Courses for Christians Critiqued: “Going Deeper” Part 1 – Ironically Shallow

I’ve been considering for some time writing a series about some of the courses that various denominations and churches offer their congregations, putatively to help them to understand their faith better. I was intending to start with the Alpha Course, but a Christian friend on facebook posted about attending a course named “Going Deeper”. A quick Google search later, I was duly wincing my way through tortured logic and faulty argumentation designed to help soothe unfortunate bouts of cognitive dissonance. It seemed like a good warm-up to the assault on critical thinking that is the Alpha Course.

It’s far too long to write-up as a single article (and I suspect it would bore you all to tears if I tried), so instead I’ll try to write up one section a week.

Interestingly, the tone of this course is overwhelmingly about trying to find evidence for God, and trying to philosophise God into existing. That seems like a little bit of a cop-out of the whole faith equals belief without evidence thing to me, but maybe that’s why I’m an atheist.

Because the Leaf Fell

This section sets the tone and lays some of the groundwork for the rest of the course. It is also, as we shall see, highly flawed and internally inconsistent. It starts by painting a picture. It’s a picture that has a leaf in it.

“…A leaf breaks off of the branch, floats down through the air, swoops from side to side, being pushed about by a soft breeze and then lands on the ground…”

You can probably guess where this is going already, but just in case you’re immune to things less subtle than being smacked repeatedly with a hammer, we are then treated to a discourse on how some single event must have caused the leaf to fall. We are even given a list of possible causes: Gravity, the breeze, squirrels – All building up to this statement, which I shall call Wince Number 1 (because that’s what happened when I read it):

“…We do have to agree that there had to have been some cause that lead to the falling of the leaf.”

Well… No, not really. The implication here is that there must have been one, single causal event which was responsible for the falling of the leaf. But that ignores the possibility that there may have been many events and contributing factors (which, undoubtedly, there are, even for an event as simple as a falling leaf). Remember: The course doesn’t talk in terms of a triggering-event, it talks about a cause. That’s not the same thing, but the piece conflates the two ideas with startling repetition.

At this point you’ve probably already realised that we’re in the midst of a set-up for the fallacy that cause = intention, but stay with me. It gets worse, I promise.

Now we get to a seemingly uncontentious, statement:

“PRINCIPLE #1: Any activity in this universe creates an effect(s)”

Well… Yes, kind of. Even the act of waving my arm in a vacuum has some effect, if only in terms of glycogen and oxygen burned by my muscles, extra carbon dioxide filtered from my blood by my lungs. So I’ll accept that premise as reasonable until proven otherwise.

There follows a short discourse that we shall call Wince Number 2:

“But that principle is also true when read in the other direction. We also have to agree that in order for it to even be possible for the leaf to fall – a greater, earlier event (cause) must have already taken place: the growth of the limb that the leaf grew from! If that limb had never grown then that particular leaf would have never existed in the first place and thus could never fall. Keep going. If the trunk never grew there would be no limb. Before that, if there were no tree seed – the sprout would have never grown to create a trunk which would never produce a branch that would never grow any leaf to fall.

Did everybody spot the step that was skipped? If we really read the first scenario (that some triggering event caused the leaf to fall) in reverse, we would say that the falling leaf required a trigger event to make it fall. Wince Number 2 skips straight past that unavoidable conclusion, stops talking in terms of triggering events, and instead starts conflating required preconditions for an event with cause for the event. So far, so torturous! All of this leads to Wince Number 3:

“PRINCIPLE #2: Conversely, every effect in this universe is the result of some unified cause(s).”

Just in case I haven’t already pointed out how hard the author(s) of Going Deeper have failed to demonstrate a logical chain from principle #1 to principle #2, let me put it like this:

If all trains are all vehicles, are all vehicles trains? No, of course not. Just because A always equals B, does not mean that B always equals A. This is a common failure among poor arguers: Using the rules of mathematics as interchangeable with the rules of logic.

Another short discourse follows, but it’s largely irrelevant as it assumes that principle 2 is true and proven, and it’s really just a re-statement of it in slightly more complex terms anyway:

“PRINCIPLE #3: All activity in this universe is related through a chain of causes/effects. Nothing in this universe is “uncaused” but rather is dependent upon a prior cause.”

