach to debate and apologetics than those from other methods. One can see this immediately when Gordon Stein delivers his opening statement, which was presumably prepared beforehand, and goes to answer common theistic arguments like the cosmological and teleological argument. But Bahnsen never once used either of these arguments, and took an entirely different approach. I think this initially caught Stein off guard and that impression remained throughout the debate.

Stein’s responses to Bahnsen were extremely inadequate. This became very clear in their debate over induction and empiricism. For example, although Stein held that he could say the future will be like the past based upon probability, he had no way to say that the world was not spontaneously created 5 minutes ago with implanted memories and the notion that the future will be like the past. Bahnsen didn’t make this argument, but it seems like it would line up with his reasoning. Of course, he would grant that the theist has to presuppose that God exists in order to make sense of induction, but that was exactly his point: without God, nothing can be rational.

I found it really interesting that Stein kept insisting that the laws of logic are mere social conventions. He kept pressing that some cultures do not hold that they are true as defined. But of course, cultural disagreement about a concept doesn’t undermine the truth value of a concept. If, for example, there were a culture that insisted that 2+2=5, that wouldn’t somehow mean that 2+2=4 is a logical convention, it would mean the culture who insisted the sum was 5 would be wrong. Similarly, the laws of logic may be disagreed upon by some, but to deny them is to undermine all rationality.

Overall, I have to say I was shocked by how this debate turned out. I have long been investigating presuppositional apologetics and continually wondered how it would work in an applied situation. It seems to me that to insist on a presupposition in order to debate would not work, but Bahnsen masterfully used the transcendental argument to reduce Stein to having to argue that logic is merely a social convention while ironically using logic himself to attack theism.

It seems to me that this debate showed what I have suspected for some time: presuppositional apologetics is extremely powerful, when used correctly. Now I’m not about to become a full-blown presuppositionalist here. My point is that it is another approach Christians can use in their witnessing to those who do not believe. I envision a synthesis of presuppositional apologetics with evidentialism. Some may say this is impossible, that they are anathema to each other, but I do not think so. They can be used in tandem: the presuppositional approach to question the worldview of others, while the evidentialist approach can be used to support the notion that the Christian worldview provides the best explanation for the data we have.

Links

Listen to the debate yourself. Get it here. The transcript I used was also from this page. Thanks to the author for such a great resource.

I’ve been researching and writing about presuppositional apologetics. For other posts about presuppositional apologetics, check out the category.

I highly recommend starting with the introduction to the most important thinker in the area, Cornelius Van Til.

Choosing Hats- A phenomenal site which updates fairly regularly with posts from a presuppositional approach (the author uses the term “covenental apologetics”). The best place to start is with the post series and the “Intro to Covenental Apologetics” posts.

The Domain for Truth- Another great presuppositionalist web site. I highly recommend browsing the topics here.

SDG.

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The preceding post is the property of J.W. Wartick (apart from citations, which are the property of their respective owners) and should not be reproduced in part or in whole without the expressed consent of the author. All content on this site is the property of J.W. Wartick and is made available for individual and personal usage. If you cite from these documents, whether for personal or professional purposes, please give appropriate citation with both the name of the author (J.W. Wartick) and a link to the original URL. If you’d like to repost a post, you may do so, provided you show less than half of the original post on your own site and link to the original post for the rest. You must also appropriately cite the post as noted above. This blog is protected by Creative Commons licensing. By viewing any part of this site, you are agreeing to this usage policy.

On the Shoulders of Giants: Rediscovering the lost defenses of Christianity

There is something missing from our arsenal as Christian apologists. I came upon this truth about a year and a half ago, but have only begun to realize how much we have been missing. Let me begin with an illustration:

It was a short, scenic drive down Interstate-94 to meet with Dr. Timothy McGrew, a professor of philosophy at Western Michigan University. At the time I was living in Ann Arbor, and I had only conversed with Tim on Facebook. He told me, with ill-concealed glee, about a folder on his computer that was filled with PDF scans of copyright-free (public domain) books by forgotten Christian apologists and theologians. The arguments in them, he told me, were not often used by modern apologists and could but increase my knowledge.

