Monday, August 25, 2014

Excerpt from The Swedish Fish, Deflating the Scuba Diver and Working the Rabbit's Foot: Answering Christian Apologetics (From Chapter 8: Chasing Down Heresies Where None Exist)

This picture makes more sense after reading the article.



Randal comes back to his critique of Victor Stenger’s assessment of God as an astonishing hypothesis,[1] and wastes no time stating his grievances:

I disagree with the assumption that Christians need to justify their belief in God as a hypothetical posit that’s supposed to explain some feature of their experience. Certainly one could argue for God in this way, but it’s not the usual way Christians think about God. From the Christian perspective, God is not a hypothesis; rather, he’s a lived reality.

We can’t help but wonder, if God is not a facet of experience but he is a lived reality, then what is a lived reality if not an experience of reality? And if you cannot derive a hypothesis about that reality from experience, then how can you be sure it’s reality that you are experiencing and not, for example, a hallucination or a delusion?
I think Randal is doing a bit of special pleading here. After all, why is it that the Christian reality is the only one worth considering? What about the Hindu, Muslim, and Buddhist realities? What about all of the other world religions and their respective realities?
Moreover, Randal hasn’t actually addressed why God is not a hypothesis, strictly speaking, but he does say that

If atheists really want to understand Christians, they need to get over the assumption that the only way to have reasonable beliefs or knowledge of God is by way of hypothesis inference.

I feel that I must address a couple of things here. First, it seems Randal is making a horribly bad assumption when he thinks atheists do not, or cannot, understand Christians or Christian thinking.
Case in point, I was a devout Christian for three decades. Even though I am no longer a Christian, it doesn’t automatically mean that every experience I had was meaningless or that I forgot everything I learned when I was a believer. I simply have had a change of mind, but that doesn’t make me in any way naïve of my past thirty years of Christian belief.
I know many atheists who have come out of religion like I did and are more than familiar with the religious modes of thinking. In fact, my previous book anthology Beyond an Absence of Faith focused on this very subject, so I think I am pretty well-versed on atheists’ views with respect to religion. And I have found that atheists believe a wide array of things.
It is my opinion, however, that this religious familiarity which some atheists have has more often than not soured them on religion and not for a lack of knowing what religion teaches or what the religious believe, but in spite of it all. Many atheists leave religion behind because they know it all too well. Think about that and let that sink in.
Of course, the opposite case cannot be made with respect to Christians understanding atheism. Apparently, not many Christians seem to be able to bring themselves to understand how someone could lose faith in what they hold to be a veritable truth and will often play the ‘No True Scotsman’ fallacy card. But this just goes to underscore the problem, mainly that many atheists—especially those who came out of religious faith like I did—understand Christianity a whole lot better than many believers seem to.[2] Otherwise, why appeal to the fallacy that ex-Christians, ex-Muslims, ex-Jews and other apostates who left the faith and turned atheist cannot possibly comprehend the religious mindset?
The second issue I have with Randal’s assessment is that if one does not come to reasonable belief about God through inference, then how does one come to it? I honestly would like to know. It seems if you eliminate inference as a way to know God either directly or indirectly from religious experience, then you’d only be left with the sheer assertion that God is a lived reality. This is why I say Randal’s reasoning here is confused. You cannot argue for the reasonableness of belief in God by merely asserting it is reasonable to believe in God.
Besides this, what is this assertion based on if not the inference that God is real?
Randal asks why Sheridan thinks it’s impossible for God to talk to people. The two of them argue for a bit. Randal then mentions God can speak through events, i.e. by giving us signs, and that pretty much fits with Christian conviction as well. Nothing really interesting was covered here other than rehashing Christian beliefs, so we’ll skip ahead.
A few pages later Randal makes the claim that

Christians can come to have a properly basic knowledge of God in much the way that we gain knowledge through other avenues such as sense perception, reason and testimony. I would contend that basic Christian beliefs like ‘God loves me’ and ‘God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself’ are properly basic.

