bookmark_borderWLC Denies That Anyone Has Ever Died a Sincere Seeker Without Finding God

Can anyone sincerely lack belief in God? And even if they can, can anyone sincerely lack belief in God for the rest of their lives? Many people, including nontheists but not just nontheists, think the answer to both questions is plainly “yes.” But some (many?) theists, no doubt motivated by beliefs such as divine goodness, Biblical inerrancy, and Christian particularism, deny this for the second question and possibly the first.  We’ll call people who deny a “yes” answer to the second question “sincere lifelong nontheist deniers” or “sincerity deniers” for short.
To many nontheists this denial is not only false, but offensive, for it can come across as a not-so-veiled accusation that nontheists are lying when they claim they lack belief in God or that God’s existence isn’t obvious to them. In fairness to sincerity deniers, however, we should keep in mind that ‘sincerity denial’ doesn’t have to amount to a conscious denial of a belief in God. Instead, a sincerity denier may hold that a nontheist’s nonbelief is the result of self-deception. (This was, for example, the position of the notorious Christian presuppositionalist Greg Bahnsen, among others.) A sincerity denier may also hold that, at a given time, a nontheist’s nonbelief is genuine, not the result of self-deception, but temporary. This option may be less offensive since it doesn’t require that all nontheists are resistant to theism for the entire time they are a nontheist. The idea seems to be that if a nontheist is nonresistant to belief in God, then said nontheist will eventually come to believe in God before they die.
In any case, what’s important to notice is that, regardless of the flavor of sincerity denial, the one thing all sincerity deniers seem to have in common is this. No one dies a sincere, nonresistant nonbeliever. 
Philosopher and theologian William Lane Craig is a well-known defender of Christian particularism, so it comes as no surprise that he is a sincerity denier. He reaffirmed his position in a recent answer to a question on the Q&A section of his website.  Craig not only denies that there could be a sincere, lifelong nontheist, but he also denies that there could be a sincere, lifelong theistic non-Christian (e.g., Jew, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, and so forth). He writes:

Therefore, if a person ultimately fails to come to faith in Christ, it is never just because of lack of evidence or because of intellectual difficulties with the faith. At root, he refuses to come because he willingly ignores and rejects the drawing of God’s Holy Spirit on his heart. Now this convicting power and drawing of the Holy Spirit may take time. It may take years in order for the unbeliever to finally come to Christ. Nevertheless, no one in the final analysis really fails to become a Christian because of lack of arguments or evidence; he fails to become a Christian because he rejects God. But anyone who does respond to the drawing of God’s Spirit with an open mind and an open heart can know with assurance that Christianity is true, because God’s Spirit will convict him that it is true.

Furthermore, he offers the following reasons for doubting the lifelong sincerity of non-Christians.

Now I don’t think we’re in a good position to say with any confidence that there is ultimate (lifelong), nonculpable unbelief, Muhammad. First, as I say, God’s drawing of a person may take time, years even, so that we can’t say of someone who is moving away from God that that’s where he’ll end up. (Read the many testimonials we receive from ex-unbelievers who for many years were moving away from God.) It is particularly the case that many Muslims go through a phase of atheism after shedding Islam before they come to Christ.
Moreover, we’re not really in a position to read a person’s heart or deepest motivations. Sin is incredibly deceitful, and we have an amazing ability to rationalize things so as to justify our behavior. Read C. S. Lewis’ provocative The Great Divorce about the self-justifying rationalizations of people in hell. If we can convince ourselves that our obstacles to faith are intellectual rather than moral or emotional that makes our unbelief respectable in our own eyes and in the eyes of others. How do you know what lies in the heart of a person who resists the drawing and conviction of the Holy Spirit until the end of his life?
Furthermore, I do think that we have good reasons for supposing that Christianity is true. First, there is the witness of the Holy Spirit. It can be an intrinsic defeater of the defeaters brought against it. Second, there are good evidences for the truth of Christianity, particularly for the historicity of the radical personal claims and resurrection of Jesus, whereby God vindicated those claims.

There are many things which could be (and have been) said in response to this sort of position. Here I’ll summarize what I think are the three most important points.
First, notice that sincerity deniers are committed to a universal generalization: there has never been (and never will be) a single sincere, lifelong nontheist. If even just one sincere, lifelong nontheist existed, exists, or will exist, then this universal generalization is false. Thus, it does Craig little good to refer to former atheists who claim that they engaged in all sorts of insincere rationalizations when they claimed to be atheists. Even if that is an accurate description for those former atheists, it doesn’t follow that it applies to all atheists or, more broadly, all nontheists.
Second, we have strong inductive evidence that this generalization is false. There are several lines of evidence which combine to create a powerful cumulative case for the existence of sincere, lifelong nontheists. Following the outstanding work of the Canadian philosopher John Schellenberg (in his recent book The Wisdom to Doubt), we may summarize this evidence as follows.
(a) The prima facie evidence of nonresistant nonbelief. In Schellenberg’s words, “in the actual world persons who do not believe that there is a God, and that in at least some of these people the absence of theistic belief is not in any way the result of their own emotional or behavioral opposition towards God or relationship with God or any of the apparent implications of such a relationship.”
(b) The prima facie evidence of former believers. To paraphrase Schellenberg, such individuals, from the perspective of theism, were on the right path when they lost belief in God. In other words, if theism is true, then such individuals already were in relationship with God and the loss of belief has terminated that.
(c) The prima facie evidence of lifelong seekers. Schellenberg describeres these individuals as people “who don’t start out in what they consider to be a relationship with God and may not even be explicitly searching for God, but who are trying to find out where they belong and, in their wanderings, are open to finding and being found by a Divine Parent–all without ever achieving their goal. These are individuals who seek but do not find.” (233)
(d) The prima facie evidence of converts to nontheistic religions. Paraphrasing Schellenberg, these are individuals who investigate other serious conceptions of the Ultimate and who turn up evidence that produces religious belief in the context of nontheistic religious communities and/or on account of nontheistic religious experiences–and the truth of atheistic claims may be seen to follow by implication. (236)
(e) The prima facie evidence of isolated nontheists. Schellenberg defines these individuals as “those who have never been in a position to resist God because they have never so much as had the idea of an all-knowing and all-powerful spiritual being who is separate from a created universe but related to it in love squarely before their minds–individuals who are entirely formed by, and unavoidably live their whole lives within, what must, if God exists, be a fundamentally misleading meaning system” (238).
Third, the fact that human beings have an “amazing ability to rationalize things” is a double-edged sword. Those of us who reject sincerity denialism — “sincerity denial” deniers? — could just as easily argue that sincerity denial itself is an example of the amazing ability to rationalize things, such as how to reconcile the existence of nontheists–not to mention the existence of theistic non-Christians–with the doctrines of God’s moral goodness and the exclusivity of salvation through Christ.
Craig concludes his answer with the website equivalent of an altar call, imploring his questioner to “Look at the work of Christian philosophers and biblical scholars, such as you will find at this [Craig’s] website.” This suggestion is fine as far as it goes, but it doesn’t go far enough. If a seeker wants to determine the truth of Christianity, Islam, or anything else, then they need to do more than just read the writings which defend those beliefs. They also need to study the work of the best critics of those beliefs.
This is simple inductive logic. If you’re going to attempt make an uncertain inference from evidence, the premises of an inductively correct argument need to embody all of the available, relevant evidence. For example, suppose you read Craig’s website and decide that God is the best explanation for both the origin of the universe and cosmic fine-tuning. Does it follow that God probably exists? No!
First, as I’ve explained in detail before, many deductive theistic arguments mask uncertainty. Consider William Lane Craig’s version of the so-called ‘fine-tuning’ argument. As I’ve argued before, even the name ‘fine-tuning argument’ is prejudicial against atheism, since the expression ‘fine-tuning’ naturally suggests a ‘fine-tuner’ ( = designer). So instead I’ll refer to this argument as the ‘life-permitting’ argument and I’ll refer to the alleged ‘fine-tuning of the universe’s initial conditions” as “the life-permitting nature of the universe’s initial conditions.” With those clarifications out of the way, then, we get the following formulation of the life-permitting argument.

