Putting the Doubting Thomas Episode to Bed, and Opening a Can of Worms

Putting the Doubting Thomas Episode to Bed, and Opening a Can of Worms March 19, 2021

This is a long piece, but we get onto some good stuff, so stay on target.

Catholic Dave Armstrong, over at his own Patheos Catholic channel blog, has been attempting to refute my recent pieces both on Doubting Thomas and on picking apart his own responses. Unfortunately, Dave is pretty much a poster boy for Danth’s Law:

I have addressed his “point” and argument in the greatest depth, analyzing it from every which way, including the premises beneath it. This is now my third time doing the same thing. Eric’s arguments in Jonathan’s combox were more in-depth and of a constructive nature in terms of progressing in dialogue, in my opinion. I replied to him and Geoff in my other related dialogue. But Jonathan has essentially simply put his head in the sand and plugged his ears about the glaring faults of his own argument, and ignored virtually all of my counter-argument. This won’t do. But it’ll impress his echo chamber (as it always does).

With all due respect, I can’t begin to tell you how funny such a claim is. “The greatest depth”!!! I’m not even sure he really understands the argument. He only started to “get it” on the fourth piece, and this was only by reformulating my own responses to him! I was doing his work for him, and he was all “Yeah, that’s what I meant!”

Here is the scenario so far:

I started off this debate the other day with a short piece about the unfairness of the distribution of evidence as exemplified by the Doubting Thomas episode in gJohn. Catholic Dave Armstrong replied, and I duly responded. I then finally found a comment in one of my threads, by Dave, that actually dealt with my points in some way (a novel idea, I know), so have decided to look at that. It was a comment in reply to Geoff Benson who also noticed how Armstrong failed to deal with my points in any substantive way… Armstrong has now produced two further replies, here and here. Please read those previous pieces for context.

Here’s the situation: I have provided a philosophical argument, based on one biblical example and abstracting it, to show how God is unfair; if God is unfair, the god of classical theism is invalidated.

The Argument

Indeed, this is just another example of a previously formulated one, found here:

Mentalizing Deficits Constrain Belief in a Personal God; why it is unfair that autistic people, men and scientists are less likely to believe in God

It goes like this, based on the exposition that certain subgroups (men, certain autistics, etc.) are less likely to believe in a personal god:

How is it fair that certain subgroups of humanity have naturally less chance of being able to access God’s love? Autistic, and then scientists, and then men are less likely than other groups to believe in God – and this must be for a reason – in the case of autistic types, a mentalising deficit. This deficit can manifest itself as a lack of empathy, amongst other things, and carries over to men and scientists more so than women and non-scientists. In fact, this would appear to be the cause of why many similar such people ‘do science’ and is partly responsible for why so many more scientists are men. Let us look at a syllogism:

1) God is omnibenevolent and being such will have fairness as a benevolent attribute

2) God wants humans to enter into a loving relationship with him

3) God has designed people (or the system that designs people) to not have equal fairness and opportunity to access a loving relationship with him

4) God also has the power to level the playing field ex post facto but appears not to do so

C) God is not fair, and thus not omnibenevolent

Which is to say, given the same access to the same information, there is a natural variance in the ability to freely come to believe in God. And God is the ultimate designer and creator of this very scenario itself.

And this is pretty much how I couched Doubting Thomas – though instead of having a similar causal circumstance, Thomas was afforded a greater level of evidence than any other human being. This also applies to other humans who have had greater levels of evidence supplied to them. This might be a Catholic biblical exegete who has received education and understanding and perhaps even had a personal revelation or vision, compared to an Amazonian tribesperson from 1473, or a Saudi imam born and brought up in a staunch Islamic household.

The simple fact is that humans have both a variety of causal circumstances (including their own biological make-ups and varied brains) and a variety of evidence levels, all feeding into the eventual decision of “I do/do not believe in the Christian god” . And that also includes, as indicated, having NO access to evidence (all people before biblical times or in certain geographical locations throughout time).

You get the picture: God is unfair.

This is what I respected Armstrong to be dealing with.

