A reply to Rauser on Loftus, God or Godless?, and evidence for God (pt 1)

A reply to Rauser on Loftus, God or Godless?, and evidence for God (pt 1) May 17, 2013

The other day, I posted my first take on John Loftus’ and Randal Rauser’s debate book God Or Godless? recently. Randal Rauser has now posted two responses to the post:

Part 1

and

Part 2

In this return fire, I will be inter-paragraphically (that might be a new word) commenting on his claims and views.  Thanks to Randal for engaging in this debate. For those who don’t know, we have some history in debating the Nativity on radio. Please comment below on what you think.

However, he thought the concluding statements, at approximately fifty words each, were too brief. That alone was enough to bump the book down from five to four stars in his rating…

Jonathan writes: “As ever, and considering the brevity, a good number of the arguments created an impasse.” But surely he can’t blame that on the brevity of the book. After all, these are topics of perennial debate, and each one represents an impasse that counts thousands of learned individuals on each side.

As I wrote:

The rebuttal was too short. Although this sounds like a contradiction since I admire its brevity, there was not enough opportunity to properly defend their own points whilst further examining and critiquing their opponents’. The best way to have dealt with this would have been to choose a dozen topics and give them double the depth. This would move the book from a 4 star to a 5 star.

It was not the closing statements (though they were very short) but the rebuttals which needed expanding. Of course, if thousands of others have never breached the impasse, then….

Next, Jonathan observes: “There were some arguments where I found myself getting angry with Randal’s position and its presuppositional qualities. In a sense, it makes it almost pointless to argue with Randal, and I think John came to realise this.”

You got to love a statement like this for how revealing it is. Folks like the two Johns (Loftus and Pearce) seem to be under some sort of illusion that they reason presuppositionless. They also like to try presenting debates of this sort as if the burden of proof is borne by the theist. But that’s false. If the theist is attempting to argue that we ought to be theists the atheist is attempting to argue that we ought not be theists (or, more strongly, that we ought to be atheists). Consequently, each has a burden of proof.

I didn’t really enter into notions of burden of proof since it seems clear to me that, in a debate book, that falls upon both people in order to establish their arguments. I’m not sure his point here is warranted or well made. My broader point was that if Randal is to assert arguments which appear to predicate on the ontological argument, then he needs to establish that in some way. He didn’t.

Jonathan describes Loftus’ position like this: “John was often taking the evidentialist tack. This means that he was dealing with the evidence of the world around us, and more pertinently, the evidence of the Bible.”

This is a strange characterization. Jonathan seems to equate “evidence” with some sort of naïve Baconian inductionism.

No, my point was that John was approaching the issues evidentially (empirically) and Rauser seems to have taken very much a rationalist approach. Now, there is nothing wrong with throwing this philosophical argument into the mix, but again it comes down to establishing the OA. John is well within his rights to look at the biblical evidence and find it wonting.

In short, you go out and study the world empirically and the proper understanding of the world emerges through the careful procedure of cataloguing the world. But this is false. Observation is always theory-laden, and that is baldly the case with the way Loftus reasons as I document in the book.

I do not deny that we all have baggage. But one should establish that baggage. I don’t think the burden of proof is on John to disprove the OA, and thus disprove God. So he should and does approach the arguments and the Bible using his Outsider Test For Faith (OTF) method. Again, we get back to this idea that no matter what evidence John produces, Randal can wave it away using the notion, unproved, that God is necessary, and that the evidence MUST fit with the logic (unproven).

What this does, from Randal’s position, is assert God as ontologically necessary, and then massage the evidence, or appeal to ignorance, in order to make the evidence fit to the asserted God.

On the other hand, John, using the OTF, approaches the J-C God as he would any other god-claim of the world – with a warranted skepticism. Even given the OA’s conclusion, John is critiquing the J-C God. The OA makes no claims on what a maximal God would actually do and how it would manifest itself and communicate, past asserting that whatever it does, it does it maximally. John attacks biblical evidence as being representative of a maximal entity more so than any other holy book evidence.  John might say that if a maximal God exists, then the Bible damned well shows it ain’t Yahweh and his appendages.