We met at a restaurant along the highway and talked for about an hour and a half while Tim uploaded files on my computer. Tim described to me a number of the items in this collection, but what struck me was how many arguments he referenced which are simply forgotten in current apologetics discussions. For example, he described the argument from “undesigned coincidences,” which basically goes through the Bible and shows how interrelated texts confirm each other’s historical veracity. I was shocked that I had not run into such a profound argument for the Christian faith. I was tremendously excited to find out that there were many such treasures waiting to be discovered.

Despite our continued interactions, I only very slowly began to read through this fantastic set of resources with which Tim had provided me. Once I got my Kindle, however, I began to tear through them. I have discovered so many delightful discussions, wonderful arguments, thought-provoking works that I could hardly begin to list them here. But I will try at least provide a few avenues for study.

I want you, and yes, especially you–the spirited apologist who has your Kalam argument memorized, your Leibnizian argument polished, and the like–to consider this fact: there are scores more arguments for the veracity of Christianity just waiting to be accessed. These arguments have little-to-no discussion in the apologetic blogosphere, they very rarely appear in modern books (if ever), and many of them are quite strong. What is your reaction to that knowledge?

I suspect it is a salivating, whetting of the appetite; it is a yearning desire to learn more. Fear not! These books, and the arguments within them, are, as I said, at your fingertips. The following is my brief, annotated list of fantastic free resources to help you, my fellow Christian apologists, broaden your knowledge.

Repositories of Resources

Library of Historical Apologetics- Here is where I got started, with Tim McGrew’s phenomenal collection of works. In particular, the “annotated bibliography” will set you up with some fine works. The site features a “spotlight” on the main page for various fantastic reads. Browse and download at will. Also check out their Facebook page.

Open Library- Open Library has a number of the books listed at the Library of Historical Apologetics available in a more Kindle-friendly format, if that’s your reading method of choice. I highly recommend using it to send books to your Kindle for free (when you select wi-fi delivery). See below for some specifics.

Getting Started

Yes, it can be daunting once you realize the voluminous nature of the study ahead of you. So I’ve made it easy by providing links to a few books–again, for free–to get you started, along with some comments. Oh, and I’ll be running a series shortly which outlines and examines several of these arguments.

Forgotten Arguments for Christianity: Undesigned Coincidences- The argument stated- I outline one of the many forgotten arguments for the truth of Christianity.

The Four Gospels from a Lawyer’s Standpoint- Edmund Bennett. Short and sweet, this book presents an argument I find extremely compelling: undesigned coincidences. Essentially, what Bennett argues is that the authors of the Gospels, writing individual histories, incidentally confirmed each other’s histories. I can’t recommend this highly enough. [To download, click the [G] or [A]; or if you want it for kindle, click here and on the right select “send to Kindle.”

A View of the Evidences of Christianity- by William Paley. It would be hard to describe the impact this book will have on your apologetic. Paley is simply masterful. In his first section alone he tears apart Humean arguments against miracles. This book is of extreme import for anyone interested in apologetics. Again, Kindle users.

Undesigned Coincidences- by J.J. Blunt. Once you’ve read Bennett, this book takes you through the entire Bible pointing out more historical arguments of great import throughout. I find this argument stunningly powerful, and I think as apologists we must incorporate it. Kindle [warning-lots of typos in this one due to the transition from PDF to Kindle. If you find a better version for Kindle, let me know].

Historic Doubts Relative to Napoleon Bonaparte- I’ll let Tim McGrew describe it: ” In this delightful spoof, published while Napoleon was still alive, Whately turns Hume’s skeptical doubts regarding miracles against reports of the career of Napoleon—with devastating results.” One can’t help but think of those who deny the historical Jesus today and how one might apply this to Abraham Lincoln, JFK, or (as I have), the Titanic. Kindle users.

The Bridge of History over the Gulf of Time- Thomas Cooper’s exhortation to apologetics and a general introduction to a number of arguments against Christianity. Check out this essay on Cooper.

A Dissertation on Miracles- by George Campbell. A devastating critique of Hume’s argument against miracles.

The Voyage and Shipwreck of St. Paul- by James Smith [click the link in the article]. This work is an argument for the historical accuracy of Luke in Acts constructed by a sailor who also knew numerous languages and was intimately familiar with the documents with which he worked for this account.