Except, he didn’t, at least not until the last one, after I’d given him the arguments. What he did was create torrents of straw men and random arguments unconnected or tangentially connected to this. I’m not really worried about the exegetical fine details of the pericope, either. The simple point is: some people get more evidence than others – they are given a leg up – that feeds into their decision. This is unfair and shows favouritism.

Here is an example of Dave’s approach, buried within one of his long pieces. I stated of evidence for Christianity (the Bible):

And that is very poor evidence indeed. Unknown authors, writing in unknown times and places that we can only guess at, with unknown sources, unverified and unverifiable, writing with evangelising agendas ex post facto, with no historiographical pedigree.

It’s shockingly poor evidence.

Which is to say that the level of evidence for biblical claims is very low, and this is all modern people have (sans personal revelation, which is problematic since other religions have them too). Thomas had first-hand access to God, both physically but also in conversation.

Armstrong’s entire response to this, in the context of his thousands of words?

These are just blanket hostile statements, not arguments, and as such, deserve no further consideration.

That was it? My claims were “just blanket hostile statements”? These statements are true, for crying out loud, unless he wants to win the Nobel Prize for revolutionising biblical exegesis! (Thank goodness they don’t waste their time with that prize…)

Doing Dave’s Job for Him

Indeed, the only meat on the bones he gives is as follows:

Hogwash. The entire issue as atheists see it, is the alleged “unfairness” of Thomas receiving such a crystal-clear evidence of the risen Jesus, thus allowing him to more easily believe that Jesus is God, and (obviously) that God does exist. This is empirical evidence through-and-through, entailing the evidence of senses and the experience of touching a physical, alive-again Jesus Who had just been killed. So atheists complain about how this is so terribly “unfair!” God is such a meanie and a brute, to be so absurdly unjust in how He presents evidence for Himself.

My denial that empirical evidence is the only evidence or any way to reliably know anything undercuts this whole notion, because then it’s not the only way God can reveal Himself. That’s the false premise. Jonathan needs to prove first of all that empiricism is the cat’s meow, epistemologically speaking. Instead, he chooses to ignore that (the elephant in the room) and merely assert that my brining it up is “nonsense or [a] straw [man]”. I then get into willful rejection, another factor that Jonathan ignored in his presentation, as if will plays no part in the choices all human beings make on a variety of issues.

Okay.

  1. I am not making any claim about the comparative value of empirical evidence. Can’t he see this? All I am saying is that (a) empirical evidence is worth something (obviously, otherwise he wouldn’t spend so long dissecting the Bible and the supposed historicity therein); and (b) it is not apportioned fairly, over which God has sovereign control.
  2. He appears to imply, though isn’t quite explicit enough about it to lay it out for open criticism (and I am now doing the work for him – presenting a theistic defence with more power than he has mustered), that perhaps the uneven evidence distribution is balanced by variation in cognitive ability and mitigated by cognitive variance in rejection disposition (for want of a better term).

Which is where he finally got to in his last piece (and only because I spoon-fed it to him):

Yes, exactly (to the last sentence). This is what I am saying: “I think God does provide sufficient evidence (of all sorts) for every human being”: meaning that He considers each person in their uniqueness and communicates to them enough for them to know (taking into account their particular background and outlook) that He exists and that He gives grace for salvation, and indeed is the key to human joy and fulfillment, and happiness.

Of course, this is a punt into the unknown, with no attempt to quantify this phenomenon or explain how it might work. He literally thinks that the paragraph above is enough for him to satisfy “winning an argument” – and this paragraph only came in his fourth piece… And, whilst we’re at it, he still doesn’t understand what “sufficient” means, even by his fourth piece. He still didn’t deal with the oil analogy. Oh well. You can lead a horse to water… What he does here is a dishonest move: he changes “sufficient evidence” from meaning what it meant at the beginning of our debate (since he went off on one about empirical this and that) to meaning, in effect, the whole gamut of variables that I will now set out. And it still misunderstands what sufficient evidence means, since, if evidence was sufficient for everyone, everyone would believe. If they don’t believe, it ain’t sufficient.

