Sep 24 2010

A little philosophical diversion: Why the Outsider Test for Faith fails

Okay, every once in a while I just have to comment on the ridiculous nature of certain atheists’ attempts to appear superior to people who don’t think “faith” is a bad word. I really should just unsubscribe to the Debunking Christianity blog, but it’s like a train wreck — as bad as it is, you just have to watch.

Today John once again promotes his outsider test for faith, “to test their own adopted religious faith from the perspective of an outsider with the same level of skepticism they use to evaluate other religious faiths.”

It’s an interesting challenge, to be sure. I don’t disagree that this proposal has some merit; too many Christians don’t understand why Christianity is a uniquely valid belief, and we should. As Peter wrote, we should be ready to give an answer for our faith (1 Pet. 3:15).

The problem is to do so without accepting without question another belief system in the process, which can potentially “stack the deck” against Christianity. As I’m certain I’ve mentioned before (I don’t have the energy or time to search the archives), it seems that many people who leave Christianity do so because they unquestionably accept certain facets of modernism.  Trying to make Christianity fit into a completely modernist worldview is like fitting the proverbial square peg into a round hole.

All of us in the western world have been raised breathing and eating modernism since we were born; we cannot really conceive of a different way of thinking, and accept without question that our worldview or paradigm is simply “the way things are.”  In reality, modernism is a grid developed through which to view the world. Prior to Descartes, it didn’t exist.  The Bible doesn’t conform to modernist thought, because it was not written by modernists.

This creates issues for doctrines like inerrancy, where writings from an ancient oriental culture are held to modernist standards; it is exactly like forcing a square peg into a round hole.

But, we in the west are all now modernists, whether we like it or not (even so-called post-modernists). What is frustrating for those of us who realize that modernism is not necessarily the way things are is that we can’t even analyze modernism without resorting to modernist methods.

The Problem With Modernism

This creates a problem, as explained by series of philosophers from Hume to Godel (and beyond). Hume began by challenging the core principle of causality. While we can predict based on past events that flipping a switch will turn on the lights, we can never guarantee that this will happen the next time, or prove that it was the switch which caused the lights to come on.

Kant explored this further, discovering that there must be limitations to reason itself, as reason must be limited by the limited categories of the mind. Skipping ahead, Godel showed mathematically that a system can only be substantiated by something outside the system. In other words, we can show that reason is limited and flawed, but we can never prove that it is not. So far, no one has been able to refute the basic challenge issued by Hume.

Modernism is essentially the worldview that says everything can be analyzed objectively and rationally, but cannot prove that it ever works. In other words, you must accept modernism and rationalism by faith.

The Failure of Loftus’ Outsider Test For Faith

The OTF fails because it requires someone to subject a non-modern belief system to a modernist analysis, which cannot be proven to have any validity whatsoever. The only thing it can do is to mislead someone into thinking that modernism is, in fact, the way it is.  Because the square peg cannot fit nicely into this imaginary round hole (a better analogy, perhaps, is trying to stuff the entire universe into a hat), people are left having to choose: a flawed faith in modernism, or Christianity.  It is, of course, a false dichotomy, but as we know, lies are the devil’s only real weapons.

But of course, Stephen Hawking, who has assured us that we no longer have any need to believe in God, also asserts that philosophy is dead. Obviously, Hawking’s reason has met its limitations.

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.

Nov 7 2009

Re Considering the issue of Tradition

With regard to my current series on the issue of Tradition, especially the Eastern concept of Tradition, here’s an interesting article with some helpful guidelines in considering something – like historic Christianity – which might be outside of your current box: Ten Steps to Avoiding Knee-Jerk Theology.

At first glance, this seemed like just another example of why evangelical theology is what it is, but then I realized that these points are, indeed, valid if we want to grow theologically.

[Note: the comments to the linked article provide a great example of why church Tradition is, indeed, of importance.]

Mar 6 2009

Working on the New World Order

I think Harry Collins is a little bit nuts; what do you think?

Collins is a professor of social science at Cardiff University, who is apparently tired of having the social sciences marginalized and is working on the groundrules for a New World Order with his partner, Dr. Robert Evans.  Not happy with either old-fashioned Modernism or Post-modernism, they are advancing what they call “Elective Modernism.”   From a Q&A on the subject:

‘Post-Post-Modernism’ is a bit of a mouthful and the term we prefer is ‘Elective Modernism.’   ‘Elective Modernism’ captures the idea that, as with any kind of scepticism, the ideas of Wave 2 are indefeasible—science is not forced upon us by its efficiency or its revelation-like certainty.  Nevertheless, it is impossible to live by scepticism alone.  Therefore, irrespective of the logic of the sceptical arguments one must still elect to live by principles that recognise the value of experience and expertise.

Elective Modernism does not reinstate Modernism as it was before Post-Modernism.  Instead Elective Modernism describes an age in which we choose to value expertise and experience because we know that while the problem of legitimacy cannot be ignored, neither can the problem of extension and we know that a society in which an expert opinion is given the same weight as any other opinion is not one we would want to live in.  We have all been changed by Wave 2 and by Post-Modernism, but we still have to get on with a life informed by expertise; we must surely elect to live in a society where decisions are made for reasons in addition to power and populist sentiment.

“Wave Two” seems to refer to post-modernism, which among other things has demonstrated the failure of science to assert itself as the guiding force of society. Skepticism is pointless, scientists often speak in areas in which they are not experts, and if left to the public, we’ll end up with decisions made based on politics and religion.

Elective Modernism is his proposed Wave Three, in which society must choose science, but not either Wave One or Wave Two science.  And, this choice is not necessarily rational, but moral:

If Wave Two has shown that arguments that favour scientific values cannot be got from the ideas of truth and efficiency, such values, if they are to inform a society, will simply have to be `chosen’. We can call the basis of a society which chooses such values, `Elective Modernism.’

Elective Modernism is, I want to argue, the most attractive successor to Post-Modernism. I want to suggest that Elective Modernism is a more appealing as a basis for society than force, religion, or populism. But the choice itself would not be `rational’ but more like a moral choice: one would not want to live in a society in which, say, gratuitous torture of the innocent and weak is acceptable even though one could not prove it was a bad society. Those who would demand a `proof’ of the badness of such a society would have missed the point.

Collins is quite critical of the current state of science, says that we “cannot live by skepticism alone,” and rejects essentially any principles for establishing societal values. Except, that is, for choosing to accept the values of science. The problem is, he explains, no current method for determining the values of science has worked.

The society he envisions is not based on the outcomes of science, but by making a moral choice to choose scientific values of experience and expertise; that is, a world run by experts.  I have not yet discovered how this escapes the problems of skepticism or expert opinions skewed by politics or culture, the problems of Wave Two.

I enjoy reading Collins; he certainly has some interesting things to say. However, I couldn’t help thinking of Orwell’s Animal Farm.  I propose a little game, similar to those I keep getting invitations to on FaceBook: Read a few of Collins’ essays, then tell me, which Animal Farm animal would he be?