To reiterate: The authors have failed to demonstrate that this is true. Let’s see what they fail to demonstrate next! The next one is fairly straightforward: That the chain of cause and effect is not infinite, it is finite.

I’m not actually going critique the paragraph in which this is asserted, because it is so patently ridiculous – The ignorance it displays is breathtaking all on its own. Here it is:

“To start weighing the facts use this example: Imagine that I am going to travel from my house to yours. I feel like going for a brisk, comfortable jog. Your house is the perfect distance for me to run before I get too tired. So I’m going to head over to take a break at your place! I’ve been conditioned for long distance running. This will equip me for the journey. The only catch – the distance between your house and mine is infinite. There is an endless amount of room between my place and yours!

Can this be true? Can I make the trip from my house to yours by covering the infinite distance between them?

We may not be able to figure out the true distance of space but we can figure this out with absolute certainty – if I am standing at my front door and I claim that I can make it to your house which is an infinite distance away I am rotten a liar!

Why? To travel an infinity is to never, ever stop. There is no such thing as endpoints in an infinity! If I start running no matter how trained I am I will not make it. That fact has nothing to do with my athletic stamina but rather with mathematical laws. An infinite distance means that for every step I take there would be another, and another, and another, and another in a never-ending cycle for all eternity. From whatever point are you standing and looking out onto infinity you will never find an endpoint because that is what defines an infinity – no ending point!”

Um… Yes? And? I’m confused about where this is going. I’ll let you look up the next paragraph yourself if you want to read it – It’s pretty much a restatement of the last one. It’s equally irrelevant, and involves brownies. I’m not making this up. It all leads to this:

“PRINCIPLE #4: All events in this universe have a finite list of causes. Since nothing in this universe is uncaused all things are related to one another through their dependency on a prior cause. Thus all existence in this universe is contingent upon common, ultimate, singular first event.

Do I need to restate the obvious? Absolutely no part of principle 4 has been demonstrated or proven in any way, shape or form. Further, even if they could demonstrate first-cause, how could they rule out many simultaneous but otherwise unrelated first-causes? They could not.

What follows is almost sixteen hundred words that can be summed up very easily in one sentence: “The whole universe is subject to the same physical laws and constants as human beings”. Of course, the authors don’t actually demonstrate (or even reason) this. They just blithely state is as if it were an established fact. I suspect this is the reason for the sixteen hundred words: They’re stultifyingly dull and repetitive. I suspect they’re only there in the hope that readers will skip to the conclusion and assume that it has been proven. It hasn’t been proven, or even vaguely justified, but the conclusion is:

“CONCLUSION: Something transcendent to our universe put the chain of causes/effects of our universe into motion. A “FIRST CAUSE” exists.

Hands up if you saw that coming straight from Wince Number 1. I think that will do for now, not least because I’ve reached my limit for reading such silliness for the day. Stay tuned for part 2 next week.

Front Loading with Lee Strobel, part 3
Front Loading with Lee Strobel, part the second
Front Loading with Lee Strobel
Hitler Can't Help You
  • Reginald Selkirk

    about attending a course named “Going Deeper”.

    You’ve got to admit, it is appropriately named.

    • Custador

      Personally I’d have gone for “Without a Snorkel”.

  • Francesco

    Well, there is another INCREDIBLY HIGH logical fallacy into the last argument. The example he bbring is not that of an inifite sequel of causes, it is of an infinite sequel of causes WITH A STARTING POINT. And he assumes we are at the last step, not considering we may be one of the innumerable medium steps.

    • Francesco

      *incredibly big

  • Elemenope

    Custy, I’m actually going to go out on a very thin limb and disagree with you entirely about the strengths and weaknesses of the argument you’re dissecting. The reason is that they seem to be using the word “cause” more in a hierarchical than a sequential sense, which actually reflects a significant improvement in the cosmological argument over the more familiar lay versions (the original Kalaam, especially, which no theologians I have read really take seriously anymore since Muhammad al-Ghazali pointed out there is no purely deductive reason to expect that all sequential causal chains terminate).

    The distinction is that sequential causal chains are described temporally, whereas hierarchical causal chains are described in terms of non-temporal dependency (see their Principle #4). In hierarchical causal chains, causation describes that which allows or makes possible the effect to exist, rather than that which directly precedes the effect and acts to produce it. Hierarchical causal chains, being non-temporal, can “act” simultaneously to describe that which allows any particular effect, short-circuiting al-Ghazali’s objection, especially since it can be shown that hierarchical causal chains of any existing cause must terminate.