1. The life-permitting nature of the universe’s initial conditions is either the result of chance, necessity or design. (Premise)
2. It is not the result of chance or necessity. (Premise)
3. Therefore, it is the result of design. (From 1 and 2)

This argument is clearly valid, i.e., the conclusion follows from the premises. We want to know the probability of (3). The probability of (3) will depend upon the probability of (2). If we have a very weak degree of belief that (2) is true, say we think Pr(2)=0.25, then, by itself, this argument only warrants the belief Pr(3)=0.25. N.B. I’m not claiming that (2) has an exact numerical probability equal to 0.25; that value is simply an example to illustrate the point.
Second, such arguments fail to embody all of the relevant, available evidence. This is because their conclusions are stated without qualification. For example, suppose we decide to ‘inductify’ or ‘probabilify’ the conclusion of Craig’s fine-tuning argument, it becomes something like this:

3′. [probable] Therefore, it is the result of design.

The problem with this revised conclusion, however, is that it isn’t justified by the premises. It may well be the case that, by itself, the life-permitting nature of the universe’s initial conditions does make it more probable than not that the universe is designed. But that doesn’t entail that, all things considered, the total available, relevant evidence makes it more probable than not that the universe is designed. In order to defend that claim, you have to look at all of the evidence, including the evidence of evolution, biological role of pain and pleasure, nonresistant nonbelief, etc. And once you do that, it’s far from obvious that the total evidence favors theism, much less Christian theism.
So instead of 3′, what we need instead is something like:

3”. Other evidence held equal, it is probably the result of design.

The italicized words are key because the conclusion is no longer claims that the universe’s life-permitting conditions alone justifies the conclusion of design. Instead, it says, if we hold all other evidence equal–i.e., assume for the sake of argument that all other relevant evidence ‘cancels out’–then the life-permitting data justifies design inference.
As I say, 3” is a big improvement over 3′ and 3, but it comes at a cost. Craig now needs additional premises or arguments to show that the total evidence favors design. For example, he might argue:

4. Biological evolution is not more probable on no-design than on design; and
5. The problem of evil in general is some evidence against design,  but it is outweighed by the total evidence for no-design.
6. There is no other evidence against design.

But these kinds of premises are much more difficult to defend.
Third, as I’ve argued before, on the basis of Purdue University philosopher Paul Draper’s work, Craig’s appeal to cosmic fine-tuning is a textbook example of the fallacy of understated evidence. Let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that the life-permitting conditions of our universe are more likely on design than on no-design. That fact–if it is a fact–hardly exhausts what we know about the habitability of our universe. We also know that so much of our universe is hostile to life due to things such as containing vast amounts of empty space, temperatures near absolute zero, cosmic radiation, and so forth. Given that our universe is life-permitting, the fact that so much of it is hostile to life is much more probable on no-design than on design. So once all  of the evidence about cosmic life-permitting conditions has been fully stated, however, it’s far from obvious that facts about cosmic “fine-tuning” favor design over non-design.
Contrary to Craig’s special pleading, I conclude that nontheists and theists alike are amply justified in concluding, with a high degree of confidence, that there is ultimate (lifelong), nonculpable or nonresistant nonbelief. If that creates problems for historic Christian doctrines such as Christian particularism, then so much the worse for those doctrines.
Appendix
Whenever I blog about the cosmic life-permitting argument, I always get at least one comment suggesting that the multiverse hypothesis is a good way to defeat that argument. My replies: “Good luck with that” and “Not according to inductive logic or probability theory.” We have little or no reason on naturalism (alone) to expect multiple universes, and the ‘independent’ evidence for a multiverse is far from conclusive. See here.

bookmark_borderThe Demographics of Evidence About God: A Novel Argument Against Theism

Christian apologist Tom Gilson attempts to turn the tables on proponents of the argument from nonresistant nonbelief (aka the argument from divine hiddenness). According to Gilson, the fact of divine hiddenness is evidence for God’s existence. Before I quote Gilson’s argument from divine hiddenness to Christian theism, I first need to provide some context.
1. Gilson’s Defense Against the Argument from Nonresistant Nonbelief
In The Blackwell Companion to Philosophy of Religion, the eminent philosopher J.L. Schellenberg makes a distinction between objective and subjective types of divine hiddenness.

Though others have spoken of ‘Divine hiddenness’ or the ‘hiddenness of God’ differently, contemporary philosophers who employ such expressions usually have in mind either (1) that the available relevant evidence makes the existence of God uncertain or (2) that many individuals or groups of people feel uncertain about the existence of God, or else never mentally engage the idea of God at all. The first sort of hiddenness may be called objective and the second subjective. Of course there are various possible connections between these two, and both may consistently be affirmed.[1]

Gilson argues that the following is a successful defeater of Schellenberg’s argument.

An Answer To the Divine Hiddenness Argument
With that as background I begin to explore an experimental thought:
(1) Judaism and Christianity teach that God desires to make himself known to those whose hearts seek him.
(2) Judaism and Christianity teach that God’s self-revelation will be hidden from those who reject his holiness and righteousness.
(3) Therefore (1 and 2) knowledge of God is a matter of heart attitude as much as (or more than) evidences.
(4) But Christianity teaches that God is creator and true; therefore his creation should give a true witness (evidences) concerning his reality.
(5) Given (3) and (4), we would expect the world to provide evidence for God, but not to compel belief in God, leaving room for a decision of the heart.
(6) Therefore (5) we would expect God to have created a world in which evidences could be interpreted either as supporting or not supporting his existence.
(7) Those who know God affirm that there are objective evidences to support their belief in his objective reality, and deny that purported evidences against God are decisive.
(8) Those who deny God deny that those evidences count adequately for the existence of God, and/or affirm that evidences against God are decisive.
(9) Therefore (7) and (8) the world is such that, it is humanly possible to conclude either that God exists or he does not: belief in God is not compelled by the evidences.
(10) The world is such that the conditions in (5) and (6) are met.
(11) The state of the evidence is consistent with Judeo-Christian teachings (1) through (6).
The argument so far is a defeater for Schallenberg’s [sic] hiddenness argument against God, and I think rather solid as far as it goes.

Notice that, at best, Gilson’s argument only addresses objective hiddenness: it attempts to explain why the available, relevant, and objective evidence makes “God exists” uncertain in a way that “the sun exists” is not. It says nothing about subjective hiddenness, which, again, refers to the fact that “many individuals or groups of people feel uncertain about the existence of God, or else never mentally engage the idea of God at all.” Why does this distinction matter? Because there can be nonresistant nonbelievers with or without objective hiddenness.
Again, consider Schellenberg’s example of people who “never mentally engage the idea of God at all.” Gilson’s answer to the hiddenness argument does not explain nonbelievers of that type. (In fairness to Gilson, he might appeal to some other explanation for that fact or he might deny it is a fact.)
Or consider former believers who lost their their belief in God as a result of examining the evidence about God’s existence.  They had a good relationship with God when their doubts began to increase. Gilson’s “decision of the heart” theodicy does not explain them.
Thus, Gilson’s answer to the hiddenness argument is, at best, incomplete.
2. Gilson’s Divine Hiddenness Argument for Christianity
Let’s now consider Gilson’s divine hiddeness argument for Christianity.

(12) The Judeo-Christian understanding of God in (1), (2), and (3) was developed thousands of years ago.
(13) The state of the evidence in (11) having persisted for centuries, it is remarkable for its endurance.
(14) Both believers and unbelievers in God must acknowledge that no matter how strongly they hold to their own beliefs, thoughtful persons can hold to the opposite. Neither belief for nor against God is compelled by the evidence.
(15) Thus (from (14) the state of the evidence in (11) is also remarkably fine-tuned.
(16) This persistence (13) and fine-tuning (15) are suggestive of an intelligent guiding intentionality ruling over them.
(17) This guiding intentionality could only come from a personal God who has intended that state of affairs.

That’s the argument in outline. Steps (1) through (11) are defensive: they answer and undercut an argument against God. In (12) through (17) I attempt to go beyond that and show that God’s “hiddenness” may hint at something more positive. I do not claim it as a proof for God; it is not that strong. But it is at least intriguing, and, as I have said, suggestive. (emphasis mine)

I agree with Gilson that this is an intriguing argument. What should we make of it?
I think it would be difficult to support premise (13), even if we assume that (11) is true in the present day. But, in fact, I would go further and argue that (13) is probably false. Consider Richard Dawkins’s famous words about the link between Darwin and atheism.

Although atheism might have been logically tenable before Darwin, Darwin made it possible to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist.

