Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Stop Pretending Your Standard is God's Standard

It always amuses me when Christians try to defend their beliefs by essentially belittling their own powers of reason and observation. 'I don't know if I trust myself enough to think I can figure it all out on my own.' 'I think it takes tremendous faith to believe you know better than god.' While statements like these largely straw-man the atheist position, they also reveal one major assumption behind most forms of theism that actually played a pretty big role in my own loss of faith. 

Most recently, I heard David Robertson give voice to this assumption in his second debate with Matt Dillahunty on the UK Christian radio show Unbelievable. David said he doesn't judge Jesus by his standards, he judges Jesus by Jesus' standards. When Matt rightly called this out as circular, noting that even Satan would look right by Satan's own standards, David disagreed and denied that he's in a position to judge, being that he can't trust himself absolutely. Fortunately, he has god's standard to rely on instead - or so David thinks.

The problem is that such a position is entirely untenable. Whatever one believes about divine revelation, it cannot be the case that revelation is ever given in a completely uninterpreted, unfiltered, and direct way. The process of revelation, whether denoting anything true or not, always involves a sender and receiver; divine beings (god, angels, etc.) send revelations, which we human beings receive. To suppose otherwise is not just to move beyond revelation, but to suppose that there is no real distinction between humans and the divine, that we are synonymous with god in some sense. Perhaps, like Bishop George Berkeley thought, we are only ideas in the mind of god. Of course, such a radical view has plenty of its own problems, not least of which would be asking which divine mind we do inhabit.

If revelation has to be transmitted to us, by its nature, then what guarantee is there that it's transmitted accurately? More to the point, even if it is transmitted accurately, what guarantee is there that we've received it accurately? We know of many cases of transmitted information getting 'lost in translation' - radio signals, written texts, cultural norms, computer codes, even genetic material. Where there are senders and receivers, there are often errors occurring at several points along the way. Mr. Robertson likely finds it plausible that believers in other faiths might have malfunctioning receptors, could have been sent a corrupted message, or perhaps received their beliefs from a dubious source. What makes him think, against these alternatives, that he has truly received god's standard through divine revelation?

As I'd bet, there are only two responses someone like David would give. His revelation is trustworthy because god has protected its transmission, or his revelation is trustworthy because it has the sort of evidence and reasons it would need to be trustworthy. If the latter is the case, David must either admit there is, in fact, some personal standard he's using to make judgments about revelation, or he must continue to deny this and, in effect, retreat to the former response. However, the former response is nothing but an assumption - an article of faith - until support is given for it. When that support is provided, it will either be based on god, as ascertained by revelation, or it will have to be based on something independent of god. So round and round it will go till Robertson arbitrarily decides to stop questioning and rely on faith, or till he decides to join the rest of us who recognize the inescapable nature of perception, and finally starts talking standards of belief in a manner we can actually understand and assess.

I want to be clear, though, that I am not insinuating that we should fully trust our own senses to guide us to the truth. The problems I've noted as arising from methods of transmission arise in more areas than just religious revelation. There are many conceivable situations where it's not a good idea to depend on our intuitions and common sense, and psychology tells us there is much about the way our minds work that can cast doubt on the accuracy of such easy means of decision-making. Yet if we take these situations to indicate a general unreliability about ourselves, the conclusion that necessarily follows is not Christian theism, but solipsism. If we can't trust ourselves to reason about matters involving god, we certainly can't trust ourselves to reason about divine revelation. Nonetheless, a great many theists do, including David Robertson. The irony is that even his statement about not being in a position to judge Jesus by his own standard is itself a judgment call, as it is to judge that the sentence 'Jesus is good' comes from a divine source.

What I find particularly appalling about all of this is not the flawed reasoning, or even the hypocrisy behind it, but the way Christians like David use it as a platform on which to exalt themselves in false humility. The obvious implication is that someone who follows the perfect standard of an all-knowing, all-good god is in a better epistemic position than someone who doesn't. Though I can't deny this in principle, I can deny the naive substitution of one's own standard with 'god's standard', as Robertson attempts to get away with. If one wants to claim that the rule they live by is divine, let them state their case and support it with reason and evidence. If one wants to make the less fantastical claim that they try to make their own standard comport with a divine rule of law, this, too, at least is fertile ground for discussion.

