An Atheist’s Reading of True Reason

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.

Sigh.

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.

Comments

  1. Pingback: An Atheist’s Reading of True Reason | Christian Apologetics Alliance

  2. SteveK

    Well, perhaps there is hope. In his Chapter 5 review, he starts off with this.

    I’ll start of this chapter review the same as I have with each so far: I do not expect this book to convert me. That’s an unrealistic expectation. I’m simply looking for some good arguments that provoke me to critically re-examine some of my key positions. So far, though, the book has been utterly dependent on misinformation and sloppy argumentation to make its points. Is this chapter any better? Well, surprisingly, yes. This chapter is actually pretty good.

    Sloppy argumentation? You mean the kind Mike D exhibited at the start? 🙂

    Haven’t really read much of his reviews, but I do congratulate Mike on reading the book.

  3. Robert Jones

    “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.”

    I think it’s useful to make a distinction here between two kinds of knowledge. On the one hand, there is the kind of knowledge that you might call “empirical” or “scientific” knowledge. This includes everything we know through experience, observation, and measurement of the world around us. On the other hand, there is the kind of knowledge that you might call “rational” or “mathematical” knowledge. This type of knowledge includes everything we know through reason and argument.

    Now both of these types of knowledge have their limitations. Empirical knowledge is limited because there is always uncertainty in our observations. On the other hand, while we can be completely certain about the knowledge we acquire through valid reasoning, this kind of knowledge is not really knowledge about the physical world. If I come up with an argument that A implies B, this says nothing about the validity of A or B. It’s just a statement about the logical relationship between A and B.

    Because of this distinction between empirical and rational forms of knowledge, you’re right that it makes no sense to insist on having empirical evidence for everything. However, if you’re talking about the existence of God, then you absolutely do need empirical evidence because God is usually understood to be something that affects the physical world. It’s not enough to have a purely rational or philosophical argument because such arguments are contingent on the assumptions they make, and they don’t necessarily say anything about physical reality. At least on some level, any argument for the existence of God must be based on our observations and experiences.

  4. Greg Reeves

    Tom, I do agree that your point was just probably missed. I think there’s stereotyping going on for both sides. For example, when I stereotype atheists who demand empirical evidence, I think of someone who believes that empirical evidence is all there is. Is Mike D like that? Who knows. It’d be easy to pigeon-hole your opponent that way, though, thereby easily dismissing his arguments. Maybe there’s something deeper there, though?

    A quick rebuttal, by the way, to a strict empiricist, is something I heard Greg Koukl say once. He asked the empiricist, “Do you know what you are thinking?” Then, after the empiricist (who by the way was arguing that what we know can only be gained through our five senses) said, “Yes,” Greg asked, “How do you know what you are thinking? Is it through any of your five senses?” Touche.

  5. Mike D

    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.

    No, he didn’t. He wrote a book explaining why the hypothesis of design fails. You can always retreat to the weasel argument of “but of course, that’s exactly how a designer would do it!” after the fact, which is why it can never be disproved. But it’s also unfalsifiable – it’s just fabricating a theological virtue out of a scientific necessity.

    I was talking about Dawkins’s logical reasoning process, not his conclusion.

    Since you don’t understand why he arrived at the conclusions he did – not to mention that you don’t even accurately represent his conclusion in the first place – your assessment of his reasoning process is invalid. That’s the point.

    No one in our book argued against the use of evidence

    I didn’t claim that you did. Nor did I claim that you don’t proffer what you think constitutes evidence.

    Rather, I was specifically objecting to your claim that empirical beliefs are not self-justifying, and require some appeal to the supernatural to be grounded. Given the basic assumptions I mentioned, which are foundational in any epistemological framework, empiricism is indeed self-justifying. I provided a link to a post in which I discussed the matter in detail.

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    Tom Gilson

    Mike D, thanks for visiting.

    Have you read the subtitle of “The Blind Watchmaker”? It says “Why The Evidence of Evolution Proves a Universe Without Design.” The book’s very title indicates that Dawkins has taken on the project of proving a universe without design (which is of course logically equivalent to disproving the design of the universe).

    As to Dawkins’s reasoning process, if you’ll read my chapter in True Reason again, you’ll see that throughout The Blind Watchmaker I was looking for the demonstration of that argument. When the meat of it came, it was invalid with respect to the question he had raised in the title of the book.

    Empirical beliefs are self-justifying only on the basis of certain non-empirically grounded assumptions, especially that my senses and my memory are not lying to me. There’s a very long discussion to be had on how we can gain confidence in those assumptions. Nevertheless Christian apologists very typically do call upon evidence that is accessible (in principle at least) to all persons, as you say in your linked post on evidence. Your paragraphs on mathematics and the laws of logic being abstracted from sensory experience is worth another blog post of its own; for now I will land on what I have already said. If you think that in this book we’re relying on

    a central idea in Christian philosophy … that there are “ways of knowing” that are not empirical. You can know things by intuition, revelation, or plain old strong conviction.

    … then you got that idea from somewhere other than the evidence of the book itself.

    I have a breakfast meeting coming up, so I’m going to leave this somewhat unfinished. I’ll have more to say later about why I brought up the scientism problem in that chapter, because that’s relevant to the current discussion, too.

  7. Mike D

    Have you read the subtitle of “The Blind Watchmaker”? It says “Why The Evidence of Evolution Proves a Universe Without Design.

