Jan 7 2010

Why believe in Christianity?

It seems that I just can’t stop reading the terribly unimaginative things that most atheists blog about; for me, it’s like watching a train wreck.  I just have this morbid fascination.  Perhaps it is more of a fascination with modernism, as atheism – or at least materialism, which results in atheism – is a logical conclusion.  I use “logical” here not to agree that materialism is logical, but to say that if you start down that road based on the false premises of modernism, materialism  and atheism are expected destinations.

This morning I happened across an article called Vetting Supernatural Knowledge by Matt McCormick on his blog Atheism: Proving the Negative that I at least found interesting. He begins

I frequently get accused of making the mistake of narrow mindedly demanding empirical proof for things that are not empirical, tangible evidence for the intangible, or applying scientific standards of proof to all knowledge claims when not all knowledge is empirical or scientific.

He goes on to explain how Christians typically argue that atheists ask for material proofs of the supernatural, which by definition is non-material.  He thinks this is changing the subject, and explains that asking for reasons for belief is not asking for material proof:

In looking for an answer to this question, the atheist does not need to insist, at least in principle, that the only way to acquire knowledge of the world is by empirical or scientific means. We can grant that this supernatural, subjective, or non-empirical knowledge is possible. A lot of things are possible, and we’d be foolish to try to argue for their impossibility on the basis of insufficient information.

Matt is the one of the few atheists I’ve read to actually recognize this point, which is a very good one. The problem with Matt’s point is that the vast majority of modern atheists are materialists, and they typically ask for empirical proof.  So, in response to most atheists, there is no changing the topic; it’s a very valid response to the demand, “Show me scientific proof!”

So if the theist has another method for learning about the reality of God, we’re prepared in principle to accept that. First issue: if it is not something publicly tangible that can be experienced by the rest of us, what is that method? Is it a voice in your head? A strong feeling? A powerful sense of presence? An overwhelming awareness of a transcendental reality? Something ineffable? Do you come by that knowledge by praying? By thinking? By talking to yourself? Do these ideas come to you when you get yourself into an altered state by fasting? Hallucinogenic drugs? Chanting or meditating? Does it feel like what you figure being overcome by the Holy Spirit must feel like?

Second issue: What are the criteria that you are employing to determine the reliability of this method to acquire supernatural knowledge? How can we tell when the voices or the feelings are lies?

Now, at least, we have something to discuss, although Matt is still a modernist, and still would like everything to fit neatly into one or more boxes.

Last week I came across a passage in G.K. Chesterton’s book Orthodoxy that is perhaps the best response I have seen to the question why does one believe in Christianity.  While opposing turn-of-the-Century British Modernism, he maintains that he is still a rationalist, and so provides a very rational answer:

If I am asked, as a purely intellectual question, why I believe in Christianity, I can only answer, “For the same reason that an intelligent agnostic disbelieves in Christianity.” I believe in it quite rationally upon the evidence. But the evidence in my case, as in that of the intelligent agnostic, is not really in this or that alleged demonstration; it is in an enormous accumulation of small but unanimous facts. The secularist is not to be blamed because his objections to Christianity are miscellaneous and even scrappy; it is precisely such scrappy evidence that does convince the mind. I mean that a man may well be less convinced of a philosophy from four books, than from one book, one battle, one landscape, and one old friend. The very fact that the things are of different kinds increases the importance of the fact that they all point to one conclusion. Now, the non-Christianity of the average educated man to-day is almost always, to do him justice, made up of these loose but living experiences. I can only say that my evidences for Christianity are of the same vivid but varied kind as his evidences against it. For when I look at these various anti-Christian truths, I simply discover that none of them are true. I discover that the true tide and force of all the facts flows the other way.

Chesterton’s book is well worth reading, so I won’t quote any more here.  If you don’t mind the lack of formatting, the book is available online here.

While science has indeed progressed since Chesterton’s day, man’s intelligence hasn’t, and Chesterton’s thoughts are as pertinent now as ever.