I am not exactly sure what Dawkins has in mind by the expressions “logically tenable” and “intellectually fulfilled atheist,” but I agree with him that biological evolution is evidence favoring naturalism over theism, evidence that humans did not “have” prior to Darwin. Overall, it seems to me that the weight of the evidence for and against theism has not “persisted for centuries.” Rather, it seems to me that for most of human history, the available evidence favored supernaturalism or theism. Most of the (alleged) evidence for naturalism (which entails atheism) wasn’t even discovered before two centuries ago, whereas most of the (alleged) evidence for theism was known before two centuries ago.
To support my point, I’m going to list a representative summary of the (alleged) evidence for theism and naturalism, along with the approximate date of its discovery.

(Alleged) Evidence (Allegedly) Favors When Discovered
Big Bang theory (universe has a beginning) Theism 20th century
Scale of the Universe Naturalism 20th century
Life-Permitting Data (aka so-called ‘fine-tuning’ data) Theism 20th century (?)
Hostility of Universe Naturalism 20th century (?)
Evolution (common ancestry) Naturalism 1800s
Biological role of pain and pleasure Naturalism 20th century
Flourishing and Languishing Naturalism Late 20th century
Problem of Evil Naturalism Thousands of Years Ago
Beauty Theism Thousands of Years Ago
Consciousness Theism Thousands of Years Ago (?)
Mind-Brain Dependence Naturalism 20th century (?)
Types and Distribution of Moral Agents Naturalism 20th century (?)
Objective Moral Values Theism Thousands of Years Ago (?)
Ethical Disagreement Naturalism Thousands of Years Ago (?)
Religious Experience Theism Thousands of Years Ago (?)
Intelligibility of so much of the universe without appealing to supernatural agency Naturalism 20th century

The precise dates of these discoveries are not important; what is important is the distribution of these discoveries over time. If this distribution is roughly correct, then that is evidence against (13).
In fact, the demographics of evidence about God is itself evidence against theism. Other than the problem of evil and perhaps ethical disagreement, most of the (alleged) items of naturalistic evidence became known only in the last two centuries and then only because of scientific discoveries. That state of affairs is antecedently much more probable on the assumption that naturalism is true (and the progress of science involves more and more correct scientific explanations, explanations which do not appeal to supernatural agents) than on the assumption that theism is true (and a correct scientific explanation could involve supernatural agency and so antecedently there is no reason to predict the progress of science would involve an increasing number of correct naturalistic explanations).
Notes
[1] J.L. Schellenberg, “Divine Hiddenness,” in Charles Taliaferro, Paul Draper, and Philip L. Quinn, ed., The Blackwell Companion to Philosophy of Religion (second ed., Wiley-Blackwell, 2010), 509-518 at 509.

bookmark_borderGeisler & Turek Rebuttal, Part 7: Chapter 8

Chapter 8. Miracles: Signs of God or Gullibility?

 
As I read them, Geisler and Turek (G&T) seek to establish four points: (1) If God exists, then miracles are possible; (2) Hume’s argument against the credibility of miracle claims is a failure; (3) miracles can be used to confirm a message from God (i.e., as acts of God to confirm a word from God); and (4) we don’t observe Biblical-quality miracles today because such miracles are not needed to confirm a new revelation from God.
(1) The Possibility of Miracles and Legends: As Geisler and Turek rightly argue, if God exists, then miracles are possible. Furthermore, Spinoza’s pantheistic objection to the possibility of miracles fails. There’s nothing here I want to dispute. Indeed, I want to expand their point. As New Testament scholar Robert M. Price asks, “If miracles are possible, are legends impossible?”[1] If some skeptics are guilty of an a priori commitment to metaphysical naturalism (and so rule out even the possibility of miracles), some Christians are guilty of an a priori commitment to Biblical inerrancy (and so rule out the even possibility of errors in the Biblical miracle stories). But both sides are wrong: miracles and legends are possible. The lesson to be learned here is that we should try to avoid a priori commitments per se and instead look honestly at the evidence.[2]
One Evangelical Christian scholar who looked honestly at the historical evidence about Biblical miracles is Michael Licona. Licona is the author of the 700-page book, The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach.[3] While Licona defends the resurrection of Jesus, he proposes that the story of the resurrection of the saints described in Matthew 27 just might be metaphorical rather than literal history. To his credit, Licona did not allow the potential implications of his commitment to Biblical inerrancy to get in the way. While some Evangelical scholars, such as Paul Copan and Craig Blomberg, rallied to Licona’s defense, others were highly critical. As reported by Christianity Today,[4] other evangelical scholars, most notably Norman Geisler, publicly accused Licona of denying the full inerrancy of the Bible. As a direct result, Licona lost two jobs. Not only did he lose his job as research professor of New Testament at Southern Evangelical Seminary, but he was also ousted as apologetics coordinator for the North American Missions Board (NAMB).
In light of what can only be described as Geisler’s instrumental role in getting Licona fired (twice!) for following the historical evidence wherever Licona thought it leads, skeptics can hardly be blamed for questioning Geisler’s open-mindedness when it comes to evaluating the historical evidence about alleged Biblical miracles.
(2) Hume’s Argument Against the Credibility of Miracle Claims: Even if miracles are possible, it doesn’t follow that they are probable. Geisler and Turek know this and so they consider one objection against the credibility of miracles: Dave Hume’s famous argument against miracles. Following Geisler’s reconstruction of Hume’s argument, Geisler summarizes his critique, originally delivered at Harvard University’s divinity school: (i) Hume confuses believability with possibility; (ii) Hume confuses probability with evidence; and (iii) Hume, without justification, makes it impossible to have sufficient evidence for rare events (205-08).
(a) The Nomological Evidence Argument (against Miracles): Since I have no interest in defending Hume, I shall ignore Geisler’s critique.[5] Instead, I want to present my own argument for the prior improbability of miracles. I call this argument the Nomological Evidence Argument; its name is derived from the Greek word nomos, which means “law.” The argument is not called the “Nomological Argument,” however, since the focus of the argument is not the laws per se, but the evidence for the laws.
Following Geisler and Turek, let’s define a “natural law” as a description of “what happens regularly, by natural causes” and a “miracle” as a description of “what happens rarely, by supernatural causes” (201). The basic idea of the Nomological Evidence Argument is not that the natural laws themselves are evidence against miracles; rather, the evidence for the laws of nature is evidence against the occurrence of miracles. For example, all of our observations and other evidence for the law of gravity is evidence against Superman flying through the air. Similarly, all of our observations and other evidence for the laws of statistical mechanics is evidence for the complete post-mortem decomposition of Jesus’ body and hence evidence against Jesus’ resurrection.[6] In this sense, then, the evidence for the laws of nature is evidence against the occurrence of miracles. We can generalize these points into a simple inductive argument against miracles according to the following schema:

For any law of nature L, the vast majority of relevant observatons (O) has been such that God did not will that events happen contrary to L.


Therefore, prior to investigation, the (epistemic) probability that the next O will be consistent with L is high.

While even many theists would admit that the above argument follows from the definition of “miracle,” Geisler and Turek might object. Allow me to consider some potential objections.
The Naturalistic Fallacy Objection: This argument confuses believability with possibility (207).
Reply: The whole point of the argument is probability (and hence, in Geisler’s and Turek’s terms, “believability”); it says nothing about possibility. As an objection to the Nomological Evidence Argument, this objection commits the “Naturalistic Fallacy” Fallacy, by falsely accusing the defender of the Nomological Evidence Argument of committing the naturalistic fallacy, viz., presupposing that naturalism is true.[7] Even if a defender of this argument were a ‘committed’ metaphysical naturalist, however, it doesn’t follow that the argument presupposes that naturalism is true. In fact, this argument is logically compatible with the assumption that God exists and that we know God exists with certainty. It could be the case that God exists and, for whatever reason, God often wills that all or almost all Os are consistent with L. Rather than assuming that miracles cannot occur, this argument presents defeasible, prima facie evidence that God, for whatever reason, often wills that miracles do not occur.
The Irrelevance Objection: The argument confuses probability with evidence. Prior probabilities are irrelevant to assessing whether miracles have actually happened.[8]
Reply: This objection is itself based upon a confusion, for the Nomological Evidence Argument is solely about the prior probability of miracles. The argument says nothing about the final (or posterior) probability of any given miracle. In any case, using Bayes’s Theorem, we can mathematically prove that final probability is determined by multiplying prior probability and likelihood (i.e., how likely the evidence is to obtain, on the assumption the miracle actually happened). So assessing the prior probability of miracles is not only appropriate, but necessary for a proper assessment of their overall (final) probability.
The Extreme Skepticism Objection: The argument makes it impossible to have sufficient evidence for rare events.
Reply: This is false. First, since the final probability is the product of prior probability and likelihood, we can have sufficient evidence for rare events if the likelihood is sufficiently high. Second, there is another, technical reason why this objection fails, a reason which will probably only be of interest to philosophers. I’ll mention it briefly. This objection presupposes a frequentist interpretation of probability, whereby probability means relative frequency.[9] But that’s not the only definition of probability. According to an epistemic interpretation of probability, probability means “degree of belief.” The epistemic interpretation makes it possible to have a high probability (i.e., high degree of belief) for rare events.
The Divine Interference Objection: The argument confuses the probability of miracles, which are by definition supernatural events, with the probability of unusual natural events. It only shows that miracles as natural events have low prior probabilities. It does not show that miracles as supernatural events have low prior probabilities. Therefore, the evidence for natural laws provides no evidence at all against God’s intervention in natural affairs.[10]
Reply: Consider the following hypothetical conversation between Christi, a Christian, and Skep, a skeptic.

