Seriously Flawed Religious Apologetics

Samuel James over at Patheos has put up some apologetics that are supposed to help the non-science Christian. Unfortunately they re really poor at giving Christians good answers to critiques of their beliefs.

Lack of scientific knowledge can leave Christians feeling vulnerable when talking to unbelieving friends about why faith is superior to skepticism.

4 Responses a Non-Scientist Christian Can Give to Science-Based Atheism

These will not help any Christian make his or her case, but will only lead to ridicule. Sorry, but there’s enough of this very same stuff around as it is. You’re still vulnerable, because these points are pointless.

1) We cannot know from science if science itself is the best source of knowledge.

This is not quite right. I know what you mean. There is no way you can prove absolutely from science that science is absolutely the best source of knowledge. Unfortunately you are falling for that old philosophical problem of assuming that it is necessary to prove something in the logical absolute true/false sense. It isn’t.

We’ll come up against this again in your other points, so let’s settle it here.

Humans cannot prove things absolutely. All proofs, including deductive arguments used by characters like William Lane Craig, rely on premises that themselves need proving, and so on back through argument after argument. A particular argument may be valid, but if you cannot prove its premises the proof isn’t sound, and if it’s not a sound argument it isn’t providing assured proof of its conclusion.

In the end, with any argument chain, proving premises back through arguments intended to prove premises, we come up against premises we cannot prove. They might be guesses, hypotheses, hunches, results of experience – whatever they are they are not proved.

So, what we can only ever acquire knowledge by probing and observing the world, coming up with ideas, hypotheses, theories, reasoned explanations, intuitive ideas, imaginative prompts, and testing those ideas against the world. This is empiricism at work. And it’s all about the reliability of results, not about proof in that logical deductive sense. Of course we can use deduction to derive one reliable result to others – but proof is only ever a stepping stone to more knowledge, and not a mechanism for acquiring knowledge.

We know science is the best source of knowledge because it works so well, because nothing else is as productive.

Another aspect of this science business that confuses the religious and sloppy philosophers alike is the extent to which science-like knowledge acquisition is the founded on the only way humans can come to any knowledge. Humans have brains made of neurons, and those neurons work pretty much as peripheral neutrons do. The upshot is that brain neurons are ‘experiential’ components, just as the peripheral neutrons are, and the result is that humans are experiential creatures at every level, and are evolved from experiential creatures without neurons. Humans are empirical creatures. It’s our only way of acquiring knowledge. 

The consequence is that science is no more than a bunch of methods that are based on our empirical nature, enhanced, improved, made more rigorous, in order to make our empirical knowledge acquisition more reliable.

Here’s why this question matters. If the first option is true, then logically, science absolutely is the supreme mode of knowledge, and everything we believe about anything must be in submission to it. The problem though is that whether or not all of reality is ultimately explainable through scientific concepts is not itself a scientifically provable theory. It is a philosophical premise, not a scientific conclusion.

Yes. But that’s not a problem. It’s the way the world is, the way human knowledge acquisition is. We cannot know anything absolutely, so we have to make do with the reliable contingent results of science.

The only way to definitively prove that science explains everything would be to have exhaustive knowledge of all reality, and then be able to explain (using only scientific data) what all reality is and what it means. Such a feat is impossible.

Yes. But I’ve explained why that is inevitable, but also why it doesn’t matter, and why it’s still the best we have, all we have.

Therefore, the belief that science is the best source of knowledge must be accepted on faith, for it cannot be verified through testing.

No! No! No! This does not follow from your other points. While it cannot be proved absolutely that science guarantees exhaustive knowledge, it can be verified through testing that it is the best source of knowledge, and based on these results and the scientific knowledge about our evolved biological nature, that its empirical methods constitute the only way of knowing. It’s easy in principle. Did we observe that the British Comet aircraft was really reliable? No. Empirical observation of planes falling out the skies demonstrated a problem, and more science demonstrated the nature of the problem – too late to save that plane. But that knowledge added to the safety of air travel, as have many other empirical observations and experiments, some of which took more deaths to cause improvements, some improvements coming from better science prior to deaths. That’s how messy science is because that’s how messy the world is for us humans, with our limited epistemological reach.

