Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Believe truth! Shun error!

From a recent Facebook debate I had with an atheist:

Your objection is deeply confused. You act as if his credibility is relevant. It's not. Credibility is important in a witness. But he isn't asking anyone to simply take his word for what he says. His personal motives are beside the point. All that's germane is the quality of argumentation and evidence he presents in support of his position, and not whether you trust the purity of his motives.

You are still fixated on motives rather than evidence, which is a red herring. In addition, that objection cuts both ways. What about atheists who say that even if they directly witnessed an apparent miracle, they'd believe that was a hallucination before they accepted that as evidence for God?

What about atheists who say the God of the Bible is evil? Haven't they burned their bridges for believing in God regardless of the evidence?

And I've explained why your obsession with motivations is a decoy. For instance, the general purpose of formal public debates is not for one debater to convince the other, or vice versa. Rather, it's for the benefit of the audience. Both speakers are representatives of certain viewpoints. The point is to engage their arguments, not because the speakers are sincere, but because they are capable exponents of a position you wish to evaluate.  I've seen and read many debates between Christians and atheists. I don't evaluate the performance by speculating on the sincerity of the atheist. I just consider the quality of his arguments.

BTW, from a secular standpoint, why does it even matter what motivates someone's beliefs? From your viewpoint, Christians and atheists share a common oblivion when they die. Nothing they believe makes any ultimate difference to them or the world at large. What difference does, from a secular standpoint, if a Christian's motives were pure or impure? The morgue doesn't differentiate between the corpses of Christians and atheists.

You said "I don't think there's anything that I could read in a book that could convince me that a God exists." That's unqualified skepticism.

Is that your position about history books in general? Sometimes we must sift between conflicting historical sources. Does that mean we should be skeptical about history in general? So you're skeptical about the existence of Lincoln, the Crusades, the Battle of Waterloo, &c.?

Most of what you believe is based on secondhand information. Why do you demand firsthand experience in the case of God's existence? Why do you have a different standard of comparison for the historical Charlemagne than the historical Jesus?

The Gospels are arguably 1C historical accounts of a 1C historical figure, based on eyewitness testimony. Are you suggesting the sources are comparable for the existence of Vishnu?

Is Vishnu empirical in the sense that Jesus is empirical? In addition, not all concepts of the divine have the same explanatory power.

So your claim is that reported miracles are inconsistent with observed reality. But that's circular inasmuch as observers report miracles.

To disbelieve all reported miracles assumes extreme skepticism about testimonial evidence. Yet you admit that you rely on testimonial evidence.

You have yet to address the vicious circularity of your objection. What we know about reality is based mostly on observational claims. Well, that includes reported miracles.

Moreover, this isn't even a case of conflicting observational claims. The fact that some people don't observe miracles doesn't logically contradict other people observing miracles.

if your comment was alluding to the ascension of Elijah, he didn't ascend to heaven on a winged horse. Perhaps, though, you were alluding to Muhammad's night journey. If so, that depends on the credibility (or lack) thereof, of Islam–and Muslim sources generally.

It's funny how often atheists act as if non-Christian miracles are inconsistent with the Christian worldview. Atheists have a bad habit of parroting stock objections by other atheists.

Your question is confused. Verifying a miracle is a separate issue from the patient's conviction that Vishnu performed it. This goes back to your irrational fixation with motives.

You keep conflating two distinct issues. A verified miracle disproves naturalism.

Moreover, you retreat into hypotheticals about the Hindu woman. That becomes another diversion. Instead of addressing actual, well-attested case studies, you retreat into imaginary what-if scenarios. Why don't we begin with reality rather than counterfactuals?

For starters, you need to produce a Hindu with a verifiable miracle before we even address the question of divine attribution. You keep putting the horse before the cart. There's extensive documentation for Christian miracles. This is a problem with atheists who think that can just wing it by resorting to fact-free hypotheticals. There's a place for hypotheticals, but that's not a substitute for evidence.

"Let me ask you this: If you heard a Christian say she experienced something that would fit the definition of a miracle"

You have a bad habit of recasting the issue as a string of vague claims. But I'm not discussing highly ambiguous examples. You need to acquaint yourself with specific evidence for specific examples.

You play the typical game of stipulating an artificial test for miracles. But that reveals a complete misunderstanding of where the onus lies. Naturalism denies miracle in toto. That's a universal negative. All that's required to falsify a universal negative are a few verifiable counterexamples.

The logical and honest approach is to establish that a miracle has occurred. That rules out atheism at one stroke. That's the first step. Anthony evades that by shifting the discussion to hypothetical rival divine candidates. And he keeps harping on that as if it rules out verification of a miracle. A bait-n-switch.

Regarding the Vishnu hypothetical:

i) On the one hand, the Christian God might have occasion to answer the prayer of a Hindu. Suppose a linear ancestor of Ravi Zacharias is deathly ill. Even he dies, Ravi will never exist. The Christian God might answer a Hindu prayer so that further down the line, Ravi will be born.

ii) On the other hand, suppose, for discussion purposes only, that Vishnu is real. Suppose he sometimes answers Christian prayers. Christians are praying to the wrong god, but have no way of knowing that. Not only are they mistaken, but they're in no position to detect and correct their mistake.

