Tom Gilson

Why Won’t I Answer James Lindsay’s Questions?

James Lindsay is asking, “Why won’t Tom Gilson answer my question?

Why Won’t I Answer? What a Strange Question!

Expressed Willingness To Discuss in Due Time

First of all, unlike you (see below) I responded very directly to several of your points. I did not respond to every one of them, to be sure, but that could hardly have been construed as unwillingness to answer, for I wrote,

So once again, I’m going to request that if it’s your purpose to respond to my open letter, would you please respond to the content and argument of the letter. If we work through that, then I think it could be very productive to move on to the new issues you raised.

If that’s not a clear statement of willingness to discuss your —in due time, of course —I don’t know what is. So your charge is strange on that account.

 Your Own Non-Response Response

It’s also odd for another reason. You had written a blog post titled, “A Response to Tom Gilson’s Open Letter To Peter Boghossian.” Naturally enough I was expecting that post to be a response to my open letter to Boghossian. It wasn’t, as you have now admitted; you have apologized for putting the wrong title on it. When I was reading it, though, under the impression that it was intended to be what you called it, I was struck at how completely you failed to address the central point and major theme of what I had written in that open letter, ignoring the entire theme of the commentary laid before you. In fact I could have used just those words, saying something a lot like this:

Now, normally I wouldn’t care if Lindsay addressed this point or that in anything I wrote except in cases like this, where it is the central point and major theme of the open letter. It’s one thing to dodge tiresome details, and it’s quite another to ignore the thrust of the commentary laid before you.

But I didn’t say that. Rather, you said this just now:

Now, normally I wouldn’t care if Gilson addressed this point or that in anything I wrote except in cases like this, where it is the central point and only theme of the response I wrote. It’s one thing to dodge tiresome details, and it’s quite another to ignore the thrust of the commentary laid before you.

So now that I’ve written an answer to your response, in which I focused on trying to get us on topic of the central themes of my open letter, you fault me for not jumping off topic with you to the new subject you raised! This is odd indeed.

 And Again, Your Non-Response Response

Apparently you think I should have been more cognizant of the fact that your response was to my whole thirteen-post series, and not just to my open letter. In your most recent article you wrote,

 I did not ever intend to provide a point-by-point answer to your open letter. I find such endeavors not only tiresome but largely fruitless, though if you really want me to respond to you point-by-point, I might try to make time for that.

Instead, I sought to speak more generally to its theme and to the theme of the entire series. That theme, of course, is your defense that faith is a reliable way of knowing.

You did indeed speak more generally to the theme of my series, but I search in vain for any recognizable sign that it was a response to my series. It had more of the character of a statement of your own (and Boghossian’s) thesis—a response to faith in general—making little reference to what I had written, and no response at all to the argument of what I wrote. I suppose you might say that my series was the occasion of your article, but other than that it’s hard to see how your article was a response to what I wrote. You fault me for not answering your question, but in your “response,” you didn’t directly respond to anything I wrote at all!

So I find your charge to be a very strange one.

Tu Quoque

You saw that response coming, of course. Why not? It was obvious enough! You wrote,

And before you go tu quoque on me, the very point I was making with my response is that Peter Boghossian, along with everyone else, is under no obligation to use a word in a particular way if the alternative way it is being used is valid.

Actually, that’s one of the specific points I addressed in my answer to your response. I showed in more than one way that his alternative way of using it is invalid. I’m surprised you missed it.

Some Specific Points of Argumentation

The Need for Point-By-Point Analysis

I understand that you find point-by-point answers “tiresome” and unproductive. Here’s the thing, though: throughout my series, including the open letter, I showed statement after statement that Boghossian got wrong. He gets details wrong, he gets Christian arguments wrong, he gets definitions wrong. He gets enough wrong that it’s fair to say that his entire epistemic argument is built on a cracked and crumbled foundation.

Now, if you want to show that Boghossian’s approach is sound after all, then it behooves you to respond to my argument with argument. If I’m wrong, the door is open for you to show me I’m wrong. Granted, that still leaves open the question (the one you say I refused to answer) of whether my worldview is built on a cracked foundation, too. I told you I was open to discussing that. In the meantime, though, it won’t do you much good to ignore the evidence and reasoning that I’ve garnered in defense of my thesis that Boghossian is thoroughly wrong.

Circular Argumentation

But let’s forget Boghossian for now. Let’s consider the quality of your own reasoning.

You ask,

Why argue for an irrelevant definition of faith, conventional or otherwise?

