Are Apologists Fighting the Wrong Battle?

John McCray thinks so.

Earlier I said how intellectual atheism is not a significant threat to Christianity. The biggest threat atheism has posed in America has not been reasoned argumentation. Rather, bitter diatribes and emotional criticisms (usually following religiously infused catastrophes like 9/11) have been responsible for much of their success. Their books and speakers weren’t made famous due to carefully-crafted, logically sound arguments. Instead, their highly emotive statements resonated with the frustrations of those who already had issues with religion.

In my estimation, well over 80% of what the New Atheist authors and speakers say about Christianity are demonstrably false or misleading. But this raises the question: If their claims are false, why is it that Christians weren’t able to correct these falsities, shutting them up right away? Part of it is simply because of the brute force of their rhetoric. Another part is because Christians are largely illiterate about what it is that they claim to believe. Statistically speaking, most who claim to be Christian are either unable to articulate or flat out do not understand the basics of what they claim to believe. This has led Christians to be unequipped and unable to respond to such attacks.

I think that number is probably 100%, not 80%. But I also think that it matters that we engage with academic, intellectual atheism, not just the childish and illiterate new atheists. Because the new atheists can only be allowed to get away with their foolish rhetoric if the academy is already either complacent or atheist.

LCA: Responding to 3 important challenges

I intend to discuss three problems here:

1. In what sense does God have a will, since God necessarily chooses the best possible world.

2. In what sense are there possible worlds, since God necessarily creates only the best possible world.

3. In what sense is God omnipotent, since God in some sense can only bring about the best possible world, and no others.

These problems are serious ones, and do need to be responded to. This is especially important given the large corpus of literature claiming that these problems spell the end of contingency arguments, or for any conception of theism.

First, let’s run a little thought experiment. Suppose we have a deterministic chess AI, name it A: given the same position, and the same outside factors like underlying hardware and time remaining, it will always make the same move. There is no randomness inside the AI. Suppose that A’s opponent is a fairly weak engine, and A has been able to perfectly predict all of their opponent’s moves. There is a sense in which A “knows” about all these possible outcomes and futures, despite the fact that none of them can come about.

Now I don’t think that at this point it’s too controversial to extend the thought experiment. Suppose that A is not just deterministic, but is actually necessary. That is: not only can it not do otherwise given the nature of its programming and its situation, but those programs and situations could not be different. Does this fundamentally change A’s knowledge? I don’t see how it does. The internal state of A is identical, it’s just a fact about the external world that has changed. But not, in a sense, A’s world. Since A’s world consists only of the board, the rules, and the opponent.

Even though A is necessary, there is a sense in which it “knows” about “possible” future outcomes. How can this be? I claim this: A’s “knowledge”, though it appears to be based on counterfactuals, does not depend on possible worlds at all. This knowledge that A has is not based on any kind of access to “possible worlds” since A and its opponent are necessary.

An agent, when considering the impacts of their actions, can simulate possible outcomes of all the actions that agent could take. Even if the agent is necessary, it can simulate these outcomes, since that agent itself is the thing that determines them. Now perhaps you and I do not, because our knowledge is imperfect. But our chess AI has in a sense a perfect knowledge of its world, and God has a perfect knowledge as well. So God can perfectly internally simulate the outcomes of the actions that He could take. And note that this is true regardless of whether God necessarily takes a particular action. Each of these simulations is technically metaphysically impossible: God, being perfectly good, won’t choose to create them. But that’s the only impossibility present in them: they contain no other contradictions. God’s will, God’s choice, is the only thing restricting these worlds from being possible. And so God can perfectly simulate them.

Now we have reconstructed a possible world: not as a meaningfully real metaphysical possibility, but as a specific kind of thought in God’s mind. And using these possible worlds, we can engage in all our normal counterfactual reasoning, which we have come to love Lewisian worlds for. But now, possible worlds aren’t primitive, God’s knowledge and God’s power are ontologically prior.