    Nope. Actually, it’s “Why the evidence of evolution reveals a universe without design”.

    Why is that (“reveal” vs. “prove”) an important distinction? Because just as none of us can disprove the claim that all reality is an illusion because we are plugged into The Matrix, it is impossible to totally disprove design because you can always argue that whatever you discover about the world is just how your designer would do things.

    What Dawkins does in the book is argue that the reality of evolution is incompatible with our conventional ideas of “design”, as well as show that design is unfalsifiable and devoid of predictive power; it can only retroactively make theological virtues out of scientific facts.

    As to Dawkins’s reasoning process, if you’ll read my chapter in True Reason again, you’ll see that throughout The Blind Watchmaker I was looking for the demonstration of that argument

    I know what you were looking for. The problem is that you were looking for an argument Dawkins never made.

    then you got that idea from somewhere other than the evidence of the book itself.

    Yes, it’s called “revealed theology”. Your book focuses more on natural theology. But revealed theology is still absolutely central to Christianity.

    “even in the face of evidence against God which we cannot refute, we ought to believe in God on the basis of His Spirit’s witness.” – William Lane Craig (source)

  8. Mike D

    p.s. – I welcome your comments, but I’m going to bow out here. If you want to discuss my reviews, I’m happy to discuss them on my blog. I’ve got to be semi-reasonable about how much response I engage in, since I do have to go back to real life at least part of the time – not to mention finish the book!

  9. Qassim

    I will begin my response by rrneerifg to your suspicion that I am afraid of the unknown, afraid to pursue it…as though I am terrified of what it shall reveal.If your assessment is accurate, then I have certainly succeeded at placing myself within a fog of apologetics. Relative to my perspective, what I see is two-fold. First, what I am perceiving DOES NOT MATCH UP WITH a lot of what modern Christian Apologetics seems to be saying (meaning that I am needing to write my own apologetics against the error I have discovered within my own religion’s apologetics—whew, that’s weird)!Second, what I am perceiving when presented with the information pouring in from science DOES NOT MATCH UP WITH a lot of what the scientists are concluding…namely, that God is not necessary for explaining the universe (and of course, the suppressed clause which follows this and says, “and therefore, we no longer need God, period).George, what I am SEEING/PERCEIVING looks altogether different from my religion’s PERCEPTIONS and science’s PERCEPTIVE CONCLUSIONS, regarding the existence of life which is not only extra terrestrial, but extra to our limited 3 dimensional sliver of the whole of reality.I do want to thank you for clearing up for me who my audience was supposed to be. However, although I see your point I should now like to raise you a question. If Science means to know , and Faith means to believe , then why should I, if I am all about practicing the faith my particular religion is CONSTANTLY showing and reminding me as my only path to finding or discovering God, then why on earth should I work to write papers which go the other way round…in fact opposite…and begin to build arguments which supposedly lead to God (as a fact of reality) THROUGH SCIENCE (KNOWLEDGE), INSTEAD?Now, that would definitely seem to me like a waste of time and energy. You mentioned that we believers feel it necessary to secure or fortify our “wagons” or our “forts,” by encircling them AGAINST THE ONSLAUGHT OF LOGIC. But I am astonished to discover that the documents we all call scripture or the Bible have this Jesus character (who may be only a legend, I realize) being designated, literally, as THE VERY LOGOS OF GOD, (Meaning, the logic of God).So, I suppose all of this leaves me with a final question. Against what logic am I (who practices the faith as courageously as my cowardly self will let me) fortifying my fort when I put up arguments in her defense (meaning in defense of my fort of faith, not only in the existence of God, but in the promises expressed in his logos, or words)? Is it against the Logic of God (who may or may not exist, as the rigors of “faith” have made it a pretty air tight deal that should God be a fact of reality that we shall indeed NEVER expect to find him through empirical knowledge, evidence…in test tubes or laboratories. Only by faith will we find God, if this God of Faith be a fact). Or is it against The Logic of Man that I am so fortifying my fort?It would disappoint me if I were to discover that God is a fairy tale, yes. But this has not prevented me from reading and re-reading Hawking’s The Grand Design, Dawkin’s The God Delusion, Scott Adams God’s Debris, Nietzsche’s The Will to Power, etc. Indeed, for three years now I have been in the phase of my exploration which I like to call the temporary practice or testing out of agnosticism. I was not afraid to try Buddhism, Islam, Hinduism, Taoism (which I actually still adore), nor am I currently afraid as i finish up my tour of duty within agnosticism. I am seeking truth, and shall take my key round to every door until I find the door which opens by the key which is my whole person, to include psycho-social, emotional, moral reasoning/conscience, cognitive/intellectual reasoning, etc.I am looking for what this whole key can open, George. I may be frustrated, and maybe I am a little scared, but how can courage ever be created within me if I’m never moving into and facing what scares me? A little fear actually does a character quite a bit of good if it is opposed with faith instead of consented to with doubt. Life for me would actually be much easier if I were to settle in for what is behind the atheist door, because at least you guys will allow discussion, whereas my ideas among my own brothers and sisters have me put out of the synagogue, pretty quickly.But just because I relate better with you guys, doesn’t mean I’m finished seeking out the truth I have to hammer it out till I emerge with at least a small sampling of the pure truth I know you can get that, even if I include all that faith stuff among the things I consider in my construction of meaning within this thing we call reality. As always love and appreciate your thinking! it keeps me sharp-witted and on my toes! Katie.

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