Epistemology


God of GapsI’ve noticed that many nonbelievers (and even believers) misunderstand what constitutes a “God of the gaps” argument.  They tend to think one is guilty of a God of the gaps argument if they offer God as an explanation for some X rather than some natural phenomenon.  The problem with this definition is that it presumes the only valid explanation is a naturalistic explanation.  God is ruled out as a valid explanation for anything a priori, so anyone who offers God as an explanation for X is thought to do so merely because they are ignorant of the proper naturalistic explanation.  This begs the question in favor of naturalism and against theism.  One could only conclude that every effect has a naturalistic explanation, and that God is not a valid explanation, if one has first demonstrated that God does not exist.  So long as it is even possible that God exists, then it is possible that God may be the cause of X, and thus explain X.

What makes an argument a God of the gaps type of argument is when God is invoked to explain X simply because we do not know what else can explain X.  In other words, God is used to plug a gap in our knowledge of naturalistic explanations: “I don’t know how to explain X, so God must have done X.”  This is not at all the same as arguing that God is the best explanation of X, based on what we know regarding X and the explanatory options available to us.  Here, God is being invoked to explain what we know, not what we don’t know.

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science defies common senseI’ve heard science types like Lawrence Krauss claim that science has shown us over and over again that we can’t trust our common sense, and by extension, philosophical reasoning.  One of the go-to illustrations is our solar system.  It’s said that common sense tells us the sun revolves around the Earth, and yet Copernicus, through science, showed common sense was unreliable as a guide to truth.  Only science can tell us what is true.

I think this is a misconstrual of the issue.  Daniel N. Robinson said it best: “What Copernicus said was not hostile to common sense but was inconsistent with common experience.”[1]  Indeed.  While science has discovered physical phenomenon which is weird, to say the least, it does not defy common sense, but our common experience.  Rationality is not at odds with science, and cannot be disproven by science.  Indeed, the task of science presupposes rationality from start to finish.


[1]Daniel N. Robinson, “Neuroscience and the Soul,” Philosophia Christi, Vol. 15, Number 1, 2013, 17.

EmpiricismThose who subscribe to empiricism believe that we should not believe the truth of some X based on a competent authority.  We are only justified in believing some X if we have empirically verifiable evidence supporting the truth of X.  It goes without notice that this principle itself is not empirically verifiable, and thus empiricism is self-refuting as a complete theory of knowledge.  But let’s ignore the man behind the curtain for a moment, and explore other deficiencies in an empirical epistemology.

In his book, A Universe from Nothing, physicist and empiricist Lawrence Krauss describes the state of the cosmos in the distant future.  Due to cosmic expansion, in two trillion years all of the evidence for the Big Bang (cosmic microwave background, redshift of distant objects/the Hubble expansion, and the measurement of light elements in the cosmos), and all 400 billion galaxies visible to us now, will no longer be detectable via empirical methods.  Worse yet, all of the evidence for the dark energy that caused the cosmic expansion will be gone as well.  For scientists living in that day, all of the empirical evidence will point to a static universe inhabited by a single galaxy that is no more than a trillion years old (based on the ratio of light elements at the time).

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Michael Patton has a nice article detailing 12 ways we can prepare children for times of doubt in their Christian life.

thinking manPhilosohpers David Bourget and David Chalmers recently surveyed 931 philosophy faculty members to determine their views on 30 different issues.  Here were some of the more interesting results:

God: atheism 72.8%; theism 14.6%; other 12.6%.
Metaphilosophy: naturalism 49.8%; non-naturalism 25.9%; other 24.3%.
Mind: physicalism 56.5%; non-physicalism 27.1%; other 16.4%.
Free will: compatibilism 59.1%; libertarianism 13.7%; no free will 12.2%; other 14.9%.
Meta-ethics: moral realism 56.4%; moral anti-realism 27.7%; other 15.9%.
Normative ethics: deontology 25.9%; consequentialism 23.6%; virtue ethics 18.2%; other 32.3%.
Science: scientific realism 75.1%; scientific anti-realism 11.6%; other 13.3%
Time: B-theory 26.3%; A-theory 15.5%; other 58.2%.
Truth: correspondence 50.8%; deflationary 24.8%; epistemic 6.9%; other 17.5%.

