Monday, December 18, 2006

Missing Parsons Report

Jeff Lowder has posted a reply—of sorts—by Keith Parsons to something I posted a while back.


Several things may be said in reply:

First, it is always enjoyable, when confronted by an accusation, to have a tu quoque ready to hand. William Lane Craig and other apologists quite blatantly employ a "heads I win, tails you lose" strategy in arguing with atheists. Craig challenges atheists to show that the balance of evidence favors atheism, but states quite frankly that, whatever the objective evidence, the Christian's conviction is secure since it is guaranteed by the internal testimony of the Holy Spirit. If it is unfair for the atheist to say to God "Show me that you exist, but(nyah! nyah!) nothing you do will convince me," then it is equally unfair for Craig et al. to demand that atheists present evidence against theism, but then declare, in effect, "Evidence be damned; our assurance comes from on high."


i) Is this a reply to me, or to Craig?

If it’s directed at me, how is it the least bit responsive to what *I* said? How is Craig’s religious epistemology relevant to what I posted?

ii) If he disapproves of Craig’s apologetic method, why doesn’t he take it up with Craig?

iii) What does fairness have to do with anything? Suppose that Craig is being unfair. So what? If Parsons had cancer, would he choose an eminently fair, but inept oncologist over a terribly unfair, but world-class oncologist?

I’ve often observed that liberals are far more concerned with what is fair than what is real or realistic.

iv) It’s odd that in the space of a few days I’m again having to address an objection to a tu quoque argument. Without repeating everything I’ve already said, I’d simply reiterate that a tu quoque argument is a perfectly legitimate move within its intended limits. Cf. P. T. Geach, Reason & Argument (Blackwell 1976), 26-27.

So why is Parsons, as a philosophy prof., taking umbrage at the use of a tu quoque argument?

v) He acts as if it underhanded to point out an inconsistency in your opponent’s position. But that’s a standard move in rational dialogue.

It’s not a gimmick or cheap trick. As Quine pointed out a long time ago, our belief-structure is like a spider web in which some beliefs are more central than others, some beliefs are better anchored than others.

If our belief-structure is unstable, the way we generally respond is not to chuck all our beliefs out the window, but to make an internal adjustment by ditching a belief we’re less certain about in order to relieve the tension and restore consistency.

The purpose of pointing to an inconsistency in your opponent’s position is not to watch him squirm, but, in part, to reveal his intellectual priorities.

Moreover, that’s a basic element of persuasion. Persuasion often involves an attempt to change someone’s mind. And a basic way of doing that is to draw his attention to a contradiction in his belief-structure.

Doesn’t Parsons believe in rational persuasion? If not, why is he a philosophy prof.? If so, why does he take offense at a tu quoque argument?



Second, the miracle that God could perform would not have to be something wildly histrionic, like flying mountains or elephants giving birth to Republican congressmen. God's miracle could simply be to remove the delusions of unbelievers. God could say the word and the scales would fall from our eyes. We would suddenly see that our objections to theism are just empty quibbles. The theistic arguments, instead of looking like thin, watery, and nutritionless metaphysical gruel, would suddenly be seen in their true light--as solid as geometry,as irrefragable as arithmetic. The arguments of Christian apologists, instead of looking like self-serving spin, obfuscation, and special pleading would be seen as abundant common sense and sound scholarship.The problem of evil, instead of an enormous impediment to belief, would simply become transparently feeble. "Why, of course," we would say "the death by starvation of 20,000 children in the world each day is no reason at all to doubt that we are under the tender providential care of an all-powerful and perfectly good being!" The Atheist blogs and discussion groups would be jammed with messages like "How could we have been so blind?" and "Surely, Satan must have deluded us!" No one could say that God would be acting unreasonably in performing such a miracle. On the contrary, he would be removing a major source of delusion and irrationality from the world.


Several issues here:

i) If defining down a miracle to mere enlightenment is an adequate response to the divine hiddenness argument, then we can safely disregard the contention of unbelievers who insist that God, if there is a God, must perform something truly spectacular in their presence.

For a common objection to God’s existence is that they have no personal experience of the kinds of miracles one reads about in Scripture.

But if, according to Parsons, one doesn’t need that sort of exhibition to answer the divine hiddenness argument, then their demand is unreasonable.

ii) Yet he goes onto to describe this miracle of enlightenment as compelling belief in the face of evidence to the contrary. That we would believe in spite of all the counterevidence. That we would find otherwise unsound theistic arguments convincing.

iii) So why does he frame the solution in such coercive or irrational terms? Does he really believe that a miracle of enlightenment would harmonize the Humean objection to miracles with the divine hiddenness problem?

When he describes the miracle of enlightenment as overriding all of the damning evidence—to his way of thinking—for God’s nonexistence, this doesn’t look like a serious proposal on his part.

