Sunday, December 15, 2013

Reviewing Randal Rauser’s “The Swedish Atheist” Chapter 29

Chapter 29: The Lights Cast by Little Amazing Moments of Providence
What to expect, what to expect? Randal’s penchant for using  non-standard terminology without explaining it (i.e., defeaters and acquaintance of knowledge, just to name a couple),[1] a love for starting entirely new topics in the middle of an ongoing one, and his consistent ability to forget to sum up previous questions and points raised at the beginning of one chapter leaves us often in a state of confusion and anticipation. What to expect, what to expect?

Sheridan, who continue to proves he is an overly simplistic stereotype of an atheist at best, informs that he is confused as to how a Christian can know they are being “Christlike” or not, and Randal said that the Christian will know through signs. Sheridan inquires:

“Signs?... Like what kind of signs?”

Randal informs:

“I’m talking about the experience that real, everyday people have of God working in their lives, and specifically how that working is corroborated when suggestive events occur. When this happens I think we can take these events as signs that God is real?”

Really? That’s all one needs for “signs” from God? Simply a suggestive occurrence? Well, if any old subjective experience will do… then by that reasoning… yes, there’s overwhelming evidence for God! Since anything can technically be evidence if it’s suggestive enough.

It strikes me as ironic that Randal, in the next paragraph, stops Sheridan from going on simply to say, “I’m not interested in mere anecdotes…”

Oh, really? Because the majority of this book has consisted of “mere anecdotes” an no real genuine support, you know, apart from those suggestive occurrences. Randal continues on, because he wants to, “bring some rigor to the discussion.”

I know, it’s hard not to laugh, but let’s give him a chance to make his case. Randal states:

“On this point I think it would be helpful to begin with the criteria that William Dembski has articulated as prerequisite for justifying a design inference in scientific enquiry… Dembski notes that whenever an event occurs we can attribute it to chance, necessity or design. I think this is as true in mundane affairs as in natural science.”

Randal then goes on to posit the question:

“You and I can call any synchronous event that arises from chance or necessity a ‘coincidence.’ So our question is whether a suggestive event arises from coincidence or design.”

Sheridan asks him what kind of event would that entail, and Randal launches into an anecdote.

I’m sorry, but I actually laughed out loud here. Because as I recall, just a few paragraphs ago he said, and I quote, “I’m not interested in mere anecdotes…”

Maybe in Randal’s mind there is a noticeable difference between regular anecdotes and mere anecdotes? I wouldn't presume to guess. At any rate, Randal’s mere anecdote details how he was singing to himself Michael Jackson’s song ‘Don’t Stop til You Get Enough’ while in the car. Then he turned on the radio and the exact song was playing!

Randal says although a unusual thing to happen, “it lacked a meaningful signature, so I chalked it up to coincidence.”

But what would a non-coincidence look like according to Randal? Well, one that has a “suggestive signature or pattern” of course. Detailing further, he informs:

“If the pattern is sufficiently suggestive, a person can conclude that it’s more than coincidence. There may be some intelligence superintending the event.”

But who is deciding on whether the pattern is sufficiently suggestive or not? The person experiencing it? If so, then that creates a bias which favors the person’s subjective interpretation of the experience as to whether the event was “sufficiently” suggestive. The only way to avoid this problem of bias is to ask others whether our individual experience looks to them if it was sufficiently suggestive or not. And even then, this doesn't mean it was a sign from God. It could be that it simply was a one off event that looked overly suggestive to satisfy everyone’s conclusion based on their understanding of what makes something “sufficient” enough.

I can’t help but see this reasoning as, how should I put this, well, simply bad.

Of course that doesn't mean there might not be some intelligence superintending the event, but we have to find a better way to determine this than our own interpretation of what is sufficiently suggestive to constitute a supervening intelligence.

Randal then cautions us not to jump to conclusions, since sometimes when “suggestive, synchronous events occur” (I’m beginning to feel temped to call these peculiar word phrasings ‘Randalisms’) we will tend to invoke agency, whether there is any genuine agency behind the event or not.

Now he tells us!