Mar 26 2009

The Limitations of Reason

As I’ve reported once before, Jeff Carter at Sophie’s Ladder has recently published a series of posts summarizing the history of philosophy as it relates to the limitations of reason. As he states in the opening of his “summation” post,

This series has demonstrated the limitations – and therefore the inadequacy and failure – of reason not only in dealing with metaphysical / spiritual matters, but also in securing a foundation for reason itself. Every attempt to justify reason as a power superior to or even adequate for comprehending the metaphysical / spiritual has failed.

Now, I freely admit that I am not an expert, having bailed on my philosophy major fairly early on in my education.  However, I think a lot, so that counts for something.  One thing I did excel in was logic.  As I’ve spent the last twenty-something years analyzing and countering arguments, I do a pretty good job at it.  However, I have always been intrigued by the knowledge that not only are there limitations to reason, there are other logical systems. As Russell Shorto quotes Jonathan Ree in Descartes Bones – A Skeletal History of the Conflict Between Faith and Reason:

“… the theory of knowledge and the theory of human nature which with it; the concepts of an idea, of mathematical laws of nature … are so fundamental to modern consciousness that it is hard no to regard them as part of the natural property of the human mind. But, in fact, they are a product of the seventeenth century, and above all in the work of Descartes.”

I am also aware that built into modernism – our current Western worldview that resulted from the Cartesian revolution – is the concept of progress, so we asume that our system of logic is necessarily better than anyone else’s; in fact, we cannot conceive of any other system of logic as having any merit whatsoever.

What the series at Sophie’s Ladder does is demonstrate that all attempts to prove the superiority of reason have failed; we believe our concept of reason has to be true, but we really have to accept it on faith.  As Jeff commented on my earlier post, this series is foundational to a response he is writing of John Loftus’ approach to atheism.  Recently John has been touting his “Outsider Test of Faith” (OTF), where he challenges Christians to give up their presuppositions in order to view Christianity as an outsider would.  However, his whole system is nothing more than a house built on sand, as he does not apply the same test to his own presuppositions, which he calls “control beliefs.”  I pointed this out to John, and one of his followers thought it ridiculous that I suggest such a thing.

Of course, his OTF is really just selective application of Godel’s Theorem, which in essence is that no logical (mathematical) system can prove itself – you have to prove it from outside the system.  I am really looking forward to Jeff’s response to Loftus (actually, I’m more interested in Loftus’ response to Jeff).

On the other hand, I believe that it is possible to disprove a system from within the system, in this case, using reason and logic to show the limitations of reason and logic.  The only reason that the New Atheists (I’ll include Loftus in that group, although he distinguishes himself) can continue is that they don’t understand the philosophical mess they are in; or else they do, but are in denial.

While I cannot prove this, at least yet, I am back to thinking that the real issue with most of the atheist apologists is not philosophy or lack of evidence or logic; rather, it is a moral issue, and a faith issue.  In other words, they have chosen to believe what they believe, so that they do not have to believe something else.

Again, I highly recommend the series at Sophie’s Ladder.  It’s very well-done, and concise enough to really provide a big-picture view of the issues related to faith and reason.

Jul 18 2008

The myth of postmodernism

Ask nearly anyone who claims to know the current trends, and they’ll tell you that we now live in a postmodern world.  Ask them what that means, and you’ll hear things like, “there are now no objective standards for truth” or “postmodernism is a rejection of the metanarrative.”  As I have mentioned in a prior post, postmodernism is hated and feared by theologians and scientists alike, as it undermines what is foundational for both: modern reason.  I do not claim to be an expert on the subject, though I have been reading and thinking about it for a good number of years.  What I have concluded so far is that not all of postmodernist thought is bad, not all postmodern thought is good, and it is for the most part not so much a departure from modernism as it is a neo-modernism.