To consider one of the most glaring cases, time and again Loftus says things like this: “We must believe with the probabilities, not merely what is possible.” But he never offers an argument to demonstrate why his claims are to be taken as probable. Basically, his plausibility structure is allowed to run unchecked. Just don’t expect Jonathan Pearce to call him on it since he buys into the same plausibility structure.

Well, we could look at prior probabilities of the God claim as being true based on all the other god claims throughout history. Since the Christian would agree that these are false, then the low priors, using Bayesian analysis, would have to be countered with high consequents. In other words, the most extraordinary claims of the Bible would have to be supported with extraordinary evidence. The Bible is not extraordinary evidence, and is not even corroborated by extra-biblical sources.

In other words, one usually has to presuppose the existence of God and faith in Jesus in order to assess the value of the evidence in the Bible. This then leads to confirmation bias (which the OTF seeks to diffuse) which applies unwarranted evidential value to the Bible which then leads to a firmer belief in God and Jesus (remember, all Jesus is God, but all God isn’t necessarily Jesus, or some such ‘coherent’ idea). The whole idea is terribly circular. As I pointed out here.

The fact is that I offer a broad range of evidence from thought experiments designed to illumine first person acquaintance with moral, aesthetic and teleological facts to an argument from reason, a person-particular argument from miracles, and an argument for the historicity of the resurrection.

I am not and did not critique Randal’s general voice and approach with many of these arguments, and these were generally the ones which reached an impasse. Although I think his prayer argument was the weakest one in the book by a long margin. I will hopefully have time to look into that soon.

Along the way I also offer concise evidentialist rebuttals of Loftus’ claims including his ill-begotten canine “argument” against aesthetic facts and his failed appeal to the problem of evil.

I am unable to find substantiation, on referring to the book, for either of these claims. It seems Rauser appeals to fallacies and other rational approaches to rebut the canine argument, and he needs to be clearer on how he uses evidential arguments to show the failure of the POE, which recurs as an argument throughout the book.

Presumably this doesn’t count as “evidence” because Jonathan only counts as evidence that which derives from a naïve, Baconian induction based on the rotting timbers of an unexamined naturalist’s plausibility structure.

Calm down Randal! Plausibility, assuming that probabilities are indeed objective, should be arrived at through as neutral glasses as possible. This is where some problems mount. It is like a William Lane Craig argument, whereby Craig starts big, and assuming his logical arguments work for a Creator, zoom down to a more finely-tuned J-C God. However, the book did not work like that. There was no direction to the arguments, only the appeal to “God is necessary, therefore there are answers to these ‘evidence’ which do not invalidate the existence of God”. The problem, which remains, despite Randal’s proclamations and exhortations, is that he does not establish God as necessary, and yet assumes this state of affairs for assessing probability of evidence.

So what we have is this:

John’s plausibility for the evidence of the Bible and the world supporting God: <0.01 (arbitrarily assigned by me to John’s arguments to make a point)

Randal’s plausibility for the evidence of the Bible and the world supporting God: 1

Such that, as mentioned, it does not matter what is written in the Bible, or how much evil there is, since God is necessary and all evidence must fit into this paradigm. “There must be a reason” but we just don’t know it.

Later in his review Jonathan complains regarding the Bible, “As John rightly pointed out in virtually all of these sections, Randal punts to possibility not probability.” This is actually a very revealing statement because it shows that both our Johns read the Bible like flat-footed fundamentalists according to whom the literal meaning of a text is to be preferred where possible. Nobody who has a background in literature could take such a grossly naïve approach to literary texts, but gnu atheists do it all the time when it comes to the Bible. Consequently they conclude that the “literal” meaning is always the most probable while any appeal to non-literal meanings is a “punt” to possibility. (Note the charming irony in the fact that Jonathan invokes a visual metaphor — punting — to make his point!)

