Dialogue with a Polymath Agnostic on Root Premises

Dialogue with a Polymath Agnostic on Root Premises September 1, 2015

Leonardo

Portrait of Leonardo da Vinci (a polymath) by Francesco Melzi (1493-1570) [public domain / Wikimedia Commons]

This exchange occurred in the combox for my post, Clarifications re: Atheist “Reductio” Paper. My opponent’s (JD Eveland’s) words will be in blue. He has very impressive credentials: a Ph.D. and various professorships. He claims to be a “polymath” too: which means a great genius, with expertise in many fields. This title has been applied to men like Leonardo da Vinci, Galileo, and Isaac Newton.

I’m honored to have been able to talk at all with such a distinguished man (I truly am). Of course, when we started talking, I didn’t know any of this about him (I did know that many active atheists and agnostics online have advanced degrees and are very sharp). 

What I have been known for, these past 19 years online, is engaging in lots of honest dialogues (over 700 posted through the years), where I present all of my opponent’s words (in a given discussion of one broad or specific topic)  and interact with them. I have written three books (one / two / three) that are entirely or mostly of this nature. Readers can then exercise their own critical faculties in judging relative merits of the arguments. This is the beauty of dialogue, and why I love it so much as a teaching tool. Free speech and exchange of ideas are wonderful things.

* * * * *


Let’s assume for a bit that there is some element of “faith” in accepting the notion of a non-theistic universe, analogous to the faith exercised in accepting a theistic universe. There still remain two critical differences that render this equivalence false. First, there is the question of how to deal with disconfirming evidence. The non-theist has no difficulty incorporating new information into his worldview; the theist, by contrast, must deny such evidence if it turns out to disconfirm some particular article of faith deemed necessary. Second, even if one agrees to call all the uncertainties in the universe “God”, there is no necessary segue to acceptance of the details of the Catholic/Christian “God” as necessary and valid. Something other than the inherent uncertainty of cosmological questions would be necessary to establish the Christian “God” as the only legitimate way of filling in the cosmological holes.

1. Philosophy and religion (non-empirical ways of knowledge) generally ascertain knowledge non-empirically (DUH!!!).Therefore, your “argument” is a non sequitur. All it establishes is that science operates with the methodology and presuppositions of scientific method, which no one denied in the first place. It can’t speak to non-empiricism because it is outside of its purview. 

It seems that not one atheist or agnostic in a hundred understands this basic, fundamental, elementary fact of epistemology and reality, but assuredly there are some. I’ve met them here.

2. I have not argued that the Christian God necessarily follows if we reject the fathomless irrationality of atheism / agnosticism, so your point on that score is also a non sequitur. I have asserted that it is reasonable (and requires no more faith) to posit God as an alternative explanation of the origins of things. But that is only the “bare” philosophical / deist-type / Humean God. The Christian / biblical God has to be proven by any number of other arguments.

You gave it the old college try; you just have to present some arguments that are not non sequiturs.

Wrong again, Dave. Philosophy (if not religion) may be “non-empirical” in the sense that there aren’t experiments that can be set up to test particular propositions, but it is expected at least to follow the general rules of logic and discourse. It is also expected not to blatantly contradict empirically verifiable propositions. Non-experimental methods aren’t a license to just throw any old thought up against the wall and see if you can convince people that it’s sticking.

And I would also observe that the article also covertly attempts to get around your second assertion (which is in fact correct). By failing to make this point explicitly in the article, you leave a wide space within which you may hope that the non-analytical will be persuaded that if there is any difficulty to be found with some atheist propositions, the only alternative is traditional Christianity. It would be more intellectually honest to be clear about what you have and have not either refuted or verified.

1st paragraph: you seem to be laboring under the illusion that we disagree about much more than is actually the case. I have no reply to this portion because I essentially agree with it.

2nd paragraph: I fail to see what more I need to say by way of clarification. I have massively done that here. The paper is about the necessity of faith on all sides, and universal acceptance of as-yet-unproven and unprovable (?) axioms.

I don’t recall saying anywhere in the clarification or in the original paper anything along the lines of “the only alternative is traditional Christianity.” Perhaps you can kindly direct me to any such statement of mine (documentation is always a helpful thing). If it can be found, I’ll retract it, because it is not what I believe, and I must have had a momentary lapse of reason if I stated that.

Glancing at the original paper, I do find the following assertion: “the Christian must reject it [atheism], since we believe (very unlike the Atomist) that irrational and non-rational beliefs are untrue and unworthy of anyone’s allegiance.”

Disbelieving in X is not the same as belief in Y. Here (and throughout the paper) I was asserting that atheists exercised faith just as Christians do (on a very fundamental or presuppositional level), but also that atheist faith is ultimately irrational and should be rejected as such.

Thus I was arguing that X is unworthy of belief. I give few if any positive reasons for acceptance of Y. Of course I do that in many other places, seeing that I am a Christian / Catholic apologist. I have 1500 posts online and 49 published books. But somehow you have this notion that I either argued (or mistakenly believed) that rejection of X is logically and automatically an acceptance of Y.