Notice that if you merely presuppose God is a reality and, in addition to this, you presuppose that God is a loving God, and then presuppose that God is a personal God, then it’s perfectly easy to come to the conclusion that ‘God loves me’ is a properly basic belief. But this amounts to smoke and mirrors and doesn’t constitute any real argument for the existence of said God.
Nor is it properly basic, since in order to presuppose God is loving you have to presuppose God is a personal entity capable of love on top of presupposing this loving entity’s existence. In other words, the belief in a loving God breaks down to prior beliefs about God which must all be presupposed before you can get to the belief involving a loving God.
Needless to say, it appears that Randal, being a Foundationalist of sorts, has in mind Plantinga’s ‘warrant’ to believe here. But Plantinga’s argument suffers, basically, for the same reasons. The truth of theism and its positive epistemic status creates a burden of proof for the theist of having to show that theistic belief is externally rational or warranted and requires reasons for supposing that theism is true in the first place.
At least, this is the objection to Plantinga’s ‘warrant’ to believe as I understand it. Of course, being a layman and not a professional philosopher, I could be mistaken. I always welcome corrections where needed.
Hypothetically speaking, I bet I could get the actress Karen Gillan (most recognizable for her role as Amy Pond on the hit sci-fi series Doctor Who) to fall madly in love with me if I had just one date with her. Now, such a hypothesis requires testing and discussion before we completely dismiss or accept it. But short of Karen Gillan actually agreeing to go on a date with me, this hypothesis is merely conjectural. Which is why I said, “hypothetically speaking” in the first place.
Right away Randal runs into a big problem by rejecting God as a hypothesis, because he’s saying such a proposition of God’s reality and the belief in this reality doesn’t require testing and discussion. You don’t even need to be able to intuit God from experience, according to Randal. You just have to accept God as a brute fact, and you have to accept that knowing this brute fact is also a brute fact.
This circular reasoning amounts to a kind of mental masturbation, where God is always more than just the hypothetical because you believe it is so. Massaging away doubt never felt so good! Even so, this clearly cannot constitute any kind of reasonable belief. It would be like me stating that Karen Gillan really is madly in love with me because I choose to believe it. It’s not rational, it’s delusional.
So, you see, my claim that “Karen Gillan loves me” still requires testing and discussion and so can be no more than a hypothesis. As heartbroken as I am having to admit the fact that Karen Gillan probably does not love me, let alone ever heard of me, I am much relieved by the fact that it is my properly basic belief that Jennifer Lawrence is simply wild over me.
Okay, so it doesn’t work like that. But if it doesn’t work like that for me, it certainly doesn’t work like that for Randal Rauser and his so-called properly basic belief that “God loves me” either.
Sheridan also seems to be perplexed as to how you can believe something without valid reasons for holding such a belief in the first place and asks, “What is it that makes your religious beliefs so that they don’t require evidence?”
Randal waxes on about sense perception again, as related to his form of Foundationalism, talking about how one perceives an object in an open room, such as an apple and instantly recognizes it as such. The belief in the apple’s existence is immediate, and we believe we are seeing an apple and that, according to Randal, this constitutes a basic belief. Randal then informs, “Unless you have a reason to distrust your perception, you’re justified in accepting it.”
Well, this may very well be true, but our senses are at the whim of our brains, which can sometimes interpret the sensory information from the experience incorrectly. As Dr. Steven Novella, a clinical neurologist at Yale University School of Medicine, reminds us:

When someone looks at me and earnestly says, “I know what I saw,” I am fond of replying, “No you don’t.” You have a distorted and constructed memory of a distorted and constructed perception, both of which are subservient to whatever narrative your brain is operating under.[3]

Furthermore, clinical sensory deprivation experiments have shown how even the lack of sleep will greatly impact our ability to make good sense of things. Our minds can often play tricks on us even when our senses are working properly. Have you ever seen a mirage? How about a larger than life moon hovering on the horizon? A sun split into its twin by a timely placed cloud? Have you ever heard an audible voice but nobody was around? Have you ever been startled by the shadow of a tree or other inanimate object? Have you ever felt you were being followed but it turned out to be nothing? Have you ever jolted yourself awake because you dreamed you were falling? Have you ever experienced the odd sensation of déjà vu? Have you ever felt the infamous phantom phone vibration in your pocket?
Randal acknowledges our sensory failings when he says, “We trust our sense perception unless and until we have a reason to doubt it.” But he doesn’t seem to think there are any reasons to doubt one’s belief in God, when he casually remarks:

A person is warranted in accepting basic beliefs about God just as they accept basic beliefs about the natural world.

How so? How is accepting the natural world we know exists anything like accepting beliefs about a supernatural world which we do not know exists?
I posit that the belief that “God loves me” is an illusion of truth, akin to holding a properly basic conviction, not a properly basic belief. Beliefs relate to the world we experience. The color orange is a color we experience when we look at something that appears orangely to us. Belief that God loves me may not be an actual experience; rather, it may prove to be little more than a conviction of pious imagining.
Now what do I mean by an illusion of truth?
Well, as you may know, our brains are much more easily fooled than we’d care to admit, and it seems to me Randal may simply be fooling himself here too. One thing we must be very careful of is what Nobel Prize winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman calls an illusions of truth. An illusion of truth, according to Kahneman, arises when our intuition and reason align to believe something is true when, in actuality, it’s not. Kahneman warns:

A reliable way to make people believe in falsehoods is frequent repetition, because familiarity is not easily distinguished from truth. Authoritarian institutions and marketers have always known this fact … The familiarity of one phrase in the statement sufficed to make the whole statement feel familiar, and therefore true.[4]