There is now a fire within me that seeks after these forgotten or little-known arguments–a burning that is only quenched by finding more early writings–and I can’t help but hope that you, too, will be delighted to delve into these lost treasures. We can’t let the past escape us. One thing I always tell the apologetics class I teach is this: “If you have a doubt or a question about the Christian faith, I can guarantee you that someone smarter than me has already thought about it and written on it. Don’t go at it alone.” Christian brothers and sisters, don’t let this knowledge escape you. We must spread it to this generation and beyond.

Final Thoughts

My thanks to Tim McGrew for his guidance in this study. May we all strive for Christ as he has.

I leave you with something he told me about these historical apologetics books:

I know …

… a music theory professor who read Thomas Cooper’s _Bridge of History_ and phoned me up screaming violently for more …

… a seminary graduate who confessed that he had never been taught the evidences of Christianity that he was discovering in the old, forgotten works …

… a marathon runner and stay-at-home mom who fell in love with George Campbell’s _Dissertation on Miracles_ …

… a construction worker who was captivated by the argument from undesigned coincidences …

… a daycare worker who has educated himself by reading dozens of old works of apologetics …

… a civil service worker in Chicago who set out to refute the arguments in Thomas Chalmers’s _Evidence and Authority of the Christian Revelation_ and ended up becoming a Christian …

… the list goes on and on …

SDG.

——

The preceding post is the property of J.W. Wartick (apart from citations, which are the property of their respective owners) and should not be reproduced in part or in whole without the expressed consent of the author. All content on this site is the property of J.W. Wartick and is made available for individual and personal usage. If you cite from these documents, whether for personal or professional purposes, please give appropriate citation with both the name of the author (J.W. Wartick) and a link to the original URL. If you’d like to repost a post, you may do so, provided you show less than half of the original post on your own site and link to the original post for the rest. You must also appropriately cite the post as noted above. This blog is protected by Creative Commons licensing. By viewing any part of this site, you are agreeing to this usage policy.

The Argument from Religious Experience: A look at its strength

I have written previously about the argument from religious experience. I provided a brief outline of the argument and commented on its usefulness. Now, I turn to the question of the strength of the argument from religious experience.

[Note: Through this post, when I say "religious experience" I am referring to experience generally--that is, numinous, sensory, and the like. I will distinguish when I mean otherwise.]

The Sheer Numbers

Religious Experience is pervasive throughout human history. You can find accounts of it in the Upanishads, the Vedas, the Qur’an, the Torah, the Gospels, and more. Not only that, but recent, systematized studies have found that religious experience continues to be a part of people’s realm of experience.

Consider David Hay’s study, Religious Experience Today. The book is based upon a number of national and community surveys in the UK. For example, one Gallup poll in Britain in 1987 yielded a response rate of 48% of people saying they had had a religious experience as described by the poll. In 2000, another poll in the UK yielded a 36% positive response. Granted that some of this may be due to false positives, one must also realize that there is a kind of repression of expressing religious experience due to embarrassment and/or personal bias, so these numbers may also lean towards the lower end (Hay, 57ff).

One could also look at the sheer number of luminaries throughout all time who have claimed religious experience. Throughout the literature, such experiences are far too numerous to be restricted to a descriptor like “many.”

One can’t help but agree with Richard Swinburne, who wrote, “[T]he overwhelming testimony of so many millions of people to occasional experience of God must… be taken as tipping the balance of evidence decisively in favour of the existence of God” (Is There a God?, 120).

The Balance of the Scales

“The argument from religious experience” (hereafter ARE) is itself somewhat of a misnomer–there are many forms of arguments from religious experience, so it is helpful to clarify when one is in dialog which version one is using. I have noted elsewhere that the ARE comes in two varieties: one which argues for public belief and one which argues for personal justified belief.  There are two more variants to introduce here: the broad version and the narrow version.

1. The Broad Version of the ARE presents religious experience as a general proof for either:

A) the existence of some transcendent realm–this being a transcendent aphysical realm. This is the broadest version of the argument.

B) the existence of God. This is a broader version of the argument, but isn’t as generalized as A).

2. The Narrow Version of the ARE argues for the truth of a particular religion based upon religious experience. Note that this is narrow in that many religions could affirm a “transcendent realm” or the existence of God[s], but if the argument is construed in this fashion, only the religion which is claimed to have superior evidence from religious experience is [fully] true. [Other religions could have many truths which could be affirmed through RE, but only one would have the "full" or "realized" truth.]

