EPS 2012

This tag is associated with 2 posts

“How Much Evidence to Justify Religious Conversion?” – John Warwick Montgomery on Conversion

religious-symbolsI had the opportunity to hear John Warwick Montgomery speak at the Evangelical Theological/Philosophical Conference in 2012. He was one of the most engaging speakers I have ever had the pleasure of listening to. Here, we’ll look at his presentation alongside the journal article that he discussed. The topic was “How Much Evidence to Justify Religious Conversion?”*

Conversion and Evidence

Montgomery began by discussing the possibility of a position which had so much evidence that it becomes difficult to not believe it. Despite this, people do not hold that position. The reason, he argued, is because reasons other than evidence play into one’s conversion. Moreover, we live in a pluralistic age, which means that there are a vast array of options available to people looking for a worldview. This pluralism necessitates a drop in conversion rates because there are more worldviews presenting their evidence to each individual. Thus, it is important to look into the issue of the burden of proof alongside the issue of the standard of proof.

Burden and Standard of Proof

Here, Montgomery turned to his experience in law to explore the notion. Simply put, the burden of proof can also be seen as the burden of persuasion . Montgomery noted that the prosecutor does not always carry the burden of proof because the defendant often provides a positive defense, and so has their own burden of proof. For example, if someone says “I could not have done x because I was doing y at the same time at location z” then they have made a positive claim which itself requires a burden of proof. Or, as Montgomery put it, “The person who wants to make a case has the burden of proof.”

But it is important to note that the burden of proof is not the same thing as a standard of proof. When people object to Christianity based upon a supposed lack of proof, they are not addressing the burden of proof but rather the standard. Montgomery acknowledged that Christianity must assume the burden of proof but makes several points related to the standard of proof.

First, proof “depends on probability–not on absolute certainty or on mere possibility” (Montgomery, 452, cited below). He appealed to the “Federal Rules of Evidence” to make this clear. The key is to note that probability ,not absolute certainty, is at stake. Why? Epistemologically speaking, absolute certainty can only be set out in formal logic or mathematics. It is unjustifiable to require absolute certainty for every fact. “Where matters of fact are concerned–as in legal disputes, but also in the religious assertions of historic Christianity–claims can be vindicated only by way of evidential probability” (Ibid).

Second, and more importantly for the current discussion, there are differing standards of proof. The legal system is again a model for this notion. In criminal trials, there is a higher standard of proof than for civil matters. The criminal standard is beyond reasonable doubt, while the civil standard is “preponderence of evidence.” Montgomery argued that religious conversion should be seen as bearing a standard of proof “beyond a reasonable doubt” (453).

Third, competing religious claims must each assume their own burden of proof. They cannot simply say “prove my religious claim false.” One must meet the standard of proof in order to have legitimate entry into the competition between worldviews.

Extraordinary Claims Need Extraordinary Evidence?

Often, the claim is made that religious claims, because they are extraordinary, need extraordinary evidence. I have written on this exact topic at length elsewhere, but here will focus on Montgomery’s argument. He argued “The notion that the ‘subject matter’ should be allowed to cause a relaxation or an augmentation of the standard of proof is a very dangerous idea…. No one would rationally agree to a sliding evidence scale dependent on the monetary sum involved [in a crime]–nor should such a scale be created… The application to religious arguments based on the factuality of historical events should be obvious. Of course, the resurrection of Christ is of immensely more significance than Caesar’s crossing of the Rubicon, but the standards required to show that the one occurred are no different from those employed in establishing the other” (Ibid, 455-456).

The notion that the import of a claim makes a sliding scale of evidence is made to be absurd because historical events have more importance across cultures and so would, on such a view, be radically different in their acceptable standards of proof.

The Existential Factor

Finally, Montgomery focused on the existential side of conversion. Here, he offered what he admitted as a somewhat crude argument which was derived from Pascal’s wager. Assuming that the standard of proof is met for a religious system, one still must deal with the existential factors of conversion. Thus, Montgomery argued, one’s commitment to a truth claim should be weighed by the benefits divided by the entrance requirements: C=B/E.

Because the entrance requirements for Christianity are extremely low, and its benefits infinite, one should, assuming the standard of proof has been met, be highly committed to Christianity. Montgomery noted that some may argue the entrance requirements are very high (i.e. setting aside adulterous relationships). Against this, Montgomery argued that the benefits vastly outweigh the finite bliss one feels by such sinful actions.

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Applications

The subtlety of Montgomery’s argument should not be missed. It has application in a number of areas. First, Montgomery is as thoroughgoing an evidentialist as they come. His argument about the standard of proof being probabilistic is unlikely to gain much credence among those who favor a presuppositional approach to apologetics.