Where did that notion of power come from? Again, worlds are simulations of the consequences of God’s actions. And so the totality of all those actions in each of those worlds is the totality of God’s power. Normally we want to frame omnipotence as “the ability to bring about any possible world”, but now we’ve gone the other way: omnipotence is primitive, and a possible world is a simulation of the consequences of an action of which God is capable. So now: what is omnipotence? What makes God omnipotent rather than just very potent?

It is the density of possible worlds. The denser they are, the more powerful God is. If there are only, say, 3 possible worlds, God is not very powerful. But if they are more unrestricted perhaps every logically possible world, or every world that would be metaphysically possible apart from God’s will, then God is more powerful. What we have now is: God’s power is as unrestricted as His knowledge, and God’s knowledge is as unrestricted as His power. So now an argument for omniscience also suffices for omnipotence. Arguments for God’s omniscience have been given elsewhere, and perhaps they will be elaborated on further later. But for now, we will move on.

God’s will is mixed in here too: God must will because God has a reason for one world becoming the actual world, and God acts on that reason. That reason being that that world is the best possible world. Seems like having a reason and a goal, simulating outcomes, and choosing an action is having a will. God chooses among alternatives based on His beliefs (or in this case, knowledge) and desires. The content of those desires is moral goodness, and God is necessarily good, so God necessarily creates the best possible world. But despite (and in my argument, because of) this, God chooses, and God has a will.

Why believe this? So far all I’ve done is tell you a story about the attributes. I hope I’ve convinced you that they are possible, compatible, and reinforce and illuminate one another. But so far, I’ve given you no reason to think God has them.

Here’s one: We need counterfactuals to ground our everyday reasoning. But given the PSR, as Van Inwagen argues, there is modal collapse. Only one truly possible world, therefore necessitarianism. So there are no other possible worlds to ground our counterfactuals. Are we dead?


No: possible worlds do exist, but only in the mind of God. And that’s the only place they could exist: no other being can simulate these “almost possible” worlds, since no other being is the means by which they are possible or impossible. It is solely because of God that they are possible or impossible, so only God can have proper simulations of them. But under that, the only way we can ground our counterfactual reasoning (if we rely on possible worlds) is via God. So God is a necessary part of our everyday reasoning. Combined with the rest of the LCA, we ought to believe in God.


Van Til on the Problem of Induction

The third argument from Van Til that we will examine is the argument from induction. Van Til argues (rightly) that we must be able to use induction in order to be able to reason about the world. That is, we have to be able to reason from our past experiences as individuals and as a society and infer the future. But to reason this way, we must assume that reality has a kind of uniformity or intelligibility. And according to Van Til, the only way we can know this is through theism.

 

Does Christianity offer a solution to induction?

The first step in evaluating Van TIl’s argument is discussing whether Christianity can actually justify induction as we use it. I am not currently aware of any serious arguments that induction is impossible under Christianity, and I think it’s reasonably clear that under Christianity we can perform induction. How do we know that reality is regular or predictable in the right kind of way? Because the God of order and knowledge created not only a world that is ordered and knowable, but also our minds. And since He created our minds intending that they would know the world, we can know the world through induction.

It’s true that some argue that under sceptical theism, we cannot do induction. We may discuss this more when we discuss solutions to the evidential problem of evil, but it doesn’t apply to theism in general.

 

Secular justifications of induction

In order for Van Til’s argument to succeed, it must not only be the case that theism allows for induction, but that there is no coherent secular response to the problem as well. Many attempts have been made at secular answers to this problem, we will have a brief look at some of them here.

 

Popper: Falsification, Not Induction

Karl Popper has famously argued that inductive reasoning ought not to be performed in the manner that is normally considered here. Instead of looking for observations to confirm or verify our hypothesis, we should instead look for observations that falsify the hypothesis. And if we don’t find any, we don’t consider the hypothesis true, we just consider it to be not yet falsified.

