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.

William Lycan gives dualism its due

William Lycan is a professor of philosophy at the U of NC, and identifies himself as having been a materialist (speaking specifically about the nature of the brain) for thirty years.  However, he is also one of a rare breed who is willing to actually apply skepticism to his own position. He has recently written a paper which is soon to be published in the Australasian Journal of Philosophy entitled Giving Dualism its Due. The abstract states

Despite the current resurgence of modest forms of mind-body dualism, traditional Cartesian immaterial-substance dualism has few if any defenders. This paper argues that no convincing case has been against substance dualism, and that standard objections to it can be credibly answered.

He is not about to change his mind with regard to materialism or dualism, but he’s being honest about the supporting arguments for both dualism and materialism:

Being a philosopher, of course I would like to think that my stance is rational, held not just instinctively and scientistically and in the mainstream but because the arguments do indeed favor materialism over dualism. But I do not think that, though I used to. My position may be rational, broadly speaking, but not because the arguments favor it: Though the arguments for dualism do (indeed) fail, so do the arguments for materialism. And the standard objections to dualism are not very convincing; if one really manages to be a dualist in the first place, one should not be much impressed by them. My purpose in this paper is to hold my own feet to the fire and admit that I do not proportion my belief to the evidence.

He is also rather quick to address the parsimony argument (Occam’s Razor), which is essentially that all things being equal, the simplest explanation is the best (that is, materialism is simpler than dualism). He is also quick to point out that all things are not equal and that parsimony is a “very posterior reason.”

I will confess that he quickly goes over my head, as I am simply not up to speed on the topic, and I haven’t finished the paper, though I did skip to his conclusion (a trick I learned reading legal analyses):

I mean to have shown here that although Cartesian dualism faces some serious objections, that does not distinguish it from other philosophical theories, and the objections are not an order of magnitude worse than those confronting materialism in particular. There remain the implausibilities required by the Cartesian view; but bare claim of implausibility is not argument. Nor have we seen any good argument for materialism. The dialectical upshot is that, on points, and going just by actual arguments as opposed to appeals to decency and what good guys believe, materialism is not significantly better supported than dualism.

Yet, I am inclined to believe, the charge of implausibility is not irrational or arational either, and I would not want this paper to turn anyone dualist. Have a nice day.

Food for thought.

Epistemology in a teacup

Over the last couple of months I have been writing a series related to the issue of epistemology, the study of knowledge and knowing. Epistemology attempts to answer questions like: “What do we know?”, “How can we know something?”, and of course, “How do we know what we know?” When discussing issues of faith and belief, a common topic of debate between people of faith and people of science, it is important to recognize the various epistemological positions in play. The words “faith,” “belief,” “truth” and “knowledge” often have very different meanings, and as a result the conversations often become meaningless haggling (for example, read nearly any series of 20 or more comments on a blog dealing with science vs religion).

I am writing about epistemology not because I am an expert, but merely because I tend to think about these things. Over the last couple of years I have engaged a number of people in discussions concerning the relationship between science and faith, and have learned a few things along the way (including the above revelation about meaningless haggling…). For what ever reason, a few months ago I came up with the Teacup Model, which so far has proven to be fairly accurate, at least as to how I am seeing the current materialist v non-materialist conversation.

Imagine a coffee table (you can imagine your coffee table, if you’d like).  Upon the coffee table sits a teacup and saucer.  Go ahead, use your imagination.  The teacup represents reality as defined by philosophical materialism, which is essentially that which is material: that which has physical properties and that can be experienced by our 5 senses and which can theoretically be measured.  Nothing outside of the teacup can be detected or measured by scientific or mathematical methods.  To the materialist, therefore, nothing outside of the teacup exists. Those believing in God or some other kind of non-material reality are delusional, as they cannot prove by the methods available within the teacup that anything outside of the teacup exists. This position is, as defined, a self-fulfilling hypothesis.

For the non-materialists, it is fairly obvious that the teacup is not hovering in space, but is resting on a coffee table, and also sits on a saucer. They, in fact, do not stay within the teacup, but move back and forth between the teacup and the saucer.  It is quite obvious to them that the materialists are at the very least, myopic.  So, we now have two conflicting worldviews (or teacup views): one sees only what is in the teacup, the other sees both inside and outside of the teacup. For non-materialists, there are actually a number of different points of reference, depending on where you stand on the continuum of points from the inside of the teacup to the outside- and all the way out to the coffee table. Christian moderns tend to be on the inside of the teacup, but either with a view outside, or simply a belief that what they’ve been told about the outside is true.

This teacup model supports my hypothesis that a modern worldview, i.e. life inside the teacup, is not compatible with true Christianity. As John Loftus says, “I call our modern ways of thinking the Achilles’ heel of Christianity.” Although, as I’ve said before, when John says it, he is implying that modernism is both superior and correct. However, I don’t believe either; modernism is a philosophy that works akin to the soil in the path in the parable of the sower, “When anyone hears the message about the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what was sown in his heart.” (Matt 13:19)  Spending too much time immersed “in the teacup” – that is, looking at things from solely a modernist, materialist worldview – can result in blindness to things outside of the teacup. The logic that says that only the material is real seems reasonable, because by adopting a materialist, modernist worldview, all other input is discounted. The modernist worldview subjects any input, whether material or spiritual, to a rationalistic system of analysis that is only geared – at best – to deal with the material.  It is, again, a self-fulfilling exercise.

I am not for one moment saying that the teacup doesn’t exist. What I am proposing that a worldview which originates from within the teacup – that is, modernism and materialism – is inherently flawed as well as incompatible with Christianity. A proper worldview must see the teacup in its proper context; as I’ve pointed out in the past, Gödel’s Theorem (that a system cannot be properly comprehended from within the system) seems applicable to philosophical systems as well as to mathematical ones. And as Shakespeare wrote in Hamlet, “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”

Why a teacup?  I’m not sure; I don’t typically drink tea. However, if I had proposed a coffee cup, I would have been compelled to empty it.  😉