The argument from religious experience is much easier to defend if it is presented broadly. As one narrows the argument, one is forced to deal with potential defeaters from religious experiences which do not accord with the argument being made. For example, if one argues that God exists based upon religious experience, one would have to somehow contend with the great amount of evidence for monistic or Nirvanic religious experience.

Think of the argument like as a bridge with a counterbalance or a scale with a counterbalance. The more weight one places on the argument [i.e. saying that it can justify the existence of God] (scale/bridge), the more one must deal with that weight on the other end (counterbalance).

If the argument is presented as a way to prove general transcendence of experience, it is extremely strong and very easy to defend. When one instead uses the argument to try to justify the truth claims of a specific religion, one then must come up with a mechanism for determining how to evaluate competing religious experiences. For example, if I argue that religious experiences prove Christianity to be true because so many people have experienced in sensory ways Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, then it is my task to also show that the experiences of, say, Shiva as god are unwarranted. Thus, the philosopher’s task increases in difficulty the more narrowly he presents the arguments conclusion.

Consider the following two conclusions from arguments (granting me authorial privilege to assume that readers can plug in the premises): 1) Therefore, religious experience justifies the belief that there is a realm apart from our mere physical existence; 2) Therefore, religious experience serves as powerful evidence for the truth of Christianity. The fact that 2) is much more narrow means that one must do much more to show that the conclusion is justified.

Does this mean that the argument is useless when arguing for a particular religion? Certainly not. There are many who have used the ARE for a defense of Christianity specifically (cf. William Alston Perceiving God and Nelson Pike Mystic Union). What is important to note is that when one uses the argument in dialog they must be very aware of how they formulate the argument. As a “Broad/public” version, it can serve as powerful evidence in part of a cumulative case for Christianity; as a “narrow/private” version, it can be strong confirmation of the justification of one’s faith. These variants can be used together or separately.

The Strength of the Argument

So how strong is the ARE? I hope I don’t disappoint readers when I respond by saying: that depends! As far as my opinion is concerned, it seems to me that the “broad/public” and “broad/private” version of the argument are nearly irrefutable. I think it is an invaluable tool for apologists and philosophers of religion. The “narrow/private” or “narrow/public” versions of the argument are not as strong by necessity: they must contend with more objections as they narrow. However, as part of one’s own faith life, I think the “narrow/private” and “narrow/public” versions can give great comfort and solace.

[Author's note: The next post on the argument from religious experience will defend the principle of credulity.]

Further Reading

See my “The Argument from Religious Experience: Some thoughts on method and usefulness“- a post which puts forward an easy-to-use version of the ARE and discusses its importance in apologetic endeavors.

The following books are all ones I have read on the topic but do not present a comprehensive look at literature on the subject.

Caroline Franks Davis, The Evidential Force of Religious Experience (New York, NY: Oxford, 1989). One of the best books on the topic, Franks Davis provides what I would see as a nearly comprehensive look at the epistemic defeaters to consider with the argument from RE.

Jerome Gellman, Experience of God and the Rationality of Theistic Belief (Ithaca, NY: Cornell, 1997). Gellman provides a robust defense of the principle of credulity.

Paul Moser, The Evidence for God (New York: NY, Cambridge, 2010). This work is not so much about the argument from RE as it is an argument showing that any evidence for God is going to be necessarily relational. I highly recommend it.

Richard Swinburne, Is There a God?(New York, NY: Oxford, 2010). This is an introductory work to Swinburne’s theistic arguments. It has a chapter on the argument from RE that provides an excellent, easy-to-read look at the issues surrounding the argument. I reviewed this book here.

There are a number of other fantastic books on the topic as well. Swinburne’s The Existence of God has a chapter that remains a classic for the defense of the argument from RE.

William Alston’s Perceiving God is perhaps one of the best examples of a robust epistemology built up around RE and realism.

Keith Yandell’s The Epistemology of Religious Experience is a extremely technical look at many of the issues, and I found it particularly useful regarding the notion of “ineffability” in RE.

Kai-man Kwan’s Rainbow of Experiences, Critical Trust, and God is a very recent look at the argument which again features a large amount of epistemological development.

