Tuesday, March 07, 2017

Reviewing reviews of the Licona/Dillahunty debate

I'd like to make a few more observations about James White's review of the Licona/Dillahunty debate. That's because his review goes to the question of how to interpret presuppositionalism and differentiate presupositionalism from evidentialism. White was actually siding with the atheist by saying that in some of his exchanges with Licona, Dillahunty was "knocking the ball out of the park". 

1. It isn't clear what White's position is on the occult and the paranormal. Does he deny the occurrence of non-Christian miracles (and other suchlike)? Licona wasn't appealing to that evidence to adjudicate rival religious claims, but to adjudicate the contrast between naturalism and supernaturalism. White doesn't appear to grasp the actual state of the argument. 

Likewise, we need to be clear on what certain phenomena attest. If, say, some modern-day exorcisms prove the existence of demons, that doesn't mean you should become a devil-worshipper. If, say, some modern-day cases of witchcraft prove the power of sorcery, that doesn't mean you could become a Satanist. Where do I sign up? Corroborative evidence for the dark side doesn't attest it in the sense that you ought join the dark side. A validation is not necessarily a recommendation. 

2. White faulted Licona for failing to challenge Dillahunty's creatureliness. He said Licona granted that Dillahunty has the right to judge God. Granted the grounds. White said Licona failed to point out that atheists like Dillahunty don't have the right to make such determinations. They have no basis for their reasons. White appealed to Rom 1. This raises a number of distinct issues:

i) In a debate over the existence of God, or some related issue, a Christian apologist can't directly appeal to divine authority for the obvious reason that God's existence is the very question at issue. In a debate with an atheist over God's existence (or some related issue), a Christian apologist is assuming a burden of proof for the sake of argument. And at that stage of the argument, God's existence has yet to be established, so it would be premature and question-begging to cite divine authority at that preliminary stage of the argument. God's existence is the conclusion of the argument.

This doesn't mean the onus is on the Christian. Both sides have a burden of proof in that format. 

ii) That said, a Christian can certainly challenge the atheist's moral authority. Indeed, many secular thinkers concede that naturalism cannot justify moral realism. 

iii) In addition, this was in reference to Dillahunty's allusion to the argument from divine hiddenness. That, however, is not a case of the atheist standing in judgment over God. Rather, divine hiddenness argument proposes to be an internal critique of Christianity. It alleges that Christian theology is inconsistent, for if God wants everyone to believe in him, he could make himself more evident to everyone. 

iv) There are, of course, ways to counter the divine hiddenness argument.  Dillahunty was begging the question by asserting that the evidence for the Resurrection is insufficient.

v) Moreover, as White correctly observed, the divine hiddenness argument is premised on assumptions specific to freewill theism rather than Calvinism. Therefore, it has no purchase on Calvinism. 

vi) Finally, this was just a diversionary tactic on Dillahunty's part. Instead of directly engaging the evidence adduced by Licona, Dillahunty deflects attention away from that issue by changing the subject. But the divine hiddenness argument is not a refutation of Licona's specific evidence for the Resurrection, or for the supernatural. So that's just a decoy. 

3. White acts as though Licona's appeal to paranormal phenomena was meant to be direct evidence for the Resurrection. Does White fail to grasp the fact that Licona is mounting a two-stage argument? The purpose of his appeal to evidence for supernaturalism is not to directly prove the Resurrection, but to establish the possibility of the Resurrection, by ruling out naturalism. 

4. White objected to Licona's appeal to probabilities. White said that when the Apostles preach the Resurrection, they treat that event, not as merely probable, but absolutely established. But this, again, raises a number of distinct issues:

i) In general, there's often a difference between what can be known and what can be proved. There are many situations in which what we can demonstrate falls short of what we know to be the case. Put another way, there's an elementary distinction between being justified in what you believe and being able to justify what you believe. 

For instance, I have many memories of now-deceased relatives. I know I had those conversations. I know we did those things. But I have no corroborative evidence. Memories are all that's left. 

ii) In addition, this runs deeper than apologetic methodology. It concerns epistemology. There are competing theories about knowledge and justified belief. For instance, there's a Puritan paradigm, exemplified by John Owen and the Westminster Divines, according to which it's possible for Christians to attain "infallible" assurance regarding the veracity of the Christian faith. On the other hand, there's a moderate Anglican paradigm, exemplified by John Locke and Bishop Butler, which stresses probability rather than certainty. Having "reasonable" grounds for what we believe. You have Augustine's divine illumination model, Pascal's "the heart has reasons which reason knows nothing of," the Thomistic dichotomy between demonstrable truths and articles of faith, Newman's illative sense. And so on and so forth. There are many divergent models regarding the relationship between faith and reason. 