And that is apparently because Christians are routinely (among atheists and agnostics) thought to be very illogical and “unscientific” people, who would routinely make such elementary mistakes in logic. Some Christians are that way; the majority (at least of thinking / educated ones) are not. I am not. If you desire constructive discussion with me, the sooner you figure out that I think logically (agree or disagree with me), the better for good and mutually enjoyable discussion.

***

The paper doesn’t assume or require belief that Christianity is correct, but I do, personally, as a Catholic. One can critique one view without necessarily having another, though I think it is better to have an alternative at least in mind.

Just because a proposition is an “alternative” to a somewhat questionable proposition says nothing whatever about its “truth”. There are at least as many silly alternative propositions as there are silly main propositions. Putting something forward as an “alternative” without offering at least some evidence for its having greater validity than the original is not much of a contribution to any public discourse.

***

The issue is not whether or not there are non-immediately-verifiable propositions underlying any world view; of course there are. The issue is how they are handled in the future. Non-theist propositions are all subject to review and change; theist propositions are in principle not subject to empirical review. The moment that you assert propositions that are not subject to refutation, you’ve placed yourself outside the sphere of rational discourse.

Sure, you can believe that if you are also willing to classify all non-empirical philosophical thought as “outside the sphere of rational discourse.” That is patently ridiculous, and most people, whether they believe in God or not, see it for what it is.

This is sort of a religion made out of empiricism, or what C. S. Lewis relentlessly critiqued as “scientism”: the belief that only science can reliably answer all relevant questions about anything.

Any rational belief (including Christians ones) is or should be subject to refutation, but that’s not the same as saying (as you seem to say) that all rational refutation is of an empirical nature. You appear to imply the latter by stating, “theist propositions are in principle not subject to empirical review.”

I concur that we probably agree on quite a lot. I think that we continue to disagree on the nature of science. I would agree that there are questions about which science has little to say, but that doesn’t mean that in principle science might not have something to say down the road.

If I’m not wholly deluded, I see the point of your article to be that both science and religion deal with propositions that are not immediately subject to empirical tests – what you term “faith propositions”. True enough. But you then seem to suggest that these are equivalent, and that is not so. Untested scientific propositions may be used as axioms, but if evidence emerges that they are not correct, they can be discarded without fundamental change to the scientific worldview. The shift from a geocentric to a heliocentric universe was accomplished without rejecting astronomy as an idea. On the other hand, rejection of a religious axiom (such as the existence of a God) entails the rejection of the whole approach.

Here’s the difference. I am not currently a “believer” in God as generally understood, particularly the Christian view. Yet I can easily describe empirical evidence that would cause me to revise my ideas and change. Could you do the same? Is there any evidence that might be adduced that would cause you to revise your faith propositions? The difference between my “faith” and yours is that mine interacts with the world, while yours exists independent from the world. To obscure this difference by labeling both approaches as “faith-based” seems a bit disingenuous.

The characterization in your last paragraph is quite unfair and untrue.

There are a number of things that could theoretically dissuade someone of Christianity, because it is belief based in part (importantly so) on empirical evidence of observation and miracle (the latter not being arbitrarily ruled out as impossible from the outset). Here are some:

1) Producing the verifiable bones of Jesus.

2) Proving that His resurrection was an elaborate hoax.

3) Proving that the New Testament was pure fiction, made up by those who wrote it and deliberately presented to the public in order to deceive them.

4) Proving that Jesus of Nazareth never existed.

5) Proving that Jesus never made the claims of being God that the New Testament [massively] presents as having occurred, in history (a variation of the Lord, Liar, or Lunatic? “trilemma” argument).

Save for #1, skeptics and atheists and agnostics have seriously tried to argue all of these claims. I had an atheist friend in my home make the [pathetic] “case” that St. Paul never existed. I think they have failed miserably. Of course, you will just say that I say that because I “have” to.

Believe what you will. These are conceivable, theoretical, hypothetical disproofs, whereas you were just claiming that there are no such things for the Christian. Atheists and agnostics often do so; and it’s all thoroughly wrongheaded analysis.

I have now shown that there were many such things, and that was just off the top of my head. As in all such questions of evidence and proof, reasonable people can disagree as to the strength of a proposed disproof.

I’d like to add another quick note on your “empirical evidence of observation and miracle”. Regarding observation, I’m assuming that you are referring to the “Gospels” and related pseudoeipgraphia dating from the first couple of centuries CE. Since you begin with the presumption that, say, the “Gospel of Matthew” represents legitimate testimony written down by somebody named “Matthew” who was an acquaintance of Jesus, I would have to either prove that there wasn’t anybody named Matthew around the time of Jesus whom I have known him, or find some copy of the gospel that contained a footnote saying that this was actually written by John of Cappadocia in the sixth century. The burden ought to be on the observer to establish the truth of what s/he claims to have seen, not on the reader to disprove it.