And just to head off where you are going with this, the contingency of science is not a loophole through which religion can sneak in. Not only is religion not some other way of knowing, it is nothing more than minimising the good methods of science and is in fact making a virtue out of an extremely poor use of our basic methods of knowing.

2) Scientific consensus can and frequently does change. This limits its epistemological authority.

I love the comic way theists make one of science’s graces into a limitation, while extolling religions discreditable obstinance as a virtue.

Look, since humans do not have perfect knowledge (something I think you agree with) we are limited to making the best we can, and then making improvements when we can. A great feature of science, and engineering generally, is that ‘good enough’ for the purpose in hand is good enough. And on top of that, what’s good enough now can be used to make future results even better.

The measurement precision of any instrument was limited by the craftsmanship of the artisan that made it. But then those instruments, that improve the natural inaccuracy of humans can not only make more accurate measurements easier, the instruments can also be used to make even more accurate instruments.

And in science generally, the more tests are repeated, and the test methods improved, and the more modes (branches if science) that are used the more confidence we have in our results.

This is all good stuff. It makes science good for progress. That some older ideas are improved upon or even replaced is progress. It’s a good thing!

And yet set against this we have religion that insists on sticking with ancient ideas come what may. In fact, much to the cost of many lives, having new ideas in religion can be dangerous and even fatal. Heresy is real thing in religion. You charge people with heresy as a negative act against the religion. The charge of heresy in science is a derogatory one in the opposite sense, in that the holding of ideas to be fundamentally unassailable such that a challenge is considered a heresy is a criticism of those entrenched ideas, not the new ideas or the heretic. Religion: heretic bad. Science: heretic good.

One does not wait on science to exhaustively explain something before believing it. If that were so then 99% of human beings on the planet would not believe in the most basic realities of existence, or would be irrational in believing without having exhaustive scientific knowledge.

Well, that’s right. But let’s see where you’re going with this …

If current scientific consensus points away from the existence of God (a highly disputable point, by the way), then who is to say that consensus cannot change? If it can, then science’s intellectual authority is limited, and the expectation that it will continue to oppose religious belief is more a matter of faith.

It’s only a highly disputable point in the minds of theists, who don’t appreciate how powerful science is, and how totally inadequate religion is. The point isn’t that science is limited to some extent, the point is that it is inordinately better than religion. If science was only 20% reliable that’s damned good when your alternative, religion, is 0%.

But, let’s get down to the detail. Yes, consensus could change to favour God – but only when there is evidence of God. This isn’t a a trivial beauty pageant where you get to pick the contestant in the nicest outfit, the one with the robes and funny hats. Just bring the evidence and science will take note. Unlike religion, where evidence is actually a bad thing and faith is de rigueur.

Just a final thought, on this possibility of evidence for God. Your point applies just as well to Islam as Christianity, to astrology, to fairies existing. This puerile play on the remote possibility of evidence turning up to favour your particular unevidenced belief is laughable.

This point (2) is seriously messed up in your head.

3) Only supernatural theism provides a rational justification of scientific work.

No! No! No!

Adding the word ‘rational’ isn’t helping. It’s not rational.

But you do need supernatural theism to have a rational justification of science.

Of course not. We have the empirical evidential justification that science is better than anything else. Remember, we not only can’t have absolute proof, but we also don’t need it. The results of science speak for themselves.

Why on earth would you want to dream up an imaginary supernatural explanation for something that already works? That it works without supernatural explanation is evidence itself that the supernatural isn’t needed.

You do realise this is just a God of the Gaps argument, don’t you? We don’t have absolute logical proof that science is infallible, so you are injecting this supernatural to fill that proof gap. But all you’ve done is filled the gap with a presupposition of a God – you’ve added an unexplained premise – and remember how deductive proofs never prove anything because they don’t have proven premises? You have just added an unproven premise: supernaturalism.

It means that scientific inquiry done on the assumption that there is no higher intelligence than evolved human intelligence is making a value judgment that it has no right to make.

There is no assumption that there is no higher intelligence than humans. We already accept that there might be alien species that are more intelligent than us now. There might be post-humans, trans-humans, in the future that are more intelligent than us now. There might be AI systems in the future more intelligent than us now. And yes, as some remote possibility there might be billions of super-natural gods more intelligent than us, and hyper-natural gods in a higher still realm of even greater intelligence than them – and not a drop of evidence for any of it. Whether it’s aliens, AI or gods, it’s all speculation.