Remember, for God to be truly fair, every single human would have to have exactly the same balance of the combination of:

  • rejection disposition
  • access to evidence
  • biological environment to be able to deal with evidence etc
  • non-biological environment

Free Will Sidebar

I will be careful not to sidetrack this into a conversation about free will, but you can see where this should go  – because Dave erroneously thinks that humans can simply “overcome” all of these variables with some executing decision-making brain state, when the brain state is itself one of those variables, and victim itself to those other variables. Dave is of the school of thought that rather simplistically just asserts that a human can (contra-causally) overcome all these environmental factors with some kind of magic decision-making mechanism. He would need to show this is true (which he can’t – he really would get a Nobel Prize for that).

He starts to get it in his last piece. I said:

Which is to admit double standards. God/Jesus did do mighty works for Thomas because of his unbelief. A sign was given to “this generation”: hence the Resurrection and the Gospels!

To which he replied:

Hogwash. What you don’t get (and what I have explained in these four responses) is that Jesus knew beforehand who would respond to His message or miracles and who would not. He knew Thomas would, so He appeared to Him. He knew that most of the Pharisees and scribes who opposed Him would not accept His message or miracles and so He wouldn’t do them or communicate the gospel to them. With individuals like Simon the Pharisee or Nicodemus, He would (knowing their hearts).

This essentially looks like William Lane Craig’s apologetic for Amazonians who are not given the Gospel – they would have rejected it anyway.

This is just spurious mental gerrymandering. God apparently doesn’t allow me, Jonathan Pearce, to literally know the physical Jesus, to experience his crucifixion as godmanspirit, and to experience his resurrection and physical appearances to me, because I wouldn’t believe anyway.

And nor would any other person not afforded this. Literally, Dave would have to argue, this level of evidence is not afforded any other human on earth because all of those humans would reject God anyway.

Imagine someone, Jenny, teetering on believing – just on the wrong side. A bit like Thomas after experiencing all of the Jesus stuff. God gives Thomas the required evidence in spades, but Jenny? No, even though she is teetering – so damned close to believing – she doesn’t get the Thomas treatment because she would reject it anyway.

Wow. That’s ballsy.

Worse still, it was God who designed and created and knew in advance all those people; he knew in advance why and how they would come to reject him; he created them anyway.

This is a free will/divine foreknowledge/design/creation hot mess of a hot mess.

Dave’s got some work to do here. Because his apologetics is looking not too dissimilar from a crock of shit.

Homogeneity

Despite the already terminal issues, I will soldier on. Let’s call the above selection of variables “equality of opportunity of access to God”, or EOAG.

Incidentally, due to the fact that I am taking my arguments seriously, and dealing with them at least somewhat philosophically, I am considering the serious ramifications of it. I am soon going to link this argument above to a previous piece:

Equality of Opportunity, Homogeneity & Granularity

Again, doing Dave’s job of religious apologetics for him, this is what I think the argument boils down to, and it is FAR, FAR more interesting than anything Dave has trotted out.

If God was truly fair, every human would have to have identical EOAG. This would not look like merely exactly the same evidence for everyone, but a quantifiable equivalent matrix output given all of the above variables.

This would be hellishly complex and perhaps impossible, and you would have to be able to quantify “rejection disposition” so it is able to be used in the same equation as “(access to) evidence”: all variables need to be quantifiably comparable in order for one to be able to balance out the other to a required exactitude. Moreover, because we like science and explanations and causality, it would be nice to understand what actually underwrites variance in “rejection disposition”. Gervais and Norenzayan, at least, offer explanations as to why men, scientists and certain autistics reject God. It’s not just “free will wot did it” nonsense. See “Mentalizing Deficits Constrain Belief in a Personal God” to understand how variables affect whether one believe in God or not – that it’s not just one person “deciding”, ceteris paribus, to reject God where another identical person in an identical causal circumstance would accept God. That’s pretty juvenile and naive psychology and philosophy if you believe that.

I’m not sure that such a calculation can be done, at any rate.