First, postmodernism is a critique of certain aspects of modernism, which is badly needed. Modernism as a worldview is extremely narrow-minded, arrogant, anti-historical, and egocentric, if that term can be applied to a worldview. Modernism is constructed in such a way that in its own eyes, it can’t fail. One of its main errors is its faith in progress, that the evolution of society – and of man – is necessarily positive, and that every day in every way, we are getting better and better. More knowledge is always good, in spite of what Adam and Eve discovered. While imaging that we are rational to the utmost, and depending almost exclusively on man’s ability to reason, this belief in necessary progress is not itself based on reason.  Modernism, in many ways, is a fraud, and those calling themselves postmodern have found it out.  In spite of the incredible “progress” of technology, the average white-collar American works more hour per week than 30 years ago, and stress-related illnesses are on a rapid rise. Progress?

Postmodernism challenges the lie that everything is okay.  It also challenges the lie that everything fits into nice, neat boxes. Postmodernism recognizes that spirituality is important.  It challenges the scientific hold on truth, as well as religion’s hold on it. Postmodernism recognizes that what moderns accepted as a rule “was more of a guideline.” However, it has also adopted the same anti-historical arrogance; while it often pays homage to the past, it assumes that postmodernism is better. It has not thrown out all of modernism, just what it doesn’t like. Postmoderns, for example, are more addicted to modern technology than anyone. Apple is perhaps the first large postmodern corporation, and its product line it tailored specifically to that target market, using good old-fashioned modern marketing techniques. Do postmoderns rise up in rebellion?  Not in the least; in fact, the “Mac Guy” has become an icon.

William Lane Craig is the first author I have found who agrees with my conclusions. In a recent article in Christianity Today, he writes:

The idea that we live in a postmodern culture is a myth. In fact, a postmodern culture is an impossibility; it would be utterly unlivable. People are not relativistic when it comes to matters of science, engineering, and technology; rather, they are relativistic and pluralistic in matters of religion and ethics. But, of course, that’s not postmodernism; that’s modernism! That’s just old-line verificationism, which held that anything you can’t prove with your five senses is a matter of personal taste. We live in a culture that remains deeply modernist.

Otherwise, how do we make sense of the popularity of the New Atheism? Dawkins and his ilk are indelibly modernist and even scientistic in their approach. On the postmodernist reading of contemporary culture, their books should have fallen like water on a stone. Instead, people lap them up eagerly, convinced that religious belief is folly.

Is there a need for a true post-modernism?  Perhaps.  Or, perhaps what we need is rather a rediscovery of pre-modernism, a loosening of our anti-historical attitudes and the misplaced faith in progress. I’m not suggesting we give up the internet or stop thinking logically; I am, in fact, quite attached to many of the accomplishments of modern technology, as well as modern logic, which has its place.  However, I do think we need to recover some of what was lost in the iconoclasm of the “Enlightenment” in order to put modernism into some kind of context.  This, I think, is what is being attempted by much of postmodernism, but at the moment it still seems too egocentric – and modern – to be any more than just a new expression of modernism.

Jul 15 2008

Epistemology: faith and reason

In keeping with my series of posts dealing with epistemology and worldview, BarryA over at Uncommon Descent has – almost as if on cue – written an excellent piece discussing how both Theists and materialists rely on a combination of faith and reason.  He makes a number of points that I had planned on making in upcoming posts, so rather than duplicate efforts, I will direct you over there to read the full article.  I will revisit these points in a future post.  Just to whet your appetite:

Materialist believe that a real world exists outside of themselves and that they have trustworthy perceptions of this real world from their senses. Surprise. Those two beliefs are not based upon any evidence. Materialists hold the beliefs based on pure faith, a frequently unacknowledged faith to be sure, but faith nevertheless.

If we accept the rules of basic logic (which is itself a presupposition), we have to agree that when it comes to accepting either evidence or the methodology for evaluating evidence, we eventually come to a point where we must take a leap to faith (or at least, a leap to presupposition). At this point, the materialist typically calls the philosopher names and walks away.  But, I think the arguments tha BarryA makes are valid; either we must agree that we lack evidence for materialistic presuppositions, or else we must call into question logic itself, at which point modernism and all that comes with it implodes.

Once again, isn’t epistemology fun?