This approach is perhaps the dominant approach in philosophy of science and indeed in the practice of science. However, I think it is somewhat difficult to swallow. We end up not really believing that things are “true”, instead we believe they are “not yet proven false”. But that’s simply not how we reason about the world, we do think it is true that our various inductive hypotheses are correct. We do think it is true that the sun will rise tomorrow because we have observed it doing so in the past. So while here we do have a coherent way of reasoning, it doesn’t save our normal, everyday reasoning using induction. Therefore this is not a good enough response to the problem of induction

 

Law of Large Numbers

This is another, less popular (though I think stronger) response to the problem of induction. Helpfully explained by this Reddit comment (the whole /r/askphilosophy subreddit is pretty great by the way), we can justify induction essentially a priori using some mathematics. However, it is not without its issues as well. I will quote the SEP:

The more problematic step in the argument is the final step, which takes us from the claim that samples match their populations with high probability to the claim that having seen a particular sample frequency, the population from which the sample is drawn has frequency close to the sample frequency with high probability. The problem here is a subtle shift in what is meant by “high probability”, which has formed the basis of a common misreading of Bernouilli’s theorem. Hacking (1975: 156–59) puts the point in the following terms. Bernouilli’s theorem licenses the claim that much more often than not, a small interval around the sample frequency will include the true population frequency. In other words, it is highly probable in the sense of “usually right” to say that the sample matches its population. But this does not imply that the proposition that a small interval around the sample will contain the true population frequency is highly probable in the sense of “credible on each occasion of use”. This would mean that for any given sample, it is highly credible that the sample matches its population. It is quite compatible with the claim that it is “usually right” that the sample matches its population to say that there are some samples which do not match their populations at all. Thus one cannot conclude from Bernouilli’s theorem that for any given sample frequency, we should assign high probability to the proposition that a small interval around the sample frequency will contain the true population frequency. But this is exactly the slide that Williams makes in the final step of his argument. Maher (1996) argues in a similar fashion that the last step of the Williams-Stove argument is fallacious. In fact, if one wants to draw conclusions about the probability of the population frequency given the sample frequency, the proper way to do so is by using the Bayesian method described in the previous section. But, as we there saw, this requires the assignment of prior probabilities, and this explains why many people have thought that the combinatorial solution somehow illicitly presupposed an assumption like the principle of indifference. The Williams-Stove argument does not in fact give us an alternative way of inverting the probabilities which somehow bypasses all the issues that Bayesians have faced.

In simpler terms, it has been objected that this response to the problem of induction incorrectly assumes that the sample distribution matches the population distribution. That is, it incorrectly assumes that what we have observed is representative of some sort of universal law. Which is in fact precisely the thing that we are trying to prove. Presumably, the proponents of this solution would argue that in general, we assume that a sample is drawn randomly unless we have any reason to suspect otherwise unless we can demonstrate a bias. But that’s not necessarily true, often sampling measures come under scrutiny and must demonstrate their random methodology.

I think this solution is stronger than the previous one, however.

Perhaps in the future, we will consider more solutions to the problem of induction, but here I have presented the most common one and one that I think is quite interesting.

Van Til on the Unity of Knowledge

In James Anderson’s 2005 paper, we are given an example of an argument that Van Til makes for the existence of God. Specifically, this is an argument that God is a necessary precondition for human beings to have any knowledge about anything. Van Til is hailed in Reformed circles as an excellent apologist, and his brand of presuppositionalist apologetics is very popular and is practised often at the exclusion of other schools of thought. However, I have noticed that very rarely does anyone ever actually present any of Van Til’s arguments. Perhaps today we shall see why. It seems to me that no-one actually reads Van Til, or at least tries to pull any arguments out of him.

