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.

Isn’t God’s Design Amazing?

[via]

Appealing to Scientific Values

Water is two parts hydrogen and one part oxygen. What if someone says, "Well, that's not how I choose to think about water."? All we can do is appeal to scientific values. And if he doesn't share those values, the conversation is over. If someone doesn't value evidence, what evidence are you going to provide to prove that they should value it? If someone doesn't value logic, what logical argument could you provide to show the importance of logic?

God vs Unicorns

Beck on Bat Creek

Glenn Beck does a lot of talking about God. The odd thing about that is that he does it while surrounded by Christians – most probably evangelicals – while Beck himself is a Mormon. The Mormons may believe in the same God as the rest of Christianity, but they believe he has a very different nature. How Beck handles having such differences with his primary audience is an interesting question.

James McGrath points out how many in Beck’s audience have co-opted the Progressive Christian arguments for ecumenical co-existence. But every now and then, Beck still puts his foot in it. He did so a couple weeks ago, when he mentioned an odd item called the Bat Creek Stone. Beck believes that the Stone is evidence for the Mormon version of North American pre-history.

The Stone

The Bat Creek Stone was discovered in 1889 in a burial mound at the confluence of the Bat Creek and Little Tennessee River. It was discovered by John Emmert, a semi-trained archaeologist working for the Smithsonian. Emmert claimed to have found the Stone along with some copper bracelets, wood fragments and skeletons in the mound. Later tests would date the wood fragments to the first CE.

The most notable feature of the Stone was the eight characters engraved upon it. Emmert claimed that these were Cherokee. This caused some obvious problems, since the Cherokee alphabet was only created by Sequoyah around 1828, and the mound was clearly much older than that.

Emmert’s superior at the Smithsonian, Dr. Cyrus Thomas, already believed that the mounds had been created by the Cherokee or their ancestors. Thomas was willing to argue that the symbols used in the Cherokee language were actually a great deal older than previously thought. He later seemed to abandon this argument, and may have decided that the Stone was a forgery.

Despite the initial flurry this generated, the Stone seemed to disappear off the radar. It continued to attract very little attention up until the 1970s. That’s when Dr. Cyrus Gordon (yes, another Cyrus), a professor of Mediterranean Studies, claimed that when you inverted the stone it became clear that the characters were actually Hebrew. He admitted that three of the characters were problematic, but suggested that the stone might read “for the Jews.”

The Current Debate

Gordon was a proponent of a very old idea: that the Old World and the New World had been in contact after the migration of the Native Americans and before Columbus. He suggested that the Stone proved that people had migrated to America during the Roman Empire. Most other proponents of the theory have different ideas, and the stone is frequently mentioned by people who argue that it shows a connection between ancient Jews and modern Native Americans. You can imagine the connections with the Lost Tribes of Israel or Mormon pseudo-history.

The debate has continued, most prominently in the pages of the Biblical Archeology Review, where Huston McCullough argued for its authenticity. One of the best responses to Gordon was an article by Robert C. Mainfort and Mary L. Kwas in the The Tennessee Anthropologist, available online here.

In order to understand the symbols, the authors contacted Frank Moore Cross, at that point the Hancock Professor of Hebrew and Other Oriental Languages at Harvard. Dr. Cross is famous for his work on the Dead Sea Scrolls, being one of only two Americans on the scroll-publishing team.

Cross’ verdict is pretty damning: of the eight characters on the stone, six cannot be identified as paleo-Hebrew script. Faced with that, the most probable conclusion is that the Stone is a fabrication, rather than evidence of Hebrew contact with the New World or the preexistence of the Cherokee alphabet. Since there are no photographs or reports from the dig, it is impossible to say with any certainty that the stone wasn’t placed by Emmert or someone else at the time.

Conclusions


There’s a fair bit of speculation as to why a forgery would be created. Mainfort and Kwas suggest that Emmert was trying to gain support from his boss, who believed that the mounds were the work of the ancestors of the Cherokee. Another theory has it that Luther Meade Blackman, a Union veteran and local stone cutter, was trying to set Emmert, a former Confederate soldier, up to be fired by planting a fake stone.

I don’t know how much this kind of speculation is going to gain us. My inclination is to rest on Cross’ statements about the stone. It’s a forgery, and finding out who created it and why is less important than making sure its nature is understood.

But let’s set its nature aside for the moment, and look at the arguments that it’s used for. Let’s assume that it does, as Gordon suggests, read “for the Jews.” What does that tell us?

Not nearly as much as many pseudo-archeologists would often like. It would presumably show some contact between the Middle East and North America, but contact does not equal influence. Consider the Maine Penny(above). While its exact provenance is still unknown, it seems likely to be a real Norwegian silver penny. But no one is going to suggest that it proves the Natives Americans are really descendants of Vikings. At most, it’s a sign that the Vikings who may have briefly settled in Vinland might have traded south farther than expected.