Sunday, August 08, 2010


An “agnostic” has begun a running review of TID over at the TheologyWeb. Here’s my response:

“The question is whether TID will fare any better. I get the immediate impression that it will not. As Abe already pointed out in this thread, the Pascal's Wager style move (p1-3) of claiming there would be no point in questioning the existence of an afterlife if there isn't an afterlife is astonishingly bad. Why? Because it's quasi question begging.”

To say something “quasi” question-begging is a weasel word. Either something is question-begging or it’s not. In what sense can something be merely “quasi” question begging?

“It assumes the (non-universal) Christian view that this life ultimately has infinitesimal value is correct, then subtracts the Christian afterlife. Since Christianity without an afterlife would be absurd, Atheism without an afterlife must also be absurd.”

i) Actually, I presented a supporting argument for my statement, which he disregards. In addition, I responded to Abe. But he ignores that as well.

ii) In addition, I didn’t argue that if Christianity without an afterlife would be absurd, then atheism without an afterlife would be absurd. My argument wasn’t predicated on the absurdity of Christianity without an afterlife. Although that would, indeed, render the Christian faith absurd, I didn’t infer the absurdity of atheism from that reference point. My argument operates at a higher level of generality.

“”Even if atheism were 'right,' it is still a wrong turn" shows a higher interest in psychological comfort than truth seeking on Hays' part.”

Except that I already explained why “truth-seeking” is meaningless on a godless worldview. Truth-seeking lacks symmetrical value in atheism and Christian theism, for reasons I gave. Once again, he ignores the supporting argument.

“It's also worth mentioning that "moral absolutes" is not a synonym for "moral realism" (p1). You can have moral realism without moral absolutes...and moral absolutes without moral realism.”

In technical usage that’s correct, but in popular usage, reference to moral absolutes is often synonymous with objective morality or moral realism.

“Any Christian who acknowledges that the Torah included special morals for Israel and not mere civil laws is already denying moral absolutes.”

That’s both fallacious and equivocal:

i) It’s fallacious to infer that unless every injunction is a moral absolute, no injunction is a moral absolute.

ii) It also equivocates by using the word “morals” for things like the kosher laws (I assume that’s what he has mind). But I wouldn’t classify the ceremonial law under the moral law anyway. Categories of ritual purity or impurity are not intrinsically good or evil. Rather, their value is instrumental.

“Nor is something like Divine Command Theory necessarily a moral realist view.”

I didn’t ground my position in Divine Command theory. And I don’t regard Divine Command theory as a stand-alone theory of value. For instance, Divine Command Theory can be supplemented by Natural Law theory.

“Engwer points out that TCD says little about prophecy as an argument for "the Divine origin of Judaism, then Christianity" (p5). True enough from what I recall, but I'm not so sure the argument from prophecy is in vogue with Christians these days. I sure don't see Craig or Plantinga emphasize it. McDowell is the only major exception that comes to mind right now.”

The TCD isn’t mainly aimed at folks like Craig or Plantinga. Rather, its primary target is conservative evangelicals, for whom the argument from prophecy is still “in vogue.”

“While it does require some careful handling, it is possible to observe that cognitive bias has a significant effect. This wouldn't be the case if such claims were more like: "Thirty percent of what we believe is wrong and any given belief is equally under suspicion." That would be viciously self-defeating.”

But Long and Tarico fail to offer criteria which exempt their own beliefs from cognitive bias. And our “agnostic” doesn’t offer anything along those lines either.

“Sure. Atheists who point the finger at Christians for falling prey to confirmation bias had better be taking it as a lesson to watch for such bias in themselves. People who feel sure are often wrong anyway. However, there is an asymmetry between Christianity and weak Atheism (or weak Agnosticism): Christianity asks for certainty about religious answers (or something close to it) while skepticism is often close friends with uncertainty. Thus an attack on certainty is more damaging to traditional Christianity than it is to religious skepticism.”

i) ”Skepticism” is a euphemism. Skeptics have to be certain of some things to question other things. So-called “skeptics,” like the contributors to TCD, exude a high degree of self-confidence in the veracity of their own beliefs and the falsity of Christian beliefs. And the exceptions, like Tarico, quickly devolve into self-referential incoherence.

ii) Long and Tarico haven’t actually shown that Christians suffer from significant cognitive bias in relation to the Christian faith. They simply allege that to be the case.

From a Christian standpoint, we’d expect God to shield Christians from degrees of cognitive bias which impede saving faith.