We take modern humans to be the most intelligent creatures we know of because, from evidence, we are the most intelligent creatures we know of. it’s a working conclusion not an assumption. Don’t paint our contingent empirical knowledge with your presuppositional supernaturalist brush.

Why is knowledge better than ignorance? The atheist would respond that ignorance has less survival value than truth; after all, if you believe wrong things or do not know enough about your environment, you’re less likely to survive and flourish. But this explanation only applies to a very small amount of scientific knowledge. There is little survival value in knowing, for example, the complicated workings of time–space theory, or the genus of certain insects, or the distance of Jupiter from Mars.

In a trivial sense you are right. And for all the good prayer does there’s little survival benefit in pretending to know there’s a God. But that’s all irrelevant. Even if our intellectual curiosity is no more than an evolutionary by-product, we are stuck with it. We like finding stuff out. Whether it helps survival or not is irrelevant – as is sex after a certain age, or after a vasectomy or other contraception, but still enjoyable nonetheless. 

Human beings believe that knowing is better than ignorance because they believe that truth is better than falsity, and light is better than darkness. But where does such a conclusion come from? It does not come from scientific principles.

it comes from our evolved nature, whether useful or not. Another God of the Gaps argument is due I suppose.

You cannot study science hard enough to understand why you should study science at all.

Of course you can: psychology, neuroscience, anthropology, biology, …, science is in the business of explaining many things about the world, including why one species does what it does.

To study science presupposes a valuing of truth that must be experienced outside of scientific study.

No it does not. It doesn’t presuppose anything. We discover that we value truth by observing that we value truth. We then dig deeper into brain sciences to figure out why we value things. This isn’t news. Even if we don’t have as many answers as we like we have some, and are acquiring more. No more God of the Gaps, please.

It is only rational to pursue scientific knowledge that doesn’t offer immediate survival value if there is some external, transcendent value in knowing truth.

What utter rubbish! We can hypothesise that truth value comes from the basics of survival – the more accurate, closer to the truth about facts in the world, our knowledge is, the more likely we are to survive. That’s all that’s required. No need to hypothesise transcendental nonsense – which you hypothesise only because you already believe the God stuff.

4) Only supernatural theism gives us assurance that real scientific knowledge is possible.

Philosopher Alvin Plantinga? No! For pity’s sake, he’s not a philosopher, he’s a theologian, with all the rep suppositions that a theologian has that stops him doing what philosophers should do, which is to be sceptical, to engage in critical thinking, to leave your presuppositions at the door. 

We already have plenty of contingent assurance that ‘real’ scientific knowledge is possible. And it it’s not real, if we are living some solipsistic imagined existence, so that all of material reality is only imagined in immaterial minds, then so what? But going down that path gets rid of your God too.

The “evolutionary argument against naturalism” is not complicated, it’s simple, and wrong.

Those two Plantinga facts:

– First, the theory of evolution is true, and humans have descended from lower life forms over time. 

– Second, humans are rational beings in a higher degree and superior way to lesser evolved creatures.

That isn’t that informative. You cannot derive from that what Plantinga thinks he can derive. There is no “tension between these two facts”.

If human beings are a more evolved species of primate, then our cognitive faculties (ie, the parts of our body and mind that allow us to be rational creatures) have evolved out of lesser cognitive faculties. But, Plantinga says, if God does not exist, then the only factors that affected human evolution are time and chance. Based on time and chance alone, why should we be confident that our rational minds–which are merely the sum of lesser evolved minds plus time and chance–are actually rational at all?

This betrays a really inadequate view of evolution, and biology, and physics, and reason.

It’s not just time and chance. More to the point the changes are not independent chance events. They are contingent events. A chance mutation acts in an environment that favours it to not. If it is favoured it’s more likely to persist in the gene pool, and it’s more likely to be favoured if it contributes to survival, or at least isn’t detrimental to it. It’s the selection, natural selection, that does the work of maintaining good chance changes and discarding bad ones.

And, reason is no more than the mechanistic working of a biological brain clicking away somewhat like a computer – and the somewhat it an important point here, since we re not exactly like computers in how we do computation. But reason is nothing more than messy computation using concepts and language to manipulate ideas.

What basis do we have to believe our own conclusions?