Notice that although 72.8% of respondents are atheists, 56.4% are moral realists. This goes to show the strength of our moral intuitions. While atheists do not have a sufficient ontological grounding for objective moral values, they still believe in them nonetheless.

I was surprised that only 13.7% believe in libertarian free will. I would expect it to be much higher.  Perhaps this correlates with the high rates of physicalism.

HT: Scot McKnight

WaldoMany atheists employ the concept of divine hiddenness to argue against God’s existence.  If God exists, they argue, why is His existence not more obvious?

I have blogged on this issue previously (here and here), so I won’t rehearse the arguments again.  Instead, I’ll simply assert that I do not accept the claim that God’s’ existence is not obvious enough.  I think there is good evidence for God’s existence, and that God only appears to be hidden because we have not looked for Him with an open mind and heart.

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Some people want to reject the testimony of the NT evangelists on the basis that they are biased.  I have written on the problems of this claim before, but here is a brief summary of my argument (with some added insight offered by Greg Koukl in his September 10, 2012 podcast):

  • This is an example of the genetic fallacy – dismissing one’s arguments because of its origin, rather than addressing it on its own merits.
  • Having a bias is irrelevant to the legitimacy of one’s testimony and/or arguments.  One must grapple with the evidence rather than dismiss it because it comes from a biased source.
  • Everyone has a bias, including those who reject Jesus.  The only people without a bias are those who are ignorant of the matter.
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In the context of the moral realism vs. moral subjectivism and theism vs. atheism debates the question of moral semantics is often raised: How do we define goodness?  Some are under the mistaken impression that if we cannot define goodness (a question of moral semantics) then we cannot claim to know goodness exists (a question of moral ontology) or identify what is good (a question of moral epistemology).  

I do not want to focus on whether it is possible to provide an adequate account of moral semantics, but rather to point out that even if we are unable to do so, it does not follow that there are no objective moral goods or that we are incapable of knowing them.  Greg Koukl illustrates this point beautifully.  He notes how our experience of goodness is similar to our experience of color.  We recognize color as color when we see it.  If someone were to ask us how we know what green is, we would respond, “I just see it.”  We don’t need to define green to know it when we encounter it.  Similarly, we do not need to define goodness to know that we have encountered it.  God has given us moral intuitions to recognize good and discern between good and evil. 

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Scott McKnight alerted me to a couple of posts by philosopher Jeff Cook on the topic of desire and reason in evangelism (1,2).  Cook contends that “the debate about God today is not about what’s reasonable—it is almost entirely about preferences and desire.”  That doesn’t mean he is opposed to using reason or providing evidence for Christianity in our evangelism of the lost.  He simply believes that this alone will not persuade most people because it is not rationality alone that causes them to reject Christianity. 

Cook proposes that if people are going to be persuaded by our reasons for Christianity, they must first want there to be a God.  In his words, “Wanting God to exist is more important than believing in God.  By ‘more important,’ I mean desire is more crucial to the transformation of a person’s heart, more helpful in moving them toward faith in Christ, and more instrumental in one’s ‘salvation’ than right thinking. … It seems then that enticing the passions and wills of those who do not follow Christ is far more important than targeting their intellect with arguments for God’s existence. Showing that God is desirable will be the primary target of the successful 21st century apologist, for wanting God to exist opens highways for subpar apologetics; yet a closed heart will not here [sic] the voice of wisdom.” 

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There’s a difference between how we know something to be true (epistemology), and what makes that something true (ontology).  Keeping this distinction in mind would illuminate many debates.  For example, atheists often claim that one doesn’t need God to know morality and act morally.  That’s true, but it misses the point.  Just because one can know moral truths and behave morally without believing in God does not mean God is not necessary to explain morality.  As Greg Koukl likes to say, that’s like saying because one is able to read books without believing in authors, authors are not necessary to explain the origin of books (author-of-the-gaps).  In the same way books need authors, moral laws need a moral-law giver.

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Those who reject dualism (the view that man is made up of two kinds of substances: physical and immaterial) often cite the “interaction problem” as an argument against the view.  Stated simplistically, the interaction problem is to explain how an immaterial entity such as a mind/soul could causally interact with material entities.  One envisions the Hollywood movies in which a ghost is desperately trying to pick up a beverage or kiss someone to no avail.  Try as he might, he cannot connect his immaterial self to the material world to affect it in any way (unless you are Patrick Swayze!).  Many monists think the interaction problem alone is sufficient to dismiss dualism as a possibility.