“Chan mentions Plantinga's "evolutionary argument against naturalism" (p21). I consider this argument every bit an embarrassment for Christian apologetics as Dawkins' argument that there "almost certainly" isn't a God because evolution can explain the diversity of species is an embarrassment for atheism. Why? Because Plantinga's argument relies on the notion that accuracy of senses and processing of those senses would not tend to improve survival and reproduction.”

i) Accurate sensory perception doesn’t, all by itself, tend to improve survival or reproduction. For sense data must be interpreted.

ii) On the face of it, lower animals survive and reproduce without entertaining true beliefs about their environment. Does an ant have the mental capacity to form beliefs?

iii) Life in the wild doesn’t give species a chance to learn survival skills. If you don’t have survival skills, you don’t survive. On-the-job training is a recipe for early demise in the wild. Survival skills are not something you can acquire on the fly. For you’d have to survive long enough to learn how to survive.

Of course, young animals can be protected and mentored by a parent (i.e. lioness, she-bear), or the herd. But the mentor (or members of the herd) must have survival skills.

“On page 22, Chain [sic] points out that science does not give "epistemic certainty." That's correct, and that's why science has been beating religion soundly in matters of earthly knowledge.”

That’s a tendentious claim.

“Science does not claim certainty then get it wrong; science deals in degrees of justification and revisability...and gets better.”

That’s a controversial claim in the philosophy of science.

“I do agree that science does not do everything we might like it to do, but it is our wonder tool for overcoming cognitive bias by combining our gaze on the world.”

Scientists also suffer from cognitive bias.

“How does religion correct for cognitive bias? So far as I can tell, it doesn't.”

If it’s God’s will that his elect come to a saving knowledge of the faith, then God is going to correct for any cognitive bias which presents an insuperable barrier to that objective.

“Easily. Christianity claims there is a God who "desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth." Atheism makes no comparable claim. Christianity is thus held to a higher standard in keeping with its greater claim of an all powerful being interested in spreading Christian belief to each and every one of us.”

i) Since I’m a Calvinist, I reject the premise.

ii) Moreover, the general correlation between the religion (or irreligion) of parents and children doesn’t undercut Christian claims if that tendency is, itself, a sinful tendency. In other words, if children, including grown children, uncritically adopt whatever religion or ideology their parents observer, then that indifference reflects the fallen condition of man. That’s quite consistent with Christian anthropology.

“I suppose one may ask why Atheism isn't winning everyone to its side who tries to discover religious truth on their own initiative. This is probably because Atheism, even if true, can't make any unique claim about the world which we can point at to demonstrate the truth of Atheism. It's impossible to directly argue for Atheism using evidence. Meanwhile, some Theistic beliefs could be proven true if true (but haven't been) and other Theistic beliefs can't be proven false if false. In this situation, any intelligent and honest seeker of religious truth should conclude the answers are inconclusive. What then? If an inconclusive investigation is compatible with prior belief, the person will tend to stick to her prior belief. Such Atheists will tend to stay Atheists and such Theists will tend to stay Theists. Being raised one way or the other will tend to stick, even in the case Atheism is true.”

i) That represents an overly analytical explanation of why most folks adhere to hereditary or cultural beliefs. But I have no reason to think that most religious adherents (or unbelievers) are that intellectually self-reflective in the first place.

ii) Moreover, there’s a general asymmetry between most religions and Christianity or Evangelicalism. Most religions are more concerned with what you do than what you believe: orthopraxy rather than orthodoxy. Outward conformity rather than inward conviction.

Evangelicalism, in particular, with its emphasis on sola fide, cultivates self-examination.

“Often in debate, it's not a question of whether you can get the other guy to agree with you; it's a matter of how far you can force him to go so he can keep disagreeing with you. If a Christian must retreat to those sort of Calvinist positions, I consider it a win.”

Here he’s claiming victory without offering a single argument.

“Odd that Hays is the one who invoked Pascal's Wager style argumentation in his introduction, then totally disregards it here.”

That’s not self-explanatory. Where’s the argument?

“This is a decent point. I often think popular skeptical writers go overboard. However, I would point out that the scientific community has in-house ways of filtering out faulty science in the long run…”

Not to mention in-house ways of promoting groupthink.

“…but the religious community has no apparent in-house way of filtering out faulty religion.”

That’s too vague to merit a response. What “faulty religion” does he have in mind?


  1. “On page 22, Chain [sic] points out that science does not give "epistemic certainty.""

    Patrick Chain sounds pretty cool; a nice punk-rock ring to it.

    "Because Plantinga's argument relies on the notion that accuracy of senses and processing of those senses would not tend to improve survival and reproduction.”

    It's not as if Plantinga's never thought of this before. That's why he deals with it in the articles where he presents his argument (duh), which "agnostic" doesn't show any familiarity with.

  2. Steven said:

    Patrick Chain sounds pretty cool; a nice punk-rock ring to it.

    Maybe we can start a garage rock band together? We can call it something like the Jesus, Mary, Steven, and Patrick Chain. ;-)

  3. We could name our debut album "Chained and Confused"

  4. The first song would be your cover of Unchained Melody, right?