Here are two relevant quotes from Van Til that Anderson gives us, which give us the argument we will examine now:

This modern view is based on the assumption that man is the ultimate reference point in his own predication. When, therefore, man cannot know everything, it follows that nothing can be known. All things being related, all things must be exhaustively known or nothing can be known. (An Introduction to Systematic Theology, 163)

Here too every non-Christian epistemology may be distinguished from Christian epistemology in that it is only Christian epistemology that does not set before itself the ideal of comprehensive knowledge for man. The reason for this is that it holds that comprehensive knowledge is found only in God. It is true that there must be comprehensive knowledge somewhere if there is to be any true knowledge anywhere but this comprehensive knowledge need  not and cannot be in us; it must be in God (The Defense of the Faith, 41)

We, modern analytical thinkers, prefer to have arguments in a formal premise-conclusion style, so Anderson helpfully creates one:

  1. If no one has comprehensive knowledge of the universe, then no one can have any knowledge of the universe.
  2. Only God could have comprehensive knowledge of the universe.
  3. We have some knowledge of the universe.
  4. Therefore, God exists.

This argument is valid, and I think for the moment the atheist can grant premise 2. Any being which has comprehensive knowledge of the universe is probably worth being called God. The difficulty is of course with premise 1.

Van Til seems to have a justification like this in mind: we cannot know if there exists out there some fact which would demonstrate all of our previously held beliefs false. But knowing that, we cannot be justified in holding any of our beliefs. If we aren’t justified in holding our beliefs, we have no knowledge. So there must be some way of us being justified in believing that there is no such problematic unknown fact. And the only way for that to be the case is if God designed us with mental faculties which aim at truth in the right way, and intends for us to believe truth. Without God “holding our hand”, we can’t have any knowledge.

Unfortunately, I don’t think this is any good. The mere possibility that we might be wrong is not sufficient to remove justification. We “know” many things about which it is conceivably possible, however unlikely, that we might be wrong. Knowledge is not certain or proven true belief, but only a warranted true belief, and warrant doesn’t need to be certain.

One might attempt to justify the premise further, by using a kind of pessimistic meta-induction. For almost everything that almost all humans have ever believed, it turned out there was some fact out there which proved it wrong. So chances are, there is also some fact out there that proves us wrong. So it’s not only possible that we are wrong about everything we believe, it is now quite likely. And if that is the case, we probably don’t have knowledge.

But this goes too far. Because if that is the case, if theists attempt to make that rhetorical move, then it seems like God isn’t there holding our hand. In this case, God has not designed our mental faculties in the right way, because we are so often wrong. By attempting to prove that knowledge is impossible without God, we’ve also proven that it’s impossible with God.

Van Til has some more arguments that we will examine, but this was the simplest one. Have I missed something? Is the argument stronger than I make it out to be?

Saturday Links 3/11/18

 

Note that I am getting married on Friday, and will be on my honeymoon for a few weeks. So don’t expect much activity from me. Also sorry about an earlier version of this post where the link to the Oppy page was broken.

Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age

Many of you will have noticed that I reference the book A Secular Age by Charles Taylor quite regularly. Outside of scripture, no other book has been more influential in shaping my thinking about the Western world. Where we are, how we got here, what it means, and where we’re going.

If for some reason you don’t feel like spending 4 months digging through this 900 page tome, then there is an alternative that I haven’t read myself, but some of my friends recommend. From James Smith, the author of You Are What you Love, it is a summary of Taylor, containing many of his most important ideas, and it seems to attempt to make them explicitly and directly relevant to the Christian apologist. I also believe that Smith is Reformed, which always wins points in my book.

If those are too hard (and I strongly encourage you to take one of those two options, even as audiobooks or something) then I have found a reasonably good series of YouTube videos, they seem to be recordings of a philosophy class at a university discussing the book. They are not an alternative, but they may be helpful.

Charles Taylor on the Nature of Modern Atheism

…the prospect that religion might disappear under the forces of scientific refutation is abandoned, but the prediction that in humanity’s search for meaning in the future, religious answers will be relegated to the margins

But religion as a whole dissapear or be marginalized in this fashion? At first sight, there seems to be a difficulty with this, in that the very self-understanding of unbelief, that whereby it can present itself as mature, courageous, as a conquest over the temptations of childishness, dependence, or lesser fortitude, requires that we remain aware of the vanquished enemy, of the obstacles which have to be climbed over, of the dangers which still await those whose brave self-responsibility falters. Faith has to remain a possibility, or else the self-valorizing understanding of atheism flounders. Imagining that faith must just disappear is imagining a fundamentally different form of non-faith, one quite unconnected to identity. It would be one in which it would be as indifferent and unconnected to my selse of my ethical predicament that I have no faith, as it is today that I don’t believe, for instance, in phlogiston or natural places. This I suppose is something like what Bruce is predicting

Religion remains ineradicably on the horizon of areligion, and vice versa. This is another indication that the “official story” needs to be understood on a deeper level, as I have been suggesting above.

