Archive for the ‘a/theism’ Category

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A double standard

July 21, 2011

Certain atheists reject the idea that they have to consider the best arguments for theism, thinking such arguments ought to be dismissed basically prima facie.  This type of response towards theism has come to be known as the Courtier’s Reply.  The force of the Courtier’s reply towards theism derives from an analogy with something supposedly just as ridiculous such as The Tooth Fairy or The Flying Spaghetti Monster.  The basic idea is this: the concept of theism is so ridiculous that one need not spend any time studying what others have said about such a concept in order to reject it.

So far, so good.

Concurrently, many of these same atheists will regale us with the triumphs and wonders of science, and the scientific method.  It helps us understand the natural world, helps us categorize, make certain predictions, and the like.  Indeed, it seems to me science is a nice thing, at least for those reasons.   But as the saying goes, too much of a good thing may do us harm.  Regarding the scientific method, when admiration turns into infatuation, sloppy thinking results.

Here’s the problem: the shorthand reason offered for holding the scientific method in such high esteem vis-a-vis theism (a false dichotomy in my book, but never mind) usually boils down to: “science works” (for example, see here, here, and here).  However, the justification for that position consists in actually implementing the scientific method: rigorous research, careful thought, refining and even overturning previous theories.  No self-respecting atheist-as-scientist would offer only the dismissive “science works” response when challenged to defend science against theism (again, notwithstanding the false choice here).  Further, no atheist-as-scientist would take seriously anyone who offered an out-of-hand rejection of a particular scientific theory without even understanding the relevant literature first.

But then, why is one justified in putting forth the Courtier’s Reply towards theism, but not the fruits of science?  What (non-question-begging) reasons could the atheist have for this?

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The Unimpressive Bible – A Response

April 15, 2011

In the previous post I presented an argument for the following proposition: either God does not exist, or the Bible is not God’s communication to us.  Having let the post simmer for a while, and having given I think a fair amount of time for anyone willing to comment for it’s support the ability to do so, I’ll now carry on with a response.

Since the argument is logically valid, its success hinges on the truth of these three premises:

(1)  If God exists, He would communicate in the written word with those He has created.

(2)  If God communicates in the written word with those He has created, then that communication will have some combination of properties IQL [improved quality of life] and R [revelation].

(3)  The Bible does not contain any information exhibiting properties IQL and R.

Premise (1)

What can we say of premise (1)?  As far as I can tell, this actually seems uncontroversial between interested parties.  I take it that atheists are willing to grant this premise simply for the sake of argument with the theist to get a conversation going.  For example, I don’t find very often atheists claiming that composing such a document is incompatible with other properties of a [supposed] God.  I take (1) to be true, mainly as an implication of already acknowledging that the Bible is God’s written communication to us.

Premise (2)

Premise (2) is more controversial. Property IQL implies certain motivations of God, the assumption to which a theist need not be committed.  What kind of priority might God place on providing His creatures information that extends their life, eases physical hardship, etc?  For suppose that life on earth is the proverbial “blink of an eye” compared to the afterlife in God’s company?  Or suppose that God desires one of our highest priorities to be to know Him in ever greater intimacy?  Given either of these possibilities, we can see that property IQL may actually be a lower priority for God than initially we might assume.  In other words, the theist will not be compelled to agree that God ought to provide information improving our quality of life here, because that is not His top objective.  Indeed it is quite plausible that information improving the quality of life can ultimately distract us from knowing God more intimately.  It seems to me there is ample evidence to suggest that human beings will oblige happily when afforded the opportunity to idle away our time on trivial pursuits.  So it’s reasonable to think that communication from God will not be filled with information sparing us hardship and turmoil, because it seems we don’t necessarily excel at using “free time” to the greatest purposes.  Therefore, although denying (2) doesn’t seem overtly compelling, I think the theist comfortably could deny (2) on the grounds that such communication would not contain property IQL.

But now, aren’t we begging the question against the defender of the argument here?  It seems we’ve just presupposed the truth of at least part of the Bible when we postulate characteristics of God that count against premise (2), and this entire argument is founded on discrediting the Bible as God’s written communication to us.  So we need to come up with some ideas about God that are independent of the Bible to argue against premise (2), right?