Licona himself is on record admitting that he periodically struggles with doubts about the truth of Christianity. So for him, it's not so much about apologetic method or philosophy, but his personal frame of reference. In his case, that's unfortunate. 

5. White noted that the way Dilluhunty frames the divine hiddenness argument seems to be influenced by Molinism, with its gallery of possible worlds. White countered that God is not a cosmic card dealer. 

I agree. I'd note, however, that modal metaphysics is hardly the exclusive provenance of Molinism. Calvinists can and should believe in possible worlds. But we ground these differently than Molinists. 

6. White took issue with Licona's statement that we need to let the data challenge our presuppositions, challenge our current worldview. Now, it's unclear how far Licona would take that. 

i) It isn't possible to suspend all your presuppositions. As an intellectual exercise, you can bracket or scrutinize some of your presuppositions. But you can't simultaneously bracket or scrutinize all your presuppositions, since you must use some beliefs as a standard of comparison to assess other beliefs. By the same token, you can't assess evidence apart from presuppositions, since evaluation requires norms. You must have rules of evidence. You must have an idea of what constitutes evidence. 

ii) That said, I think the intended context of Licona's remarks concerns Dillahunty's methodological atheism. He resorts to methodological atheism as a filter to screen out any and all lines of evidence that disconfirm atheism. As a result, Dillahunty is a secular fideist. 

iii) That brings us to the point that while presuppositions are unavoidable, not all presuppositions are justified. Some presuppositions are ad hoc or intellectually evasive. 

7. White accused Licona of adopting a "naturalistic, materialistic" historiography by appealing to the paranormal. But that's a complete misrepresentation of Licona's argument. Licona's appeal is the polar opposite: he is citing that kind of evidence to debunk naturalism and physicalism. 

Likewise, White completely missed the point of Licona's example about bridge hands. This goes to the question of prior probabilities. What are the odds that you will be dealt a winning bridge hand like that? Licona's point is that even though there's the outside chance, an abstract mathematically possibility, that something that astronomically unlikely will happen at random, that's not the first explanation we reach for. Rather, we suspect cheating. The deck was stacked. And Licona is using that as an analogy for the Resurrection. 

8. White condemned Licona for saying his argument wasn't predicated on God's existence. But that objection is confused. 

i) To begin with, there's a logical difference between a premise and a presupposition. A presupposition is not a premise of an argument. 

ii) In addition, many things may be necessary for anything particular thing to be the case, but they needn't all figure in your argument. For instance, how would you prove that Lincoln was assassinated? Consider how many other facts must be true for that particular fact to be true. It happened at Ford's Theatre. Does that mean you must prove the existence of Ford's Theatre? Ford's Theater is located in Washington, DC. Does that mean you must prove the existence of Washington, DC (in the mid 19C)? Booth was the assassin. Does that mean you must prove the identity of the assassin? It happened on April 14, 1865. Does that mean you must prove the reality of time? To be shot to dead, Lincoln had to be a physical organism. Must we prove that first? 

At what point do we break into the argument? We necessarily come to the claim, or come into the argument, with many presuppositions that we take for granted. But as a rule, all you need to prove Lincoln's assassination is period documentation. Testimonial evidence. 


  1. James White does not say that Licona should have simply quoted Romans 1 to Dillahunty. Licona could have quoted Romans 1 to put Dillahunty on notice that his claim of not having enough proof is contrary to the Biblical position. Then Licona should have followed that by offering arguments that Dillahunty is "without excuse" for denying "the God" (ton theon) because God's existence is "clearly seen" from God's creation. A twenty-plus year-old story about a flying trashcan lid from some guy you knew is not the kind of evidence that will establish what Romans 1 claims. As White pointed out, Mormons and Muslims can you give you stories like that.

    In general, what you are missing is that White is saying that Licona is vainly trying to use a naturalistic epistemology to establish Christian-theistic metaphysical claims, namely that God exists and that He raised Jesus from the dead in order to conquer sin. The only defensible epistemology is one that posits a sovereign, eternal Creator as the source of all knowledge. If that kind of God does not exist, nobody can know anything about anything, not even probablistically. Empirical knowledge is impossible if God does not exist (see David Hume for the reductio of naturalistic empiricism). And since God is the source of all knowledge, we are within our epistemic rights to appeal to God's revelation in the Bible as the context to understand the resurrection. The Christian doesn't simply quote Old Testament prophecies against someone who assumes naturalistic empiricism; the Christian should demonstrate the epistemic necessity of God's revelation in Scripture. Then use that as the context to understand the resurrection. God spent 4,000 years, counting from the protoevangelium in Genesis 3:15, or around 1440 years counting from God's founding of the Israelite nation, establishing the context of the resurrection of the Messiah through special revelation, and the Christian apologist is standing on sinking sand to dismiss that as unnecessary baggage.