Yet it seems to me that Montgomery’s argument in this regard is correct. We must take into account the evidence when we are looking at various religious claims, and also acknowledge the existential factors which play into conversion.

Montgomery’s argument does much to clarify the issue for apologists in general. Our task is to clear barriers and present convincing evidence to those who argue that Christianity has not met the standard of proof. But our task does not end with that; we must also present the existential challenge of Christianity to those who believe the standard of proof has been met. This includes the preaching of the Gospel.

Montgomery was also careful not to discount the Holy Spirit in religious conversion. He made it clear that he was speaking to the notion of conversion in the abstract. People must be renewed by the Holy Spirit; yet that renewal may come through evidence and standard of proof.

It seems to me that Montgomery’s arguments were insightful and sound. He presented an excellent way to look at religious claims and evaluate them in light of evidence, while also taking existential factors into account.

Links

Like this page on Facebook: J.W. Wartick – “Always Have a Reason”

Montgomery’s use of evidence in law to look at religious truth claims reminds me very much of J. Warner Wallace’s Cold Case Christianity. Check out my review of that fantastic book.

Extraordinary Claims need… what, exactly?– I argue that the claim that religious claims need extraordinary evidence is mistaken.

I have written about numerous other talks at the EPS Conference on an array of topics. Check them out:

Gregg Davidson vs. Andrew Snelling on the Age of the Earth– I write about a debate I attended on the age of the earth.

Caring for Creation: A dialogue among evangelicals– I discuss a lecture and panel discussion on caring for the environment.

Genetics and Bioethics: Enhancement or Therapy?– Here, I outline a fascinating talk I attended about gene enhancement and gene therapy.

You can read my overview of every single talk I attended: My Trip to the Evangelical Philosophical/Theological Society Conference 2012.

Sources

*Unless otherwise noted, the information herein was discussed in John Warwick Montgomery’s EPS 2012 Conference talk entitled “How Much Evidence to Justify Religious Conversion? Some Thoughts on Burden and Standard of Proof vis-a-vis Christian Commitment”

John Warwick Montgomery, “How Much Evidence to Justify Religious Conversion?” in Philosophia Christi 13, #1 2011, 449-460.

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.

Genetics and Bioethics: Enhancement or Therapy?

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[Note: Revised and expanded 6/15/2015.]

Bioethics is an expanding field with direct implications for our lives. Here, we’ll reflect on the possibility and implications of gene therapy and enhancement. While I was at the Evangelical Philosophical/Theological Society Conference in 2012, I had the pleasure of sitting in on a talk about this very topic, and that will be the focus of this post. Unfortunately, the speaker had been switched around and was not listed in the booklet that I have. Furthermore, I never caught the speaker’s actual name (I tried to write it down when he was introduced, and got Gary Alkins, though I have tried searching online for that and haven’t come up with it), so if someone knows what it is, please let me know. I’ll reference the speaker as “speaker” throughout this post.

The central relevant moral question under discussion was: “Should genetic technology be used to not only heal but also to enhance the human condition?”

A Vital Distinction

An important aspect of this discussion is the distinction between gene enhancement and therapy. Gene therapy is the use of genetic research and information to cure illness. Speaking very hypothetically, suppose that we were able to discover the exact genetic code for illnesses like sickle cell anemia, isolate it, and replace it with a non-anemic code before a person was even born; that would be gene therapy. Genetic enhancement takes this a step further. It allows for modifying people genetically to enhance certain features such as physical strength, endurance, mental aptitude, and the like. It would, in a sense, create “super humans.”

Therapy

Using our knowledge of genetics for therapy, the speaker argued, is perfectly justified. We are called by Christ’s example to treat illnesses, and gene therapy can be seen as an extension of this. There was little time spent defending the moral permissiveness of gene therapy, as the primary question was whether genetic enhancement is morally permissible.

Enhancement

There are several arguments for genetic enhancement. These include:

1) The “natural lottery” argument: if we have the capacity to genetically enhance humans but do not, that means we are, effectively, just playing a genetic lottery to see if our children turn out well. Parents have a moral duty to act against the natural lottery.

2) We encourage environmental enhancement (i.e. seeking better education, putting children in brain-stimulating environments, encouraging sports for their physical well-being, etc.), why is genetic enhancement any different?

3) We already manipulate chemicals (caffeine, vitamins, etc.) for our well-being, why not genetics? In the end, what matters is human well being.

