In philosophy, a burden of proof refers to one’s epistemic duty to provide reasons in support his assertion/claim/position. While listening to a debate recently, I noticed that one of the participants spoke of a “burden of justification” rather than “burden of proof.” I thought this terminological shift was helpful since when most people hear the word “proof” they think “certainty.” Clearly, no one has the burden to demonstrate their position with apodictic certainty. “Justification,” on the other hand, makes it clear that one only has a burden to back up their claims with good reasons. I am going to be intentional about adopting this terminology in the future.
February 26, 2013
December 28, 2012
Retired particle physicist and outspoken atheist Victor Stenger developed a rhetorically powerful aphorism against religion: “Science flies men to the moon, religion flies men into buildings.”
I think Stenger is being a bit too selective in what he chooses to highlight about science and religion, though. Science has also been responsible for great moral atrocities, and religion has also been responsible for great moral goods. To demonstrate how worthless this rhetoric is, I could just as easily develop an aphorism modeled on Stenger’s to make the opposite point: “Science builds atomic bombs to kill millions of people, religion builds hospitals to save billions of people.”
October 19, 2012
New Scientist has a short video discussing the proper understanding of reality. It’s a 2:30 philosophical mess! It’s almost as bad as their video on how the universe came from nothing, but I won’t go there.
They present two definitions of reality. Their first definition is that “reality is everything that would still be here if there was no one around to experience it.” But they find this view problematic because “as far as we know, we humans actually do exist, and a lot of the things that we can all agree are real, like language, or war, or consciousness, wouldn’t exist without us.” What?
This objection is irrelevant. Yes, humans exist, but how does that count against this definition of reality? The definition doesn’t assume or require that people do not exist. It merely holds that some X is real if and only if X would still obtain in the absence of a mind to think about it. While it goes without saying that those things germane to humans would not exist if humans did not exist, what does that have to do with everything else non-human? The question is whether anything else would exist if we didn’t exist, not whether things unique to humans would exist if humans did not exist.
October 8, 2012
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.
July 13, 2012
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.
July 3, 2012
Recently I listened to the debate between Peter Atkins and Callum Miller. As usual, Atkins was short on arguments and long on ad hominems, although I must admit that he was more civil in this debate than usual. One of the things Atkins said, however, caught my attention. He said that one of the advantages of science over religion is that in science, one can be wrong, whereas in religion one is never allowed to be wrong. I’ve heard other atheists make the same claim. I find it interesting because whether it’s true or false, it’s irrelevant.
November 14, 2011
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.”
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
Barnabas Piper, “The Unskeptical Questioner”; available from http://www.barnabaspiper.com/2011/11/unskeptical-questioner.html; Internet; accessed 10 November 2011.
April 25, 2011
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.
March 22, 2011
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Oxford professor of chemistry, Peter Atkins (atheist) recently engaged in dialogue with Oxford professor of mathematics, John Lennox (theist), on the question of God’s existence. While atheists such as Atkins often portray their atheism as being the result of being brave enough to follow the evidence to where it leads, at one point in the debate Atkins showed his true hand.
LENNOX: Do you think it’s an illegitimate thing from a scientific perspective…to see whether scientifically one can establish whether intelligence needs to be involved in the origin of life?
ATKINS: … Let’s just take the laws of nature as available. And seeing that, letting them run free in the environment that we can speculate existed…billions of years ago, and seeing whether that sort of process leads to life. And if it does, that seems to me to abrogate the need for the imposition of intelligence.
LENNOX: And if it doesn’t?
ATKINS: Then, if we go on trying (we may have to try for a hundred years), and if in the end we come to the conclusion that an external intelligence must have done it, then we will have to accept that.
LENNOX: Would you be prepared to accept that?
December 8, 2010
In my experience, most opponents and skeptics of theism reject theistic arguments on less than epistemically justifiable grounds. For example, premise one of the kalam cosmological argument proposes that “everything which begins to exist has a cause” (and concludes that since the universe began to exist, the universe has a cause). Some detractors of the argument will counter that since our only experience with cause and effect is within the spatio-temporal world, we cannot be certain that causation is possible outside the spatio-temporal world. While I think this is a fair point to consider, does it really undermine the premise, and hence the conclusion? It doesn’t seem to me that it does. While it is possible that the principle of cause and effect does not apply beyond the temporal framework of our universe, unless one can demonstrate that non-temporal causality is incoherent/impossible, the mere logically possibility that the principle of causality does not hold outside of the universe does not override the warrant we have for thinking all effects require an antecedent cause (and that contingent things require an external cause).
September 14, 2010
Many Christians have a negative connotation of the words reason, logic, and philosophy. Their negativity is not altogether unfounded. After all, there’s been more than a few individuals who have rejected Christianity on the grounds that it is irrational and illogical. And we’ve all known or heard of someone who studied philosophy only to lose their Christian faith. The problem in all of these cases, however, is not reason, logic, or philosophy, but rather the improper use of reason, logic, and philosophy. Indeed, all of us use reason and logic, and all of us subscribe to a particular philosophy even if we are unaware of it. It is inescapable. Reason and logic are God-given tools that allow us to think and obtain knowledge. Logic and reason help us to order our thoughts, and enhance our ability to discern truth from error. We can’t think without them, although we can misuse or abuse them in the process of thinking. And that, I think, is where the real problem lies: the abuse of reason and logic.
