Catch Up Before You Speak Up

Luke Muehlhauser admonishes his fellow atheists to do a better job of catching up with the current states of various aspects of the scholarly debate between theism and atheism before presuming to publicly debate theists.  He gives a couple instructive examples of failure to do so:

  • In a debate with theist Bill Craig, agnostic Bart Ehrman paraphrased David Hume’s argument that we can’t demonstrate the occurrence of a miracle in the past. Craig responded with a PowerPoint slide showing Bayes’ Theorem, and explained that Ehrman was only considering prior probabilities, when of course he needed to consider the relevant conditional probabilities as well. Ehrman failed to respond to this, and looked as though he had never seen Bayes’ Theorem before. Had Ehrman practiced the virtue of scholarship on this issue, he might have noticed that much of the scholarly work on Hume’s argument in the past two decadeshas involved Bayes’ Theorem. He might also have discovered that the correct response to Craig’s use of Bayes’ Theorem can be found in pages 298-341 of J.H. Sobel’s Logic and Theism.
  • In another debate with Bill Craig, atheist Christopher Hitchens gave this objection: “Who designed the Designer? Don’t you run the risk… of asking ‘Well, where does that come from? And where does that come from?’ and running into an infinite regress?” But this is an elementary misunderstanding in philosophy of science. Why? Because every successful scientific explanation faces the exact same problem. It’s called the “why regress” because no matter what explanation is given of something, you can always still ask “Why?” Craig pointed this out and handily won that part of the debate. Had Hitchens had a passing understanding of science or explanation, he could have avoided looking foolish, and also spent more time onsubstantive objections to theism. (One can give a “Who made God?” objection to theism that has some meat, but that’s not the one Hitchens gave. Hitchens’ objection concerned an infinite regress of explanations, which is just as much a feature of science as it is of theism.)

Your Thoughts?

About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.

  • http://ethicalrealism.wordpress.com James Gray

    Luke has been discussing this issue for quite some time and I think he knows what he is talking about. Certainly being uninformed doesn’t help someone debate well, and Luke has been watching every debate he can get his hands on.

    • Daniel Fincke

      Yeah, it’s one of his major hobby horses, and a good one.

  • Ben Finney

    The infinite regress exists in the explanations offered from religion and the explanations offered from science. The difference is that this is a problem only for religion.

    Science does not claim an ultimate stopping point, a primal cause. When religions claim the existence of some being that is the ultimate cause, the infinite regress becomes a problem where none exists for science.

    But this is an elementary misunderstanding in philosophy of science. Why? Because every successful scientific explanation faces the exact same problem. It’s called the “why regress” because no matter what explanation is given of something, you can always still ask “Why?”

    Yes, of course. The point is that science doesn’t claim a stopping point to that regress.

    Religious claims of a stopping point must face the dilemma that such a stopping point is arbitrary: either there is some stopping point (in which case, the natural universe could simply be that stopping point) or there is no stopping point to the regress (in which case, there’s no justification to propose any gods to fill that role). In either case, the problem of infinite regress makes gods irrelevant to the explanation.

    Science simply doesn’t have that problem: it leaves quite open the possibility that there is such an infinite regress, and any explanations that require further explanation are simply marked “pending”. Avoiding claims of ultimate knowledge means that the infinite regress of explanations isn’t a problem for science.

  • Daniel Fincke

    Science simply doesn’t have that problem: it leaves quite open the possibility that there is such an infinite regress, and any explanations that require further explanation are simply marked “pending”. Avoiding claims of ultimate knowledge means that the infinite regress of explanations isn’t a problem for science.

    Well put, Ben.

  • Ben Finney

    Here it is said more succinctly. In Carl Sagan’s notes, collected by his mother, Ann Druyan found this Wilhelm Liebniz quote:

    Why does something exist rather than nothing? For ‘nothing’ is simpler than ‘something.’ Now this sufficient reason for the existence of the universe … which has no need of any other reason … must be a necessary being, else we should not have a sufficient reason with which we could stop.

    Carl Sagan had written this note underneath:

    To Liebniz and to ourselves:
    So don’t stop.


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