Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Why Is Christianity Impervious To Criticism?

The following is a brain teaser that illustrates a priniciple that I want to discuss below, but for now have a go at it on a piece of paper and see how you get on. Later on I will be showing a principle that this problem refers to, and that it is useful in helping people to overcome a related problem in the defence of the faith.   Show it to some friends and get them to work on it.

Have a go at the problem.   This is clearly nothing to do with religion. So it is- in that regard- a neutral question.

It is the long-standing criticism by secularists and others outside of the Christian faith that faith itself is impervious to criticism, that we have effectively put ourselves beyond the reach of evidence and good reason and are therefore deceiving ourselves. We have- in the words of some- immunized ourselves from reality. But we- on the other hand- respond that if it is possible to put oneself beyond the reach of rationality and evidence- then that at least in principle-  should also be seen to be applicable to any world view including those that oppose Christianity.

Who is to say then that those who see themselves on the outside of our "cage", are not the ones who have immunized themselves from reality, and the bars are an all encompassing barrier which is impervious to penetration- for them?

Just who is in the cage?

It can amount to not much more than name calling, ad hominem attacks on each others territory, and not helpful at all.

The nature of this post is then- to explore this possibility. The clamour for "evidence" is loud and clear from those who would wish to adopt a "scientific method" for evaluating the claims of Christianity. But is that how science itself finds the answers to things in every case? And if not- then why demand this of Christianity? Surely a level playing field demands that if those methods we use to find truth in other spheres, is accepted as valid, then are we not justified in using these other ways to find the truth of Christianity?

 The scientific method lends itself to discovering the truth of material realities, indeed that was what it was designed for. But is that the way all realities are discovered? Not at all, and- as far as problem solving goes-  within the disciplines of logic and science there are ways of finding the truth even when it appears there is not enough evidence to be conclusive. That is not to say that there isn't enough for Christianity- there certainly is a wide divergence of evidence from many different quarters if we have eyes to see. But what we are dealing with here is a way of demonstrating that not all truth is arrived at by looking at evidence and then applying the laws of logic to see where the evidence leads, to what conclusion can be drawn.  In some situations then- the only way to progress towards truth- is not by demanding an impossibly high standard of irrefutible evidence, but simply by assuming its truth first- and then seeing where that gets you. And if it can be seen that the community out there, those outside of Christianity already apply this idea- then the application of the same idea in Christianity can hardly be denied, or claimed to be illegitimate.

"the evidence is often of a kind that is strongest or has its most powerful influence when viewed from inside Christianity"

This is a perennial problem for Christianity- we are confident to a greater or lesser degree as to it being a system of truth, and yet how do we validate that to others beyond its influence? How do we get across to others that we do have evidence but that the evidence is often of a kind that is strongest or has its most powerful influence when viewed from inside Christianity?

Those who pride themselves most in rationality are wont to direct this criticism most loudly and deride us as ignorant, naiive and even dangerous. This comes most often from the scientific communtity, or at least those among them who believe science leads inexorably to a materialistic view of reality, one which finds no place for the supernatural.

Around the third century Augustine of Hippo spoke of "faith seeking understanding".

What I believe he meant- is that one must first, against all convictions to the contrary, at least attempt or be prepared to try on a belief and then look for evidence for confirmation of it. Now I know this will raise red flags in many minds and ordinarily so it should, it hardly seems scientific to assume something before you have proved it! But in fact this happens all the time in science. Sometimes it is necessary to assume something as true- and then work backwards along the evidence to where one started from.

"For Augustine, faith (“trust in a reliable source”) is an indispensable element in knowledge. One must believe in something in order to know anything. Knowledge begins with faith and faith provides a foundation for knowledge. Faith is itself indirect knowledge (like testimony or authority). While faith comes first in time, knowledge comes first in importance. Faith and reason do not conflict, but instead complement one another. Augustine believed that while reason does not cause faith, reason everywhere supports faith." (Reasons To Believe)

It's important to realize that each worldview starts with certain assumptions, and this is no less true, whether it's science or Christianity. Although science endeavours to remove all assumption in the course of its deliberations it cannot be denied that there are assumption right at the ground floor, so to speak.

