How (Not) To Define Theism Out Of Existence, With or Without Evidence
I had hoped to get this discussion focused on one topic of a size appropriate to this venue. The reason for that should be plain enough. If our topic were science’s position as the one trustworthy method to know all that could possibly be known about reality, it would be easy for me to challenge you multiple ways in just a very few words: What does science understand about free will? What about enduring human identity? what about rationality? What about consciousness? What about meaning? What about purpose? What about ethics? What about the origin and fine tuning of the universe? What about the origin of the first life?Presumably you would have answers to offer for all of those questions, Phil. I’m not trying to argue (not here, at least) that you couldn’t answer these questions. But your answers would all be considerably longer than three to ten words each.
Short questions are easy, but short answers are typically worthless. There’s an unavoidable lack of parity there. A 2000-word debate blog post can present an opponent with fifteen or twenty challenges and have room to spare. The answers to those challenges could easily go to 2,000 words each, and more.
I have called on you to propose a topic for us to focus on, and if I read you correctly, the topic you are most interested in is expressed in your question in the fourth paragraph of your last post: Can human beings today have [this sort of] evidence-based belief in the doctrines of Christianity?
You argue the negative:
- There is no objective evidence for the tales Tom believes
- Ancient tales like this can be found all over the world, and Tom surely agrees that most of them are unreasonable
- Tales like these have decreased in frequency along with the rise of science
- Temporal lobe epilepsy can cause religious experiences
- Neurosurgical stimulation can, too
- Drugs can, too
- Most of today’s “very best evidence” for theism is subjective by nature
- But we can only rely on such things as knowledge rather than delusion (ideally, at least) if multiple people experience them and if we can repeat them, as in a laboratory for example
- Theism is rendered unlikely by certain really strange beliefs like “too much evidence might not be good for us”
- The Bible often affirms faith that is not based on evidences
- The Bible says not to think for ourselves
- The Bible says not to cause others to stumble (i.e., doubt)
- The Bible contains ethical filth
- The Bible tells us not to doubt
- The Bible says that knowledge comes by faith, rather (I take it you mean) than by more respectable means
- The Bible fails to support healthy skepticism
- Religious people are really hard to convince that their beliefs might be wrong or inadequately supported
- Analytic thinking is antithetical to religious belief
- Religions “begin their journey with infallible doctrines and immutable truths”
- Science is, by contrast, a way of approaching knowledge that will not claim anything as known unless it is supported with “loads” of objective evidence
And then you close with, “I would be happy if Tom could reply to each of my points here.”
Yes, I could reply to each of these points, and I hope that knowing that will make you happy. There are problems with each of them as you have presented them. But I will not go so far as to actually respond to each of them here, all at once, in response to such a scattershot challenge. Not unless you agree in response to explain how science responds to the difficulties of consciousness, free will, identity (self-ness), rationality, qualia, human meaning and purpose, ethics, the origin and fine tuning of the universe, and the origin of the first life, too, in scientific terms alone, in a single blog post. But you are too savvy to take on a challenge like that, and I wouldn’t think of putting it to you.
So I will choose one, and if the others remain unanswered for now I am quite sure you will see that as wisdom rather than weakness. Once we’ve talked one topic through I’ll be happy to go on to another, if you wish.
You find theism’s claims untrustworthy because we cannot test them in repeatable, laboratory-like manner. I’d like to see you phrase that request in a meaningful manner, answering, Just what is it in theism that ought to be repeatable that way? The life, death, and resurrection of Christ? Hardly. Then what? The burning bush? The raising of Lazarus? Walking on water? Prayer answers? I’m not sure what it is you are calling for.
Theism is, after all, a belief in a personal, sovereign God. Laboratory-like repeatability is for impersonal entities that we can control (or control for). If we were to succeed in putting God under a microscope, we would have proved that it wasn’t God under that microscope.
So in the spirit of discussion I am going to ask you to clarify. Just what is it about repeatability that would make the belief in a personal, sovereign God more credible rather than less?
I know that you have a reason for asking for repeatability: epistemological error-correction. It’s a way of preventing error and delusion, and in fields of knowledge where repeatability is an available option, it is a very useful option. To make it the standard for knowledge, however, makes it impossible in principle to know anything about a personal God even if he exists.
The effect of that is that there might be a God (who knows?) but if there is, then he is a pathetic, dumb God who cannot communicate any truth successfully to humans about himself. There might be a God, but if there is, he could not possibly be the God of theism. Voila! You have defined theism out of existence–and you’ve done it without even having to check whether there is any other kind of evidence for God, or any other way of knowing him! You have your proof against theism–and you have it evidence-free, by definition alone.
Theism affirms the reality of a great God, not a dumb one. Theism posits a God who created the world, who created humans and our communication and knowledge systems, who knows (I’m understating this to an infinite degree) how to get a message across in the way he intends, with the effect he intends; who could do so even before the advent of science! And after. Without making himself a laboratory subject in the process.
If theism is true, then your standard of knowledge is inappropriate to the question of whether theism is true. Thus to insist on your standard of knowledge as the only appropriate one is to insist that theism is false. But insisting is not arguing or demonstrating.*
I know you will want to ask, if objective repeatability is not an appropriate standard of knowledge for matters relating to God, how can anyone know they’re not falling under religious delusion? It’s a fair question and I’m not ducking it, I’m just putting it in context, and showing that your standard is not as effective for this purpose as you seem to think it is. I’ll come back to that question in due time.
Time is limited, so I would be quite content if you would reply just to this one point here.
*The logical problem may be more apparent in this form, where T is theism, and K(P) is objectively repeatable knowledge (knowledge according to Phil’s standard).
1. If T, then K(P) cannot be the one means by which T could be known (from the definitions of K(P) and T)
2. If K(P) is the one trustworthy means to know whether T, then Not-T (from 1)
3. K(P) is the only trustworthy standard of knowledge (Phil’s position concerning K(P))
4. Not-T (from 2 and 3)
Not-T is proved without reference to any evidence concerning T, but simply by the definitions of T and K(P), and Phil’s insistence that K(P) is the only trustworthy standard of knowledge.