bookmark_borderGenuine Inquiry vs. Partisan Advocacy: Philosophy of Religion vs. Apologetics

Yesterday I blogged about a “recommended apologetics reading” list created by Western Michigan University philosopher Tim McGrew. After several cordial exchanges with Tim, I’ve decided that, despite my best attempts to be charitable, I failed. Contrary to what I had suggested, Tim stated, “I certainly would not recommend that anyone with a serious interest in the truth of Christianity restrict himself to reading only the works I have listed.” I take him at his word, and so I have decided to delete the entire blog post, rather than try to repair it, and replace it with this one.
I want to make a distinction between genuine inquiry, on the one hand, and partisan advocacy, on the other. Consider a central (but far from the only) topic in the philosophy of religion: the existence or nonexistence of God. Consider, for a moment, what it would mean to engage in genuine inquiry regarding God’s existence. If the word “inquiry” means anything at all, surely it means more than “read stuff which confirms the point of view you already hold.” It should include, at a minimum, reading opposing viewpoints, not with the goal of preparing pithy one-liners for debates, but with the goal of actually trying to learn something or consider new ways of looking at old topics. For professional philosophers, I would imagine that inquiry would also include trying to “steel man” your opposition, i.e., trying to strengthen the arguments for your opponent’s position. It might even include publishing arguments for a position you do not hold and even reject.
In contrast, partisan advocacy is, well, exactly what it sounds like it is. Much like an attorney hired to vigorously defend her client in court, a partisan advocate isn’t interested in genuine inquiry. To the extent a partisan advocate reads the “other side” at all, she does so in the same way presidential candidates try to find out the “truth” about their opponent under the guise of “opposition research.” So, for example, if a partisan advocate were to create a reading list about God’s existence, they would compile a list of recommended resources which either exclusively or overwhelmingly promoted a certain point of view and without even a hint that a balanced inquiry should be taken.
As suggested by the subtitle of this post, if we apply the genuine inquiry vs. partisan advocacy distinction to religion, I think we get the distinction between (an ideal) philosophy of religion vs. apologetics.
Now, this raises an interesting question.  At what point is a person, especially a professional philosopher, entitled to say this: “Genuine inquiry is nice and all, but viewpoint X is such obvious nonsense that the time for inquiry is over. After all, no geologist engages in ‘genuine inquiry’ about whether the earth is flat. So why should we treat theism (or atheism) any differently?”
I am not sure about the ‘full’ answer to that question, but I think at least part of the answer has to consider two points.
First, I think the current state of professional opinion is relevant. Surely part of the reason no one engages in genuine inquiry about the flat earth hypothesis is the fact that there are no competent geologists who endorse it. In contrast, among philosophers generally and philosophers of religion specifically, there are equally qualified authorities on both sides.
Second, I think the concept of intrinsic probabilities can play an important role here. I’m a naturalistic atheist, but I’m fully convinced by Paul Draper’s theory of intrinsic probability, which shows that naturalism and supernaturalism have equal intrinsic probabilities. While theism is a specific version of supernaturalism (and so is less intrinsically probable than naturalism), its intrinsic probability is not infinitesimal. Furthermore, not only does theism have a non-negligible intrinsic probability, there is evidence in its favor. It seems to me that if a theory (1) has a non-negligible intrinsic probability; (2) has evidence in its favor; and (3) is held by significant percentage of philosophers, not to mention the general population, then that theory is worthy of genuine inquiry. And notice that these same points apply to atheism or naturalism, which is why theists should also engage in genuine inquiry.

bookmark_borderSix Findings from Experimental Science Which Disconfirm Theism

This post is a sequel to my 2013 post, “Scientific Discoveries, Theism, and Atheism: Reply to Wintery Knight.” In that post, I showed:

  1. Wintery Knight misuses the word “compatible” when he he claims that “four basic pieces of scientific evidence” are “more compatible with theism than atheism.”
  2. The creation/design hypothesis is, at best, an incomplete explanation for his four putative lines of evidence. Or to put the point another way, in the words of Sean Carroll, the creation/design hypothesis “not well-defined.”
  3. Wintery Knight is uncharitable to atheists and atheism because he consistently interacts with weak objections to his arguments, while ignoring the stronger objections defended by atheist scholars, especially atheist philosophers of religion.
  4. Wintery Knight commits the fallacy of understated evidence.