Christi: Jesus walked on water.

Skep: What’s the evidence for that?

Christi: The report in Matthew 14:22-33.

Skep: That’s pretty weak evidence for a miracle.  Besides, the evidence for gravity is evidence against that miracle ever occurring.

Christi: You’re confused about the nature of the miracle claim.

Skep: What do you mean?

Christi: The claim of Matthew 14:22-33 is that Jesus supernaturally walked on water. It is not the claim that Jesus walked naturally on water. That Jesus walked naturally on water is fantastically improbable. But I see no reason whatsoever to think it is improbable that God enabled Jesus to walk on water.[11]

Skep:  All of the evidence in which natural laws provide an accurate description of natural affairs are “ipso facto cases in which an external agent (i.e., God) has not intervened in natural affairs” and hence cases where God has not willed a miracle. So the observed frequency of non-miracles “automatically factors in the frequency with which external agents (e.g., God)” will that miracles do not occur. [12]

Christi: But the only antecedent factor that is relevant for a miracle is whether He wills for a miracle to happen. If God wills a miracle to happen, then there is a 100% chance it will occur.[13]

Skep: I agree that if God wills a miracle to happen it must happen. But that does not refute the Nomological Evidence Argument; it supports it. The empirical evidence—the extremely high observed frequency of non-miracles—shows that God  “has an exceptionally strong tendency not to supernaturally intervene in natural affairs.”[14] Therefore, the prior probability that God would will a miracle is “astronomically low.”[15]

The Free Will Objection: Whatever the probabilities are, God is free to choose otherwise.
Reply: This objection fails for essentially the same reason as the previous objection. Yes, God, if He exists, can will that a miracle occur “anytime He wants” (216). The observational-relative frequency of non-miracles shows that God has an extremely weak tendency to will that miracles occur. It is beyond reasonable doubt that, prior to investigation, the evidence we have for any law of nature L is at least some evidence against God’s miraculous intervention contrary to L. But this entails that miracles have a low prior probability, conditional upon the evidence for natural laws, which serves as the relevant background information.
In sum, then, Geisler and Turek are able to create the appearance that “disbelief in miracles is probably more a matter of the will than of the mind” (209) only by ignoring arguments other than Hume’s. The Nomological Evidence Argument isn’t dependent upon Hume’s argument, however.  Furthermore, mining Geisler’s and Turek’s material for other potential objections turned out to provide no good reason to reject the Nomological Evidence Argument. Geisler and Turek are going to need to come up with bettter arguments for the credibility of miracles if they are going to answer contemporary skeptics.
(3) Miracles as Authenticated Messages from God: As I read them, G&T make two points. (i) On the assumption that theism is true, we should expect that God would “reveal more of himself and his purpose for our lives”(200). (ii) Miracles provide a way to confirm that such revelations are “message[s] from God” (201).
Regarding (i), I’m inclined to agree with Geisler and Turek that theism provides us with reasons to expect that God would reveal His existence and His purpose for our lives. It isn’t obvious, however, why God would need to use a miracle to reveal His existence and purpose, as opposed to some other, mundane alternative.
Furthermore, the theistic expectation that God would reveal His existence and purpose is a double-edged sword for theism; it raises the “problem of divine hiddenness” and associated arguments for atheism. For now, I will mention two. First, if a perfectly loving God exists, then why are there reasonable nonbelievers? As J.L. Schellenberg has argued, this fact implies atheism.[16] Second, in addition to the general fact of divine hiddenness, the more specific fact that God is silent about His purpose(s) for creating humans is evidence favoring atheism over theism.[17]
As for (ii), Geisler and Turek present a very interesting discussion of six different categories of unusual events: anomalies, magic, psychosomatic, Satanic signs, providence, and miracles (210). Overall, I agree with what I consider to be Geisler’s and Turek’s most important point (albeit one they didn’t state in quite this way), namely, that there’s a difference between an unusual event and a bona fide miracle; in order to establish that a miracle has occurred, one has to do more than show that a mere anomaly has taken place.
In his book, The Improbability Principle: Why Coincidences, Miracles, and Rare Events Happen Every Day, David J. Hand describes what he calls the “Improbability Principle,” a set of laws of chance which, together, tell us that

extremely improbable events are commonplace. It’s a consequence of more fundamental laws, which all tie together to lead inevitably and inexorably to the occurrence of such extraordinarily unlikely events. These laws, in principle, tell us that the universe is in fact constructed so that these coincidences are unavoidable: the extraordinarily unlikely must happen; events of vanishingly small probability will occur. The Improbability Principle resolves the apparent contradiction between the sheer unlikeliness of such events, and the fact that they nevertheless keep on happening.[18]

(4) The Lack of Biblical-Quality Miracles Today: Finally, Geisler and Turek seek to respond to a common objection to Biblical miracles: “If there are no public, biblical-quality miracles happening today (and if they were, they’d be on the Fox News Channel), then why should I think they happened in the past?” (215).
According to Geisler and Turek, most of the Bible’s 250 miracles occurred

in very small windows of history, during three distinct time periods—during the lifetimes of Moses, Elijah and Elisha, and Jesus and the apostles. Why then? Because those were the times when God was confirming new truth (revelation) and new messengers with that truth. (216)

They speculate that, “if the Bible is true and complete,” then God may not have a reason to perform miracles today because God is not confirming any revelation today (216).
Speculative as it is, this “What If?” explanation amounts to a quasi-theodicy, viz., an attempt to offer a theistic explanation for potential evidence against theism.[19]  I agree with Geisler and Turek that their explanation is logically possible; the fact that Biblical-quality miracles do not happen today does not contradict or disprove the historicity of Biblical miracles.
But Geisler and Turek ignore a philosophically more interesting question, namely, “Is the lack of contemporary Biblical-quality miracles evidence favoring naturalism over theism?” It seems to me that the answer is very likely, “Yes.” If metaphysical naturalism is true, then there are no supernatural beings to perform miracles. Thus, metaphysical naturalism entails that there would be no Biblical-quality miracles today. In contrast, if theism is true, miracles are, at the very least, possible. (And note that this is true even if Geisler and Turek are correct that Christian theism provides very little or no antecedent reason to expect Biblical-quality miracles today.) Thus, if there are indeed no Biblical-quality miracles today, that is more probable on naturalism than on theism and hence evidence for naturalism and against theism.
Summary and Conclusion

  1. Both miracles and legends are possible. If some skeptics are guilty of an a priori commitment to metaphysical naturalism (and so rule out even the possibility of miracles), some Christians are guilty of an a priori commitment to Biblical inerrancy (and so rule out even the possibility of errors in the Biblical miracle stories).  We should try to avoid a priori commitments per se and instead look honestly at the evidence.
  2. Both nontheists and theists alike have good reason—a reason not based on Hume—to be skeptical of an alleged miracle prior to an empirical investigation. This reason is the Nomological Evidence Argument, which states that the evidence for natural laws is defeasible, prima facie evidence against alleged miracles. This argument does not presuppose naturalism; on the contrary, it is logically consistent with the presupposition that God exists and that we know God exists with certainty.
  3. In this chapter, we read about three new lines of evidence (or potential evidence) for metaphysical naturalism and against theism: (i) the reasonableness of nonbelief (i.e., nontheism); (ii) God’s silence about His purpose(s) for creating humans; and (iii) the fact (if it is a fact) that there are no Biblical-quality miracles occuring today. Each of these three lines of evidence are more probable on the assumption that naturalism is true than on the assumption that theism is true and so are evidence against theism and for naturalism.