Assuming it can, though, you would start moving towards a sort of homogeneity. You can see why I am linking it to the above argument, which includes (not related to God, but this can be co-opted):

That aside, we agreed that equality of opportunity (EOO) was a desire for fairness, and this starts with equalising the environment.

Imagine we equalise the environment for everyone (and this might be impossible to do and look very odd indeed). We could do things like blind applications (devoid of names, addresses etc.). There are many things we could do in order to help out here.

Next, though, if we are truly concerned with EOO (and thus fairness), we need to look at the whole set of variables. Having theoretically sorted out the environment, we only really have the genes to look at (given that biology is the interaction of genes and environment). In reality, genes are randomly distributed in the sense that an individual can’t choose their genes. Therefore, when looking at a meritocracy, where people deserve their success from effort and ability, effort and ability are genetically determined, especially given the fact that the environment is equalised.

So you can’t really have a meritocracy. Meritocracy doesn’t make sense when seen in this kind of deterministic sense (see ideas of praiseworthiness and blameworthiness). John Rawls talked about the “natural lottery” whereby the success of certain people in any given situation is largely determined by something outside of their control: their genome. This isn’t arguably that far off in what we will be able to achieve, scientifically and theoretically.

We get to the point that, if we really are interested in striving for equality of opportunity, you have to level the playing field for all people. But, in order to completely level the playing field for all people, you have to equalise the environment and equalise the genes of all individuals.

The end result is some kind of homogeneity. If you really want to strive for moral perfection (given that EOO is at least a component of this), which is kind of natural and intuitive, then the outcome may well be less than desirable. It may be that fairness for all humans is the goal, but this fairness leads to a homogenous humanity with no diversity.

What Armstrong’s Defence Should Be

Out of charity, I will continue to do his work. This is another opportunity for some sort of nebulous “we don’t know the mind of God – there could be a good reason, so there is a good reason” skeptical theism.

We have a problem of evil on show here, so we will have to punt to some potential/possible state of affairs as a defence.

  1. God is fair (as part of OmniGod theism).
  2. We live in a world where humans appear to not have “equality of access to God” (EOAG).
  3. If God was to be fair, he would give every human identical EOAG.
  4. To give every human identical EOAG, God would have to create some sort of homogenous world.
  5. Homogenous worlds are in some sense less perfect/good/desirable than the sort of world we live in.
  6. Therefore, there is some good reason (skeptical theism) – a greater good –  that God has created a world where humans appear to not have EOAG.
  7. (Or god does not exist or is not OmniGod.)

Although this is another skeptical theism cop-out, I have to thank Dave Armstrong for allowing me to think about his problems and do some philosophy and apologetics in light of the absence of him doing it.

And that’s something to think about.

I’ve included only a tiny percentage of Dave’s claims because, for so many of them, he doesn’t seem to understand what I am saying. Maybe he is in a rush to write stuff. For example, this is the extent of his reaction to the following:

Whilst not doing this for all the other holy texts. And even then, the best minds in the world can’t even agree on how or whether the atonement even works – why Jesus died or even existed!

He said:

Believe me, the “best minds” aren’t agonized over whether He existed. Only fringe atheists believe that He didn’t.

And that was it. Nothing at all to do with revelation. Nothing at all to do with atonement. I was not talking remotely about mythicism. My point (it should be obvious given…words) was, building on from my previous sentences:

  1. God is far from explicit about anything,
  2. It requires one to be intelligent enough to wade through a parochial ancient holy text with vast effort and intellectual acumen to even remotely start getting there. (Unfair apportion of evidence again! Elitism.)
  3. All the time you spend doing that, you are not devoting the same to other holy texts – this requires a presupposed favouritism.
  4. Even after millennia of some of the best minds on the job, Christians can’t agree on how atonement works, or that it definitely works.
  5. Atonement is the basis of Jesus’ death and arguably his entire earthly existence.
  6. Divine hiddenness. Incoherent revelation. Etc.

Nothing to do with Jesus mythicism. This is the level of analysis Armstrong has with my claims. No wonder it goes on and on. And no wonder I barely quote any of what he says.

See Christianity Is Elitist as a reference for the initial statements.

 


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