Is that thought-experiment supposed to be a defeater for Christianity?

Let's consider another thought-experiment: suppose the devil plants fossils to make people go to hell by losing their faith in Scripture. Atheists mistakenly believe in naturalistic evolution because the devil planted false evidence. Is that hypothetical a defeater for atheism? Can Magnabosco disprove the thought-experiment?

Another basic problem with your tactic is that it cuts both ways. If he's going to cast the issue in terms of case-by-case elimination of rival gods, how does he, as an atheist, propose to dispatch the "330 million" gods of Hinduism, as well as other theisms, polytheisms, pantheisms, and panentheisms?

In my experience, many atheists act as if the worst consequence is to mistakenly believe Christianity. But why is that worse than mistakenly refusing to believe in Christianity or mistakenly believing in atheism?

Suppose, for argument's sake, people mistakenly believe in Christianity. What do they have to lose? If atheism is true, when they die they never find out they were wrong because they instantly pass into oblivion. And when atheists die, they never find out that they were right, because they instantly pass into oblivion. 

By contrast, suppose people mistakenly refuse to believe in Christianity. What do they have to lose? Everything! 

As William James put it, in his classic essay ("The Will to Believe"):

ONE more point, small but important, and our preliminaries are done. There are two ways of looking at our duty in the matter of opinion,--ways entirely different, and yet ways about whose difference the theory of knowledge seems hitherto to have shown very little concern. We must know the truth; and we must avoid error,- -these are our first and great commandments as would-be knowers; but they are not two ways of stating an identical commandment, they are two separable laws. Although it may indeed happen that when we believe the truth A, we escape as an incidental consequence from believing the falsehood B, it hardly ever happens that by merely disbelieving B we necessarily believe A. We may in escaping B fall into believing other falsehoods, C or D, just as bad as B; or we may escape B by not believing anything at all, not even A. Believe truth! Shun error!-these, we see, are two materially different laws; and by choosing between them we may end by coloring differently our whole intellectual life. We may regard the chase for truth as paramount, and the avoidance of error as secondary; or we may, on the other hand, treat the avoidance of error as more imperative, and let truth take its chance. Clifford, in the instructive passage which I have quoted, exhorts us to the latter course. Believe nothing, he tells us, keep your mind in suspense forever, rather than by closing it on insufficient evidence incur the awful risk of believing lies. You, on the other hand, may think that the risk of being in error is a very small matter when compared with the blessings of real knowledge, and be ready to be duped many times in your investigation rather than postpone indefinitely the chance of guessing true. I myself find it impossible to go with Clifford.


  1. Atheists sometimes argue (something like) since there are more contraries to just one truth (for example), it's statistically more difficult to intentionally arrive at *one* truth, while simultaneously easier to unintentionally stumble upon *many* errors. Therefore, the truly epistemically humble (and conservative) thing to do is to focus on being wary of error, than to be over-confident of a presumed fact or truth. All, purported cases of apparent knowledge will always be tentative and provisional, whereas identifying errors and falsehoods is a safer and surer path and method to follow. For example, something that's logically contradictory is more readily (and likely correctly) identified as error. Whereas an apparent truth or fact that's consistent with itself and other tentatively/provisionally believed truth or fact may still nevertheless be false. For example, I've heard Matt Dillahunty argue in this type of way.

    That's their way of justifying and excusing themselves from facing the the claims of God and Christ upon them, and from having to sincerely seeking. Truth may be too far away to arrive at, or impossible to reach. There are so many places to search, and we have a limited amount of time to find it (even if it were possible). If there is a God (they say), he has a duty to reveal himself to us. The fact that he hasn't proves he doesn't exist.

    Two things, 1. God has sufficiently revealed Himself that we are without excuse, such that we either know Him, or OUGHT to know Him. 2. If they were really epistemically humble AND CONSISTENT, they would abandon all hope of ANY knowledge whatsoever (LITERALLY). They wouldn't even be able to predicate on something as simple as the proposition that they exist. Or are conscious, have a past or have memories (or that they are generally reliable), have personal identity in a world of apparent change, et cetera. They couldn't claim to know the reality of either real change or real stasis. Whether reality is ultimately in flux, or ultimately frozen. Whether reality is ultimately plural or singular, ordered or disordered, determined or contingent, rational or irrational, personal or impersonal etc. Basically forcing them to revert back to the debates between the Socratic and Pre-Socratic philosophers. That's why I think Clarkian and Van Tillian presuppositionalism is still so useful.

    Believe nothing, he tells us, keep your mind in suspense forever, rather than by closing it on insufficient evidence incur the awful risk of believing lies.

    That's part of the problem facing atheists and skeptics. Positive beliefs often impose duties on us sinners which we don't want to shoulder. They "cramp our style" and straight-jacket our desired (and presumed) autonomy.

    1. I think atheists need to be called out on their inconsistency, hypocrisy and self-assumed intellectual and moral superiority. Hypocrisy for not living according to their own principles. As well as hypocrisy for doing the very things they charge theists of. Like engaging in various cognitive biases, self-reinforced ingnorance, aversion and hostility toward God or the concept of God, and many other basic fallacies.