 


Rebuttal to Geisler’s and Turek’s “I Don’t Have Enough Faith to be an Atheist”

Notes
[1] Robert M. Price, “By This Time He Stinketh: The Attempts of William Lane Craig to Exhume Jesus” The Secular Web (1997), http://infidels.org/library/modern/robert_price/stinketh.html.
[2] http://exapologist.blogspot.com/2006/12/priori-naturalism-priori-inerrantism.html. It is noteworthy that this philosopher of religion lists Geisler’s book, When Critics Ask, as one of several books which contain just-sostories to explain away indicators of errors in the Bible.
[3] Michael Licona, The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2010).
[4] Bobby Ross, Jr., “Interpretation Sparks a Grave Theology Debate” Christianity Today (http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2011/november/interpretation-sparks-theology-debate.html), November 7, 2011.
[5] For a technical critique of Hume’s argument, see John Earman, Hume’s Abject Failure (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000). For a defense of Hume against Earman’s critique, see Peter Millican, “Hume, Miracles, and Probabilities: Meeting Earman’s ChallengeDavidHume.org (July-August 2003), http://www.davidhume.org/papers/millican/2003%20Hume%20Miracles%20Probabilities.pdf. Cf. Elliott Sober, “A Modest ProposalPhilosophy and Phenomenological Research 118 (2004): 489-96.
[6] Robert Greg Cavin and Carlos Colombetti, “The Great Mars Hill Resurrection Debate” The Secular Web (2013), http://infidels.org/images/media/library/modern/greg_cavin/resurrection-debate.pdf, 316-21.
[7] Cavin and Colombetti 2013, 15.
[8] Norman L. Geisler, “A Critical Review of The Empty Tomb: Jesus Beyond the Grave (Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2005), ed. Robert Price and Jeffrey [sic] Lowder” Dr. Norman L. Geisler (n.d.), normgeisler.com/articles/theResurrection/2005-ACriticalReviewOfBookTheEmptyTomb.htm.
[9] See, e.g., “Frequentist Probability” Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Frequentist_probability.
[10] I owe the name of this objection to Robert Greg Cavin and Carlos Colombetti 2013, slide 15.
[11] Cf. William Lane Craig’s similar objection to skeptics who claim that the resurrection of Jesus has a low prior probability, as stated in several of his debates, e.g., his debate with Bart Ehrman. reasonablefaith.org/is-there-historical-evidence-for-the-resurrection-of-jesus-the-craig-ehrman#section_1.
[12] Cavin and Colombetti 2013, 271.
[13] Geisler n.d.
[14] Cavin and Colombetti 2013, 103.
[15] Cavin and Colombetti 2013, 105.
[16] J.L. Schellenberg, Divine Hiddenness and Human Reason (Cornell: Cornell University Press, 1993, 2006).
[17] B.A. Trisel, “God’s Silence as an Epistemological ConcernThe Philosophical Forum 43 (2012): 383-393. doi: 10.1111/j.1467-9191.2012.00433.x.
[18] David J. Hand, The Improbability Principle: Why Coincidences, Miracles, and Rare Events Happen Every Day (New York: Scientific American / Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2014), 5.
[19] I call this a “quasi-theodicy” and not a “theodicy” since the word “theodicy” is normally used only in the context of arguments from evil. The (alleged) lack of contemporary, Biblical-quality miracles is not a species of the genus known as arguments from evil, however.

bookmark_borderLowder-Vandergriff Debate on God’s Existence Now Out!


I’m pleased to announce that my debate on God’s existence with Mr. Kevin Vandergriff is now out! Here are the options for accessing the debate.

Topic and Format
The topic and format for our debate was as follows.
Topic: Naturalism vs. Christian Theism: Where Does the Evidence Point?
Format: 
Mr. Lowder’s Opening Statement: 20 minutes
Mr. Vandergriff’s Opening Statement: 20 minutes
Mr. Lowder’s First Rebuttal: 15 minutes
Mr. Vandergriff’s First Rebuttal: 15 minutes
Mr. Lowder’s Second Rebuttal: 10 minutes
Mr. Vandergriff’s Second Rebuttal: 10 minutes
Mr. Lowder’s Closing Statement: 5 minutes
Mr. Vandergriff’s Closing Statement: 5 minutes
This debate was not a live debate but was instead recorded over a series of many weeks. Once I recorded my initial opening statement, each speech was due within a week of the previous one being available to the other debater. Once all of the speeches were complete, the crew at Reasonable Doubts merged all of the files together into a single file for the podcast. As an added bonus, both Vandergriff and I provided PowerPoint slides for each and every speech, which should make it that much easier to follow the debate.
Summary of Mr. Lowder’s Case for Naturalism:
First Contention. Naturalism is a much simpler explanation than Christian theism (where simplicity is defined in terms of modesty and coherence).
Second Contention. Naturalism is a more accurate explanation than Christian theism.
2.1. Physical Matter
2.2. Intelligibility of Universe without Appeal to Supernatural Agency
2.3. Cosmic Hostility
2.4. Biological Evolution
2.5. Biological Role of Pain and Pleasure
2.6. Flourishing and Languishing
2.7. Triumph and Tragedy
2.8. Mind-Brain Dependence
2.9. Types and Distribution of Moral Agents
2.10. Limitations on Human Freedom
2.11. Nonresistant Nonbelief
2.12. Ethical Disagreement
Note: some of these lines of evidence were not mentioned until after Mr. Lowder’s opening statement, specifically, 2.2, 2.9, 2.10, 2.12, and 2.14.
Summary of Mr. Vandergriff’s Case for Christian Theism:
First Contention: Naturalism is not significantly more simple than Christian theism.
Second Contention: Even if naturalism is significantly more simple than Christian theism, it doesn’t matter because God exists necessarily.
2.1. Origin of the Universe
2.2. Why There is Something Physical Rather than Nothing
Third Contention: Christian theism is a more accurate explanation than naturalism.
3.1. Discoverability of the Universe
3.2. Applicability of Mathematics
3.3. Evolution
3.4. Formational Economy of the Universe
3.5. Self-Aware Beings
3.6. Embodied Moral Agents plus Fine-Tuning
3.7. The Connection between Moral Beliefs and Necessary Moral Truths
3.8. The Connection between Necessary Moral Truths and Flourishing
3.9. Worthwhileness of Life
3.10. Resurrection of Jesus
Note: some of these lines of evidence were not mentioned until after Mr. Vandergriff’s opening statement, specifically, 3.3 and 3.4.
Related Topics Discussed in This Debate
1. The differences between metaphysical naturalism and the “hypothesis of indifference”
2. The Anti-Creation Ex Nihilo Argument
3. Neo-Aristotelian Ethical Naturalism, namely, Larry Arnhart’s version as defended in his book, Darwinian Natural Right
4. The Bayesian Interpretation of “Extraordinary Claims Require Extraordinary Evidence” (ECREE) and the Bayesian Anti-Resurrection Argument
5. Physical cosmology, including the Borde-Guth-Vilenkin (BGV) Theorem and quantum indeterminacy
6. God’s relationship with time
7. Animal pain
Major Selling Points and Drawbacks for this Debate
I think this debate is fairly unusual, if not unique, for theism and atheism debates for a number of reasons.
Selling Points

  • I think both debaters were pretty evenly matched in terms of speaking ability or, at the very least, the delayed audio format gives that appearance. (That is, in fact, a major point of the delayed audio format.)
  • Both debaters treated their opponents with respect. Anyone who was watched or listened to a number of these debates knows that this does not always happen, which is unfortunate.
  • Both debaters approach the question, “Does God exist?”, as an empirical question. This means that, for the most part (but not entirely), they avoided a priori, deductive arguments and instead gave evidential arguments. (Thomistic scholars like Ed Feser and other critics of “theistic personalism” won’t be happy.) Furthermore, they both adopt a Bayesian approach to evidence.
  • The naturalist debater actually attempted to present a positive case for metaphysical naturalism. Mr. Lowder provided nine (9) lines of evidence for naturalism in his opening statement, and five additional lines of (understated) evidence in later speeches.
  • As mentioned above, the theist debater actually attempted to provide theistic explanations for (alleged) naturalistic facts, rather than appeal to so-called “skeptical theism.” In other words, the theist actually attempted to defend a theodicy.
  • In fact, for the most part, I think both sides defended their position using arguments and objections which are representative of the best scholarship on both sides. I think both debaters avoided the typical blunders we see from both sides in these debates. (Mr. Lowder in particular is proud of the fact that he pretty much ignored every piece of the horrible debating advice offered by the late Victor Stenger.) For example, both debaters avoided making positive arguments which many, if not most, philosophers of religion would say have been discredited: the naturalist debater did not use the Lack of Evidence Argument (LEA) for atheism and the theist debater didn’t defend an ontological version of the moral argument (which claims that God is required as the ontological foundation for moral values and duties). Along the same lines, both debaters avoided using some more of the dubious objections to their opponent’s arguments: the naturalist debater didn’t respond to alleged cosmic ‘fine-tuning’ by appealing to the multiverse hypothesis and did not respond to the Resurrection argument using simplistic arguments for Jesus mythicism. The theist debater did not respond to the argument from biological evolution by denying the fact of common ancestry and he did not respond to various arguments from evil by appealing to so-called “skeptical theism.”[1]