Well actually, we aren’t obliged to assume that the Bible is God’s written communication to us to postulate possible characteristics of God that happen to agree with the biblical description of God.  Reviewing carefully the reasons given to disbelieve premise (2), we are no more presupposing the Bible’s divine revelation in our argument than we are presupposing the divine revelation of the Qu’ran.  A Muslim could make the same objections to premise (2) that we’ve made here.  Indeed I speculate very many reflective non-Christians and non-Muslims could believe that if there is a God, He/She/It probably isn’t interested to see us waste time on unimportant matters, or desires us to know more about (or even know) He/She/It.  So, no, the argument here against (2) does not entail a commitment to the idea that the Bible is God’s written communication to us.

Premise (3)

Regarding (3), I think we can make a couple of objections.  First, consider again what might make information revelatory: (a) it is previously unknown, and (b) in a religious sense, it is specifically about God’s will.  Suppose (a) and (b) are sufficient to declare information a “revelation”.  If this is true, and assuming that the set of surviving documents from antiquity encompass the scope of what was known at the time relevant to our inquiry, then we are in a position to deny (3).  Assuming they are true, the following historical facts are counterexamples to (3):

  • God entered into a covenant with the nation of Israel, declaring them his “chosen people” (Exodus 19, Deuteronomy 7).
  • God wanted the nation of Israel to inhabit the land of Canaan (Genesis 26, Exodus 3).
  • God communicated a relatively specific design to the temple (1 Chronicles 28).

So assuming any of these statements about God’s will are true, they do qualify as revelatory, and therefore we can deny (3).  But suppose the defender of the argument objects that we are begging the question – that we have assumed the Bible to be revelatory to provide counterexamples.  How can we answer this?

Well, if the concept of “revelatory communication” is to have any meaning, then it is impossible to avoid referencing the document we are claiming contains revelation.  Were the information found in another source, then the document in question couldn’t be revelatory according to our definition.  So either “revelatory communication” is meaningless, or we can refer to the Bible for counterexamples to (3).  If the objector elects to choose the former disjunct, this commits him to abandoning property R in the original argument, and weakening the original argument accordingly.

So we’ll assume that “revelatory communication” is coherent, and therefore can deny premise (3).

But what about property IQL?  Does the Bible contain any information that can improve the quality of life?  Let’s be clear on what is not required to defeat (3).  We don’t have to show that there is some information with property IQL that is found only in the Bible, and nowhere else.  We simply have to find counterexamples to the idea that there isn’t any supposed communication from God that contains information improving the quality of life.

Of course, the next difficulty is finding uncontroversial counterexamples, since the phrase “improved quality of life” is a little ambiguous.  Let’s try and keep it simple: let any information that tends to promote survival be information that improves quality of life.  So understood, here are just two counterexamples:

  • Matthew 7:12 – “Therefore all things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them: for this is the law and the prophets.”
  • Leviticus 19:18 – “Thou shalt not avenge, nor bear any grudge against the children of thy people, but thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself: I am the LORD.”

So even though the Christian will assert that promoting well-being in this life is not the primary purpose of God’s revelation to us in the Bible, nevertheless there clearly are maxims in the Bible that can help us achieve this goal.

Conclusion

For the reasons given, I think Premise (2) is not necessarily true, and Premise (3) is false.  Therefore, the argument fails.

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The Unimpressive Bible

August 17, 2010

I’ve encountered a curious position among atheists with respect to the nature of the Bible that I think now warrants some attention here.  I’ll call it the “Unimpressive Bible Objection”, or UBO.  Proponents of the UBO seem to promote the following general argument:

The Bible contains stories that don’t exhibit the type of information that God supposedly would wish to convey to us.  For example, there’s nothing in there about DNA, the germ theory of disease, or safe and efficient nuclear energy.  So if God wanted us to know that the Bible is really His word to us, then He would have included this type of information to make the fact more obvious.  Therefore, since the Bible doesn’t contain this type of information, it probably is not His communication to us.

I’ve searched briefly to look for some professional form of this argument, but unfortunately wasn’t able to find anything.  But for a popular example of this position, see this video from NonStampCollector.  I’ve also encountered this position on other blogs, in the form of: “what can the Bible tell us that wasn’t already known, or couldn’t have been recorded, by goatherders, ancient near-east nomads, and the like?”.