Nelson Pike provides a unique look at the phenomenology of RE and a synthesis of theistic and monistic experiences in his work Mystic Union.

SDG.

——

The preceding post is the property of J.W. Wartick (apart from citations, which are the property of their respective owners) and should not be reproduced in part or in whole without the expressed consent of the author. All content on this site is the property of J.W. Wartick and is made available for individual and personal usage. If you cite from these documents, whether for personal or professional purposes, please give appropriate citation with both the name of the author (J.W. Wartick) and a link to the original URL. If you’d like to repost a post, you may do so, provided you show less than half of the original post on your own site and link to the original post for the rest. You must also appropriately cite the post as noted above. This blog is protected by Creative Commons licensing. By viewing any part of this site, you are agreeing to this usage policy.

Shoulders of Giants? -Philosophy and Science in Context, or, “Lawrence Krauss jumps off!”

If I have seen further [than other scientists/philosophers] it is by standing on ye sholders of Giants.- Isaac Newton

We act as if they’re [philosophers without current knowledge of science] authorities about something; they knew nothing!- Lawrence Krauss

Lawrence Krauss recently appeared on the English [UK] radio show “Unbelievable?” In this radio program, Krauss and Randy Holder, a Christian, were in dialog about “A Universe from Nothing?” [not necessarily Krauss' book, but the subject in general]. The dialog, unfortunately, showed that Krauss continues in his ignorance of the importance of philosophy to his own subject, as well as his own flippant dismissal of generations of scientists.

At one point in the program (around the 26:00 mark), Krauss says the following:

I don’t [indiscernible--he may say "also"] care about what Mr. Leibniz said… we refer to philosophers who wrote at a time when we didn’t know that there were a hundred billion galaxies. [So?] Who cares what they say? We act as if they’re authorities about something; they knew nothing!- Lawrence Krauss

Really?

I can’t think of a more galling statement for a contemporary cosmologist to make. Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, for those who don’t know, happened to be one of the men who discovered infinitesimal calculus. He also (among countless other contributions to mathematics, science, social sciences, engineering, and philosophy)  developed a calculator, contributed to the development of binary language, was one of the first to posit that space was relative, and developed the principle of sufficient reason (which supports all scientific investigation).

Yet, according to Krauss, because he lived in a time before we know how large the universe was, he “knew nothing!” You see, Krauss, and some other scientists and thinkers with a scientistic/physicalist bent, too often throw out the very basis of their thought. How far do you think Krauss could get in his cosmological research without infinitesimal calculus? How would Krauss go about investigating the causes of various natural phenomena without the principle of sufficient reason?
The answer is pretty simple: he wouldn’t get anywhere.

Krauss, like those before him, stands on the shoulders of giants. But, unlike those who are humble enough (or who know enough about philosophy and history?) to admit it, Krauss says “We act as if they are authorities about something, they knew nothing!”

Really, Krauss? Let’s see how well your next research project goes if you throw out all the contributions they made to your methodology. Next time you do an experiment, try to do it without parsimony or inference to the best explanation. Write to me how that goes!

What’s happened with people like Krauss, and I can think of others (like Stephen Hawking, Richard Dawkins) who do the same thing, is that in their gusto for the marvels of modern science, they have forgotten the very basis for their methods, their research, and their rationality.

Without philosophy, there would be no way  to infer causes from effects; without the principle of sufficient reason, there would be no reason to think that causes even have effects; without a well developed notion that what will happen can be inferred from what has happened, these scientists could not even get going. But then they have the absurd tendency to turn around and reject philosophy. They say things like the quote Krauss fired off above.

Here’s the thing: science is utterly dependent upon philosophy to survive. If we didn’t have philosophy–if we didn’t have the developed notions of rationality, inference, and the like–there would be no science. Other theists (and philosophers) have contributed things like parsimony/Occam’s Razor to the wealth of philosophical methodological backbone which makes the scientific enterprise possible. In fact, there is still debate over whether we can reliably make inferences from science (for one example philosophically defending scientific inference, see Wesley Salmon, The Foundations of Scientific Inference). Some scientists have now apparently become those who sit in the ivory towers, blissfully ignorant of how their own research depends upon others’ outside of their field.