Now some may object that this will lead us to a situation known as "confirmation bias". It is a very real phenomenon, but when you think about it, confirmation bias applies to those beliefs you already hold, those you already cherish. Confirmation bias works in a way that gives unwarranted weight to beliefs that are already entrenched in the mind, in the psyche. Confirmation bias is simply the idea that when we hold something to be true, our mind is always ready- as a voracious pattern-seeking organism- to grab hold of anything at all that seems to confirm what we already believe and gobble it up irrespective of whether it really does support our belief. And this function of our mind is famously inconsistent when it comes to acknowledging evidence that is contradictory to our view.

Even that statement is probably not doing the idea justice. It might be truer to say we human beings are notoriously consistent in our knowledge gathering habits- in that we studiously ignore any evidence to the contrary of our cherished beliefs.

Of course this is the charge levelled at Christianity, but if this principle is true, then it is universally true of all beliefs, the secularists own included. It's a double-edged sword.

So this exercise is not the same as confirmation bias.

In fact if anything- this is a way of overcoming confirmation bias. It is an agreement to put an idea on trial within your own mind, and then see if there are evidences to confirm it. Remember it is not confirming something you already agree with, so all the evidences of your old view, the opposing one is already and still working against this new "trial" belief.  The history of scientific discoveries is replete with instances where- against all prior convictions- some theoretical model was "assumed" and only when it was done so- was accompanying evidence found resulting in a revolution in science. This is a repetitive story of scientific progress, and it is also the necessary precondition for knowing the truth of Christianity.

Those of you who are already Christians may doubt this- but look at the verse Hebrews 11:6:

"But without faith it is impossible to please him: for he that cometh to God must believe that he is, and that he is a rewarder of them that diligently seek him."

One must first assume that God exists, and on that basis, trust that God will reward those that seek him.

If confirmation bias has any truth to it at all, (and I believe it does) then we are quite within our rights to suspect it not only of affecting our religious beliefs but those outside as well. I would go so far as to charge those outside of Christianity that they owe it to intellectual integrity to at least admit its possibility for their own systems.

With that in mind what we need to do is introduce some evidence of the reality that sometimes the truth of a thing cannot be known indubitably unless and until one assumes it. This is worth repeating:

"sometimes the truth of a thing cannot be known without doubt, unless and until one assumes it."

 But for many, the idea of truth in religion is so remote, and objectionable, and so commonly assumed as having no basis in reality, that it is difficult to convince people as to its merits. So this is a useful way to provide non-threatening circumstances in which to prove whether the idea of assuming something as true before we have evidence for it, has any merit at all.

At first glance it might seem like this is actually a surefire way to fool ourselves, believing something before we have any evidence. Therefore the nature of this experiment needs to be convincing enough to validate that this is not only a most reasonable idea, it is one that has been used repeatedly to gain access to otherwise insoluble problems.  At the same time, it removes any threat of cognitive dissonance completely from the whole question,  this little exercise must prove benign enough to allow one to see its truth before any bias kicks in- as is more than likely when one applies it to the truth of Christianity.

It occurred to me that this important truth can be demonstrated by the above brain teaser and also meets the criteria above. I came across this in a course I recently attended called: "The Science of EverydayThinking".

( Edx courses are free online university courses that give real value for money!)

Here is the problem again:

The problem is insoluble until one "imagined" the marital status of Anne and then the truth of the solution was realized- it was necessary to give Anne an "honorary title" on trial in your mind before it was comprehensible. One first had to assume the status of Anne rather than try to validate it first- which is our natural inclination. As for her marital status- so it is for Christianity, the reality of it must be put on trial in your mind before one can see the evidence for it. One must first give Christianity a "trial period" in your own mind, and then the evidence for it is forthcoming. This trial period is properly understood as a property of "faith". It may be warranted in as far as you are confident enough to try it on the basis of others testifying of its truth- but its validity will only become accessible to yourself personally when you assume its truth.

In summary then: The important thing to notice is that for as long as you continue to believe there is not enough evidence to give Anne a marital status you are not able to come to the knowledge of the truth with regards to the question. In this problem you must first assume the truth of it - and by doing so you can then arrive at the indubitable truth. 