Drawbacks
On the other hand, I think this debate has one, maybe two, major drawbacks.
First, Vandergriff and I discuss a large number of arguments. If you didn’t like the number of arguments in my opening statement for my debate with Phil Fernandes, then you’re probably going to be very unhappy with the number of arguments in this debate. (I think the grand total by the end of the debater was somewhere around 23-25.) I don’t think this ever would have worked in a live debate but, given the unique “audio swap” format, we mutually decided beforehand to debate more, rather than less, arguments on each side. I hope that the PowerPoint slides will make the debate comprehensible.
Second, both debaters spoke faster towards the end of the debate and our speaking rates probably pushed the limits of what is reasonable. For people who listen only to the audio (as opposed to watching the YouTube version), this will make it hard to follow.
Vandergriff Did Not Cheat
Several people on the web noticed that Vandergriff used audio editing software to artificially speed up his speaking rate and to edit out the natural pauses in at least some of his speeches, in order to cram more content into his speeches. Based on that, they have accused Vandergriff of cheating.
I can see why listeners might reach that conclusion, but Vandergriff did not cheat and I want those accusations to stop.  Not only did he not cheat, but  I fully believe that Vandergriff neither had any intention to cheat nor did he believe at any point that he was doing so. Why? The rules for the debate did not impose a limit on the words per minute (WPM) ratio for each speech. They definitely did not prohibit the use of audio editing software. I have no doubt that Vandergriff chose to speaker at a higher WPM ratio because of his collegiate debate background, where it absolutely the norm for debaters to exceed 300 WPM in their speeches. (This convention is the primary reason I decided against participating in undergraduate debate, despite my university debate team’s attempt to recruit me.)
The problem, in my opinion, is that there is a huge disconnect between the way competitive debaters do debates and the way the general public thinks about debates. I believe that speaking faster than 190 WPM is a huge turn off for the general public, whether for a podcast or in a live debate. Even if Vandergriff had not edited the audio file and instead chose to speak (naturally) as fast as possible, I predict that many listeners still would have complained about the fast delivery. I can see how the use of audio editing software might lead people to think Kevin had cheated, but that conclusion is mistaken. He did not.
Operating from a collegiate debate perspective, Vandergriff opted to increase his WPM ratio as needed in order to address every single in the point in every single speech. Some people call that the “Gish Gallop” approach but, as anyone with high school or college debating experience can confirm, that’s the way they do it in that style of debating.
In contrast, my approach was to speak at a more comfortable pace (< 190 WPM). Of course, that meant I could not include as much content into my speeches as Vandergriff included in his. Instead of simply “dropping” arguments, however, my strategy was to “group” various arguments together in a way so that one objection could apply to many of his arguments at the same time. If our debate were judged by collegiate debate judges using collegiate rules, it’s quite possible they may have voted for Vandergriff as the winner. Since this wasn’t a collegiate debate, however, and since I did respond to all of his points at least indirectly (through grouping), I don’t care how a collegiate debate judge might vote. My courtroom was the court of public opinion and my intended “judge” was the judgment of the general public.
The real risk is that, once transcripts of the debate are made available, they may give Vandergriff an unfair advantage insofar as it will be much easier for readers to understand a written transcript of his speed talking than it is for listeners to understand an audio recording of his speed talking. I think that we can manage risk that by putting some sort of note at the beginning of the transcript which explicitly addresses the WPM issue.
Lessons Learned
In my opinion, this debate is a “lesson learned” for all parties involved. If I could go back in time, I would have proposed the following:
(1) No cap on the number of arguments because I think the only way to truly test both worldviews in a debate is to actually debate this large number of arguments.
(2) A modified time limit structure, such as 25 minute openings, 20 minute first and second rebuttals, and 15 minute closings. These longer speeches would provide both debaters more time to address the points raised by their opponents.
(3) A strict cap on the maximum allowed WPM, which I would probably set at 190.
(4) The use of audio editing software to manipulate WPM would be allowed, but rendered irrelevant by rules 2 and 3.
Vandergriff and I have already talked about the possibility of having a re-match in the future using the above proposal or something similar. I think I can speak for both of us when I say that we both hope this re-match happens. For my part, I greatly appreciate his informed, thoughtful, and novel approach and think it deserves a fair hearing by everyone interested in pursuing a deeper understanding of these topics.
We’d love to know your reaction to this debate; please feel free to leave your reviews of the debate and/or debate the arguments yourself in the combox!
 
Notes
[1] I recognize that several of the claims in this paragraph will be controversial. For example, some theists deny the truth of common ancestry. Even more important, in my opinion, is the fact some theistic philosophers believe that God is required as the ontological foundation for morality and that skeptical theism is a good response to arguments from evil. I obviously disagree, but I’m not going to attempt to defend my perspective in this blog post.

bookmark_borderSchellenberg’s Defense of Nonresistant Nonbelief / Divine Hiddenness

In this post, I want to summarize J.L. Schellenberg’s defense of the claim that nonresistant nonbelief exists (or, synonymously, divine hiddenness obtains).
As I’ve explained before, Schellenberg’s most recent formulation of that argument is as follows.

(1) Necessarily, if God exists, anyone who is (i) not resisting God and (ii) capable of meaningful conscious relationship with God is also (iii) in a position to participate in such relationship (able to do so just by trying).
(2) Necessarily, one is at a time in a position to participate in meaningful conscious relationship with God only if at that time one believes that God exists.
(3) Necessarily, if God exists, anyone who is (i) not resisting God and (ii) capable of meaningful conscious relationship with God also (iii) believes that God exists.
(4) There are (and often have been) people who are (i) not resisting God and (ii) capable of meaningful conscious relationship with God without also (iii) believing that God exists.
(5) God does not exist.

Among the various objections to this argument, one popular route is to doubt or deny (4). What does Schellenberg have to say in defense of (4)? I’m going to quote from his book, The Wisdom to Doubt. 
(a) The evidence of former believers:

Consider, for example, those who have always believed in God and who would love to go on believing in God but who have found, as adults, that serious and honest examination of all the evidence of experience and argument they can lay their hands on has unexpectedly had the result of eroding their belief away. These are individuals who were happy and morally committed believers and who remain morally committed but are not longer happy because of the emotional effects of an intellectual reorganization involving the removal of theistic belief. Perhaps they will be happy again, but the point is that for for the time being, it is the removal of theistic belief that they are inclined to resist, if anything. For they were still on friendly terms with God and benefitting in a variety of ways from what they took to be contact with God when their belief in the existence of such a being was whisked away. (p. 205)

(b) The evidence of isolated nontheists.

Consider also all those–both at the present time and throughout the past–in whom theistic belief has never been a live option. In some such individuals, quite other beliefs, supported by authority or tradition or experience, have held sway instead of theism. In others, the basic conceptual conditions of so much as entertaining the idea of a being separate from a created physical universe who is all-powerful, all-knowing, and perfectly good and loving in relation to it have never been satisfied. (p. 205)

(c) The evidence of lifelong seekers:

… individuals who don’t start out in what they consider to be a relationship with God and may not even be explicitly searching for God, but who are trying to find out where they belong and, in their wanderings, are open to finding and being found by a Divine Parent–all without ever achieving their goal. These are individuals who seek but do not find. (p. 233)

(d) The evidence of converts to nontheistic religions: these are individuals who investigate other serious conceptions of the Ultimate and who turn up evidence that produces religious belief in the context of nontheistic religious communities and/or on account of nontheistic religious experiences–and the truth of atheistic claims may be seen to follow by implication. (236)
Feel free to debate in the Combox, but please be respectful.

bookmark_borderSwing and a Miss: Another Failed Refutation of Schellenberg’s Hiddenness Argument

Philosopher of religion J.L. Schellenberg is the foremost defender of an argument for atheism known as the argument from nonculpable nonbelief (aka the argument from divine hiddenness). As I’ve explained before, Schellenberg’s most recent formulation of that argument is as follows.