Such an approach to the question seems wrongheaded, however.  One should not look at the queerness of mind-body interaction and immediately conclude that the mind cannot exist independent of the brain.  One must first evaluate the evidence for the existence of such an entity.  If there are good, independent reasons to think the mind is not an immaterial entity—but can be reduced to the brain or arise from material processes—then the interaction problem could serve as further confirmation that there is no soul.  But if there are good reasons to think the mind is an immaterial entity separate from the brain, then the interaction problem—while difficult or even impossible to explain—is insufficient to overturn the evidence that the mind is immaterial.  While we may not know how the mind interacts with the material world, we know the two entities do exist, and do interact with each other.  One need not explain how something occurs to know that it occurs.  We may forever be ignorant of how the mind and body relate to each other, but we have direct awareness and experience of the fact that they do.

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Have you ever questioned God’s existence or some point of Christian theology, and when you reached out to someone for help you were greeted with, “You just need to pray about it”?  Is this the proper response?  No, and again I say no!  This sort of response is typically not helpful, and leads many sincere people to eventually abandon the faith.

What if you said “I am hungry” and someone responded by saying “Go pray about it.”  Would you be satisfied with that?  No, because it is eating, not prayer, that is the proper solution to the problem at hand.  So why is it that when someone says “I am doubting my faith” that we think “Go pray about it” is a sufficient response?  Prayer is not the kind of thing to adequately address the problem at hand.  The problem is an intellectual one, and thus it requires an intellectual solution.[1]  Christian theology and apologetics provide an intellectual account and justification for the Christian faith.  While prayer should always be encouraged and never be discouraged, in this case prayer is not the meat and potatoes of the solution.

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When dealing with an empiricist who wants evidence that God exists, and yet thinks evidence—for it to be considered evidence—must be empirical in nature, ask him the following question: “What kind of empirical evidence could possibly be given for an immaterial being such as God?”  If they say “none,” then point out that they are asking for the impossible.  What would it prove, then, if you cannot deliver?  Nothing.  It just proves that the wrong question is being asked.

Insisting on empirical evidence before one will believe in the existence of God is like insisting on chemical evidence of your wife’s love for you before you’ll believe she loves you.  One cannot supply chemical proof for love, and neither can one supply empirical proof of God’s existence, but that does not mean either is false.  The problem is not a lack of evidence for God’s existence, but an arbitrary restraint on the kind of evidence the atheist is willing to accept as evidence.  That is what needs to be challenged.  Empirical evidence is not the only kind of evidence one can appeal to in support of a claim.

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Materialists believe that material entities exhaust the nature of reality.  This commits them to believing there is a material/physical cause for every physical effect.  Indeed, on a materialistic worldview physical causes determine a physical effect.  If material cause X is present, material effect Y must occur.  Just like falling dominos, when one domino falls on another, the second domino must fall.  There are many things, however, that cannot be explained in terms of material causes.  Consider communication.  When your friend speaks to you, you will respond in kind.  How can this be explained in terms of deterministic, material causation?  How can his words cause you to respond—yea, even determine your response?  Did his words produce molecular changes in the space between you, which in turn caused physical changes in your body that ultimately determined that you say X (as opposed to Y or Z) in response?  While this seems incredulous on its face, let’s grant that it is possible for the sake of argument since there are other forms of communication that are even more difficult to explain from a materialist perspective.

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Frank Beckwith has made the observation that when people cannot refute your argument, they often trump it with spirituality. You know the kind of thing I’m talking about. You state your reasons for believing P rather than Q, and your Christian brother responds by saying, “I know that’s not true because God told me Q is true.”  Or your Christian sister responds, “You only believe that because you are carnal.” Don’t fall for this cheap tactic.

You could respond by saying to your brother, “Actually, God told me P is true, so I know you didn’t hear from God.” And to your sister you can respond, “Ok, I’m carnal. So can you tell this carnal brother of yours why my argument is wrong, and why I should believe your position/interpretation?”

I just finished reading an article in the Irish Times by Michael Nugent, chairman of Atheist Ireland.  Titled “Atheists and religious alike seek to identify foundation of morality,” Nugent argues that the question of God’s existence is really just a distraction from the social need to determine what is right and wrong.  If there is no God, we must determine what we think is right and wrong.  And if God does exist, we still have to determine what it is that he/they thinks is right and wrong.  Either way, it is a human responsibility to determine right and wrong.