Christianity is just such one of those problems.

When we begin to appreciate this reality, we can see other instances of it.

I was a late learner when it came to swimming. I was still hanging desperately on to the edge of the pool when most of my friends were confidently splashing about having a great time. No amount of convincing would persuade me that I could do what they were doing. The evidence that stared me in the face had no effect. I had my own personal set of the laws of physics that applied only to me. I was heavier than water, I would sink and drown. Eventually pride and desperation took hold and I launched into the deep myself. It was only after that I acknowledged that the laws of bouyancy are universal. The thing is- no reality could persuade me until I took my feet off the ground, it was only then that I could rationally agree with the facts.

In that sense Christianity is like learning to swim. The evidence for the idea: "humans are able to swim" may be all around you at the pool. One may know this in terms of intellectual assent, one can agree with it at one level. But that is still a long way from knowing it experientially for oneself. In todays skeptical and relatativist world, it is all too easy to dismiss this evidence all around of people swimming as simply being "their reality". One has to begin to acknowledge that it might be not only true for those "out there" but for oneself as well. It may in fact be "objectively real" and therefore universally true. But one cannot know this for sure until we take our own feet off the bottom of the pool. It feels risky, and to some extent that may be quite true- but there is only one way to find out.

That is the nature of Christian faith. It is deeply personal. It involves some risk- but only in so much as we don't apprehend these realities.

As often happens C.S. Lewis came to this understanding of the problem and its remedy nearly 70 years ago, he expressed it admirably in his "Meditation in a Toolshed",

“Meditation in a Toolshed” C. S. Lewis

I was standing today in the dark toolshed. The sun was shining outside and through the crack at the top of the door there came a sunbeam. From where I stood that beam of light, with the specks of dust floating in it, was the most striking thing in the place. Everything else was almost pitch-black. I was seeing the beam, not seeing things by it.
Then I moved, so that the beam fell on my eyes. Instantly the whole previous picture vanished. I saw no toolshed, and (above all) no beam. Instead I saw, framed in the irregular cranny at the top of the door, green leaves moving on the branches of a tree outside and beyond that, 90 odd million miles away, the sun. Looking along the beam, and looking at the beam are very different experiences.

But this is only a very simple example of the difference between looking at and looking along. A young man meets a girl. The whole world looks different when he sees her. Her voice reminds him of something he has been trying to remember all his life, and ten minutes casual chat with her is more precious than all the favours that all other women in the world could grant. he is, as they say, “in love”. Now comes a scientist and describes this young man's experience from the outside. For him it is all an affair of the young man's genes and a recognised biological stimulus. That is the difference between looking along the sexual impulse and looking at it.

When you have got into the habit of making this distinction you will find examples of it all day long. The mathematician sits thinking, and to him it seems that he is contemplating timeless and spaceless truths about quantity. But the cerebral physiologist, if he could look inside the mathematician's head, would find nothing timeless and spaceless there - only tiny movements in the grey matter. The savage dances in ecstasy at midnight before Nyonga and feels with every muscle that his dance is helping to bring the new green crops and the spring rain and the babies. The anthropologist, observing that savage, records that he is performing a fertility ritual of the type so- and-so. The girl cries over her broken doll and feels that she has lost a real friend; the psychologist says that her nascent maternal instinct has been temporarily lavished on a bit of shaped and coloured wax.

As soon as you have grasped this simple distinction, it raises a question. You get one experience of a thing when you look along it and another when you look at it. Which is the “true” or “valid” experience? Which tells you most about the thing? And you can hardly ask that question without noticing that for the last fifty years or so everyone has been taking the answer for granted. It has been assumed without discussion that if you want the true account of religion you must go, not to religious people, but to anthropologists; that if you want the true account of sexual love you must go, not to lovers, but to psychologists; that if you want to understand some “ideology” (such as medieval chivalry or the nineteenth-century idea of a “gentleman”), you must listen not to those who lived inside it, but to sociologists.