You forget a step there: showing that the conventional definition of faith is irrelevant. You hold that position, obviously; but as far as the argument is concerned it’s an assumption contained in your conclusion; it’s circular argumentation.

An Ironically Misidentified “Fallacy”

You say my reference to Dawkins is ad hominem. No, not really. I was expressing my surprise that you would appeal to him as a source. Granted, you didn’t rest your case on Dawkins’s authority. Neither did I rest any of my case on my surprise that you quoted him in a context where his authority was so obviously irrelevant and of doubtful competence. In effect, your calling me out for an ad hominem there amounts to a poisoning of the well against me. (I can see no other purpose for it in your rhetoric, in view of the fact that neither of us built any argument on Dawkins.)

Thus your accusation that I committed an informal fallacy there amounts to an informal fallacy of your own! (I do have a purpose for stating that, beyond a poisoning of the well: it’s to show that your argument has a relevant weak spot in it.)

Later you also said,

Gilson is free to–and does–obfuscate this fact any way he wants, say by appealing to the testimony of others who’ve also fallen prey, like Augustine.

More poisoning of the well.

Unsupported (and False) Positions

You go on,

Let me expose Gilson’s pedantry [more poisoning of the well there] so that we can set it aside. Boghossian’s call to “change the definition” is merely an attempt to bring an accurate connotative understanding of the word faith within the sphere of its denotation, which is more a call for recognition than an attempt to overthrow the meaning of a word.

No, actually, it isn’t. It’s a distortion of the conventional meaning of the word, and it has predictable harmful effects, as I showed in my post. How could it be accurate when it doesn’t fit the way the word has been used in the primary literature for time immemorial?

I’d love to know how Gilson thinks that revelation is testable, or how it’s ever been tested (in a way that shows it is a reliable way to know things). Again, when what passes for revelation is correct, it is correct either by sheer luck or because it is blended with not revealed real observations about the world…. But “revealed wisdom” has often come from exactly this kind of divination, or that more disgusting, when not from the ravings of mad men (and sometimes women) claiming insight into the mind of God.

That’s an unsupported, bare naked assertion. There’s no argument there. (If we ever got to the point of discussing that issue, I could also show that it doesn’t match the relevant evidence; or in other words, it’s factually in error. Massively, so, in fact, in the case of Christianity.)

A Generally Confused, Self-Undermining Argument

Let’s suppose that Adam and Ann Atheist, being less confused than Tom Gilson about what Peter Boghossian wrote, teach their children to think of faith the way Boghossian recommends. Those children will have the opportunity to assess the reasons for and against Christianity and every other religion, but they would be armed in a way where faith is irrelevant to making their assessment.

This is incredibly confused thinking. Let me explain by translating what you wrote. Faith, they would be led to understand, is irrelevant. Thus when someday they come to assess the value of what they’ve been taught is irrelevant, they would know that this that they’ve been taught is irrelevant is, by definition, belief without evidence, and pretending to know what one does not know. Armed with those intellectual tools they will have a better, more noble opportunity to assess whether or not Christian faith is based on evidence and is relevant. Is that the case you’re trying to make? Really?! Do you not see how it undermines itself?

Serious Misreading of My Position

You thought it was “curious” that I included “an argument that somehow the accuracy of the traditional definition of ‘faith’ is somehow more important than if it is a reliable way to know anything.” That’s a gross misreading on your part. I argued that the conventional definition of faith is important so that inquirers could have the intellectual/linguistic tools available to assess [Christian] faith for themselves. I think my wording there is worth repeating:

Boghossian’s approach to faith undermines children’s freedom to choose anything but non-faith. Here’s how. Suppose Adam and Ann Atheist teach their children to think of faith the way Boghossian recommends. Those children will have great difficulty making their own assessment of the reasons for or against Christianity or any other faith; for their conception of faith would always be deeply rooted in terms of, “This is pretense; there is no evidence for it.” The question of whether there is evidence for faith becomes, “Is there any evidence for that for which there is no evidence?” The question become un-askable in its very form.

Perhaps you’re okay with that. Maybe you like the idea of taking the very form of the question from as many people as possible. I hope not, for I consider it quite reprehensible, myself. It’s the very antithesis of free, open, and evidence-oriented inquiry. It’s question-begging: the conclusion is contained in the premise by whichfaith is understood. Containing a fallacy right within it as it does, it’s hardly conducive to Boghossian’s value of promoting sound, critical thinking.