But, please, stop pretending that your standard is god's standard rather than your own.

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Bill Nye, Ken Ham, and Starting Points

Initially I had no intention of watching last night's creation versus evolution debate between Ken Ham and Bill Nye. I have listened to more than a fair share of other such debates, read numerous books on both sides of the argument, and - perhaps most importantly - I am very familiar with Ken Ham's position. I used to frequent Answers in Genesis when I was a believer, and I've watched scores of videos deconstructing Ken's claims. I knew Mr. Ham-fisted would basically hit the same five or six notes he always does, with precious little deviation:

  • There are gaps in the fossil record.
  • Evolution cannot explain the origin of life.
  • Evolution cannot explain the origin of the universe.
  • Evolution cannot explain the laws of logic.
  • 'You weren't there, were you?'
  • The Bible has all the answers.
After finding myself with some free time, and seeing friends commenting on the debate online, I decided to fire up the stream and check it out. I only caught things from the rebuttals and on, but the first words I heard out of Ken Ham's mouth told me I hadn't missed anything. "I would like Bill to explain where the laws of logic come from." Yes, Ken, we know you would. You're at the wrong place for that, though.

Evolutionary theory is not a theory about the fundamental foundations of reality. It's not a theory about the nature of logic, even. It's also not a theory about the origin of life from non-living matter, the origin of the universe, or the origin and meaning of morality. As everyone who stayed awake in Biology class knows, the theory of evolution is a theory about the diversity of life. It explains why there are so many different lifeforms, including us. It tells us that random mutations in our genetic material are 'selected' by mother nature in ways that favor our survival. Those organisms that miss out on mutations that allow others to endure a hostile environment, or to stand a better chance of finding a mate, do not reproduce and eventually die out. Different species emerge when one group of organisms evolves to the point that they can no longer produce viable offspring with the other group(s).

Now, of course that's a very cursory and simplified explanation of evolutionary theory, but there it is. The theory doesn't purport to answer how the first cell came about, how the cosmos began, or anything of the sort. There are other scientific theories attempting to resolve those questions, but evolution by natural selection is not one of them. In making such demands of evolution, Mr. Ham-bone only showed that he doesn't actually understand the theory he's pretending to refute.

But consider what Ken is proposing in place of evolution. His "theory" (which is not a theory in any scientific sense, as Bill Nye adequately demonstrated in the debate) is not simply a competing explanation for the diversity of life. Creationism does purport to answer questions about the origin of life, the origin of the universe, the origin of morality, the nature of logic, the fundamental foundations of reality, and lots more. The creationist claim isn't just that god made humans, or that god made all living matter. There is no room for alternate possibilities in creationism; it can't be that god made life, but we don't know where matter came from, or that god created the cosmos, but logical absolutes just are brute facts. If you permit any alternative explanations, you leave space for the puzzling question of why one and not the other. Why can't other things be brute facts, too? Why it isn't acceptable to say we don't know where the universe came from and leave it at that?

However, creationists are not so concerned with how god created any particular thing as much as they seem concerned with that he created it. Creationism is the bizarre "theory" of everything that offers no explanatory mechanisms for what it pretends to explain - indeed, it even seems incapable of providing them! The Bible might say that god spoke and the world came into being, but this bald assertion could hardly be called a mechanism for explaining the actual process of divine creation. For one reason, it makes no sense of the fact that we find layers upon layers upon layers of working parts inside everything in the universe, down to nearly inconceivable subatomic scales. If a watchmaker could construct a watch simply by speaking it into existence, it seems absurd to think he would still bother to do it in such a way as to assemble gears, springs, glass, and all the individual parts into the whole. Why not just create a magic, irreducible watch?

Any answer to the question can only be speculation, no less conjectural than entertaining an answer to how many angels can fit on the head of a pin. And here is where the real trouble begins, because with no mechanism to make predictions with, or to test and experiment with, creationism is dead on arrival. It's not science, nor is it a theory. In fact, I don't see how it qualifies as any good kind of explanation at all, even to the "who" question. When archaeologists ask themselves who built Stonehenge, they don't just consider identities of different ancient peoples, they consider the resources that were available to them, the knowledge they would have possessed, and, most importantly, how they might have used their resources and knowledge to construct the monument. Unfortunately, the construction methods used at Stonehenge are still a matter of widespread debate, and so too, as we would expect, is the identity of the builders. Even though there are many old legends attributing the site to different sources, the question of who built Stonehenge remains as speculative as how they built it.