It is possibility because Randal has not shown the OA as proving God is necessary. Without doing this, then John’s probabilities, whether spelled out or not, are the more accurate portrayal of how to assess the likelihood of God existing. Let us remember that I was reviewing God or Godless? Not another book, and the arguments must stand up on their own merit; at least to a large degree. Randal is deflecting John’s critiques of the Bible saying that these nasty bits are symbolic, allegorical, wrong due to human error, ironic or whatever. But he is special pleading language or assuming a proven God where there was none proven. This still appears to be cherry picking. Since most humans do not understand the OA, the Bible must surely stand up as a coherent revelation from God which must work. So if there are 42,000 different denominations of Chrsitianity who disagree to varying degrees on what each chapter and verse means; if there are literalists, minimalists and everyone in between; then how do we know who is right? Noah’s Ark and flood is written clearly as factual recount. And yet there are internal contradictions and it appears rather explicitly to copy the Epic of Gilgamesh, which predated the biblical account by a thousand years or so. Science flatly disproves the flood myth. But it was written as fact. I assume Randal discounts it. But on what basis? It seems that every difficult account is historically dropped using different criteria. An ad hoc approach is needed to continually wave away problems. And THEN Randal has the gall to ad hom accuse John and myself of either being flat-footed or ignorant or straw-manning in some way. This is where the burden of proof IS SQUARELY upon Randal’s shoulders. He has a lot of work to do to show: NT primacy (theologically and morally); historical verifiability and reliability when the accounts supposedly ARE true;  that HIS interpretation IS the best and most defendable one; that his interpretation would fit with a maximal God choosing such a method of revelation; and so on.

Just saying that we are errant in our literal approach is not good enough. Either the genocides and slavery happened as directed by God, or the Bible is not telling truths. And if not, it is difficult to see how it is the divine revelation of a maximal being it is so often purported to be.

Next, Jonathan demonstrates that he doesn’t understand the function of theodicy:

“So Randal could be the last person on Earth, could have seen his whole family tortured over a 50 year period. Seen all the animals and plants of the world around him die, and still, God might have a reason for these horrors to promote a greater good. As long as this logical notion exists, there is apparently good reason to believe.”

The best I can do at this point is suggest that Jonathan acquaint himself with the literature on skeptical theism and then provide a propositional argument on how the evil in the world constitutes a defeater for the existence of God. As it stands, his comments here get him no further than restating his own personal incredulity. In automotive terms, Jonathan’s argument is akin to revving an engine while the transmission remains in neutral. It sounds impressive but he ain’t goin’ anywhere.

OK, so Randal nicely evades answering the question. Randal:

Can ANY evidence EVER invalidate your belief in the existence of God?

Craig is pretty clear on this one. He says no. And that is fine if Randal says there can’t be any evidence. That was the main point of my review. And it is why John was getting frustrated. Because it suggests that there is a logical allowance for ANY evidence (eg the logical problem of evil). Though of course it does little for the evidential problem of evil. But as I suggested, that is irrelevant for Randal because he has proven God’s necessary existence.

Except he hasn’t.

And yet Jonathan keeps revving that engine as when he says that this “punting” of mine:

“entails that there is NO evidence that could ever contradict the existence of God. Randal has, as John points out, made his position unfalsifiable.”

Jonathan should read my book The Swedish Atheist, the Scuba Diver, and Other Apologetic Rabbit Trails. In particular he should read the chapter titled “How to show that ‘God loves me’ is false” where I outline a couple ways one might provide evidence against God’s existence. However, you have to love the double irony of an atheist complaining that the theist in a debate has made belief in God too difficult to defeat!

That’s great (reading the arguments in your book), but I won’t have time to do that now, and you cannot have expected the entire readership of God or Godless? to have done that either. Thus I suggest setting out those arguments if you return a volley.

If Jonathan really is interested in raising a stink about unfalsifiable beliefs, he should focus his energies on the ever-evolving, hydra-headed beast called “naturalism”. Now there’s a real vacuous picture of the world.

Wonderful, but entirely irrelevant to the claims of my review and it is an attempt at shifting the burden of proof for a red herring on to me.


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