(1) Necessarily, if God exists, anyone who is (i) not resisting God and (ii) capable of meaningful conscious relationship with God is also (iii) in a position to participate in such relationship (able to do so just by trying).

(2) Necessarily, one is at a time in a position to participate in meaningful conscious relationship with God only if at that time one believes that God exists.

(3) Necessarily, if God exists, anyone who is (i) not resisting God and (ii) capable of meaningful conscious relationship with God also (iii) believes that God exists.

(4) There are (and often have been) people who are (i) not resisting God and (ii) capable of meaningful conscious relationship with God without also (iii) believing that God exists.

(5) God does not exist.

Tom Gilson, the National Field Director of Ratio Christi and the man behind the Thinking Christian website and blog, wrote a 2011 blog post on divine hiddenness. I’m going to comment on part of this article.

There is an argument against Christianity based on God’s “hiddenness:” …

This is accurate, but misleading insofar as the argument is an argument not just against Christian theism but (general) theism.

… that if God existed and wanted people to believe in him, he would make himself known more plainly; he would not be hidden as he is now. J.L. Schellenberg presented the question in Divine Hiddenness and Human Freedom.

When I first read this sentence, I got excited. I thought to myself, “Hey, he’s going to actually address Schellenberg’s argument!” Schellenberg has slightly revised his formulation of the argument in a more recent book, The Wisdom to Doubt, but I was excited that he was going to address Schellenberg at all. Or was he?

An atheist blogger who goes by “Ebon Musings” wrote the best web-accessible article I know of on the topic.

It turns out my excitement was premature. Instead of Schellenberg’s argument, Gilson is going to interact with the argument presented by Ebon Musings.

In paraphrased form, he says,

  • There is no visible work of God, in the form of miracles, in the world today.
  • Events formerly considered miraculous are now thought to be myth, fable, or misinterpreted acts of nature.
  • Believers claim that God can nonetheless be known and perceived through some faith sense. It is most likely the case, however, that this faith sense does not actually exist, due to the unanswerability of questions like, What is it? Where is it? How is it validated or verified, especially in view of contrary reports by different people?
  • Even if God exists, if there is no verifiable way of detecting his presence and activity, he may as well not exist.
  • God, if he exists, can and should want to reveal himself in some unambiguous way.

With all due respect to Ebon Musings, there are a number of significant differences between his argument (at least, as summarized by Gilson) and the argument formulated by Schellenberg.

  1. Schellenberg’s argument makes a distinction between culpable and nonculpable nonbelief, i.e., nonbelief that is not due to resistance to God and nonbelief that is not due to resistance to God, respectively. Ebon Musing’s argument, as summarized by Gilson, does not.
  2. Premise (2) of Schellenberg’s argument states the important fact that the belief that God exists is a necessary condition for belief in God. Ebon Musing’s argument, as summarized by Gilson, does not.
  3. Ebon Musing’s argument, as paraphrased by Gilson, makes a number of highly specific (and so intrinsically less probable) claims, claims not made by Schellenberg’s argument. First, Ebon Musing’s argument (as summarized by Gilson) makes a claim about the specific mechanism by which someone could come to have a belief that God exists. Second, Ebon Musing’s argument (as summarized by Gilson) claims that God’s existence is not verifiable. In contrast, Schellenberg’s argument depends on neither of these claims. Third, Ebon Musing’s argument (as summarized by Gilson) makes a claim about the alleged non-occurrence of miracles todays, whereas Schellenberg’s argument does not.

In short, there are several philosophically significant differences between the two arguments. Even if Gilson succeeds in refuting Ebon Muse’s argument, it’s far from obvious that that refutation succeeds against Schellenberg’s argument also. Does it?
As I read him, Gilson’s critique consists of the following points: (a) “the billions of people who believe God’s existence is well evidenced”; and (b) “The only evidence some atheists/skeptics would accept would be of the sort that absolutely compels belief.” According to Gilson, the latter point is especially important because “knowledge of God is a matter of heart attitude as much as (or more than) evidences.”
It seems to me, however, that Gilson has failed to defeat Schellenberg’s argument. Indeed, both of his objections are not of obvious relevance to Schellenberg’s argument, which states that “There are (and often have been) people who are (i) not resisting God and (ii) capable of meaningful conscious relationship with God without also (iii) believing that God exists.” The fact that “billions of people” believe in God does not imply that there are no nonculpable nonbelievers. And Gilson gives no reason to think that the quantity of believers somehow makes it improbable that there are any nonculpable nonbelievers. Furthermore, even if some atheists or skeptics would resist evidence of God’s existence, it hardly follows that all atheists or skeptics would do so. And Schellenberg’s argument is about people who are not resisting God. The upshot is that, however successful Gilson’s refutation of Ebon Musings may be, it fails against Schellenberg’s argument.

bookmark_borderRepost: Brittany Maynard and the Problem of Evil

Photo of Brittany Maynard
In case you’ve been under a rock (or you’re reading this in the future when it is an old, archived post), Brittany Maynard, a women with terminal brain cancer, died by assisted suicide last weekend in the U.S. state of Oregon, where it is legal.
Brittany’s life and death are an especially tragic combination of two or more aspects of the problem of evil.
First, the tragic nature of her story is an example of the evidence appealed to in the atheistic argument from triumph and tragedy. According to that argument, facts about the types and distribution of triumphs and tragedies are more probable on naturalism than on theism. The point here is not that (a) theism predicts the nonexistence of tragedies or (b) literally every human being suffers tragedies or enjoys triumphs. Rather, the focus of this argument is on the distribution of triumph and tragedy. Out of those people who do experience triumphs or tragedies, the number of people who experience tragedies is greater than the number of people who experience triumphs. Moreover, we know that the number of extreme tragedies (call them “horrific tragedies”) is much greater than the number of extreme triumphs (call them “glorious triumphs”).
Second, the gratuitous (and apparently morally random) biological pain caused by her condition if allowed to progress until death is more probable on naturalism than on theism (see: the atheistic argument from the biological role of pain and pleasure). Note: the problem is not the presence of physical pain and pleasure in general, since physical pain and pleasure can be (and often is) biologically useful. Rather, the problem is the fact that much pain and pleasure is biologically gratuitous (i.e., it does not contribute to the biological goals of survival or reproduction) and apparently morally random (i.e., much of it is not apparently connected to “greater goods” such as the exercise of free will). While it’s possible that God exists and has unknown moral reasons for allowing biologically gratuitous pain and pleasure, the fact that such pain and pleasure exists is not what we would have predicted “beforehand” on theism. In contrast, naturalism–combined with the background knowledge that human beings exist and are the products of unguided evolution–does predict this. So, all other evidence held equal, the biological role of pain and pleasure is very much more probable on naturalism than on theism.
Third, if Brittany did not feel God’s comforting presence during the end of her life — and I have no idea if she did or not — her story would also be an example of another atheistic argument at the intersection of arguments from evil and arguments from hiddenness: the argument from divine silence during tragedies.
Fourth, if there are religious groups which do support Euthanasia, then the argument from ethical confusion applies. In fact, if (a) there is sincere ethical disagreement among theists regarding Euthanasia and (b) if Euthanasia is not objectively morally wrong, then ethical disagreement becomes an additional, independent instance of the problem of evil for theists. We would then have a situation where, if theism were true, a perfectly loving God allowed theists who, in this hypothetical situation, wrongly believed Euthanasia was morally wrong and that belief contributed to Brittany’s suffering. And that state of affairs is more probable on naturalism than on theism. This last point (about suffering caused by moral condemnation) is not hypothetical. Before her death, Brittany spoke about the emotional toll the criticism of her choice took on her:

“When people criticize me for not waiting longer, or, you know, whatever they’ve decided is best for me, it hurts,” she says, “because really, I risk it every day, every day that I wake up.”

So Brittany’s tragic story exemplifies at least two, if not four, different arguments from evil for naturalism and against theism.
Sometimes theists object to these kinds of arguments on the basis that they focus on the “God of the philosophers,” rather than, say, Christian theism or Islamic (sp?) theism. This common yet confused objection reveals the objector’s misunderstanding of probability theory. Since Christian theism entails theism, it follows necessarily that the probability of Christian theism can be no greater than the probability of theism. (The two values may be equal or Christian theism may be less probable than theism.) We can state this point as a general principle: if A entails B, then it follows necessarily that Pr(A) <= Pr(B).

bookmark_borderStan Stephens’s Categorical Misunderstandings of Atheism

Stan Stephens has finally decided to respond to my list of sixteen (16) lines of empirical evidence which favor naturalism over theism. Here is the first sentence of his reply.

