Saturday, April 01, 2006

Inductive probability

John Loftus continues his rearguard maneuvers:

“I can confidently believe I am awake right now too. I can confidently believe I can trust my senses too.”

Loftus is betting on the fact that the average Christian would agree with him.

But the problem is that such agreement is deceptively superficial. For Loftus is like a muppet on stilts. He may be on eye-level with me, but when I go around to the other side to see what’s holding him up, there’s less than meets the eye.

While Loftus and other unbelievers may continue to use the common sense verbiage of folk psychology, their worldview logically commits them to something radically counterintuitive.

According to eliminative materialism, which is the most consistent version of evolutionary epistemology, Loftus has no beliefs, for Loftus has no mental life. Consciousness is just an illusion.

“But this doesn't mean I might be wrong.”

To say he might be wrong assumes that he might entertain a mistaken belief. But, again, from the standpoint of evolutionary epistemology, carried to its logical extreme, there is no homuncular self who entertains true or false beliefs. Loftus is just a biochemical computer running software. He has no more awareness than a zombie.

“Only that by placing my confidence in these beliefs I can adequately function in the world. “

He functions in the world the way a wind-up toy soldier “finds” its way around the room by bumping into the furniture and bouncing off the walls. There’s nothing going on upstairs. Just a data-processing machine on autopilot.

“I have no other choice.”

Actually, the philosophical repertoire is a good deal broader, but I’ll pass on that.

“What one person claims begs the question, another person claims the question is to be begged. When it comes to the claims of miracles by Catholics, or witchdoctors, or Muslims, or Mormons, you too beg the question.”

i) Loftus is now attempting to change the subject without our taking notice. Loftus originally mounted an argument against the credibility of miracles based on the uniformity of nature.

But this assumes the principle of induction. Instead of attempting to justify his operating assumption, Loftus now treats the reader to a bait-and-switch scam.

Unable to justify his operating principle, he tries to deflect attention from this fundamental failure by going on the offensive.

Now, he’s welcome to admit defeat by changing the subject. But let us not allow this diversionary tactic distract us from the failure to justify his operating assumption, without which his case against miracles undergoes a catastrophic collapse.

ii) And in going on the offensive, since he’s unable to defend himself, he resorts to yet another bit of sophistry.

To cover his retreat, he tosses a number of decoys out the window. All very vague. And we’re supposed to chase after these chimerical decoys while he makes his escape.

What miracles in particular is he alluding to?

“And you beg the question of how your God could always exist without a beginning.”

i) This is a very obtuse way of expressing himself. That is, indeed, how God could always exist: he never began to exist.

ii) Strictly speaking, I don’t believe that God has “always” existed. That attributes duration to God.

Rather, I'd say that there never was a time when God did not exist.

What question this begs, Loftus doesn’t say.

iii) I’d add that this is just another stalling tactic.

It has nothing to do with the basis of Loftus’ original claim. Having lost on the merits of the argument, he’s trying to win by confusing the issue.

“At that point we're debating whether something is circular or viciously circular.”

Actually, there’s an important distinction between virtuous and vicious circularity. But we’ll skip that.

“Here you have merely switched my claim from induction itself to probability.”

Induction and probability rise and fall together. The problem of induction is shorthand for the problem of inductive probability.

“Now you're asking me to prove with certainty that what I consider to be probable is probable.”

i) Loftus never misses a chance to miss the point. This is not a case of proving something to be probable.

No, this is a case of establishing the very framework of probabilistic reasoning.

ii) Remember, this is the framework which Loftus needs to make his case against miracles. So the burden of proof is squarely on him, not on me.

ii) I’d also add that probability is a comparative concept. You can’t dispense with certainty tout court. Probable relative to what? At a minimum, relative to something more or less probable.

Eventually you’ll be in need to something certain to supply the standard of comparison. Otherwise, degrees of probability or improbability will be meaningless as lacking any fixed frame of reference.

“And again, my answer is that I cannot do this.”

Fine. I graciously accept his unconditional surrender. Now he should withdraw his original objection to miracles.

“And neither can you.”