Since Wintery Knight reposted his original 2013 post on experimental science and atheism–apparently with no edits whatsoever–I decided to post a follow-up reply. Here are six lines of experimental, scientific evidence which are better explained by naturalism than by theism.

  1. The universe began to exist with time, not in time.
  2. So much of the universe is hostile to life.
  3. Complex living things are the gradually modified descendants of simpler living things.
  4. All non-question-begging examples of minds are minds dependent upon a physical brain. (Similarly, excluding examples of so-called “complex specified information” allegedly related to intelligent design, all other examples of complex specified information involve a mind dependent on a physical brain.)
  5. Pain and pleasure appear to play a biological, not a moral, role in the lives of sentient organisms.
  6. Only a fraction of living things, including the majority of sentient beings, thrive. In other words, very few living things have an adequate supply of food and water, are able to reproduce, avoid predators, and remain healthy. An even smaller fraction of organisms thrive for most of their lives. Almost no organisms thrive for all of their lives.

Furthermore, in addition to these six lines of evidence, we have a seventh piece of evidence (really, meta-evidence): the history of science and the success of naturalistic explanations. Like the first six lines of evidence, this fact is also antecedently more probable on naturalism than on theism.
While I like Wintery Knight as a person, I’m sorry to say that his latest blog post–like many of his blog posts and like the writings of many apologists–is an example of what I have elsewhere called “obnoxious apologetics.” Let’s review.

Like many (but not all) of those other books in the apologetics genre, the basic approach [of obnoxious apologetics] seems to be the following.

  1. Present and defend the author’s preferred view as favorably as possible.
  2. Represent opposing views as unfavorably as possible.
  3. Reach the remarkable conclusion that–surprise, surprise–the author’s view is true.
  4. Suggest that anyone who disagrees is ignorant, irrational, or has ulterior (non-rational) motives.

The problem with obnoxious apologetics, which seems to afflict as many atheist apologists as theist apologists, is that it’s a fatally flawed way to search for truth. If our goal is the sincere pursuit of truth–and it should be–then the above approach is what not to do. Rather, if our goal is the sincere pursuit of truth, then our basic approach should be to represent opposing views fairly, in the best possible light, and interact with the best arguments both for and against the different viewpoints.

 

bookmark_borderIndex: Rebuttal to Geisler’s and Turek’s “I Don’t Have Enough Faith to be an Atheist”

Review of Norman L. Geisler and Frank Turek, I Don’t Have Enough Faith to be an Atheist (Wheaton: Crossway, 2004). 
Like all apologetics books, both Christian and non-Christian, I Don’t Have Enough Faith to be an Atheist book takes a partisan approach to the philosophy of religion. Of course, by itself, the fact that it is a partisan book isn’t a problem. The existence or non-existence of God is an important topic; it’s appropriate for people who’ve reached a conclusion to try to persuade others of their position.
The fundamental problem with this book is the particular way it takes a partisan approach: there are partisan books and then there are obnoxiously partisan books.  Like many (but not all) of those other books in the apologetics genre, the basic approach seems to be the following.

  1. Present and defend the author’s preferred view as favorably as possible.
  2. Represent opposing views as unfavorably as possible.
  3. Reach the remarkable conclusion that–surprise, surprise–the author’s view is true.
  4. Suggest that anyone who disagrees is ignorant, irrational, or has ulterior (non-rational) motives.