Rather, it appears to be a pretext for him to parade some of his favorite atheological arguments.

But if his proposal is insincere, then it fails to harmonize the two conflict atheological arguments, viz. divine hiddenness vis-à-vis Humean objections to miracles.

iv) One gets the impression that Parsons is so contemptuous of Christian theology that he will seize on any opportunity to be mocking and snide.

Yet in so doing, he’s forgotten the problem. The question at issue is whether an atheist can consistently deploy both arguments. Mockery is no solution to the problem.

This is a problem for his position, not mine. It’s internal to his position.

A Christian apologist may have his own set of problems, but that doesn’t let Parsons off the hook.

v) If Parson’s contribution to TET is any barometer, then he’s in no position to assail Evangelical scholarship, for he has made absolutely no effort to acquaint himself with the best of moderate-to-conservative Bible scholarship.

Why does a seasoned philosophy prof. imagine that he’s entitled to write on religious subjects without bothering to do any serious research in the field? What comes through in his bibliography is self-reinforcing prejudice.

vi) When he trots out the argument from evil, is he using this as an internal objection or external objection to the Christian faith? If the former:

a) How does starvation count as evidence against the existence of God? Where does Parsons get his concept of God? What concept of God is he targeting? Is he targeting the God of the Bible? Or is he targeting some generic, philosophical, off-the-shelf version of God?

b) If he’s targeting the God of the Bible, then how is starvation incompatible with the existence of *that* God? Were Bible writers unacquainted with famine? Indeed, isn’t famine sometimes depicted in Scripture as a form of divine judgment?

So how does the mere existence of mass starvation evidence the nonexistence of God? Does the Bible foster the expectation that if God existed, then no one would ever starve to death?

c) Parsons appears to be confusing the existence of God with the likeability of God. If God isn’t to his liking, then God doesn’t exist.

Is this the best that philosophy prof. can come up with?

d) How is this even germane to the relation between Humean objections to the miraculous and the argument from divine hiddenness?

In Scripture, some miracles are miracles of judgment. Some miracles are intended to make sinners suffer or die, viz. the Flood, Sodom & Gomorrah, the Plagues of Egypt, and other suchlike (e.g. Num 16; 25; 1 Sam 5; 2 Chron 21).

So how would the absence of miracles of deliverance evidence the nonexistence of God if, according to Scripture, some miracles are actually miracles of judgment?

Granted that Parsons doesn’t believe in Scripture, but for the sake of argument, if he’s going to deny the existence of God, and if two of his arguments involve divine hiddenness and Humean objections to the miraculous, then how can he drive a wedge between suffering and miracles—given the above-stated considerations?

vii) Or is he mounting an external objection. Not attacking Christian theism on its own grounds, but according to his own atheistic criteria? If so:

a) What is his source and standard of morality? Is he an ethical realist or antirealist?

b) If the former, what version of secular ethics does he espouse? How does he ground that in a secular outlook? How does he avoid the naturalistic fallacy? Or the is-ought fallacy?

c) If the latter, then he can’t deploy the argument from evil as an external objection to the Christian faith.

d) Assuming, for the sake of argument, that he can get past (a)-(c), is a human being the sort of organism that it’s even possible to wrong?

For example, is eliminative materialism the only philosophy of mind which is full consonant with naturalistic evolution? If so, then human beings can’t suffer. That’s a relic of folk psychology.

If not, then what’s his alternative? It’s easy to attack eliminative materialism on its own terms. But it’s difficult to attack eliminative materialism if you buy into the operating assumptions of Daniel Dennett or the Churchlands.

e) Even if he can steer his way clear of (d), why is it wrong, from a secular standpoint, for human beings to suffer and die? Isn’t that a natural part of the life-cycle and ecosystem?


Finally, speaking for myself and addressing Mr. Hays' quote from my master's thesis written twenty five years and three graduate degrees ago: I would still say, as I did then, that we know pretty well when some event lacks a scientific explanation, but we have no clear idea at all about what sorts of occurrences would be permanently inexplicable.The history of science is full of instances of events that, at the time, were seen as explicable only as divine punishment or providence, but which later got perfectly mundane explanations. The great mortality, the black death, of the 14th Century was seen, by educated and ignorant alike, as a manifestation of divine anger, the Scourge of God. Now, of course, we have a perfectly good scientific explanation of the plague interms of rats, fleas, and Yersinia pestis. Comets, of course, were once portents of doom, God's fearsome messengers foretelling of war, famine, pestilence, and death. Now we know that comets are dirty snowballs. It seems, then, quite reasonable that if something were to occur today that appeared too marvelous for science to accommodate, the wise course would be to wait for science to catch up.