As I’ve explained on more than one occasion by now, a Christian is quite able to justify induction.

The future resembles the past because God instantiates universals in natural kinds, and he preserves these property-instances over time. That is why the future generally resembles the past.

“Ahhhhhh. Don't you realize what you've just admitted? You have just admitted that ancient people did not have the firm conviction in the unalterable laws of nature. God controls it all, like a puppet on the string.”

This is not a question of what the “ancients” generally believed. Rather, this, is a question of what the Bible writers believe.

They believed in the providence of God. They also believed in a covenant-keeping God.

Both of these beliefs are quite open to the occurrence of miracles.

“But if this is the case for them in the ancient world, then anything can happen, and any believable story could be true in the absence of evidence, especially if it conforms to previously held beliefs and is told by a sincere person.”

No, anything cannot happen. Try Gen 8:22 on for size.

Loftus is attempting to rig the debate by confining the alternatives to a choice between pure happenstance and absolute uniformity. But this is a false dichotomy. The Bible recognizes no such dichotomy.

What you have, rather, is a doctrine of ordinary providence, which allows for miraculous intervention.

“Today this is not how we view nature, not even among Christians.”

Christians don’t believe in a closed causal system. Who’s he thinking of, anyway? Bultmann.

He’s welcome to Bultmann if he wants him. We’ll shrink-wrap the corpse and Fed-Ex the remains to Loftus’ whereabouts.

“For us there is an macro unalterable world of nature that operates according to discoverable natural laws.”

There are several problems here:

i) Is natural law descriptive or prescriptive?

ii) Even if physical determinism were unexceptionable, that is only applicable to material entities. It does not determine mental causation.

iii) Even if natural forces were the norm, that in no way limits the Lord from acting above or against the ordinary course of nature.

“And it is precisely this modern scientific belief of ours that causes us to be skeptical of any claims of a miracle.”

Several additional problems:

i) Loftus is cloaking metaphysical claims in the guise of science.

ii) There is no received interpretation of “natural law” in modern science or the philosophy of science. Cf. Bas van Fraassen, Laws & Symmetry (Oxford 1989).

iii) Loftus is also operating with a tacitly realist philosophy of science, for which he offers no supporting argument whatsoever.

iv) All he’s done is to beg the question in his favor by using tendentious adjectives like “unalterable laws of nature.”

“ Why? Precisely because with this modern view of nature it forces the believer into the double burden of proof I had mentioned on my Debunking Christianity Blog in the first place! Previously, Christians didn't have to prove that an event was unlikely, because God did it all, and anything can happen in such a world.”

i) This is a semantic game in which Loftus begins with a stipulative definition of what a miracles is supposed to be, and then, by proceeding on this prejudicial basis, disqualifies the miraculous.

Christians don’t have to prove an event is unlikely to prove it happened. And they don’t have to prove that an event is miraculous to prove that it happened.

A Christian doesn’t have to sort out the “miraculous” events from the “non-miraculous” events in Scripture, and then place them in parallel columns.

All a Christian has to do is to affirm every event as it happened in Scripture. He must affirm the occurrence of the event, as well as the description of the event given in Scripture. No labeling is required.

ii) According to Scripture, God doesn’t do everything. Rather, God is behind everything that happens. God’s primary causality is a cofactor in whatever happens. That doesn’t rule out the role of second causes.

Every birth in Scripture is not a virgin birth. Every burning bush is not a theophany.

iii) Once again, anything and everything cannot happen. There is a doctrine of ordinary providence, undergirded by a covenant-keeping God. Miracles are not surd events, but purposeful events.

“But in today's world if we have a toothache we see a dentist and seek to fix the problem that occurred naturally. We don't think God specifically sent the tootchache to get our attention or punish us for our sins (such examples can be multiplied for every waking hour of our lives).”

Scripture does not attribute every ache and pain to supernatural agency. This is a just another straw man argument, like all of Loftus’ silly objections.


  1. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  2. You had me at "muppet on stilts." Loftus is getting more and more pathetic when it comes to refuting Christianity. Or should I say more and more desperate?

  3. If my schedule allows, I shall respond soon enough......