The problem with obnoxious apologetics, which seems to afflict as many atheist apologists as theist apologists, is that it’s a fatally flawed way to search for truth. If our goal is the sincere pursuit of truth–and it should be–then the above approach is what not to do. Rather, if our goal is the sincere pursuit of truth, then our basic approach should be to represent opposing views fairly, in the best possible light, and interact with the best arguments both for and against the different viewpoints.
The philosopher George H. Smith once wrote, “We have nothing to fear and everything to gain from the honest pursuit of truth.”[1] Along the same lines, obnoxious apologetics is in no one’s self-interest. First, it clearly is not in the best interest of the community who feels their position has been slandered by the straw men created (and then torn down) by apologists.
Second, it’s not in the self-interest of the obnoxious apologist, since in the long-run it can backfire.  Think of the last time you read or listened to something which you felt misrepresented one of your beliefs (or your arguments for your beliefs). Did you change your mind and drop the belief? Of course not! Did you start thinking of objections and rebuttals as you were reading or listening? Probably!  Indeed, if the misrepresentation was made by someone in the public eye, such as a well-known author, it runs the real risk of inviting corrective reviews (like this one) and damaging the author’s credibility.
Third, it’s not in the self-interest of undecided, sincere seekers who truly want to follow the evidence wherever it leads. Following the evidence wherever it leads requires that all of the available relevant evidence be presented and presented fairly. As we shall see later in this review, Geisler and Turek (hereafter, G&T) fail to do this—over and over again.
This failure not only has a practical cost, but a logical cost as well. As G&T admit, their goal is to show that Christianity is highly probable through the use of inductive arguments based upon empirical evidence. But inductive arguments succeed only when they satisfy the Total Evidence Requirement, viz., that their premises embody all of the available relevant evidence.  As I show below, however, G&T’s inductive arguments fail to do this–both individually and collectively. Accordingly, even if all of G&T’s evidence were accurate, which it isn’t, G&T’s case still wouldn’t succeed in showing that Christianity is probably true.
In order to support this verdict on the book’s approach, I’m going to provide a fairly detailed review of the book’s contents, divided into sections according to the table of contents.
Here is the table of contents for the book:
Foreword by David Limbaugh
Preface: How Much Faith Do You Need to Believe This Book?
Acknowledgements
Introduction: Finding the Box Top to the Puzzle of Life
1 Can We Handle the Truth?
2 Why Should Anyone Believe Anything At All?
3 In the Beginning There Was a Great SURGE
4 Divine Design
5 The First Life: Natural Law or Divine Awe?
6 New Life Forms: From the Goo to You via the Zoo?
7 Mother Theresa vs. Hitler
8 Miracles: Signs of God or Gullibility
9 Do We Have Early Testimony About Jesus? (Part 1, Part 2)
10 Do We Have Eyewitness Testimony About Jesus?
11 The Top Ten Reasons We Know the New Testament Writers Told the Truth
12 Did Jesus Really Rise from the Dead?
13 Who is Jesus: God? Or Just a Great Moral Teacher?
14 What Did Jesus Teach about the Bible?
15 Conclusion: The Judge, The Servant, and the Box Top
Appendix 1: If God, Why Evil?
Appendix 2: Isn’t That Just Your Interpretation?
Appendix 3: Why the Jesus Seminar Doesn’t Speak for Jesus
Notes
 
[1] George H. Smith, “Atheism: The Case Against God,” speech delivered to the Society of Separationists, 1976. Transcript published as “How to Defend Atheism,” The Secular Web (1976), http://infidels.org/library/modern/george_smith/defending.html.

bookmark_borderTheism, Atheism, and Dismissive Attitudes

Here are two hypotheses about theism, atheism, and dismissive attitudes.
H1: for (some / many / most) theists, how dismissive a theist is to atheism is inversely proportional to how familiar said theist is to the best, most robust arguments for atheism*
H2: for (some / many / most) atheists, how dismissive an atheist is to theism is inversely proportional to how familiar said atheist is to best, most robust arguments arguments for theism
* For purposes of this post, replace “atheism” with “the positive belief that God does not exist”