Regarding miracles, I’m assuming that you’re referring to things that happen in the natural world for which there is no immediately apparent naturalistic explanation. There are a lot of things that happen all around us that we can’t immediately explain; that by no means establishes that there isn’t a naturalistic explanation. If someone claims to have been cured of cancer by praying to an image of the Virgin Mary that appeared in a pancake somewhere, that hardly establishes a miracle just because you or anyone else says it is. It’s not legitimate to say that a particular occurrence is miraculous just because its mechanics can’t be immediately understood in terms of natural science at the moment.

Nor is it legitimate to claim that it couldn’t possibly be miraculous because our stunted, paltry epistemology and worldview won’t allow it.

I’m gratified that in principle you are willing to set forth some possible conditions for disconfirmation of Christian belief. Of course, some of the conditions are essentially impossible to establish. Proving a negative proposition – e.g., #4-5 – is extremely difficult if not impossible, since some margin of doubt will always remain that one other piece of evidence might be out there. It’s also common practice to interpret evidence that contradicts the Christian interpretation as something artificially planted by either God or Satan deliberately to mislead and/or tempt the faithful; there’s no possible argument against this, since it assumes supernatural power and authority. This line of argument has been employed often enough that any claim to true falsifiability of any fundamental Christian propositions is seriously suspect.

Finally, as you yourself note, it ultimately comes down to the credibility of the evidence and what you’re willing to accept as legitimate proof. It’s one thing to say that you’re open to evidence that might disconfirm your beliefs; quite another to get you to admit that particular items of evidence constitute legitimate objections. Whatever bones I might produce in response to your #1, what hope would I have of ever establishing in your mind that they were in fact those of Jesus (DNA testing not having been overwhelmingly available in first century Palestine)?

In short, you’re playing a rhetorical game which by definition you win unless I can pass a series of impossible tests. This is in direct contradiction to Carl Sagan’s theorem that “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence”. By asking me to provide extraordinary evidence, you’re implicitly stating that my disbelief is a personal supreme being is an extraordinary claim. I would suggest instead that the existence of such a being is the extraordinary claim, and therefore the burden of extraordinary evidence ought to fall upon you. I’m willing to continue the discussion, but I’d rather not just play word games.

And I’d rather not go round and round with atheists who are exceedingly unlikely to change their minds regarding anything Christian. I usually stick to exposing fallacies and falsehoods in their reasoning when they attack Christianity.

I have neither attacked Christianity (all I said was that I was not personally a Christian) nor committed any fallacies or uttered any falsehoods in the course of this discussion. I am unlikely to change my opinions, since you have offered nothing in the way of evidence. I’ll leave it to the readers of these comments to decide who has made the more salient and useful comments.

[Since he wouldn’t tell us what his belief-system is, I discovered that he is an agnostic, as he stated five months ago in a comment elsewhere:

I didn’t say that there is no god. I said that I didn’t have any unequivocal proof that there is one. As a scientist ought to, I retain an open mind to any evidence that might be adduced in favor of the hypothesis. There is no faith involved except for a belief in the value of the scientific method. And even that is also open to question. . . . 

The “God” of evangelical Christians is only one possible thing to believe in. There is about as much evidence for its being an accurate descrioption of divinity as there is for the existence of Marduk, Apollo, or Set.

I prefer not to believe something for which there is no particular evidence other than what someone says or wrote down.I believe facts, and I believe reliable heuristics. That’s the default. It takes an affirmative action to assert the existence of something for which there is no evidence. It takes no faith at all to remain skeptical about such a being, and even more about the validity of a set of dubious moral precepts which are largely irrational and are premised solely on someone interpreting what they think that this dubious deity might actually want.

I’m certainly prepared to accept the idea that there may be some larger intelligence behind the Universe. But I doubt that it issues instructions on the way to have sex or eat shrimp.

Ten months ago in the same thread, he wrote:

I have read the Bible carefully, and will stack my knowledge of it up against that of almost any Christian. I have read theologians from Plato through Augustine and Aquinas, to Luther and Calvin. I come from 13 generations of New Englanders; my direct ancestors were among the Puritans who founded Boston in 1630 and established its theocracy in the name of Calvin and Zwingli. I understand antinomianism, predestination, salvation by grace, dispensationalism, and a whole lot more. I’ve made a serious study of all this.

The problem is this: it all makes sense only if you are prepared to accept certain basic assumptions that make little to no sense, purely on faith (that is, belief without prior evidence). You’re welcome to believe whatever you like – six impossible things before breakfast, as the Red Queen said, if you like. Personally, I can see no basis for accepting a premise such as an omnipotent and omniscient being in charge of this whole Universe of a hundred billion galaxies each with a hundred million or more stars endowing me with the facility of reason and then requiring me to suspend it entirely in favor of believing a story made up a couple of thousand years ago on a hillside somewhere among the sheep; who would create someone knowing that he was going to do something wrong, and then create multiple billions of souls solely for the purpose of tormenting them for all eternity (since he would know that they wouldn’t accept the story at face value) on account of something that a supposed ancestor did unaccountable generations ago; and who moreover cares so much about who I might go to bed with that he requires me to be killed in the most appalling kinds of ways solely because of the plumbing of my bedmate. ]

 

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