No reasonable person could construe that as an argument that the traditional definition of faith is more important than if it’s a reliable way of knowing. A non-question-begging definition of faith is essential precisely for the purpose of assessing whether it’s a reliable way of knowing!

I could continue, but enough is enough.

Shall We Move Forward? If So, How?

James, in a tweet you commended me for proceeding in an intellectually responsible way as we moved toward this discussion. If you’ll return to an intellectually responsible mode of responding to me, I’ll be interested in continuing the conversation. I’m not closed to answering your questions, and I never was. I’d appreciate it if you’d cut off the accusations of unwillingness to respond, as well as  loaded language like  “obsessed,” “dodge,” “pedantry,” “obfuscate,” and “hide.” To criticize is fine; I’m doing my share of it myself. I’m trying to keep focused on the arguments, however, and not on you as a person.

I’d appreciate it also if you would look closely at how much your conclusions depend on assumptions you hold, rather than on evidences and reasoning you have brought to the table.

I’d appreciate it as well if you would answer my question, which preceded yours and really ought to have the right to be finished before we move on: Can you justify discarding the conventional definition of faith for Boghossian’s new one, and can you do it in a way that (a) is supportable in the literature, (b) promotes quality of thinking about faith, and (c) can be supported without reliance on question-begging methods?

If we can proceed on this basis, I’ll be glad to continue in discussion with you. I’ve asked my question; when we’ve finished working through it I’ll happily move on to yours.

Commenting Restored

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23 thoughts on “Why Won’t I Answer James Lindsay’s Questions?

  1. I’m confused. Your claim, Tom, is that faith is based on evidence from reliable sources. Lindsay says that the sources used in faith traditions are not reliable in the same way, for example, the sources you use to back up findings in industrial psychology are.

    You say that revelation, authority and tradition are the “raw materials” on which the evidence for faith is based, but only in faith traditions are these the evidences that people trust. If these evidences were used to ascertain psychological facts, we would rightly say that the conclusions could not be trusted.

    Lindsay is making the claim that whenever someone uses the word faith, they rely on evidence that they would not accept in any other sphere of knowledge about the nature of reality. We know that it is not the same as knowing, which is why religious people say they have faith, rather than knowledge.

    The argument is, for you to claim that faith is evidence-based, you need to show that faith relies on reliable sources, because if Hindu faith means beliefs based on reliable sources then your claims are confusing, to say the least. And we do use the word faith in the context of other religions, to try to separate the use of the word when talking about Christians and when talking about Muslims simply ignores how the word is used in the world today.

  2. Oisin, that’s the same question that James dunned me for not answering. I’ll be glad to come around to it when we get around to it.

    This much needs immediate response, however:

    And we do use the word faith in the context of other religions, to try to separate the use of the word when talking about Christians and when talking about Muslims simply ignores how the word is used in the world today.

    Boghossian’s claim is that his definition applies to every usage of the word faith. Among other problems, that eliminates any possibility of making useful distinctions between Christian faith, Muslim faith, Hindu faith, etc.

    So one effect of his definition would be to cloud any discussion of comparative belief. I suppose that would be fine if we all knew and agreed that faith is the same sort of thing in every religious context. But we don’t know that and we don’t all agree with it. Why then would we want to define “faith” in such a way that we can’t even broach the question?

  3. “that eliminates any possibility of making useful distinctions between Christian faith, Muslim faith, Hindu faith, etc.”

    “Why then would we want to define “faith” in such a way that we can’t even broach the question”

    These faiths all rely on revelation, authority and tradition. What distinction could be made between them except whether their sources are reliable? Wouldn’t this just be an examination of the evidence for their claims? If we are just talking about evidence, why aren’t we talking about ‘knowing’ instead of ‘having faith’? This only makes sense under Lindsay and Boghossian’s definition(s).

  4. What distinction could be made between these faiths, or the beliefs they adhere to? Good question.

    What distinction could be made between these pretenses at knowledge? Bad question.

    What distinction could be made between the evidence-free beliefs these religions adhere to? Bad question.

    You get the point?

  5. I get the point, but I think we’re talking across each other here. The type of evidence for each is of the same nature: eyewitness accounts, historical records, a deep and rich cultural philosophy and traditions, revelation, etc. Would you dispute this claim?

    I would stand by that claim, and this would use this as support for the aforementioned definitions. The connection is reliance on unreliable sources for their knowledge claims, or strong claims that the evidence is not strong enough to support. This is why the word “faith” is used to describe all of them.

  6. Interesting reply…

    Does that mean your faith is based on Christianity being a historically accurate account?