August 13, 2010
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It is often believed that valid/sound deductive arguments can provide certainty. This is not quite true. The conclusion of a valid/sound deductive argument is certain in the sense that it follows necessarily from the premises. It does not mean, however, that the conclusion is certainly true. Why? The premises are usually contingent truths discovered inductively, and thus the veracity of the logically certain conclusion depends on the veracity of the probabilistic premises. The more confidence we have in the truth of the premises, however, the more confidence we can have in the veracity of the conclusion.
March 22, 2010
I just finished reading an article in The Guardian by Oliver Burkeman regarding the changing face of evolutionary theory. He discusses a book by Jerry Fodor and Massimo Piattelli-Palmarini (What Darwin Got Wrong) that challenges the coherency of natural selection. Fodor notes that Darwin assumed natural selection “selects for” specific traits in an organism. He finds two problems with this. First, natural selection is a mindless, blind process, so it cannot “select for” anything.
Second, there is no way to determine that a specific trait was “selected for,” rather than merely “selected.” Traits are correlated together in an organism, and thus one cannot single out a specific trait to say “X was selected for by natural selection.” Not every trait is adaptive, and thus not every trait will be “selected for.” Some will merely be selected by default. For example, why think the Cheetah’s spots were “selected for” by natural selection? It very well could be that the Cheetah was selected by natural selection because of its speed, and its spots were merely “selected” in the process – coming along for the ride if you will. Organisms qua organisms are selected, not specific traits.
March 20, 2010
I recently heard a preacher repeat the oft-cited aphorism, “A man who has an argument is always at the mercy of a man who has an experience.” This is quite true as an anthropological observation, but I don’t think this is necessarily a good thing.
The aphorism was quoted by the preacher in the context of those who doubt the reality of Spirit baptism and glossalalia. I am inclined to agree with him in one very real and practical sense. No matter what argument someone might present to me against glossalalia, the fact of the matter is that I have experienced it for myself and, thus, I know it is real. But the blade can cut both ways. What about the Mormon who claims to have received a “burning in his bosom” confirming the truth of the Book of Mormon? Should the Mormon trust his experience over sound reason to the contrary? I imagine the preacher would say that in this case, reason should trump experience. But why should the aphorism apply to us, and not to the Mormon? To the Mormon, his experience was equally as real as our own. If we can reject arguments that contradict our experience, why can’t the Mormon?
October 21, 2009
While arguing from silence is a logical fallacy, I think there are times that an argument from silence must be reckoned with. For example, in discussing whether Matthew 28:19 originally read “in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit” or “in my name,” some Trinitarian scholars argue that the latter is original. “In my name” does not appear in any extant manuscript, so what is there basis? One reason is Justin Martyr’s silence on the passage. In one of Justin’s work he was arguing for “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit” as the appropriate baptismal formula, and yet he never once appealed to Matthew 28:19 for support as we would expect for him to have done if Matthew 28:19 originally read “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.” Since he did not, it stands to reason that Matthew 28:19 did not read “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit,” in Justin’s day (or at least in the manuscripts he had access to), but rather “in my name.” While this is an argument from silence, it is a strong argument nonetheless.
October 9, 2009
A few years back I watched a debate between an evangelical Christian (Greg Koukl) and a new age guru (Deepak Chopra) on the issue of truth. Mr. Chopra employed a common tactic to dismiss Mr. Koukl’s arguments. The exchange went something like this:
DC: “Everyone thinks they are right. You think you’re right. The Hindu thinks he’s right. The Buddhist thinks he’s right”
GK: Yes, that’s right. And that’s why psychological confidence in one’s faith is not enough. Something more is needed. I am not interested in knowing that someone believes their view is right; I am interested in knowing why they believe their view is right. This requires evidence. We must weigh the evidence to determine who has better reasons supporting their view.
DC: chirp, chirp, chirp, chirp, chirp, chirp…
October 8, 2009
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Religious pluralists often claim that religious beliefs are culturally relative: the religion you adopt is determined by where you live, not the rationality/truth of the religion itself. If you live in India you will probably be a Hindu; if you live in the U.S. you will probably be a Christian. One’s personal religious beliefs are nothing more than a geographic accident, so we should not believe that our religion is true while others are not.
This argument is a double-edged sword. If the religious pluralist had been born in Saudi Arabia he would have been a Muslim, and Muslims are religious particularists! His pluralistic view of religion is dependent on his being born in 20th century Western society!