While one might expect for Nugent to go on to discuss how we should determine right and wrong irrespective of what we believe the foundation of morality to be, instead he goes on to critique moral theories that are based on the existence of God or gods!  Apparently he does think it makes a difference as to whether or not you believe morality is real or imagined, and based on God or in human will.  Through one side of his mouth Nugent claims the question of God’s existence is irrelevant to our quest for moral knowledge, but through the other side he says belief in God/gods will interfere with that quest.  How’s that for a self-contradiction!

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What is the difference between a skeptic and someone who questions everything?  Barnabas Piper provides a nice distinction: “There’s a fine line…between being someone who questions things and being a skeptic. In fact, many people would call someone who questions everything a skeptic.  Here’s the thing; I don’t think many skeptics actually question anything. They may phrase their challenges as questions, but their heart is set on rejection and disproving. To truly question something is to pose questions to it and about it for the sake of understanding. This may lead to disproving or rejecting, but the heart behind it is in learning.”[1]

I think we could break down the differences between a questioner and a skeptic as follows:

Questioner: Desire to learn
Skeptic: Desire to reject/disprove accepted truth claims

Questioner: Primarily interested in maximizing true beliefs
Skeptic
: Primarily interested in avoiding false beliefs

Questioner: Engage thinking
Skeptic: Avoid thinking

HT: STR


[1]Barnabas Piper, “The Unskeptical Questioner”; available from http://www.barnabaspiper.com/2011/11/unskeptical-questioner.html; Internet; accessed 10 November 2011.

The Barna Research Group has released a report containing six reasons young people leave church after age 15.  This report is a summary of a book by David Kinnaman, president of Barna Group.  You Lost Me: Why Young Christians are Leaving Church and Rethinking Church is based on eight national studies of teens who disengage from the Christian church/faith.  Kinnaman discovered that the six major reasons teens leave church can be summarized under the following umbrellas (3 out of 5 teens disengage from the Christian church/faith for one or more of these reasons):

  • “Reason #1 – Churches seem overprotective.
  • Reason #2 – Teens’ and twentysomethings’ experience of Christianity is shallow.
  • Reason #3 – Churches come across as antagonistic to science.
  • Reason #4 – Young Christians’ church experiences related to sexuality are often simplistic, judgmental.
  • Reason #5 – They wrestle with the exclusive nature of Christianity.
  • Reason #6 – The church feels unfriendly to those who doubt.”

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A popular maxim advanced by naturalists and atheists is that “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.”  This maxim is often invoked in discussions about the existence of God and the resurrection of Jesus.  These are extraordinary claims, they say, and thus require extraordinary evidence.  Not surprisingly, those who advance this maxim think Christian theists have failed to provide the required evidence.

J.W. Wartick wrote a nice article questioning the truth of this maxim.  He notes that on first blush the maxim seems obviously true, but upon further reflection it can be shown to be obviously false.  Consider the claim that I am a giant pink salamander.  This is an extraordinary claim, and yet the claim could be evidenced in rather ordinary ways.  For example, one could come to my home and observe me.  If I appear to be a giant pink salamander (one who talks and types), then the extraordinary claim is justified.  If one is not convinced by their eyes, then perhaps they could take a DNA sample and compare it to other salamanders.  Such evidence is ordinary, but sufficient to verify the rather extraordinary claim that I am a pink salamander.  It is false, then, that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.  All that is required to justify an extraordinary claim is sufficient evidence.

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Over at Uncommon Descent a good point has been raised about materialists (such as evolutionary biologist, Jerry Coyne) who deny the existence of free will and yet get angry at others for believing and doing things they (the materialists) do not agree with:

Another inconsistency of atheists who share Professor Coyne’s views on freedom is that they are nearly always angry at someone – be it the Pope or former President George W. Bush or global warming deniers. I have to say that makes absolutely no sense to me…. But please, spare me your moral outrage, your sermonizing, your finger-wagging lectures and your righteous indignation. That I cannot abide. You don’t lecture the PC on your desk when it doesn’t do what you want. If I’m just a glorified version of a desktop PC, then why lecture me?

Perhaps materialists would respond that they don’t have a choice but to get angry!  Well, perhaps we don’t have a choice but not to care that they are.

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