4) Genetic enhancement is simply the next logical step for humanity. If we agree that therapy is good because it stops genetic defects, should we not also hold that enhancement is good because it pushes people to fill their greatest potential.

Against these arguments, the speaker argued [updated section 6/15/15 with some counter-responses]:

A) Genetic enhancement could never match the ideal outlined in these arguments, wherein every human being is enhanced on a number of levels. Instead, it would very likely increase the split between the haves and have-nots by allowing those who have much to increase their dominance over society. The haves could afford to continue enhancing and remain a kind of super-human society while the have-nots would never be able to catch up.

However, a possible counter-argument to this reasoning would be to note that there will always be people who are advantaged and people who are disadvantaged. It’s unclear as to how this should serve to undermine the moral base for genetic enhancement.

B) There is a great good in letting humans accomplish things which stretch their skill set. Think about the steroids controversy in sports. We intuitively know that those who used performance enhancing drugs had an unfair advantage over those who did not. Similarly, those who would be genetically enhanced would have an unfair advantage over those who were not enhanced in almost any conceivable area of human achievement.

It is unclear, though, whether genetic enhancement would undermine the good of accomplishment and human achievement. Indeed, one could argue that genetic enhancement, in fact, bolsters human achievement by widening the scope of possibility for humans. From a pragmatic perspective, though, it sure would make it hard to keep on top of sports records and the like! We’d have to build bigger baseball parks to make home runs harder to hit! But seriously, the argument from human achievement does not seem sound to me.

C) What of bodily autonomy? Who’s to say that it is a good for parents to meddle with their children’s genes. What if a child does not want to be extremely strong, or what of their parents choose to give them giftedness in music, but they simply don’t like to do music? What if the children hate what their parents chose for them: hair color, eye color, etc.? Unlike the “natural lottery,” such attributes related to enhancement actually do have blame to assign to someone. Is there no bodily autonomy involved?

However, as Elijah argues, parents violate “autonomy” of their children all the time. This means there is some difficulty with determining how genetic enhancement would be a qualitative, rather than quantitative difference for this violation of autonomy. The opponent of genetic enhancement must establish that there is an objective difference between enhancement and other forms of violating autonomy, and must also show this difference is enough to ground a rejection of enhancement.

Enhancement and Theology

There are numerous theological issues involved in the debate over genetic enhancement. First, what might it mean for the image of God? Humans were created as “very good” and in the “image of God.” What does it mean to be in that “image of God” and does enhancement change that in any way?

For Christians, the ultimate fulfillment of God’s plan comes in the New Creation. The notion that humanity needs a genetic upgrade reflects the worldview of naturalism. Christians do not hope in their own ingenuity but rather in God’s plan for creation. That does not mean we cannot get actively involved in healing, but it does mean that we do not need to violate persons’ humanity by enhancement. One might argue that the assumption involved in enhancement is that our bodies are not good enough and that we need to improve them. However, such an assumption is not the only possible basis for enhancement. One could argue, instead, that enhancement is based on the notion that we are to keep fighting against the impact of sin in the world and one way to do this is to become stronger, smarter, and the like through the tools God has given us through scientific research.

Although we are fallen creatures, that does not imply that we are creatures capable of getting out of our own fallenness. No enhancement we can do can bring us ultimate salvation.

Evaluation

It seems to me that the arguments against enhancement may seem initially sound, but each one has its own problems.

It seems that if parents select for certain attributes, then parents can be held morally culpable for the genes their children develop. Thus, if the child dislikes an attribute, they could feasibly hold their parents responsible for that selected attribute. Interestingly, this may work both ways too: a child could hold their parents responsible for not changing an attribute. Yet this latter argument seems to make a mockery of parenthood, holding parents responsible for nature. I’m not sure, though, that this culpability is enough of an argument against genetic enhancement.

In the theological sphere, one may wonder whether someone could just as easily argue that because we were created initially “very good,” a pursuit of bodily perfection could be viewed as a fight against the Fall and the curse. I tried to ask this as a question, but there wasn’t time at the end to get to all the questions. The speaker did an excellent job noting possible counter-arguments to their points, and I thought gave a very fair presentation overall. It seems that the best argument against genetic enhancement may be the bodily autonomy argument, but this one has its own significant problems.

I’d like to know what your thoughts are on this topic: Do you think enhancement is moral? Why or why not?

Links

I have written on a number of other talks I went to at the ETS/EPS Conference. I discuss every single session I attended in my post on the ETS/EPS Conference 2012. I also discuss a panel discussion on Caring for Creation, and a debate between a young earth and old earth proponent.

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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