I suspect a multifaceted problem behind the motivation of those who throw philosophy out the window once they’ve embraced full-fledged empiricism. First, many of these thinkers have demonstrated they don’t actually know what empiricism means as a–that’s right–philosophical system. Apart from Krauss and Hawking, one could cite the recent example of Richard Dawkins admitting that he doesn’t know what “epistemic” means. Note to those who embrace that philosophical system of Krauss et al.: without epistemology, you would not even be able to justify inferences to best explanation. How’s that for a dose of reality?

Second, there is a kind of blatant ignorance of–or even intentional trampling on–the historical development of scientific inquiry. I hesitate to say that philosophy makes a “contribution” to science, because that’s not what it is. A simple study of schools of knowledge reveals that science, by its very nature, is utterly dependent upon epistemological research. Without such development, there would be no scientific method.

Third, these scientists constantly make philosophical claims, apparently in complete ignorance of the fact that they are philosophical claims. For example, in the same dialog Krauss argues that “the universe certainly doesn’t care what I like…” and throughout the discussion points out that it doesn’t matter what we think, the universe is revealed in a certain way by research.

He apparently seems utterly oblivious to the fact that that, in itself, is a philosophical position. One could take a rival position and argue that the appearances of nature don’t actually determine reality because everything is mind-dependent (idealism, solipsism, or other schools). It’s not enough to just point at nature and say “see, this is how things are!” because if that’s all one does, then someone could say “Your ideas about how things are are dependent upon your mind and ideas, and therefore don’t have any access to reality.” No scientific research could rebut such an argument, only a philosophical position in which nature can give us a reliable record for rationality can ground science.

Krauss dismisses philosophy very nonchalantly. It seems as though he (and others like him) is oblivious to the fact his entire system is philosophical. Consider the claim that “science can examine reality.” How does one go about proving it? One could argue that one could simply make a test and show that over and over again in circumstances y, x result happens, so we are justified that when we assert that if y, then x. But of course we would have to justify that a test can be connected to reality; we’d have to figure out what it means to have “justified” belief; we have to show that our scientific method is trustworthy; we have to assume that mathematical truths are true; we have to operate within a rational perspective; etc. All of these are philosophical positions. Some of them are debates within philosophy of science, in fact. The bottom line is that whenever someone does science, they are utterly reliant upon philosophy. By simply taking the empirical world as something which can be explored, they have made a number of philosophical assumptions, whether realized or not. Scientists take much of the philosophical development as a given before they even start their research. And then, some of them, like Krauss, have the gall to turn around and dismiss philosophers as though they “know nothing.” Suddenly, he has undermined his own system of thought, without even acknowledging that it is a system of thought.

Frankly, some of these scientists are just confused. Thankfully, many scientists operate with a system that respects the contributions of philosophy to science and encourage the interplay between the fields of knowledge.

Here’s the bottom line for those scientists who agree with Krauss: your entire field of research can only proceed if you grant over a thousand years of philosophical development. One major contribution was made by Leibniz, whom people like Krauss casually dismiss. But without the theistic philosopher with the awesome wig, scientists would have nothing. Thanks, philosophy! Thanks again, Christianity!

SDG.

——

The preceding post is the property of J.W. Wartick (apart from citations, which are the property of their respective owners) and should not be reproduced in part or in whole without the expressed consent of the author. All content on this site is the property of J.W. Wartick and is made available for individual and personal usage. If you cite from these documents, whether for personal or professional purposes, please give appropriate citation with both the name of the author (J.W. Wartick) and a link to the original URL. This blog is protected by Creative Commons licensing. By viewing any part of this site, you are agreeing to this usage policy.

The Argument from Religious Experience: Some thoughts on method and usefulness

The argument from religious experience (hereafter referred to as “argument from RE”) has seen a resurgence in scholarly work. Keith Yandell, Richard Swinburne, Jerome Gellman, Kai-man Kwan, Caroline Franks-Davis, Paul Moser, and others have contributed to the current discussion about the topic.

One thing which has disappointed me on more than one occasion is the dismissive attitude that some Christian apologists show towards the argument from religious experience.