Now, let’s expand the argument a little more to try and give it a fair treatment.  The first thing to do would be to clarify what type of information the objector seeks and doesn’t find.  What can we say regarding knowledge of DNA, or the germ theory of disease, or safe nuclear energy?

For one thing, I think it’s fair to say knowledge of such things can extend our life, make it more comfortable, or perhaps ultimately more fulfilling if it allows us to spend our time on self-edifying pursuits like the arts or valuable pursuits like charity and service to others.  So this type of knowledge exhibits an improved quality of life property – call this property “IQL”.

Next, this type of knowledge would have been novel to the time period associated with biblical times.  Now if certain information were unique to just the culture that recorded the Bible, then perhaps this decreases the plausibility that this knowledge could have resulted from the incremental, progressive growth in human knowledge with which we are familiar in the present day and which we can rightfully infer occurred thousands of years ago.  In other words, since this knowledge would seem to have “come out of nowhere”, then this rules out the possibility that it would have come from the incremental, progressive growth in human knowledge.  So this type of knowledge exhibits a revealed property – call this property “R”.

The next step would be to formalize the argument.  Here’s my most basic charitable attempt:

(1)  If God exists, He would communicate in the written word with those He has created.

(2)  If God communicates in the written word with those He has created, then that communication will have some combination of properties IQL and R.

(3)  The Bible does not contain any information exhibiting properties IQL and R.

(4)  Therefore, the Bible is not communication from God.  (From 2 and 3)

(5)  Therefore, either God does not exist or some other written word is communication from God.  (From 1 and 4)

That’s the simplest form which I’ve been able to give the argument.  For anyone out there who might defend something like this or hold similar beliefs, are there other properties of the written word that you might expect to see?  Or, do you have a version of this kind of argument that you think is stronger?  Any references would be helpful.  I’ll wait a bit for any responses before moving on to a critique.

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Moral Realism

November 25, 2009

Tom Gilson published a piece about the consequences of atheism for moral realism.  In the comments section I rambled on a bit about how it doesn’t seem possible for objective moral values to exist without God.  The full text, prompted by a question from someone who is an atheist but believes objective moral facts exist, is reproduced here:

Are you saying that, under atheism, moral realism can’t be true, since every moral proposition would have been false prior to the existence of moral agents? But what about propositions like, “When moral agents exist, it is wrong for one moral agent to kill another without justification”?

What I’m saying is that there are good reasons to think that if atheism were true, then these propositions would either not have any meaning, or would not exist (and maybe there’s no difference between those two). My previous comments to you were an attempt to understand what you take to be the true nature of these objective propositions. I think I’ve got it, but could be wrong.

Think about the concept of a moral fact. What are some essential properties of such a thing? The following come to mind:
1. It is about an agent that is both conscious, and free (these are two independent properties).
2. It is a command to such conscious and free agents about what they should and should not do.

The typical atheist I encounter believes in naturalism, which is something a bit stronger than atheism. For on naturalism there is no immaterial realm. Everything that exists can be reduced to a physical phenomenon. Now I think if naturalism is true, not only do objective moral facts not exist, but things like free agents don’t exist either.

But you seem not to be a naturalist, due to your belief in these objective moral facts that exist irrespective of whether moral agents exist, or could even possibly exist. For if these propositions exist, they must exist in some immaterial realm, because it is possible for moral agents not to exist in the physical realm. The propositions cannot be some kind of emergent property of complex physical systems. You yourself have said that their truth value, their meaning, does not depend on the existence of actual persons.

At this point we can see that if you are not a naturalist, and believe in an immaterial realm, then you are on the same metaphysical footing as the theist who postulates God (who is an immaterial being) as the source for moral values and duties. Any objection you may have to the existence of God cannot be rooted in the disbelief of immaterial entities.

Moving on, how is it that the moral facts, with the attendant properties described above, exist without God? What kind of conscious-less process can produce the “consciousness property” of a moral fact? What kind of purposeless process can produce the “command property” of the moral fact? It seems to me that a conscious-less, purposeless process is not the sort of thing that is even capable of producing a thing with the properties of a moral fact. Thus, if there is no God, objective moral facts do not exist.