The people who look at things have had it all their own way; the people who look along things have simply been brow-beaten. It has even come to be taken for granted that the external account of a thing somehow refutes or “debunks” the account given from inside. “All these moral ideals which look so transcendental and beautiful from inside”, says the wiseacre, “are really only a mass of biological instincts and inherited taboos.” And no one plays the game the other way round by replying, “If you will only step inside, the things that look to you like instincts and taboos will suddenly reveal their real and transcendental nature.”

That, in fact, is the whole basis of the specifically “modern” type of thought. And is it not, you will ask, a very sensible basis? For, after all, we are often deceived by things from the inside. For example, the girl who looks so wonderful while we're in love, may really be a very plain, stupid, and disagreeable person. The savage's dance to Nyonga does not really cause the crops to grow. Having been so often deceived by looking along, are we not well advised to trust only to looking at? in fact to discount all these inside experiences?
Well, no. There are two fatal objections to discounting them all. And the first is this. You discount them in order to think more accurately. But you can't think at all - and therefore, of course, can't think accurately - if you have nothing to think about. A physiologist, for example, can study pain and find out that it “is” (whatever is means) such and such neural events. But the word pain would have no meaning for him unless he had “been inside” by actually suffering. If he had never looked along pain he simply wouldn't know what he was looking at. The very subject for his inquiries from outside exists for him only because he has, at least once, been inside.

This case is not likely to occur, because every man has felt pain. But it is perfectly easy to go on all your life giving explanations of religion, love, morality, honour, and the like, without having been inside any of them. And if you do that, you are simply playing with counters. You go on explaining a thing without knowing what it is. That is why a great deal of contemporary thought is, strictly speaking, thought about nothing - all the apparatus of thought busily working in a vacuum.

The other objection is this: let us go back to the toolshed. I might have discounted what I saw when looking along the beam (i.e., the leaves moving and the sun) on the ground that it was “really only a strip of dusty light in a dark shed”. That is, I might have set up as “true” my “side vision” of the beam. But then that side vision is itself an instance of the activity we call seeing. And this new instance could also be looked at from outside. I could allow a scientist to tell me that what seemed to be a beam of light in a shed was “really only an agitation of my own optic nerves”. And that would be just as good (or as bad) a bit of debunking as the previous one. The picture of the beam in the toolshed would now have to be discounted just as the previous picture of the trees and the sun had been discounted. And then, where are you?

In other words, you can step outside one experience only by stepping inside another. Therefore, if all inside experiences are misleading, we are always misled. The cerebral physiologist may say, if he chooses, that the mathematician's thought is “only” tiny physical movements of the grey matter. But then what about the cerebral physiologist's own thought at that very moment? A second physiologist, looking at it, could pronounce it also to be only tiny physical movements in the first physiologist's skull. Where is the rot to end?
The answer is that we must never allow the rot to begin. We must, on pain of idiocy, deny from the very outset the idea that looking at is, by its own nature, intrinsically truer or better than looking along. One must look both along and at everything. In particular cases we shall find reason for regarding the one or the other vision as inferior. Thus the inside vision of rational thinking must be truer than the outside vision which sees only movements of the grey matter; for if the outside vision were the correct one all thought (including this thought itself) would be valueless, and this is self-contradictory.

You cannot have a proof that no proofs matter.

On the other hand, the inside vision of the savage's dance to Nyonga may be found deceptive because we find reason to believe that crops and babies are not really affected by it. In fact, we must take each case on its merits. But we must start with no prejudice for or against either kind of looking. We do not know in advance whether the lover or the psychologist is giving the more correct account of love, or whether both accounts are equally correct in different ways, or whether both are equally wrong. We just have to find out. But the period of brow-beating has got to end.
 Originally published in The Coventry Evening Telegraph (July 17, 1945); reprinted in God in the Dock (Eerdmans, 1970; 212-15). The answer to the problem is "Yes" because if Anne is unmarried then Jack is the married person looking at an unmarried person- Anne. On the other hand, if Anne is married then Anne is the married person looking at unmarried George. So in either case the answer is yes. 