    1. "James White does not say that Licona should have simply quoted Romans 1 to Dillahunty. Licona could have quoted Romans 1 to put Dillahunty on notice that his claim of not having enough proof is contrary to the Biblical position."

      Rom 1 is not about evidence for the Resurrection, but evidence for God's existence.

      "Then Licona should have followed that by offering arguments that Dillahunty is 'without excuse' for denying 'the God' (ton theon) because God's existence is 'clearly seen' from God's creation."

      Depends on what you mean. Rom 1 is only proof that Dillahunty is without excuse if God exists, if God commissioned Paul to be an apostle, if Romans is divinely inspired.

      That, however, is not a given in a debate over the Resurrection. An apologist will have to provide supporting arguments for each of those claims.

      "twenty-plus year-old story about a flying trashcan lid from some guy you knew is not the kind of evidence that will establish what Romans 1 claims."

      i) A red herring. Licona cited that anecdote and others as a defeater for naturalism.

      ii) Why do you think the age of the anecdote is pertinent? After all, unbelievers say the Gospels are unreliable because they were written decades after the event. If you're going to say living memory about events that happened two decades ago can't be trusted, then you play right into Bart Ehrman's hands.

      "As White pointed out, Mormons and Muslims can you give you stories like that."

      i) To begin with, not all stories are credible. One needs to do some sifting.

      ii) In addition, are you saying a Muslim or Mormon can't have an experience that falsifies naturalism?

      "In general, what you are missing is that White is saying that Licona is vainly trying to use a naturalistic epistemology to establish Christian-theistic metaphysical claims…"

      It's hardly a "naturalistic epistemology" for Licona to cite lines of evidence that overturn naturalism.

      "And since God is the source of all knowledge, we are within our epistemic rights to appeal to God's revelation in the Bible as the context to understand the resurrection."

      i) Not until you actually formulate a transcendental argument to establish your presupposition. Just asserting that empirical knowledge is impossible if God doesn't exist is not, in itself, an argument, but a programmatic claim.

      ii) Since, moreover, God does exist, there's nothing wrong with a Christian apologist appealing to examples from human experience that falsify naturalism. For God has put us in a world in which some people experience phenomena that run counter to naturalism.

  2. "Empirical knowledge is impossible if God does not exist" And yet, we still carry out empirical experiments and get repeatable, verifiable results. This is an egotistical, condescending, discussion-ending statement. So, he can't justify his empirical knowledge. You not only justify his necessary tool (rational thought), but import an entire worldview at the same time. A bit of an overstatement in my view and others (see Habermas's comments in Five Views on Apologetics).

  3. "God's existence is the conclusion of the argument."

    As the renown philosopher of history, Coplestone, said in his first volume of history of philosophy, "in philosophy God is the conclusion to an argument, but in theology God is an assumption of an argument".
    Who wins in debates of God`s existence? The one who can get the religious side to think God`s existence is proven by philosophy, not assumed as in Theology. And, a fundamental question one has to ask and removing yourself from this trap by the unbeliever is: are you doing theology or philosophy in apologetics? All within the reformed, calvinist position believe apologetics is a theological activity.

    And, lastly, to be honest, evidentialism is mainly adopted by people who are trying to be accepted by the scientific, secular philosophical departments in academia.

    1. The purpose of a debate is to present arguments for your position. To give people reasons to believe. If you're not prepared to do that, then you're not doing apologetics, and a public debate is pointless.

      The question at issue is not whether the Christian apologist believes that God's existence must be proven by philosophy (or science or history), but how to engage in rational persuasion with those who don't share his starting-point.

      If, moreover, everything that is not God is contingent on God's existence for its own existence, then it wouldn't be surprising if there's multiple lines of evidence for God's existence. You're pitting theology against philosophy (and scientific evidence and historical evidence), as if these are autonomous disciplines, but reality isn't compartmentalized. If God is the source of all truth, then all truth points back to God.

      For a Christian apologist to treat God as a given, for himself, doesn't preclude him from presenting evidence to justify the given.