    For example, a sequential causative chain that describes the effect of breathing may have any number of sequential causes (muscular contraction, nerve impulses, the organism’s state of exertion, blood oxygen levels, and so forth). The hierarchical causal chain is much simpler and shorter: breathing is caused hierarchically by oxygen and lung tissue existing, which in turn are hierarchically caused by the existence of beings with lungs/the physical relationships corresponding to rules described in chemistry/the existence of an atmosphere, which in turn are hierarchically caused by the rules described in physics, which in turn are dependent upon the physical reality (i.e. existence) of the universe, [which in turn are dependent upon whatever it is the universe depends upon to exist]. The hierarchical cause in square brackets is the one that theists argue is necessary, but that atheists argue is unnecessary, but either way necessarily terminates in a number of finite steps with either “the universe as it exists” or “whatever the universe depends upon to exist”, what theists might term, as Tillich did, the “ground of all being”.

    It’s a fundamentally better argument for many reasons, but the relevant ones are that it avoids the pitfalls of depending upon sequential causal chains, and points out the relative philosophic difficulty in persuasively arguing that the universe needs no hierarchical support to exist (in essence, pointing out that the special pleading that normally theists are guilty of seems to rub off on atheists in unseemly ways).

    What follows is almost sixteen hundred words that can be summed up very easily in one sentence: “The whole universe is subject to the same physical laws and constants as human beings”. Of course, the authors don’t actually demonstrate (or even reason) this.

    Yeah, I’d give them a pass on this too, if only because Hume conclusively showed that all forms of induction (including, yes, scientific empiricism) rely utterly and inescapably (and circularly) on the Principle of the Uniformity of Nature, which in essence is the part you put there in quotes (and is only generally added that the future must be like the past with regard to uniformity of laws, that the laws of nature do not change over time). If you can’t assume that, you really can’t make any sort of inductive observation about the universe that could have any use whatsoever.

    • Custador

      I think from the wording of the course itself they’re talking about sequential cause and effect, but I guess that’s up for debate. As for the bit I put in quotes: We know that the universe has several sets of rules, and that anything recognisable as human is subject to a very different set than, say, the matter in a singularity. I don’t give them the same pass as you, because I honestly think they’re factually wrong.

      • Elemenope

        It could well be that they are muddled up on which sort of causation they are trying to describe. Like you say, at the beginning it seemed like they were talking about simple temporal causation, but as I pointed out, their principles later seem to indicate something else. Given that William Lane Craig, the go-to guy for the “improved” cosmological argument, is widely read and at that by people who aren’t exactly philosophically literate, it wouldn’t surprise me in the least if these folks mangled the hell out of the presentation of his argument simply by not understanding the importance of the sequential/hierarchical divide.

        We know that the universe has several sets of rules, and that anything recognisable as human is subject to a very different set than, say, the matter in a singularity. I don’t give them the same pass as you, because I honestly think they’re factually wrong.

        Er, they’re the same rules, just implemented under different conditions. The rules say that the behavior of matter in a singularity will be in some ways different than the behavior of matter in a human body, but they are operating under a unified set of invariant rules nonetheless, and those rules happily describe both situations. The same effects, like gravity, are in play, and are operating in a constant way, and the observed differences in phenomena are akin to a phase change or other abrupt discontinuity in quantitative behavior (like a hydraulic jump). If there was a true discontinuity in the rules themselves, between the rules in extreme situations and those in more common situations, we would not be able to say anything useful about such circumstances at all. The popular notion that the laws of physics “break down” in circumstances of singularity is not really true, it’s just that a singularity is a very special case of those laws, the behavior thus described not appearing in any other case.

        I’ll say about the Cosmological argument that it is the only one of the three main positive arguments for God that resolves, in my opinion, as inconclusive (as opposed to flat-out wrong). It is inconclusive primarily because once you get to the hypothetical termination of the hierarchical causal chain, you are left with a choice that requires special pleading for each option. I personally choose the more parsimonious option, but parsimony is not a strict requirement of logic (and it is, of course, a logical argument). Though, in the best of circumstances it can only get you to the Philosopher’s God; the extensions (including those by Craig) that attempt to link any attributes to such a hypothetical entity are silly in the extreme.

