An atheist tries to refute the Argument from Reason

Here is an example of missing the point:

Even though the argument from reason may sound good, the argument is a good example of begging the question (I.E. circular reasoning). The premise (that physical sources cannot constitute a rational source) is the conclusion (That naturalism – which says physical sources can constitute a rational source – is wrong). The reason that this is hard to see initially is due to the way in which the argument is laid out.

I think this is flatly incorrect. Saying that physical causes cannot be rational is not the same as saying naturalism is false. I think it gives a good reason to reject naturalism, but it might turn out that we are not rational and naturalism is true.

The central point of the argument is that merely physical sources cannot constitute a rational source, and therefore Lewis (and others) come to the conclusion that naturalism is self-refuting. Yet this premise is left without a proper explanation, and I don’t see why merely physical sources cannot constitute a rational source – in fact, this is one of the things that naturalism argues – that rationality can arise out of a purely physical source. A person employing the Argument from Rationality simply posits as a premise that it cannot, and then claims that this makes naturalism self-refuting. Obviously, we could refute nearly any worldview in this manner. Similarly, we could claim that any abstraction – from love to opinions to ideas to art – cannot arise out of purely physical sources and our argument would be no different. Why abstractions cannot arise out of physical sources is not explained, and I think they clearly can. It’s easy to create an imaginary solution to an imaginary problem.

No, this is a clear case of missing the point. We know that at a fundamental level physical causes don’t act for reasons. The reason an asteroid hits the Earth isn’t because it thinks colliding with our planet is the best way to achieve some end. It is acting in accordance with the laws of physics, and these laws (plus relevant physical conditions) comprehensively explains the event. So we have a prima facie case against the physical constitution of rationality. Is an emergent account possible? Perhaps. Is such an account forthcoming? Doubtful. Therefore the argument constitutes a good reason to reject naturalism.

Sophistry is a joy!



One reason the atheism/Christianity debate won’t progress

There is a Christian mindset that makes people think they can substitute snippet for substance. We see this is the political realm, where public visibility and electability is partly determined by who can create the snappiest zingers. As many know, these one-liners may be fun, but they certainly aren’t intellectually edifying. Case in point. Surely it is the scandal of the church that they haven’t done enough to combat such senseless taunting, but I imagine it has something to do with the body count of the church pews. But anyway….

Atheists are, at least on the interweb, a beacon of rationality, reason and a source of hope for the human race. But then they revert to the same tribalistic grunting afflicting their superstitious counterparts. These people apparently believe that we can just skip the whole process of cultivating a thinking, experiencing, growing person in favor of getting the best of their one-liner interlocutor. Blech.

Marilyn McCord Adams on Philosophy Bites

This is pretty cool:

MMA discusses evils and faith.

P. Z. Myers tries his hand at Plantinga’s EAAN

…with disastrous results. His tone is one of unbridled venom which, I think, is evidence of confusion and frustration:

I’ve read some of his work, but not much; it’s very bizarre stuff, and every time I get going on one of his papers I hit some ludicrous, literally stupid claim that makes me wonder why I’m wasting time with this pretentious clown, and I give up, throw the paper in the trash, and go read something from Science or Nature to cleanse my palate. Unfortunately, that means that what I have read is typically an indigestible muddled mess that I don’t have much interest in discussing, and what I haven’t read is something I can’t discuss.

There isn’t much in Plantinga that is bizarre unless you have no background in philosophy. But if that’s the case, why would you attempt to judge the merits of a world-class intellectual without some association with his ideas? Plantinga is anything but “pretentious”, and nearly anyone who has met him or heard him lecture knows he is a paragon of humility. With this unpromising start Myers begins his hijacking of Plantinga’s EAAN.

Paul Myers is criticizing Plantinga’s summary of the argument here. (As an aside, I think it is generally par for the course to criticize the in-depth version or the strongest possible version of an argument rather than a snapshot, but considering what Myers thinks of his stuff maybe it isn’t at all surprising he goes after the Books and Culture edition.) He agrees with a great deal of Plantinga’s preliminary remarks, but he goes after Plantinga at a curious portion of the argument:

Just believing in something, whether it is Christianity or physics, doesn’t mean it is necessarily true. Our brains attempt to model the world for functional purposes and lack any inherent, absolute means to detect truth.

Well, who knows what the latter part if this portion means. But Plantinga surely doesn’t believe that something is true just because one believes it. And doing a bit of investigative exegesis on the second sentence reveals that Myers either doesn’t believe in Plantinga’s (R) in the first place or he (mistakenly) thinks we have some kind of certainty in matters epistemic. What does it mean to say there could be an “inherent, absolute means to detect truth”? Do we “detect” truth at all? I don’t know how to interpret that wreck of a sentence, but either we do have some true beliefs or we don’t. And if we do have true beliefs to a significant degree, then we should be able to theoretically understand why we are able to produce reliable beliefs. That is the heart of Plantinga’s argument, whatever Myers makes of it.

In Plantinga’s world, if we queried the inhabitants with some simple question, such as, “Is fire hot?”, 50% would say no, and 50% would say yes. This world must be populated entirely with philosophers of Plantinga’s ilk, because I think that in reality they would have used experience and their senses to winnow out bad ideas, like that fire is cold, and you’d actually find nearly 100% giving the same, correct answer. Plantinga does not seem to believe in empiricism, either.