    If you were lead to believe beyond doubt that Buddhism was based on a historically accurate account of the life of the Buddha and the miracles he performed, would you then have faith in Buddhism? Would you begin meditating daily so that you could experience first-hand the teaching that our sense of self is an illusion so that you could free yourself from suffering and escape the cycle of death and rebirth?

    If no, then in what sense can your faith be said to be based on evidence?

  7. Now that is an interesting reply, Oisin. You’ve basically just asked Tom if he is intellectually honest enough to follow truth as dictated by the evidence. Perhaps it’s because I’m not full of festive cheer yet because I can’t figure out if this is an honest and direct question or an impertinent one.

  8. Let’s treat it as an honest question…

    It’s not just that Christianity happened in history. It’s that it is the record and the fact of God acting in history to do things that matter for all of history.

    Buddha presented a philosophy that could be true whether he performed miracles or not. If he actually did miracles, that might serve to show his credibility as a teacher, and conceivably it could be an example of what others could do if they followed his example. The Resurrection isn’t like that. The Resurrection was an act in history wherein Jesus Christ actually defeated death (see 1 Corinthians. 15:1 to the end of the chapter). If that miracle didn’t happen, then Christianity could not be true. It was proof that death isn’t victor, and it was a foretaste of what God offers all. Jesus’ other miracles were also a foretaste of what his Kingdom will be.

    Conversely Buddha might have done miracles and still have been a false teacher, for spiritual power is not necessarily good or true spiritual power. They have little to do with each other. The whole idea of goodness is rather clouded in the forms of Buddhism I’ve studied anyway.

    Jesus demonstrated his goodness by the life he actually lived, the miracles he actually did, and the death and resurrection he actually experienced, all in history.

    The Buddha’s his teachings could also have been true with or without the miracles. The miracles are that disconnected from the “religion” of Buddhism. It’s miracles certainly aren’t demonstrations of the escape from Samsara, as the Resurrection is a demonstration of death’s defeat and Christ’s victory.

    And finally, Buddhism could have come by way of any person “enlightened” like Gautama Buddha; it didn’t have to be him, since it’s about its teachings, not about the Buddha. Christianity, in contrast, is about a relationship with Jesus Christ and no one else: the Jesus of history, who still lives.

    So let’s suppose that Jesus’ miracles were fully supported through historical research, and Buddha’s were, too: they were both known to be miracle workers. I’d still go with Jesus Christ. He is the supreme character in all of history. He would even count as (by far!) the supreme character in all of fiction; but that’s an article I’m waiting for a magazine to schedule and publish next year.

  9. If Guatama Buddha was right, then our sense that we have a soul is an illusion, and the heaven that Christ promises to us is an illusory reality which will keep us suffering and continuing our role in the cycle of death and rebirth. Their claims could only both be true if Christ was peddling an illusory reality that meditation and no-self practices could escape is from.

    If the evidence of history showed that every aspect of Buddhist doctrine was historically accurate, would you change?

    Another related topic: How certain are you that Christ’s resurrection occurred exactly as described in the bible? How would one be able to tell whether the eyewitness were wrong and were hallucinating when they perceived him as risen, or if he wasn’t resurrected and had just been unconscious or in a coma?

  10. But oisin, the doctrines of Buddhism are exactly not provable/disprovableby the evidence of history! They aren’t those kinds of doctrines. The conditional in “if” statement is guaranteed not to be true, by the very nature of Buddhism.

    That’s what I tried to say last time.

    How can I be sure the resurrection is as described in the Bible? That’s a long topic, and others have written on it more knowledgeably than I. I suggest Cold-Case Christianity: A Homicide Detective Investigates the Claims of the Gospels as a resource. In it (or in many other books I could also suggest) the hallucination and coma theories are examined very closely, and shown to be less than plausible.

    Although I’ve done a lot of reading on the historical evidences for Christ, I don’t write on it much, because others do it so much better than I.

    You could also look up your question at,,, or

  11. I’m sorry, didn’t mean for this to be rhetorical, genuinely want to know; how certain are you that Jesus came back from the dead?

  12. With Jesus and the resurrection, there are religious claims that no amount of evidence can back up also.

    We can accept that Jesus was seen to die on the cross and was placed in this tomb, we can accept that his tomb was empty the days later, and we can accept that his followers saw him and spoke with him again after he was seen to die. It is a truth claim that is made with apparent 100% certainty that this evidence indisputably shows that Jesus rose again from the dead because he was God incarnate. Does the evidence justify this claim?

