Mike D, the “A-Unicornist,” is reading True Reason: Christian Responses to the Challenge of Atheism. I say, more power to him. We could all stand to spend time reading authors we disagree with. He’s taking it a chapter at a time and giving it a respectful reading, which I also appreciate.
His first evaluative comment came in response to my introductory chapter to the book. I had spoken my disappointment over Richard Dawkins’s attempt in The Blind Watchmaker: Why the Evidence of Evolution Reveals a Universe Without Design. Mike D quoted a paragraph in which I summarized Dawkins’s argument for a universe without design, and then, taking a deep and regretful breath, he answered,
Sigh. One of the problems with discussing faith with believers is that they generally speak from an assumption that God’s existence is sufficiently established. Since when did it become any skeptic’s job to disprove that the universe was designed? Nobody has to disprove things that have yet to be proved in the first place. I would argue that such an endeavor is in principle futile, because no matter what the universe looks like, you can always claim that it is precisely the way God intended it to be, and there is absolutely no way to prove or disprove such a claim. It’s a tautology.
I’m not sure who he’s disputing here. He says that no skeptic need disprove the design of the universe. He seems to have missed the fact that Dawkins wrote a book intending to accomplish that very thing. Whether Dawkins had to do it or not, he certainly did it, or rather tried to do it. Why is that believers’ fault?
Anyway, it’s futile, he tells us, to argue that the universe is undesigned, whereupon he proceeds to teach us Dawkins’s two chief arguments that the universe is undesigned. “But okay,” he admits,
Atheists haven’t conclusively disproved that the universe was designed. If that’s what it takes to undermine the argument from design, then the goalposts are already set beyond the reach of evidence or reason. We lose because the game is unplayable. Checkmate, atheists!
But I didn’t checkmate him or anyone else in that game, because I wasn’t playing that game. I was not unclear about this (read it yourself and see). I could have argued that Dawkins’s conclusion was wrong, and that the universe is designed after all. I could have, but I didn’t. That wasn’t what I was talking about there at all. I was talking about Dawkins’s logical reasoning process, not his conclusion. My point was:
1) If atheists are the true representatives of reason as they claim to be, they ought to demonstrate competence in reasoning, but
2) The central argument in Dawkins’s Blind Watchmaker was clearly identifiable as fallacious, and thus demonstrated incompetent reasoning.
The purpose of saying this was to provide an opening anecdotal illustration of the point we would be making through the first half of the book: that atheists undermine their own claim to be the champions of reason.
Mike D rebutted a point I did not make. That’s not very impressive, I’m afraid. Worse yet, he complained that it was logically unfair for me to make that point (the one I didn’t make). Sure, I mentioned the design issue, but only in service of the point I actually did make, which he missed entirely.
When a critic complains that a book unfairly argues B, when in fact the book has argued A, not B, one might well wonder whether the critic understands what’s going on. If the critic is an atheist, it might reasonably cause one to ask how well the critic is helping to support atheism’s claim to be the true representatives of reason.
He goes on to provide a defense of evidence as the basis for knowledge. That’s all well and good, except where he missed the point again.
Gilson finishes by rejecting the idea that the only justified beliefs are ones that are empirical or scientific in nature. He writes:
“If I take that principle to be true, how can I demonstrate that that is true? Its truth cannot be empirically demonstrated. Yet throughout their writings, New Atheists echo this as their chief canon of reason.”
I’ve written extensively on the importance of evidence, and a central idea in Christian philosophy is that there are “ways of knowing” that are not empirical. You can know things by intuition, revelation, or plain old strong conviction.
It’s true that we all have to make basic assumptions about what our senses perceive, and about our mere existence. I can’t prove my senses are accurate; perhaps everything I experience is a trick! Maybe I’m a dream of an elephant, and all that mumbo jumbo.
But beyond such basic assumptions, all our understanding of the world is formed through evidence. And while subjective experiences can sometimes give us accurate information, they are in themselves insufficient to establish something as true or false. You might claim you saw a miracle or heard God’s voice, and maybe that’s evidence for you – but I don’t have access to your subjective experiences. If I’m to be expected to take your claims at face value, I need to see evidence equally available to us both – empirical evidence.
No one in our book argued against the use of evidence, in fact the book is filled with it. The first half provides evidence that New Atheists do not practice reason as well as they claim, and the latter half provides evidence in favor of the reasonableness of Christian belief. Nowhere do we argue for knowing by “intuition” or “strong conviction.” (There is a valid argument to be made in favor of knowing—not proving, but knowing—by virtue of God’s work in one’s mind, but we did not make it in this book and I am not making it here today.)
The arguments we made for revelation and for Christianity in general were based on historical evidence and on philosophical reasoning. Granted, he hadn’t read that far yet. Still I don’t know where he acquired this belief that Christian apologetics is mostly subjective. He didn’t get it from our book. He didn’t get it from most apologetics books. I have to wonder–there isn’t enough evidence there to be sure, but I have to wonder–whether there’s anything to his supposition here beyond old-fashioned stereotyping. It’s as if he expected a certain thing from Christian apologists, failing to see that what he expected isn’t there. Apologetics is typically an appeal to evidence—objective evidence. (Maybe he thinks it’s weak evidence, but even if so, “weak evidence” is not synonymous with “subjective evidence.” See further here.)
What if Mike D were to take an evidence-based approach to how apologists treat evidence? An attentive survey of the rest of our book, and the great majority of other apologetics books, would show him that Christian apologetics is overwhelmingly based on appeals to objective evidence.
The conclusion is clear enough: his complaint that we operate free of objective evidence is most ironically lacking in attention to objective evidence.
What then about my point on empiricism, the one that he quoted above? You can read the context for yourself. I wasn’t arguing against the use of evidence but against a scientistic insistence on a certain kind of empirical evidence–an insistence which cannot bear its own weight, for it is self-contradictory. It cannot be true that the only justified beliefs are empirical or scientific in nature. More precisely, it can’t be known to be true, for it could not be known to be true unless it were known empirically or scientifically to be true, which is impossible.
Mike D has reviewed True Reason up to about the middle of the book so far. I haven’t read that far in my review of his reviews. Maybe I’m wrong about what led him to make some of the mistakes he made. Maybe it wasn’t stereotyping. Maybe I just misunderstood something he wrote. I will gladly correct myself if I find out I misread something or made a bad assumption.
I’ll be watching to see whether he does the same.