What reasons are there for apologists to adopt such a stance? Well it seems possible that some of them simply haven’t studied the argument enough to consider its plausibility. I admit that before interacting with the argument, I was skeptical of the possibility for its having any value. But I want to suggest another possibility: apologists tend to favor arguments which can be presented and defended in a debate format or which are useful in short conversations with others. I’m not suggesting this as an attack on my fellow Christians, merely as an observation. And this is not a bad thing; it is indeed greatly useful to have arguments which can be presented quickly and defended easily when one is trying to present a case for Christianity to others.

The problem is the argument from RE requires a great deal of epistemological background in order to get to the meat of it. The authors listed above each develop a robust epistemology to go with their argument. This seems to put a limit on the usefulness of the argument; if it must be conjoined with a broad discussion of epistemology, then how can one present it in such a way that those who aren’t professional philosophers (or at least interested in the topic) can understand? It is to this question I hope to present an answer.

Background Information

Formulations of the Argument

There are two primary ways the argument from RE can be formulated (Caroline Franks Davis suggests a number of ways the argument can presented in The Evidential Force of Religious Experience, 67-92). The first is the personal argument; the second is the public argument. Now I have seen very few versions of the former in the literature. The personal argument is essentially an argument from RE which centers not on trying to demonstrate the existence of God to others, but rather upon justifying one’s own belief that such an experience is genuine. In other words, the personal argument from RE focuses upon defending one’s own conviction that a religious experience is veridical.

Paul Moser, in his work The Evidence for God, suggests one possible way to formulate this argument [he does not refer to it in the same terminology as I use here]:

1. Necessarily, if a human person is offered and receives the transformative gift, then this is the result of the authoritative power of… God

2. I have been offered, and have willingly received, the transformative gift.

3. Therefore, God exists (200, cited below).

This argument is one example of what I would call the personal argument from RE. It focuses on one’s own experience and uses that to justify one’s belief in God. [It seems Moser could be arguing for this as a public argument as well, but a discussion of this would take us too far afield.]

A public argument from RE is generally formulated to establish the belief in God (or at least a transcendent reality), just as other theistic arguments are intended. It will best function as part of a “cumulative case” for the existence of God. One example of an argument of this sort can be found in Jerome Gellman, Experience of God and the Rationality of Theistic Belief:

If a person, S, has an experience, E, in which it seems (phenomenally) to be of a particular object, O… then everything else being equal, the best explanation of S’s having E is that S has experienced O… rather than something else or nothing at all (46, cited below).

Readers familiar with the literature on RE will note the similarities between this and Richard Swinburne’s principle of credulity. The basic  idea is that if someone has an experience, then they are justified in believing they had that experience, provided they have no (epistemic) defeaters for that experience.

Brief Epistemological Inquiry

I’ve already noted the intricate ties the argument from RE has with epistemology, and a quick introduction to the argument would be remiss without at least noting this in more explicit detail. The core of establishing the argument from RE is to undermine methodological/metaphysical naturalism. Thus, a robust defense of the argument from RE will feature building up a case for an epistemological stance in which theistic explanations are not ruled out a priori.

A second step in this epistemological background is to establish a set of criteria with which one can judge and evaluate individual religious experiences. Caroline Franks Davis’ study (cited below) is a particularly amazing look into this tactic; she explores a number of possible defeaters and criteria for investigating REs. These range any where from hallucinogenic drugs to the multiplicity of religious experience.

The Force of the Evidence

One concern I had when I was exploring the argument from RE is that it would not have very much force. Upon investigating the topic, however, I can’t help but think the force of the argument is quite strong. Swinburne seems correct when he writes, “[T]he overwhelming testimony of so many millions of people to occasional experience of God must… be taken as tipping the balance of evidence decisively in favour of the existence of God” (Swinburne, Is There a God?, 120, cited below). The important thing to remember is that an overwhelming number of people from all stations of life and cultures have had experiences that they deem to be “spiritual” or hinting at “transcendence.” Denying universally all of these experiences as genuine would seem to require an enormous amount of counter-evidence.

A Suggested Version for Quick Discussion

So what to do with this background knowledge? It seems to me it is possible to at least sketch out a version of the argument from RE for a brief discussion, with a defense. Further reading is provided below.

The Argument Stated

1. Generally, when someone has an experience of something, they are within their rational limits to believe the experience is genuine.