So what then? Well, Randal reminds us that

“[I]t’s at least possible that a highly complex event with a signature like this could occur and not be attributable to another human being. In that case you might invoke a divine agency.”

Really? We leaped from a random event to a divine event? Whatever happened to the middle step of highly intelligent, super advanced race of extraterrestrials? What about time travelers from the future? Or parallel/alternate universe versions of us stepping through temporal wormholes to influence events on our planet? Because these are ALL more likely than God.

Of course, by more likely I mean more probable, and that’s something which theists tend to brush over. It’s easier to jump to the conclusion you like, in this case “Because God,” rather than have to discount other more likely probabilities first. The reason is simple, it is ridiculously hard, not to mention impossible given our current knowledge and technology, to fully discount the above science fiction scenarios—all of them still more likely than a divine agent like God. Unable to discount those, however, leaves the theist without the ability to assume God at all. So instead of taking any of the more likely probable causes into consideration, they simply are ignored in favored of the presupposed divine God agent.

It’s funny how this blinkered reasoning doesn't’t bother the apologist, because it really grates on my brain, and I can’t be the only one.

Let’s put it another way. It’s like asking the apologist to sing us the alphabet and they sing “A, B, C, X, Y, Z…” and skip everything in the middle simply for the convenience of getting to Z. The only thing is, even this analogy is a poor one, because what we have to realize is that the apologist’s “Z” in all probability doesn’t exist. In that sense, it’s more like us asking the apologist to sing us the alphabet and they sing to us “A, B, C, X, Y, Thrym.”

When we challenge them on whether or not “Thrym” is a real letter of the alphabet or not, they will reply that

“[I]t’s at least possible that a highly complex [alphabet] with a [letter] like this could occur and not be attributable to another human being. In that case you might invoke a divine agency.”

(Changes above are obviously mine—used to better illustrate how the reasoning here doesn't actually support the claim.)

What we could invoke is the fact that the person simply made Thrym up! The challenge of the theist is to try and prove that, like the above example, they haven’t simply made God up and posited it as the “sufficient” explanation for the event they think may have a divine intelligence behind it. Otherwise, it really does sound like they are making stuff up.

Usually when challenged on this front, believers will makes confessions of faith, such as, “I know it in my heart that God is real.”

Well if hearts could only know, then that would be enough wouldn’t it?

The apologist is worse than your common person of faith however, because they know the arguments well enough not to make the mistake, but then they go and make it anyway—deliberately. You see, it’s just so much easier believing in God is everyone believes in God. And the only way to do that without first proving the existence of God is to presuppose the existence of God. Then all you have to do is assign unexplainable coincidences to divine agency and… easy as pie… you've proved God!

However, in the reality of the real world, not really.

But not one to be left scratching his head and looking dumb, Randal concocts an answer for this problem as well.

“In my view, the causality of the event is not as relevant as the strength of its signature.”

It’s a puzzling statement to me, because I can’t see how one can add strength to a signature. By pressing down on the pen harder, perhaps?

It’s not Thrym. It’s THRYM!

Likewise, it’s not merely “Because God.” It’s… “BECAUSE GOD!”

Haha, take that atheists!

I for one am glad this book is almost over.

Sheridan, luckily, calls Randal on this (and for once some good foresight on Randal’s behalf as he predicts the objection ahead of time). Sheridan asks:

“How could an event that has already been explained, perhaps even predicted, in accord with scientific laws, still qualify… What’s left for God to explain?”

Randal launches into another strained analogy about meteorology. Randal imagines our weather forecasting technology improving to the point of being able to predict not only the weather but also the exact location of every single raindrop’s point of location. He then suggests a hailstorm predicts that the hail will form the words “Randal was right” on your back lawn, and even though science could explain everything, the message itself still cannot be explained—at least not dismissed as a mere coincidence.

This is what Randal means by the “meaningfulness” of the signature. He also says that it would be a good example of God working within the laws of nature yet still managing to make his message clear.

Good thing then, that this scenario has happened zero times in the history of ever. But Randal is right, if it should happen, it would give one greater incentive to take pause.