        • FO

          Parsimony (Occam’s razor) is another rule we NEED to use everyday besides Uniformity of Nature.

          I see that when I step forward, my body moves forward, but it could be a thousands of invisible unicorns pushing me forward really.
          To effectively interact with reality, I have to choose the parsimonious option.

          • Elemenope

            Quite so. My only point is that parsimony-tracking is a pragmatic rule, not a logical one. A very, very important pragmatic rule, to be sure.

    • DMG

      I disagree with your assessment that atheists claim the universe needs no hierarchical support to exist.

      Rather, most atheists I know are of the opinion that although we don’t know what the prerequisites of a universe are, a conscious, intentional, intelligent, prayer-answering, miracle-working god is far from the only possible candidate, given what we know so far.

      (Theists have the further problem of explaining the prerequisites of the god figure itself)

      • Elemenope

        It’s a fair point that some atheists remain agnostic about the possible hierarchical cause of the universe, but (in particular) reductive materialists have an awfully hard time justifying their own metaphysical inclinations given such an agnosticism, because such a position does imply the physical universe as being the most basic hierarchical cause.

        • DMG

          Not strictly. There’s always the hope that the physical universe may itself be an inevitable result of some more basic, but still mechanical, principle or process. As an extreme example, imagine that the existence of a universe with physical laws could be shown to be a necessary consequence of mathematical logic somehow.

          A reductive materialist, as you call them, simply says “I see no need to invoke non-mechanical processes for anything up to the ‘root cause,’ so I see no need to speculate that this cause is different and requires a non-mechanical explanation.”

    • Nox

      I would have gone a different route than Custador here (the conflation of “cause” with “intention” seems like the bigger issue). But he does make a legitimate point.

      • Custador

        We’ll get to that in part 2.

  • Thin-ice

    I am unable follow the philosophical musings here very deeply, but I do have enough common sense to see where this Alpha Course logic is going to end up: that the ultimate “cause” is the Christian God (or 3 gods). Then their main antagonists will not be non-theists like us, but all the followers of the hundreds of Gods posited by other religions.

    • blotonthelandscape

      The key to the Alpha Course is as much the content as it is the setting. A nice meal, a presentation, an “open” discussion; when behind the scenes they’re using strong emotional hooks, blocking critical thinking, and trying to make you engage in their group-think by isolating you from dissenting sources. The content is pretty much CS-Lewis-style apologetics (mad-bad-god, amongst others), unless it’s changed in the last 10 years when I was last involved in it.

      I’m not sure there’s any point in offering a critique of the course from the comfort of your PC. Are you planning on attending your local brainwashing course?

      • Custador

        I thought I might, actually. Have digital Dictaphone, will travel…

  • Paul

    “If all trains are all vehicles, are all vehicles trains? No, of course not. Just because A always equals B, does not mean that B always equals A. This is a common failure among poor arguers: Using the rules of mathematics as interchangeable with the rules of logic.”

    Sorry Custy, but the rules of math came strait from the rules of logic, and at this level are the same (i.e. the basis of math in set theory stemming from propositional calculus and predicative logic). Your overall point is valid, but it’s more just bad logic and bad math not that someone is interchanging them. Although, your train analogy does fail, in explanation, at both logic and math. Equality does not exist between trains and vehicles; subsets would be the proper connective to be using. Try: A is a subset of B does not imply that B is a subset of A (if both are true you are then left with equality).

    The next bit where the author rehashes Zeno’s paradox… yeah… that’s faulty logic, math, and the interchange of those two… or at least lack thereof. That was a bit numbing.

    Also: hand is raised.

  • gringa

    I hate when people write things that are intended to teach or make a point with so many exclamation points. It’s obnoxious and tells me that the person would rather yell/beat you over the head with their thoughts than actually prove them or convince me of anything rationally.

  • keruso

    “Something transcendent to our universe put the chain of causes/effects of our universe into motion. A “FIRST CAUSE” exists”.
    Now I get it, so that’s why God hates fags, females and foreskins.

  • RickRay1

    Doesn’t the argument go, “If everything had a first cause, what caused the first cause?” And ’round and ’round we go! I always wondered who god’s great, great, great, great, great,…………………………………………………………grandaddy was. ‘Splain that godlodytes!