There are two basic problems with this argument:

i) Is Parsons so ignorant of Scripture or traditional Christian theology as to suppose that a knowledge or “discovery” of natural mechanisms somehow invalidates the idea that a natural disaster could be a divine judgment?

a) In Scripture, many divine judgments do employ natural mechanisms, the Flood, Sodom & Gomorrah, Plagues of Egypt, &c. The scale of the event, or timing, or conjunction of circumstances may be preternatural, but such judgments nevertheless employ the forces of nature.

Same thing with portents and prodigies.

b) Does he think OT Jews were unacquainted with the concept of contagious disease? What about OT laws which quarantine the sick?

Once again, Parsons seems to be one of those unbelievers (Dawkins is another) who exhibits a self-reinforcing ignorance of the position he opposes.

He’s ignorant of Scripture and Christian theology because he doesn’t think it’s worth his time. But, as a result, he levels ignorant objections to Scripture and Christian theology.

That’s the most charitable explanation. The less charitable explanation is that he knows better, but is deliberately careless or inaccurate.

ii) Speaking for myself, the reason I don’t classify contemporary catastrophes as divine judgments is not because I rule that out, but because I have no revelation to that effect.


But I don't take quite so hard a line as I did as a fiery young atheist convert in his twenties. If the marvelous pictures of the Eagle Nebula taken by the Hubble Space Telescope had been underscored by light-years high luminous cursive writing in the wisps of nebulosity that read "I did this--Jehovah" --and if we could be quite sure that the scientists were not playing a gag--that would probably do it for me. Or maybe if all the galaxies in the Virgo cluster suddenly were rearranged so that, when viewed from earth, they read "Prepare to meet Thy God!"or "Turn or Burn!" that would do it. Or, maybe, if all the lurid, revolting fantasies of the "Left Behind" books started happening--a"rapture" occurred, or banks started requiring that you have "666" on your forehead to approach the teller--that would convince me.

The upshot is that I still cannot spell out any criteria for what it would take to convince me that something is scientifically inexplicable, but I do say now that certain conceivable events would be so dramatic and so contrary to my expectations and so consistent with some version of theism, that I would throw in the towel.


So he’d be persuaded by a sufficiently “dramatic” or counterintuitive event. But how does that cohere with his early claim that “the miracle that God could perform would not have to be something wildly histrionic”?

On the one hand, “the miracle that God could perform wouldn’t need to be something wildly histrionic.”

On the other hand, “certain conceivable events would be so dramatic and so contrary to my expectations and so consistent with some version of theism, that I would throw in the towel.”

Remember that the original problem was a contradiction between two atheological arguments.

Parsons has said nothing to remove the original contradiction. And he’s piling one contradiction atop another.

This is from a seasoned philosophy prof. who’s been writing against the Christian faith for years. And yet his critique of the Christian faith is riddled with factual errors and point-blank incoherence.


But, of course, Christian apologists have nothing to offer even vaguely approaching such public and stupendous events. The Resurrection? That allegedly occurred 2000years ago in very obscure circumstances. The narratives reporting this event were written by persons unknown many years after the supposed fact. These narratives are not eyewitness accounts, but hand-me-down stories, elaborated and redacted propaganda, riddled within consistencies, and with no external support or corroboration.


So he says. Has he ever read Keener or Hagner on Matthew? Evans on Mark? Bock on Luke? Keener on John?

Has he read Casey’s Aramaic Sources of Mark’s Gospel, or his sequel work—An Aramaic Approach to Q?

Has he ever read Millard’s Reading & Writing in the Time of Jesus?

Has he read Bauckham’s new book on Jesus & the Eyewitnesses?

Or Evans new book on Fabricating Jesus?

Is he capable of rising to the challenge?



I think the way to see Hume's argument is that it spells out just how heavy the burden of proof is on theists who want to invoke alleged miracles for apologetic purposes, not that it provides an in-principle, once-and-for-all, knock-down way of ruling out miracles. My reading of Hume's argument is that he says that it is, in principle, possible to confirm, on the basis of human testimony, that an event has occurred contrary to the predictions of a recognized natural law, but (a) the testimony would have to be of impeccable quality, and (b) you should be so lucky as to ever get testimony of that quality. When we consider the paltry offerings of the actual apologetic literature, we see how right Hume was.


Yes, well—a pound of assertion to an ounce of argument.

One would like to see him wrestle with the nature of testimonial evidence in such nuanced writers as Richard Bauckham, Jesus & the Eyewitnesses (Eerdmans 2006), C. A. J. Coady, Testimony (Oxford 1994), Paul Ricoeur, Memory, History, Forgetting (University of Chicago Press 2004), and Nicholas Wolsterstorff, Thomas Reid & the Story of Epistemology (Cambridge 2004), chap. 7.

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