How much does this reflect religion? The ritualistic paying lip service to God, the volley of amens said to religious sounding truths, the repetitive quoting of chapter and verse, the frequency of worship, prayers at the dinner table, before bed, or whenever someone is experiencing a hardship; all of this reinforces the feeling that the beliefs of this sort are true.
On the surface, the notion that belief in God is properly basic is a belief that appears true, but I would contend that it is just an illusion of truth reinforced by the repetitiveness of Christian ritual and tradition.
Unless we just choose to ignore this information, the question becomes: how would a Christian know for certain whether his or her belief in God was properly basic or else an illusion of truth?
In the case of a loving God, where does this loving attribute come from? Why does this belief exist? Well, clearly it comes from Holy Scripture. Now we have to just believe in the reliability of Holy Scripture as well. But when I believe in orange appearing orangely, I don’t need to defer to ostensible attributes of orange or the reliability of color wheels. So much for belief in God being properly basic.[5]
Randal reiterates his point, going on to stress that

My argument is that absent defeaters, ‘God loves me’ and other beliefs about God can be properly basic…

Again, we find a desire to establish a warrant to believe, or as I like to call it: a free lunch. It’s an excuse to say faith trumps reason by saying blind faith is reasonable. Randal quote-mines the philosopher Colin McGinn, taking his allegorical comment that “the abstract world is revealed to us by miraculous methods” to mean there is a parallel between knowing something by reason and a divine source.

Reason is as miraculous as divine revelation. So here’s the problem. If you reject the idea that we can perceive truths about God because such perception is mysterious, then you likewise must reject the deliverances of rational intuition like seven plus five equals twelve and sense perception like ‘I see a red apple’ because these basic modes of knowledge are also mysterious.

Never mind the fact that Randal has completely mistaken McGinn’s allegory to mean something else entirely, I feel Randal is presuming to know far too much about an area of cognitive science than is possible for a person of his credentials (a theology professor does not a neuroscientist make). Sense perception and cognition are all a part of brain science and human physiology, everything from neurology to the theory of mind, and so we’d best read a real cognitive scientist’s opinion on perception and cognition; such as Daniel Dennett’s book Consciousness Explained or David L. Chalmers The Conscious Mind, or even Colin McGinn’s own book The Mysterious Flame: Conscious Minds in a Material World just to name a few.
Another noteworthy cognitive scientist, Antonio Damasio, in his excellent book Self Comes to Mind, informs us that:

The properties of minds, let alone conscious minds, appear to be so radically different from those of visible living matter that thoughtful folk wonder how one process (conscious minds working) meshes with the other process (physical cells living together in aggregates called tissues) … There is indeed a self, but it is a process, not a thing, and the process is present at all times when we are presumed to be conscious.[6]

Reason, like cognition, may simply be a process of higher order brain functions. The emergent features of reason or consciousness certainly seem miraculous to us, and as miraculous as such emergent features are, they are still part of a living biological system.
Divine revelation, if there is such a thing, wouldn’t be part of any system currently understood by humans. Such a thing would be wholly foreign to us and most assuredly mysterious. But it would still be part of an external system nonetheless, one which we would need to be capable of making sense of; otherwise the divine revelation would have no meaning to us, regardless of where it comes from.
The problem is that divine revelation seems to be, as Randal states, a miraculous sort of thing. Therefore anyone and everyone who claims to believe in miracles can also claim to be the recipient of divine revelation. But if such revelations are no different from everyday subjective experience, to decipher the “external divining system” would seem to be impossible, which means that divine revelation from God is indistinguishable from what one imagines a divine revelation from God to look like, and so divine revelation can be or mean anything for anyone.
I don’t know about you, but for me the more miraculous endeavor would be describing the external system by which divine revelation might work, and then creating a testable hypothesis by which we might be able to demonstrate such a thing. Short of this, however, it’s really just anyone’s guess.

[1] Victor Stenger actually goes one further and claims God is a failed hypothesis. See Stenger’s books God: The Failed Hypothesis and God and the Folly of Faith: The Incompatibility of Science and Religion.
[2] A 2010 study done by the Pew Research Center Forum on Religion & Public Life found that atheists and agnostics top the list of those with the best religious knowledge, beating out Jews and Mormons. Meanwhile, according to a 2009 Barna year-end review of Christianity in America, they discovered that modern Christians care more about spirituality than Christianity, and that biblical literacy was neither a goal nor a reality among the majority of Christians in the U.S. See the Pew study online at:
Also see the Barna study online at:
[3] See: “Sleep and False Memory” by Steven Novella, available online:
[4] Daniel Kahneman, Thinking, Fast and Slow, pp. 61-62.
[5] Whereas Catholics believe God is love, Calvinists believe God is deterministic and have developed a doctrine of predestination to help explain it. Basically, God determines ahead of time (perhaps before time itself), whether you will go to heaven or hell.
[6] Antonio Damasio, Self Comes to Mind, locations 166 and 212 Kindle.

Advocatus Atheist

Advocatus Atheist