2. Across all socio-historical contexts, people have had experiences of a transcendent realm.

3. Therefore, it is rational to believe there is a transcendent realm.

The argument made more explicit

The reason I suggest this as the way to use the argument from RE in a brief discussion is because it can more easily form part of a cumulative case and requires less epistemological work to justify it. The first premise is, in general, a principle of rationality. While there are many who have attacked Swinburne’s principle of credulity, it does seem that we generally affirm it. If I experience x, then, provided I have no reasons to think otherwise, I should believe that x exists/was real/etc.

The second premise is the result of numerous studies, some of which are cited in the works cited below. To deny this nearly universal experience is simply to deny empirical evidence. People like William James have observed this transcultural experience of the transcendent for hundreds of years.

Thus, it seems that we are justified in being open to the existence of things beyond the mundane, everyday objects we observe in the physical reality. If people from all times and places have had experiences of things beyond this everyday existence, then it does not seem irrational to remain at least open to the possibility of such things existing.

The conclusion may come as something of a letdown for some theists. But I would like to reiterate that this is a version of the argument intended for use in a brief conversation. There are versions of the argument in the cited literature below which defend theism specifically and engage in synthesis of these experiences into the theistic fold. What I’m trying to do here is make the argument part of the apologist’s arsenal. If we can use the argument merely to open one up to the reality of the transcendent, then perhaps they will be more open other theistic arguments. As part of a cumulative case, one can’t help but shudder under the overwhelming weight of millions of experiences.

Conclusion

The argument from religious experience has enjoyed a resurgence in scholarly popularity. A number of books from publishers like Oxford University Press, Cornell, and Continuum have reopened the argument to the scholarly world. It is high time that Christian apologists put in the work needed to utilize these arguments in everyday, accessible apologetics. The argument formulated above is just one way to do this, and Christians would do well to explore the argument further. The experience of God is something not to be taken lightly; Christians throughout our history have had such experiences and been moved into intimate relationships with God. We should celebrate these experiences, while also realizing their evidential value.

Further Reading and Works Cited

The following books are all ones I have read on the topic but do not present a comprehensive look at literature on the subject.

Caroline Franks Davis, The Evidential Force of Religious Experience (New York, NY: Oxford, 1989). One of the best books on the topic, Franks Davis provides what I would see as a nearly comprehensive look at the epistemic defeaters to consider with the argument from RE.

Jerome Gellman, Experience of God and the Rationality of Theistic Belief (Ithaca, NY: Cornell, 1997). Gellman provides a robust defense of the principle of credulity.

Paul Moser, The Evidence for God (New York: NY, Cambridge, 2010). This work is not so much about the argument from RE as it is an argument showing that any evidence for God is going to be necessarily relational. I highly recommend it.

Richard Swinburne, Is There a God?(New York, NY: Oxford, 2010). This is an introductory work to Swinburne’s theistic arguments. It has a chapter on the argument from RE that provides an excellent, easy-to-read look at the issues surrounding the argument. I reviewed this book here.

There are a number of other fantastic books on the topic as well. Swinburne’s The Existence of God has a chapter that remains a classic for the defense of the argument from RE.

William Alston’s Perceiving God is perhaps one of the best examples of a robust epistemology built up around RE and realism.

Keith Yandell’s The Epistemology of Religious Experience is a extremely technical look at many of the issues, and I found it particularly useful regarding the notion of “ineffability” in RE.

Kai-man Kwan’s Rainbow of Experiences, Critical Trust, and God is a very recent look at the argument which again features a large amount of epistemological development.

Nelson Pike provides a unique look at the phenomenology of RE and a synthesis of theistic and monistic experiences in his work Mystic Union.

SDG.

——

The preceding post is the property of J.W. Wartick (apart from citations, which are the property of their respective owners) and should not be reproduced in part or in whole without the expressed consent of the author. All content on this site is the property of J.W. Wartick and is made available for individual and personal usage. If you cite from these documents, whether for personal or professional purposes, please give appropriate citation with both the name of the author (J.W. Wartick) and a link to the original URL. If you’d like to repost a post, you may do so, provided you show less than half of the original post on your own site and link to the original post for the rest. You must also appropriately cite the post as noted above. This blog is protected by Creative Commons licensing. By viewing any part of this site, you are agreeing to this usage policy.

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