We don’t have any basis, in an absolute sense, no logical proof that our conclusions will be right. But we can recognise quite well when our conclusions turn out to work, and when they don’t. We know we make mistakes in this area. Look, Samuel, you and Plantinga have come to unreliable conclusions. Or if you are right then we on the atheist side have come to the wrong conclusions. Either way, we aren’t guaranteed to make the right conclusions, so that alone shows Plantinga’s thesis is wrong. We cannot know we are right perfectly, which is what you’d expect from an evolved organism that wasn’t designed by a perfect being for perfectly rational behaviour.

How do we know we are actually capable of knowing truth more than a primate? 

Taking you to mean any ‘other’ primate, well, we don’t, except in as far as we can show that we are more capable. In detecting the best location for food, the best place to sleep in the forest, then I guess we don’t know some things as well as they do, without artificial help. But on the whole we know we make better use of our brains intellectually by observing that we do – by looking at them and comparing empirically. This is all too easy. I seriously worry about the religious mind that can’t grasp this.

If the only players in our existence are lesser creatures, time, and chance, how do we know we are even highly evolved at all?

Jeez, these are seriously poor questions. We know we are highly evolved only in as much as our science tells us and no more. There might be species out in space more* evolved than we are. Had mammals not become dominant some other species might have evolved to be more* evolved. We know only, from our own observations, that on this planet we know of no more evolved species than us. It really is that empirically simple.

[* I’m playing your game here. Being *more* evolved is a dubious qualifier.] 

It makes no sense to assume that humans can really make sense of their world on a conceptual level if human consciousness arose out of the very world it responds to.

We are not assuming it. We are observing that it is the case. If we are wrong, and, say, we’re actually as dumb as horse shit, then we are doing a better job of fooling ourselves than we thought was possible when we started to laugh at the religious for the horse shit they believe in. C’est la vie. In the meantime, we still think believing in unevidenced gods is dumb.

Nagel agrees with Plantinga that atheistic naturalism cannot explain why human beings can be rational creatures and do rational things that should be trusted.

You do realise that if this is right, then we also have no reason to be confident in Plantinga’s reasoning, for believing in senses divinitatis? Right? You do realise that if naturalism is true, and this limitation you are perceiving is also true, then in a naturalistic non-supernatural universe this Plantinga horse shit is just the kind of horse shit that such limited humans might come up with? Right? The fact that we have this disagreement, between our rational empirical perspective and the theological imaginary friends, this is just what would happen under the naturalism Plantinga is worried about.

If there’s actually a God, and he has given us these brains, then we atheists are using them to show pretty well that there’s no evidence for God, and Plantinga has been put on earth by this God to make such a dumb argument that it actually increases belief in the stupidity of apologetics and the absence of God.

If Carl Sagan is correct and the material universe is all there was, is, and ever will be, then science itself is nothing more than a shot in the dark.

It is a shot in the dark. Enhanced by a science that started by shining Newton’s a light, and went on to invent night vision goggles, telescopes, microscopes, to help us on our way.

Religion is the art of being in a darkened space, insisting on remaining blind folded, and then imagining all the things that might be out there, without ever stepping into the unknown to actually test those ideas. It’s seriously stupid.

Summary

Sorry Samuel, but you are way off base. This is only going to encourage non-sciency Christians to keep churning out this sort of poor response to atheism and science all over the net.

Science is contingent, adaptive. That’s a good thing.

Religion is absolute, static, resistive to change. That’s a bad thing.

Heresy in religion is a bad thing, and in some cases punishable. Apostasy, blasphemy, heresy, are all tools to shut down thinking and encourage obedience. The best that can happen to the heretic is that he will be ignored, or scorned, or denounced as a sinner. But he could fact death or torture.

Heresy in science is a good thing, as long as it is backed up by evidence. The worse that happens is people laugh at your dumb ideas. See Deepak Chopra, Rupert Sheldrake.

8 thoughts on “Seriously Flawed Religious Apologetics

  1. This is good. But if I would quibble I would say that religion has been further distanced than that.

    “There is no way you can prove absolutely from science that science is absolutely the best source of knowledge.”

    I am suspicious about unwarranted claims, whether religious or philosophic. I would say that this is a theological claim since it interests religious, but that is irrelevant.