Jeffery Jay Lowder provided a list of empirical proofs. (emphasis added)

I’ve emphasized Stan’s use of the word “proofs” because it exposes a fundamental misunderstanding of the arguments. The word “proof” has the connotation of certainty. But I’ve never claimed that my list of arguments are “proofs.” Rather, my list of evidence is a list of inductive arguments for naturalism. By definition, inductive arguments do not establish their conclusions with certainty. In short, Stan manages to completely miss the point of my arguments–and, indeed, all inductive arguments–in the very first sentence of his reply! 
It gets worse. After quoting my list of evidence, Stan then writes this.

In order to assess these as empirical arguments which disprove categorically the nonexistence of deity, it is only necessary to ask for the experimental data for each item on the list, and to see if that data proves incorrigibly that a deity cannot exist. One quick way to do that is to take the title of each line item and add this statement to it: “therefore there cannot exist a deity”.

Yes, it’s that bad. In fact, the purpose of inductive arguments couldn’t be more different than what Stan claims. At the risk of repeating myself, the purpose of inductive arguments for atheism is not, as Stan falsely claims, to prove that God cannot exist. Rather, the purpose of inductive arguments is to show that God probably does not exist.
Let E represent any item of evidence in my list. For each item of evidence, we assume that E could be true and that God exists. The question to ask is this, “What’s the best explanation for E?” For example, take the hostility of the universe to life. It’s possible that the universe is hostile to life and that God exists. But what’s the best explanation?
But in order to answer that question, Stan will need to drop his obsession with “categorical disproofs”– which I’ve already addressed here (skip down to the “Deductive Argument Objection”) and here–and instead engage with my actual arguments, not his straw man versions of them.

bookmark_borderTheistic Prejudice: A Case Study with Stan

Over at Randal Rauser’s blog, Stan wrote the following:

Free thinking does not mean disciplined logical thought; it means being free to think that whatever you might think at the moment is Truth, including that there is no truth. Free Thought is much like removing the timing from your engine’s combustion system to allow it “freedom”.
Logic demands discipline and guidance under the rules of deductive reasoning. Atheists have no concept of this, for the most part, and those who do, cannot humble themselves to the rational outcome which they have not approved before-hand.
Free Thinking is the act of rationalizing the emotional position which causes Atheism in the first place.

I posted the following response.

This is an expression of prejudice. It is just as prejudicial (and no better supported than) the statement, “Theists have no concept of this [discipline and guidance under the rules of deductive reasoning], for the most part, and those who do, cannot humble themselves to the rational outcome which they have not approved before-hand.”
We have three claims.
1. Most atheists have no concept of the discipline and guidance demanded by logic under the rules of deductive reasoning.
2. Those atheists who do have such a concept cannot humble themselves to the rational outcome which they have not approved before-hand.
3. Atheism is the result of an emotional position.
What we don’t have is evidence for these claims.

If you were expecting Stan to admit that he got carried away with his rhetoric, you’d be disappointed. Instead, Stan decided to double down and defend the indefensible.

The first two claims are based solely on my experience in discussions with atheists over the past decade. None have studied logic 101, nor do they accept the outcome of deductions even though they cannot refute them. I accept that I have not spoken to every Atheist, but I have spoken to a great many.
The third claim is based on the demonstrable fact that there is no atheist evidence which proves the non-existence of a creating agent (deity), nor is there any disciplined deductive argument which demonstrates the non-existence of a creating agent (deity). Thus, lacking any actual supporting evidence or logic, the Atheist case cannot be based on those, despite claims to the contrary. In actuality atheism is based in rejectionism which is performed without any reasoning or evidence in its own support. Atheists redefine the content of Atheism in order to avoid having to give reasons or reasoning for rejecting theist claims and deductions. Their is no rational content to the new meaning of Atheism, which is merely “without theist beliefs”, despite having rejected theist positions with no evidence or deductive logic proving atheism to be valid. Hence, atheism is not based on material evidence nor on disciplined deductive logic, and therefore is an emotional position of rejectionism, only.
Feel free to refute that, if you have material evidence for atheism or a disciplined deductive argument leading incorrigibly to atheism at the expense of theism.
Addendum: I stand by my statement regarding “free thought”.

So let’s go through his claims one at a time.
Stan’s Claim #1: Most atheists have no concept of the discipline and guidance demanded by logic under the rules of deductive reasoning.
Well, that’s rich. Stan himself has failed to provide a valid (deductive) argument to support claim #1. Look at his justification again.

The first two claims are based solely on my experience in discussions with atheists over the past decade. None have studied logic 101, nor do they accept the outcome of deductions even though they cannot refute them. I accept that I have not spoken to every Atheist, but I have spoken to a great many.

Let’s try to identify his argument’s logical structure.
(1) Stan has spoken to a great many atheists.
(2) Stan claims that none of the atheists he has spoken with have studied logic 101.
(3) Stan claims that none of the atheists he has spoken with accept the outcome of deductions even though they cannot refute them.
(4) Therefore, most atheists have no concept of the discipline and guidance demanded by logic under the rules of deductive reasoning.
For someone who makes so many references to logic, deductions, rules of deductive reasoning, and the like, Stan seems to have missed the fact that this argument is invalid, i.e., it fails as a deductive argument. The conclusion does not follow from the premises. At best, Stan has spoken with a subset of atheists and made accurate observations about them. Even if that were the case, there is no rule of inference which would enable him to construct a deductively valid argument which moves from a statement about a sample to a universal generalization about an entire population. Furthermore, even if Stan tried to reformulate his argument as an inductive argument, it would still fail. (Stan provides no reason to believe that the atheists he has spoken with are representative of atheists. And we have no reason to believe Stan’s claims in premises (2) or (3).)
Stan’s Claim #2. Those atheists who do have such a concept cannot humble themselves to the rational outcome which they have not approved before-hand.
Stan’s justification for this claim fails for the same reason his justification for his first claim fails.
Stan’s Claim #3. Atheism is the result of an emotional position.
Let’s look again at his justification for this claim.

The third claim is based on the demonstrable fact that there is no atheist evidence which proves the non-existence of a creating agent (deity), nor is there any disciplined deductive argument which demonstrates the non-existence of a creating agent (deity). Thus, lacking any actual supporting evidence or logic, the Atheist case cannot be based on those, despite claims to the contrary. In actuality atheism is based in rejectionism which is performed without any reasoning or evidence in its own support. Atheists redefine the content of Atheism in order to avoid having to give reasons or reasoning for rejecting theist claims and deductions. Their is no rational content to the new meaning of Atheism, which is merely “without theist beliefs”, despite having rejected theist positions with no evidence or deductive logic proving atheism to be valid. Hence, atheism is not based on material evidence nor on disciplined deductive logic, and therefore is an emotional position of rejectionism, only.

Again, let’s analyze the logical structure of his supporting argument.
(4) There is no atheist evidence which proves the non-existence of a creating agent (deity).
(5) There is no disciplined deductive argument which demonstrates the non-existence of a creating agent (deity).
(6) Therefore, the Atheist case cannot be based on evidence or disciplined deductive argument.
(7) Some people who identify as atheists redefine “atheism” to mean “without theist beliefs.”
(8) Therefore, atheism is an emotional position of rejectionism.
As an argument for claim #3, however, it seems to me this argument is multiply flawed. First, it’s invalid. The conclusion, (8), does not follow from (4)-(7). Even if Stan were correct that atheists have no good arguments for believing that God does not exist, it doesn’t follow that atheism is the result of an emotional position. Think of all the people who have gotten the wrong answer on a multiple choice geometry test. Would anyone claim that the people who got wrong answers did so for emotional reasons? Of course not! Along the same lines, even if we assume that (4) and (5) are true, his conclusion still wouldn’t follow. It would still be possible that atheists simply made an error in reasoning, in which case they would be guilty of sloppy argumentation but not of rejecting theism for emotional reasons.
But in fact I think Stan’s premises are mistaken. For example, consider (4). I have written extensively about the nature and meaning of evidence in general, as well as how to formulate an inductively correct explanatory or evidential argument for metaphysical naturalism. (See here.) Based on that approach to evidence, it’s clear that the following is evidence which favors metaphysical naturalism over theism.

Since metaphysical naturalism entails atheism, it follows that evidence for metaphysical naturalism is necessarily evidence for atheism.