Despite Paul’s misreading of Plantinga’s intention, I do disagree with Plantinga here, but not in Paul’s favor. Given that one could have true of false beliefs and those beliefs are entirely random as to their truth value, the probability of this belief being true is far less than .5. For any given “truth”- say, the true number of gumballs in the jar- there are perhaps an infinite number of false beliefs. If the actual number of gumballs is 25, then all numbers less than or greater than 25 would be false. Plantinga makes this clear in other places, but again, since Myers chose to interact with Plantinga’s précis, we don’t see that in his post.

What it does mean, though, is that if there are ideas that are not amenable to empirical testing, such as “I will go to heaven when I die”, those ideas have a very low probability of being true. We can think of those as being the product of random input, in some ways, and since they cannot be winnowed against reality, they are unreliable.

No. This is garbled positivism, and no one will ever be able to find support for P. Z.’s odd epistemological principle which ends up looking something like this: “If beliefs aren’t empirically testable, they are unreliable.” Since it is a blanket principle it is self-referencing, and unless he has an ace up his sleeve that somehow escaped some of the worlds brightest thinkers in the first half of the 20th century, this self-referencing principle is also unreliable. Somehow I think if Myers would have kept reading Plantinga’s papers that ended up in the trash he would have gathered as much and, just maybe, tightened up his epistemology a bit. Lastly,

Brains are not reliable; they’ve been shaped by forces which, as has been clearly said, do not value Truth with a capital T. Scientists are all skeptics who do not trust their perceptions at all; we design experiments to challenge our assumptions, we measure everything multiple times in multiple ways, we get input from many people, we put our ideas out in public for criticism, we repeat experiments and observations over and over. We demand repeated and repeatable confirmation before we accept a conclusion, because our minds are not reliable. We cannot just sit in our office at Notre Dame with a bible and conjure truth out of divine effluent. We need to supplement brains with evidence, which is the piece Plantinga is missing.

This is a strange response. He seems to be conceding the point by saying not (R), but then says our faculties are reliable through a web of input. Of course, this is simply begging the question against Plantinga. But if he really believes Plantinga sits in his chair funneling divine wisdom to the underlings of Christianity, I would expect him to think as much.

Book Review: Finding an Unseen God

Thanks again to Bethany House Publishers for sending me this review copy.

Finding an Unseen God: Reflections of a Former Atheist (AMZ/BHP) is Alicia Britt Chole’s auto-biographical account of her conversion to Christianity from her atheism. I hasten to add that this book isn’t a book detailing all the steps in her conversion but rather a heavily introspective, subjective account of her turn to faith. It becomes quite clear that Alicia is a bright person who is familiar with the maze of debates between theists and atheists, but thankfully this is not another book listing facts and evidences in a dry manner. That isn’t to say she ignores them, but instead she focuses on what I can only call spiritual awakening.

As I mentioned before, the book makes heavy use of introspection and, I imagine, is enough to scare a few people analytically-minded folks off. That would be a mistake, though. Don’t think stream-of-consciousness-beatnik-first-person reporting but something akin to C.S. Lewis’ Surprised by Joy. With that being said, she does have a choppier style- most chapters are only a page or two long- and it can take a while to acclimate to her style. But once you get moving the pacing is spot-on and the book will be over before you know it.

As a philosopher I really appreciated what I took to be the main thrust of the book which take the form of a question: Is your worldview conversant with the way things actually are? Alicia makes the case that her atheism was not, in fact, conversant with reality. She has some rather personal stories that I’ll save for you, but they are interesting looks into the dynamics of human relationships. Some of the stuff she recalls about her parents made my eyes misty now and then, but you never lose focus of the point throughout it all.

A few things to note in closing.
This is not a typical read for me. I’ve done atheists both new and old as well as their theist opponents. I’ve read some poorly written conversion stories by evangelical Christians, and I’ve interacted with many atheists as they propound various child abuse theories of doctrinal inculcation. But rarely do I get to enjoy a book that has some philosophical rigor to go with a beating heart.
Alicia is obviously an accomplished and seasoned writer. She successfully draws you into her world without artificiality or sob stories. I work with publishers and even though I’m only an average writer (at best) it gets pretty easy to see the difference between shoddy work and the genuine article. She belongs to the latter group.
Lastly, I’d be interested in seeing some responses from both atheists and atheists-turned-Christian. Does she accurately portray the journey from skepticism to faith? Are there similarities with other stories like this? Does she give atheism its due in the book? I hope this book stirs up enough interest to get the ball rolling on these questions.

I’ve been in the book industry for a few years now, and even though I’m removed from the bookstore “floor” these days I still have to add the compulsory “who I would recommend this book to” gag. First, this book is the perfect escape from apologetics as usual. If you’ve had your nose in a scholarly book for a while and want a well-reasoned book on someone’s turn to faith, give it a go. This is also a perfect introductory work that will hopefully lead to careful study of Christianity. But this is also a bit of a devotional. So while it has many things to offer different people, don’t pick it up if you want an answer to the so-called “New Atheists”– this book does not speak to that kind of debate. For the people I mentioned earlier, don’t miss this one. You’ll be sorry.

(Follow Alicia Britt Chole on the web here)

New Book

Thanks to Bethany House Publishers for sending me a copy of “Finding an Unseen God” (AMZ; CB) by Alicia Britt Chole. I’ll be ready for it after a long semester.

A. N. Wilson Converts

This is very interesting. This isn’t big news stateside, but across the pond A. N. Wilson is a bit of a literary celebrity. He has written (quite famously) a biography of C. S. Lewis and works extremely critical of him, and some of his other books proudly display his atheism (see here).

In any case, read his conversion story here.