    What I would claim is that we can’t adjudicate beforehand on the power and results of empirical methods. The efficiency and the constraints are picked up from the environment. (It is like evolution of course, vary experiments and select what works, so learning – as it is supposed to do. =D)

    As everywhere else, if competitive theories are tested inferior, we can eventually say beyond reasonable doubt on the efficiency of methods. Furthermore, if science can describe universal systems, we can say that absolutely. First thermodynamics, then Lagrange’s formulation of classical mechanics, later quantum mechanics and now cosmology all have that property.

    “While it cannot be proved absolutely that science guarantees exhaustive knowledge, it can be verified through testing that it is the best source of knowledge”.

    See above. The history is interesting. Newton could reject magic as behind specific laws. That was exciting, but the magic gap was still huge. Then thermodynamics had to describe whole (“closed”) systems, and magic was pushed into “exotic” territory. [Granted, the amount of systems that had to be tested for energy closure was not achieved until way after quantum mechanics could push away magic entirely. I estimate that it happened in the 70’s, but no one took notice.]

    Even if one doesn’t agree with the existence of “gap stoppers”, I can point to a noncontroversial result that physicist Sean Carroll promotes:

    “The Laws Underlying The Physics of Everyday Life Are Completely Understood

    Not sure why people don’t make a bigger deal out of this fact. …

    A hundred years ago it would have been easy to ask a basic question to which physics couldn’t provide a satisfying answer. “What keeps this table from collapsing?” “Why are there different elements?” “What kind of signal travels from the brain to your muscles?” But now we understand all that stuff. (Again, not the detailed way in which everything plays out, but the underlying principles.) Fifty years ago we more or less had it figured out, depending on how picky you want to be about the nuclear forces. But there’s no question that the human goal of figuring out the basic rules by which the easily observable world works was one that was achieved once and for all in the twentieth century.

    You might question the “once and for all” part of that formulation, but it’s solid. Of course revolutions can always happen, but there’s every reason to believe that our current understanding is complete within the everyday realm.”

    So we can say beyond reasonable doubt that the discovery of the Higgs field pushed magic away from behind miracles et cetera. The quantum field vacuum has the interesting property that it describes all interactions of a field. The LHC therefore safeguards that putative magic events are too weak to be an important part of life’s realities (i.e. for the non-exotic sector). Conversely, all that woo BS about consciousness is just that. It is easy to see that the number of synapses in a human brain makes it impossible, because of the new LHC limits, for magic to mirror the brain by magic copying or other communication with purported magic beings.

    1. I’m suspiscious of unsupported claims too, but I think that saying, “we can’t prove absulutely … (about anything)”, is a working conclusion born out of the failure of anyone to manage to prove or disprove that very point, as well as failing to prove many other assertions. The reason I’m happy to accept it is it is convenient when arguing with theists. They think it is demonstrating a flaw in science, but we can then show that it is not only no problem for contingent science, but it also is then applicable in showing their theological claims are unproven and that therefore require evidence, which they don’t have. Then they resort to faith.

    2. “The Laws Underlying The Physics of Everyday Life Are Completely Understood”

      Well, the ‘laws’ are our models of reality. Yes, there might well be such a good correspondence between the models we create, the experimental results, and our general experience of the physics of everyday life. But that’s still a contingent statement. I would agree that barring some totally unexpected revolution the laws will stand. Even some drastic revolution would still leave those laws applicable in the context in which they apply now. A ‘paradigm’ shift might produce novel physics, but current models would still apply, even if physicists stopped using them.

      Imagine a world bathed only in red light so that all experiments resulted in shades of red and the eyes of the inhabitants saw only shades of red. They might construct laws on that basis. Then they venture out and discover a wide spectrum, and come to understand our physics. Back on their world in that context their laws would still work.

      It’s only cases where a totally inadequate perspective is overcome that actually changes physics significantly. So the Bhor model was basically a speculative untested model. An incorrect model. The static continental perceived model was overthrown by a tectonic plate model.

      I can’t imagine what would overthrow modern physics, or evolution. But that could be a failure of my imagination.

      That leaves us in a position where most scientists confidently use statements that in linguistic terms are expressions of absoluteness. But whenever I see physicists being quizzed they admit some contingent non-absoluteness, but then go on to say, but yeah, these laws won’t be overthrown. It’s sort of a logical contractiction, but really is just an expression of confidence and not an absolute claim.

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