A more pointed critique of this argument, however, comes from the realm of logic. The line of reasoning employed by the pluralist commits the genetic fallacy (invalidating a view based on how a person came to hold that view). The fact of the matter is that the truth of a belief is independent of the influences that brought you to believe in it. While the observation that one’s religious beliefs are often determined by where they live is valid from an empirical standpoint, what follows from that observation? Nothing. While I may be a Christian because I live in a society in which most people are Christians, it does not mean that my Christian beliefs are not true. The truth of Christianity depends on the veracity of the claims themselves, nothing more and nothing less.
September 1, 2009
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Sorry for not posting much as of late. I’ve been involved with so many projects, I have had computer issues, and I took an excursion to Lake Tahoe. As I get caught up over the next few days, I’ll begin posting again. Here’s a short post in the interim:
Back in May of this year, Greg Koukl had some insightful comments about being labeled a “modernist” for believing in truth and logic that I’d like to share with you. Greg wrote,
Yes, I believe in the legitimacy of reason, but this doesn’t make me a modern simply because the Enlightenment period exalted reason to idol statues. Pre-moderns of all stripes…trusted reason not because it was a pop idol, but because it as an undeniable feature of reality.
May 20, 2009
When most people hear “argue” or “argument,” they think of what’s pictured to the left. I’m not referring to that. I’m referring to logical discourse.
Argumentation has fallen on hard times in our postmodern age. Arguments have been replaced by assertions, rhetoric, and sound-bites. The reasons for this are many: the idea that there are no absolute truths to argue for, a false notion of tolerance, and a pragmatic approach to life to name a few. We have become more concerned about the utility of an idea than its truthfulness, and our subjective feelings than objective truth. What I find both interesting and disheartening is that even conservative Christians have disengaged from the art of argumentation.
For many there is an aversion to the very word “argument” because in their mind it connotes fighting. But there is a difference between being argumentative (a psychological and behavioral disposition), and presenting an argument. An argument is simply a series of reasons given in support of, or in opposition to some proposition(s). In this sense the process of argumentation is vital to the epistemological veracity of Christianity.
The process of argumentation and debate aids us in our journey toward more truth. Argumentation forces us to think of things we might not have thought about before, and only by doing so do we have a chance to grow in knowledge and wisdom. In his book The Revolt of the Elites Christopher Lasch wrote that it is only in the course of argument that “we come to understand what we know and what we still need to learn,…we come to know our own minds only by explaining ourselves to others.” The process of argumentation puts our own ideas at risk. In the words of John Leo, arguments “can rescue us from our own half-formed opinions.” The opinions that survive the argumentation process demonstrate to both us and our opponents the strength or lack thereof of our ideas.
Arguing with those who hold positions contrary to our own is an act of love because its aim is to rescue people from bad ideas, and bad ideas have bad consequences. So contrary to those who oppose argumentation because it is unloving, nothing could be more loving. We actually fail to act in love if we allow someone to hold false beliefs.
September 14, 2008
During Greg Koukl’s August 10th radio broadcast, he shared some thoughts about the criterion of falsifiability as it relates to theism, that I found worth passing on (with some expansion and commentary of my own).
Some claim theistic belief is not reasonable, because theism cannot be falsified. For something to be falsifiable requires that there be an imagined set of circumstances that would demonstrate a particular view to be false. For example, Christianity would be falsified if archaeologists ever unearthed Jesus’ body from a grave outside Jerusalem. The idea behind the principle of falsifiability is that if, in principle, there can be no evidence that counts against a view, then it is not possible to have a reasonable conversation about the merits of the view.
While this is a useful principle, clearly it is not an absolute criterion for a theory/belief to be reasonable, nor is it necessary to have a reasonable conversation about its merits. For example, consider the belief that you exist. Can you imagine any set of circumstances that could convince you that you do not exist? No. It is inconceivable. And yet we are fully reasonable in our belief that we exist.
While falsifiability is a useful way to evaluate a theory/belief, the merits of that theory/belief do not hang on its falsifiability. Its merits hang on the evidence in its favor. Theism has several lines of evidence in its favor. That body of evidence serves as the basis for a reasonable dialogue concerning the veridicality of theism.
More to the heart of the matter, falsifiability cannot be an appropriate test for theism because it is impossible to falsify a universal negative. And in order to falsify God’s existence, one would have to prove a universal negative: God does not exist.
To be fair, I should qualify my statement that a universal negative cannot be proven. While a universal negative cannot be proven empirically, it can be proven logically. If something is logically contradictory, or incoherent, we can be sure it does not exist. For example, I can prove there are no square circles. I cannot, and need not do so empirically, but I can do so logically. The concept of a square circle is incoherent, and thus square circles cannot exist. Some atheists contend that theism is logically incoherent, but few have been persuaded of their arguments. In the past, the most common attempt to show theism was incoherent was the problem of evil. It was reasoned that if God is all good and all powerful as theism claims, evil should not exist. And yet it does, hence, theism must be false. Philosophers have since come to realize that the existence of evil is logically compatible with the existence of an all-powerful and all-loving God. It stands, then, that the very nature of theism is that it cannot be falsified, and thus this should not count against the view. The focus should be on the evidence for theism, not its unfalsifiability.