Sheridan raises the objection we came across earlier about signatures and signs being person dependent, and therefore rather subjective. Sheridan quips:

“One person’s mess is another person’s message from God, right?”

Randal jumps at the chance to explain, and Randalisms ensue.

“When complex, synchronous events occur, we only bother to invoke an intelligence if their occurrence makes sense within a context. If the hail had spelled out ‘car’ or ‘bat’ we would probably think it very unusual while not attributing to it any special significance.”

Really? We’d just dismiss it off hand? As a Batman fan, if I was going to a comic book convention dressed as Batman, I’d find it significant, yes (context, after all). But as a Batman fan, random weather spelling out the word ‘bat’, or any other word for that matter, would give me pause, perhaps enough to look into the matter and not just dismiss it off hand. Even if I wasn't a Batman fan, I’d still think it highly peculiar and might do a Google search to check whether or not such things have happened before.

So in all whichever context I find myself in I don’t think I could simply dismiss such a phenomenon. Yet at the same time I don’t think we need to stop searching for the answers and simply assume “Because God” either. That would be the lazy thing to do. Besides that, I really don’t think there is any context which exists where we would be warranted to bypass looking for natural explanations before settling on supernatural ones. No matter what Randal the apologist may think, that context simply doesn't exist.

[Note: Well, technically speaking such a context involving the supernatural could exist if you ruled out every single natural phenomenon first, and couldn't explain it otherwise, at least not without having to presume a supernatural reality. But whenever we have looked for physical or naturalistic explanations which sufficiently account for the event we have found them. The hypothetical Randal poses only works as a possible conjecture, and only if his assumptions about the supernatural are accurate for whatever type of super-reality exists, but it’s not a proof or even a demonstration. It’s at most, simply an imaginative speculation in what such events possibly might look like.]

Sheridan says that he’s had enough of the fanciful illustrations and demands Randal give him a real example. So Randal does what any good apologist would do. He quotes William Lane Craig. Or rather, he quotes William Lane Craig’s anecdotal story (which is kind of worse—since Randal’s concrete example isn't even his own experience).

It appears this is turning out to be the lough out loud chapter of the whole book. If I am sounding overly cheeky, it’s because everything in this chapter is laughable from my atheist perspective, but appears more than absurd to my rationalist perspective. I really cannot take anything Randal has to say seriously any longer.

Back in the ‘80s, Randal informs, Craig was trying to raise funds so he could serve as a missionary reaching European university students. He managed to raise everything except for the last 300 dollars. Coming down to the wire, and without sources to make up the difference of the cost, Craig did the only thing a true believer in his situation could do, he prayed. At the last minute one of the churches Craig reached out to calls him back and gives him the money.

Randal says this is a direct sign from God.

From the outside looking in, it rather looks like Craig left a message and the church got back to him. Better late than never, I suppose.

But was it a sign from God with a “strong signature” as Randal would call it? I’ll let you be the judge of that.

Sheridan then points out that it seems more like chance, and reminds Randal that prayer has “always failed to produce statistically significant results.”

Randal goes on to say that Sheridan is missing the point and adds:

“The Christian doesn't claim that prayer is directed at some abstract force that can be tested under laboratory conditions. This isn’t a mere event cause work that’s constrained by a natural law. The claim, rather, is that God, an agent, answers prayer.”

Well, wouldn't the consequences of God’s actual involvement in any actual manipulations of even basic natural laws be measurable? If not, then how can anyone pretend to know if it’s a causal agent at work or just a series of natural events falling into line which appear ordered but, in actuality, are a random occurrence? Randal still hasn't met the challenge of explaining how he can distinguish between the two.

“And you can’t stipulate how an agent is going to act. Still less can you do so when that agent is infinitely wiser than you because you simply cannot factor in all the knowledge that agent might consider in making his decision.”

We don’t actually have to factor in all the data. We just have to be able to measure the frequency of prayer related events and see if they come true with any statistical regularity based on when the prayer was said and when it was assumed granted, and then compare this to other prayers supposedly answered by the same God, and see if there is a statistical pattern.