Something to think about as we engage with our atheist friends, especially those of the New Atheist tradition. It is always good to try to understand the deeper motivations and frameworks of the debates that we have, as well as critically evaluating arguments. We are not just out to win minds, but hearts.

All Religions are the Same: Secular Propoganda

We’ve all heard it before. It’s not really even an argument, just a rhetorical flourish. “All religions are basically the same”, says the atheist. They don’t even intend to argue for this point, they assume everyone will agree with them, and this is, in fact, the premise of their (normally implicit) argument that atheism is superior to religion. And of course, we might just chalk this up to the endemic ignorance that characterizes the New Atheist movement. But I think that there is actually a deeper and more insidious reason why this particular piece of ignorance is so prevalent.

Secularism is founded on what Charles Taylor calls “subtraction narratives”. The idea that religion and silly superstition were holding us back, and once we threw off these burdens and broke free from these chains, we were able to pursue science, rationalism, and humanism. That merely subtracting religion creates a secular person, a scientist and a rationalist and a humanist. Or at the societal level, once we stopped spending all our time worrying about religion and started actually thinking about the real world, we were able to produce the Enlightenment. Religion only holds us back and represses us, and once it is gone we advance.

This is, of course, a false narrative. In reality, the turn from Christendom to the secular age was not one of subtraction, but substitution. We didn’t lose a worldview of religion, we substituted an enchanted worldview for a disenchanted one, a theistic one for an atheistic one, a communal one for an individualistic one, etc. For a fuller treatment, read Taylor’s A Secular Age. But the point is this: we didn’t strip back the religion to find the bare “secular” man ready to be a humanist. Religion was replaced with a secular worldview, with humanism, with another set of values and presuppositions.

The secularist, now embedded in this new worldview (which is often naively accepted and never questioned) must now build a narrative of progress. And in this narrative of progress we contrast the regressive religion with the enlightened secularism. This is what motivates the grouping of all religions together: to maintain their worldview, the secularist has to see all religions as fundamentally the same, so that secularism can be fundamentally different from each, and fundamentally better. A sign of progress of humanity.

But in reality, secularism is just another worldview. It’s not fundamentally different to a “religious” worldview, and in fact I’d call it a religious worldview itself. It attempts to situate us in the world with grand narratives of progress and humanism (as opposed to grand narratives of salvation and redemption), it provides its own set of values and doctrines which can’t be questioned. It even gives a “sacred order” from which we derive a “social order” (see: Rieff’s Deathworks). But the secularist can’t accept that secularism is one competing religion among many, and must find some way to make it fundamentally different.

The truth is that not all religions are the same. They differ not only in doctrine or history, but in values, in the kinds of community or society they create, etc. Some religions are implicitly hostile to what we today think of as science, while one religion (Christianity) gave birth to science. Only a Christian worldview can give rise to something like science, while a Buddhist worldview cannot. For a fuller treatment, see Rodney Stark’s The Victory of Reason. Some religions lead to ethical treatment of minorities and disadvantaged groups, some do not. Some religions lead to societies governed for the welfare of the citizens, and some do not.

Look at all the secular values that I have appealed to there: science, humanism, rationalism, equality. The reason I do this is to point out that even from a secular point of view, treating all religions as fundamentally the same is foolish and ignorant. But of course the secularist has deep pressure to remain ignorant and foolish here, because part of the narrative of their religion requires that all other religions are the same.

 

Saturday Links 25/8/18

 

Sorry posts have been a bit sparse lately, I have just started a full time (secular) job. I still need to work out how I am going to manage my time between all of my projects.