This is what amused me about Ken Ham's frequent appeal to "starting points" during the debate. His starting point he proudly declared to be the Bible - a collection of old documents that have been given countless interpretations over the centuries, which are known to have been redacted and borrowed from earlier stories, [Origins of the Old Testament] which show evidence of anachronism, [Finkelstein, The Bible Unearthed; Cline, From Eden to Exile] and which have all the hallmarks of a pre-scientific worldview. [Paul Tobin, The Physical Sciences] On this foundation, Ham wants to build his case for his "theory" of everything that is incapable of providing explanatory mechanisms for its claims. It's not hard to see why this is an inadequate starting point... unless you're wearing Ken's "biblical glasses", or dogma blinders as I call them.

Ham-ster man's other two notes, about the gaps in the fossil record and indirect observation, go to show that in addition to having no clue about what evolutionary theory posits, he also has no clue about what is important in a sufficiently explanatory theory. I would like to see him ask a homicide detective if he was present for the murder he's solved on indirect observations. Ken seems to have this crazy idea that eyewitness testimony is the strongest kind of evidence one can have for anything, and while I can't help but suspect it has something to do with his faith in the orthodox view of the gospels, I can say there are tons of studies by Elizabeth Loftus and others showing that eyewitness memory is, in fact, quite easily fooled. Likewise, the gaps in the fossil record as not as significant a challenge to evolution as Ken would like us to believe. [Kathleen Hunt, Transitional Vertebrate Fossils FAQ] Even generally speaking, the fact that a theory cannot account for absolutely everything it describes, or that it relies on indirect observations, is not going to undermine that theory as badly as it will if there is no working mechanism. Mechanisms allow us to make predictions and test claims in ways that can resolve apparent gaps and strengthen our confidence in a theory.

I should say I do think we all bring our own unique perspectives to the table of discussion and debate, but whether it's accurate to call these "starting points" is another question. Have we come to these points by a priori or a posteriori means? Frankly, I'm less interested in that argument than I am in how you think you can demonstrate the truth of your claims. Even if you want to start with an assumption and try to show how much sense everything makes if we grant it, you still need to state your case and expect that assumption to be questioned. When Ken Ham calls the Bible his "axiom", I think he abuses the concept of an axiom. The Bible is not self-authenticating in any sensible way, and there are, as I've already noted, quite a few problems with it.

On the other hand, it seems to me that there can be axioms that are far more defensible. Ken ironically asked Bill to account for the laws of logic, but the law of noncontradiction and the law of identity can be taken as self-evident axioms in a way that the Bible cannot. If one were to try and show the law of noncontradiction to be false, for example, she would only wind up affirming it. To meaningfully undermine the law of noncontradiction, you would have to assume that the law could not be both true and false simultaneously. But this assumption is what the law of noncontradiction states. There is no analogous manner in which refuting the Bible would be to affirm the Bible, and if the laws of logic are conceivably self-evident in this way, there is actually no need to account for them - they account for themselves.

What all could be built on these sorts of axioms is a subject for another time, and it's important to remember that the creation/evolution debate is a different ballgame. While I was at first slightly perturbed by Nye's refusal to even acknowledge Ham's red herrings, perhaps it was a good move to not let things descend into a deeply philosophical quibble that would've been ultimately irrelevant. Evolution in no way conflicts with, or establishes, the laws of logic, for reasons already given.

Nye did do an excellent job of showing that he really knows science and the scientific method, however, and Ken couldn't help but preach to the converted, since it's all he knows how to do. In a debate where science is meant to play so eminent a role, Ken only hurt himself by appealing to scriptural authority and to vague individual authorities, rather than keeping the discussion centered on facts and evidence. But then again, after all we've seen that Mr. Ham doesn't know, it shouldn't be surprising for me to say that I don't think he knows what makes facts reliable facts, and what makes evidence good evidence. To quote mine a passage from a very old book, if one were to write down all that Ken Ham doesn't know, "I suppose that even the whole world would not have room for the books that would be written."