Of course, if there was anything of the like people would have seized on it long ago as evidence. The fact that nobody has ever demonstrated anything in the way of measuring the rate of prayers answered or, for that matter, shown how you can widescreen such “answered” prayers from random off chance events is the reason apologists like Randal claim we cannot understand the mind of God.

The distinction I like to make here is that we’re not trying to understand the mind of God. We’re simply trying to detect whether there is a mind or not in the first place. As it is, humans do have the ability to recognize other independent minds from our own, so why couldn't recognize God’s mind? We don’t need to understand it to recognize it as such. For example, I recognize my wife has a mind of her own even though half of the time I simply do not understand how my wife’s mind works.

Sheridan then says he simply doesn't find such anecdotal stories reliable, as he feels they can all be dismissed as chance or coincidence. Randal has a problem with such a position, and explains:

“My concern would be that invoking ‘chance’ or ‘coincidence’ can become a sweeping excuse to dismiss the evidential force of any event, no matter how compelling.”

Oh, really? Do tell.

“Jesus knew this danger. In the parable of Lazarus and the rich man, the rich man suffering in Hades pleads that an angel be sent back to warn his brothers of his fate. Abraham responds, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.” 
So it’s like that, is it? And… hold the phone… Hades? After Randal spent several futile chapters attempting to convince us of how real Hell was, he goes with… Hades? Doesn't that undermine his claim that Hell is real in some degree? I mean, if you’re going to consider Hell a real place, don’t turn around and use a fictional name for it. But I digress.

Still not satisfied, Sheridan reminds Randal that nearly all his anecdotal accounts could essentially be explained by chance and coincidence. So Randal launches into yet another anecdote.

He tells of a student of his by the name of Lynn. Her husband is recovering from a recent heart attack, and due to the expensive medical bills, she cannot afford to take her kids to the water park for some much needed R&R. Low and behold, there is a knock at the door and someone from their church with four extra passes to the water park arrives and offers them to her family. What’s more, Randal informs, the tickets were offered within an hour of her son’s request.

With timing like that, it must be God!

Randal says it could have been tickets to the zoo, or the historical park, or any other numerous attractions. But it was the exact water park that Lynn’s son had requested. Randal views this as a high signature event. A sign from God, in other words.

But really, there isn't enough information to make that assumption. For example, did Lynn’s family and this other family frequent the park together? Did the church do activities with the youth which involved the water park. Was the water park promoting itself and offering tickets for a bargain price that month. There are lots of factors which could contribute to it being *not a one off event. Even if we cannot account for such things, and it appears to be a one off event, how can we distinguish that it was a miracle and not simply a coincidence.

See, Randal’s high signature probability is merely based on what looks more likely to him to be pertinent to the context, but that’s purely subjective. And since he’s looking for signs of God anyway, he’s probably more liable to see patterns that aren't’t even there, as this is a trait of patternicity, i.e. the tendency to find meaningful patterns in both meaningful and meaningless data, and infuse these patterns with agency, i.e. imbuing patterned events as being the intended result of an agent.[2]

Randal reiterates his point for several more pages, but doesn't give any new or compelling evidence to back his claims, so it’s really not worth raising objections to, since all the problems I have with his initial examples holds for all the rest as well. So, this brings us to the end of the chapter.

Again, if I sounded a bit cheekier this time around it is likely due to the fact that Randal’s arguments are so bad and so silly that they are practically absurd. There’s only so much a person can take of absurdity before it grows dull and uninteresting. Moreover, I just cannot fathom how someone with a PhD would even think that these constituted good, let alone worthy, arguments for the kinds of claims they are making. But the good news is that there are only three chapters left, and I will review them altogether as we come to the end of reviewing Randal’s haphazard rabbit trails.

[1] To learn more about what defeaters are in epistemology, read this insightful Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy article:

[2] Patternicity and agenticity are Michael Shermer’s terms for our human brain’s penchant for isolating specific patterns based on previous experiences or expectations we may have, so that we inevitably will tend to find meaning in patterns that aren’t really there, and see agency when it’s not likely. See Michael Shermer’s book The Believing Brain to learn more. 

Advocatus Atheist

Advocatus Atheist