    This is known outside this blog as a faith claim, a claim to certainty without sufficient grounds for certainty. This is a perfect example of why the word was invented, and how it came into use in the first place.

  13. Oisin, I’m afraid you have no conception of the history of the word “faith.” Whatever else you might think about the epistemic status of religious beliefs, the word “faith” really wasn’t invented for this use, and it didn’t come into usage for this purpose.

    Think about it, okay?

  14. Did you even notice that you put a number (100% certainty) on that which I told you I couldn’t put a number on? And you made it sound as if I and other Christians were requiring that quantity of certainty?

    Think about that, too, please.

  15. This is indisputably how the word is used in our world, Tom. To dispute that is tantamount to saying that the majority of the people in the world use the word wrong, and only Christian apologists how accept your method of defining the word use it right. Words are defined by convention, and this is just what the word is used for.

    I wasn’t saying you believe 100%, I’m saying claims are made about the ressurection of Christ without qualifiers; you do not use the word “maybe”, or “in my personal opinion”, or “if you follow my assumptions thus far”, or “the evidence seems to suggest”. Christ is God and he is alive in every one of us today and will bring us salvation and the forgiveness of sins. Where is the openess to sceptics and revisions?

    To make these kind of truth claims you must know beyond reasonable doubt. Or else you trust incomplete and conflicting data and call it faith.

  16. What’s the “this” that you’re referring to in the beginning of that comment, Oisin? Several things were discussed, and I don’t know which one you have in mind.

  17. James and Tom, this grows old. First, the two of you manage to write in 10 words what could be said in four. But the crux is this: James argues from a science paradigm, Tom from the philosophic. The paradigms are not mutually exclusive, but in fact are mutually dependent. Let’s move on, boys.

  18. Thanks for the advice, John; but if this is growing old for you, you can feel free to move on, boy, yourself.

    Your information about paradigms is not new to me, and I rather doubt it is to James.

    If you decide to stay, you might want to re-review the discussion policy. It says something in it about making a substantive contribution to the discussion and avoiding personal attacks.

  19. Wait, what was that?

    “Why argue for an irrelevant definition of faith, conventional or otherwise?”

    The very topic of debate here is the definition of faith! Did he just ask “why argue about the topic we’re arguing about”?

    I’m having a hard time getting my head around this one. So, alternatives to Bog’s definition are “irrelevant”? To whether his definition is accurate? And Bog’s definition stands because any other definition is “irrelevant”? The circle is so small it actually hurts my head.

    And this is open and reasoned discourse? To make up one’s own definition of words, then assert that any attempt to criticize that any alternative definition is “irrelevant”?

    But Shadow to Light has pretty thoroughly demonstrated that Bog’s whole “doxastic openness” is a sham anyway, since he himself doesn’t actually have any.

    Truly, hanno perduto il ben dell’ intelletto.

  20. Oisin,

    You wrote “To make these kind of truth claims you must know beyond reasonable doubt.”

    How does one quantify reasonable doubt?

    Is it 51%/49%, 75%/25%, 99%/1%?

    Is this the same for everyone?

    It’s interesting that you used the legal term “beyond a reasonable doubt” which is used to determine guilt instead of “preponderance of evidence” which is:

    “such evidence as, when considered and compared with that opposed to it, has more convincing force and produces in your minds belief that what is sought to be proved is more likely true than not true.”

    Also please consider the first definition listed by the OED (Oxford English Dictionary) for faith:

    I. Belief, trust, confidence.

    a. Confidence, reliance, trust (in the ability, goodness, etc., of a person; in the efficacy or worth of a thing; or in the truth of a statement or doctrine). Const. in, †of. In early use, only with reference to religious objects; this is still the prevalent application, and often colours the wider use. [Emphasis mine]

    This seems to put to test to your claim that “This is indisputably how the word is used in our world….” Actually, there is not a single definition in the online OED that defines “faith” as anything close to “pretend(ing) to know”. Obviously this is not true of other dictionaries, such as Websters. Still, if you wanted precision which would you use, the OED or Websters?

    However, you are correct that words can be defined by convention but they are also defined by context.

  21. What is the Biblical view of faith? Is it a way of knowing whether something is true, or trusting and having confidence in that which you know to be true?

    It is enough on this topic to note that even the demons are well aware that God exists, and shudder; but they do not have saving faith in God.

    Faith is putting all your eggs in Jesus’ basket, even after being convinced he is Lord. Some people only do the first thing.

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