“I am enough of an artist to draw freely upon my imagination. Imagination is more important than knowledge. Knowledge is limited. Imagination encircles the world.” ― Albert Einstein

Sunday, March 9, 2014

God's Not Dead- In Philosophy

Vince Vitale of Ravi Zacharias International Ministries has good news.... but then, you knew it anyway!

God is not Dead!

Here is an excerpt from the atheist philosopher Quentin Smith that Vitale mentions in the video clip:

The Metaphilosophy of Naturalism

by Quentin Smith

Abstract: The metaphilosophy of naturalism is about the nature and goals of naturalist philosophy. A real or hypothetical person who knows the nature, goals and consequences of naturalist philosophy may be called an “informed naturalist.” An informed naturalist is justified in drawing certain conclusions about the current state of naturalism and the research program that naturalist philosophers ought to undertake. One conclusion is that the great majority of naturalist philosophers have an unjustified belief that naturalism is true and an unjustified belief that theism (or supernaturalism) is false. I explain this epistemic situation in this paper. I also articulate the goals an informed naturalist would recommend to remedy this situation. These goals, for the most part, have as their consequence the restoring of naturalism to its original state (approximately, to a certain degree, given the great difference in the specific theories), which is the state it possessed in Greco-Roman philosophy before naturalism was “overwhelmed” in the Middle Ages, beginning with Augustine (naturalism had critics as far back as Xenophanes, sixth century B.C.E., but it was not “overwhelmed” until much later). Contemporary naturalists still accept, unwittingly, the redefinition of naturalism that began to be constructed by theists in the fifth century C.E. and that underpins our basic world-view today.


By the second half of the twentieth century, universities and colleges had been become in the main secularized. The standard (if not exceptionless) position in each field, from physics to psychology, assumed or involved arguments for a naturalist world-view; departments of theology or religion aimed to understand the meaning and origins of religious writings, not to develop arguments against naturalism. Analytic philosophers (in the mainstream of analytic philosophy) treated theism as an antirealist or non-cognitivist world-view, requiring the reality, not of a deity, but merely of emotive expressions or certain “forms of life” (of course there were a few exceptions, e.g., Ewing, Ross, Hartshorne, etc., but I am discussing the mainstream view).

'Realist theists, whom hitherto had segregated their academic lives from their private lives, increasingly came to believe (and came to be increasingly accepted or respected for believing) that arguing for realist theism in scholarly publications could no longer be justifiably regarded as engaging in an “academically unrespectable” scholarly pursuit.'

This is not to say that none of the scholars in the various academic fields were realist theists in their “private lives”; but realist theists, for the most part, excluded their theism from their publications and teaching, in large part because theism (at least in its realist variety) was mainly considered to have such a low epistemic status that it did not meet the standards of an “academically respectable” position to hold. The secularization of mainstream academia began to quickly unravel upon the publication of Plantinga’s influential book on realist theism, God and Other Minds, in 1967. It became apparent to the philosophical profession that this book displayed that realist theists were not outmatched by naturalists in terms of the most valued standards of analytic philosophy: conceptual precision, rigor of argumentation, technical erudition, and an in-depth defense of an original world-view. This book, followed seven years later by Plantinga’s even more impressive book, The Nature of Necessity, made it manifest that a realist theist was writing at the highest qualitative level of analytic philosophy, on the same playing field as Carnap, Russell, Moore, Grünbaum, and other naturalists. Realist theists, whom hitherto had segregated their academic lives from their private lives, increasingly came to believe (and came to be increasingly accepted or respected for believing) that arguing for realist theism in scholarly publications could no longer be justifiably regarded as engaging in an “academically unrespectable” scholarly pursuit.
Quentin Smith is Professor in the Department of Philosophy at Western Michigan University.

In a paper written by Alvin Plantinga ("When Faith and Reason Clash: Evolution and the Bible." University of Notre DameIN 46556) Plantinga relates this quote by the famous atheist Richard Dawkins-
"although atheism might have been logically tenable before Darwin," said he, "Darwin made it possible to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist."
Perhaps just as Darwin gave Dawkins the confidence to be "an intellectually fulfulled atheist" Plantinga himself now gives theists a reason to speak confidently of theism at the highest academic levels of philosophy.