Friday, August 20, 2010

RealApologetics' Jamin slices and dices The Atheist Ethicist

From here:

As all Christians should know, the atheist has no real grounds for objective morals. Without an objective standard there can be no objective “right” or “wrong.” Ethics can be nothing more than personal preference or the success of evolution to create a clever (and still subjective) mechanism for furthering our species.
Alonzo Fyfe and his blog “Atheist Ethicist“  essentially assumes the possibility of the contrary:
When I was in high school, I decided that I wanted to leave the world better off than it would have been if I had not existed. This started a quest, through 12 years of college and on to today, to try to discover what a “better” world consists of. I have written a book describing that journey that you can find on my website. In this blog, I will keep track of the issues I have confronted since then.
How does this really work out? And what problems can be found when an atheist of this type interacts with things like the existence of God?

To Know or Not to Know

The answer is clear in one of his recent posts, “To Know that God Doesn’t Exist”:
A member of the studio audience sent me the following question:
I would love to know how you manage to know that god and the supernatural don’t exist. i am an atheist myself yet i believe(not claim) that god does not exist, but not claim that “god does not exist” is a fact. i am therefore an atheist agnostic and i would assume that you’re a gnostic atheist?
I would love to know why, when conversations turn to God, people shift the meaning of the word “know” to something entirely at odds with the way the term is used everywhere else.
That’s easy: because God is different than everything else. He’s the Creator of the universe, entirely unique, utterly holy. There is nothing in all the universe like God (He is “wholly other”), and as such, knowing God is different (in some sense) as knowing everything else, especially as God Himself wrote a book for us to understand Him and His works in creation. That is, nothing can be compared to knowing God through the Creator’s specific/special revelation; the Creator-creature relationship in epistemology bears the mark of uniqueness when compared to creature-creation relationships of knowing. More about this in a moment.
If I were to say, at work, that I know that the meeting will take more than an hour, I am not going to be jumped by co-workers asking me how I could possibly know that. Nobody is going to assert that, because of factors I have not considered or am not aware of, it is possible that the meeting will take less then an hour, so I am making a mistake in claiming to know that it will last more than an hour. Our regular everyday use of the word “know” is quite compatible with the possibility of error.
Of course. But there are different degrees of “knowing.” Or, to put it differently, if “knowledge” is (generally) “justified true belief,” there are different types and degrees of justification. Is Fyfe really asserting that belief in God and disbelief in God is really no different than the belief in the date of a meeting at work?
If it turns out that I am mistaken – that the meeting lasts 30 minutes because a key member has to catch a plane – then I have to retract my claim to have known that it would take more than an hour.
However, the point is that “know” claims in regular conversation are retractable claims. Whenever a person makes a knowledge claim in any conversation not having to do with God, it is with the understanding on the part of the speaker and the listener that the know claim might ultimately have to be retracted.
Again, depending on the type of “knowing” the knower is doing, the detractable nature of the claim changes. (Probability, for example, comes into play.) However, if Fyfe is asserting (in the distinction of “having to do with God” and not) that creatures know God in some different way than knowing everything else, he might be on to something. After all, in a Christian epistemology, a claim made by Creator is more epistemically certain than a claim made by a creature. There are two levels of everything: the level of creature and the level of Creator; God knows things differently than we do. Moreover, God Himself is sovereign over creation which includes both the knower, the knowledge, and the object of knowledge. The Creator can control the creature’s faculties, guaranteeing the highest degree of justification for a given claim.  But, I doubt Fyfe is asserting this in his general distinction.
This seems not to be true when we talk about God. Here, when I say that I know that a God does not exist, I am accused of using the term “know” improperly unless it is an unretractable claim.
“You cannot justifiably claim to know that a God does not exist unless you are willing to assert no possibility of error that might force you to retract that claim.”
Why is there this double standard?
“If I use the standard, retractable concept of ‘know’ when I talk about God, then the phrase ‘I know that God does not exist’ would be a true and sensible statement to make about myself. However, that would mean that I am an atheist. My friends and family would freak out if I were an atheist. In fact, all the time I was growing up I was taught to look down on atheists and view them as inferior who are beneath us good religious folks. I certainly do not want to apply this term ‘atheist’ to myself. Therefore, when it comes to claims about God, I am going to shift to a different definition in which ‘know’ claims are not retractable. Since it is not the case that I ‘know’ that God does not exist in the non-retractable sense (a sense that actually prohibits me from knowing anything at all, including my own name), I can avoid the label ‘atheist’.”
This description is not true of the person who sent the original question. However, it does explain why he has come to think that, when it comes to claims about God, we must use the non-retractable concept. It explains why he thinks it is proper to accuse me of claiming that I have non-retractable knowledge that God does not exist when I claim to know that God does not exist.
The other reason we have this non-retractable definition of “to know” when we speak about God is the theist reason.
The theist wants to believe in God. To do this, in light of what we see around us in the real world, she needs to set the evidence bar low enough that it is possible to get over it. In a universe with absolutely no evidence for the existence of God, one argument that a person can still use is to claim, “I am justified in claiming that God exists as long as non-retractable knowledge that God does not exist is impossible.”
First of all, the theist, to be a theist, believes in God. Desire of belief in God is irrelevant, let alone impossible to objectively prove in the case of any believer (e.g. what is the criteria for proving that a believer merely wants to believe instead of believing out of the impossibility of the contrary?). Second of all, who determines what is the “real world”, the Creator or the creature? Why presuppose the impossibility of the Creator? Third of all, could Fyfe provide an example of “setting the bar low enough that it is possible to get over it,” let alone what this means? Could Fyfe provide a standard for this “bar” since he has no objective means of doing so? And if there is no objective norm to follow, what does he then mean by “low”? Low compared to what? (It sounds like the “believing in God is like believing Mickey Mouse” argument.)
This form of argument is not logically valid, but it can be psychologically comforting.
Tell that to Abraham, Moses, David, Paul, and the author of Hebrews who said “let us be grateful for receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, and thus let us offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe,
for our God is a consuming fire,” (12:28). The affirmation of the existence of God is the most psychologically discomforting fact of reality for the sinful man! Granted, there is much “comfort” for the Christian since his/her God is “the God of all comfort” (II Cor. 1:3), and being justified, we have peace with God our Father (Rom. 5:1). But this biblical sense of comfort is not the comfort Fyfe is talking about. And for anyone in the state of sin, Christian or not, God is a galactic inconvenience. Why? Because God is Holy and man is sinful, and the One who is Holy is unfortunately (for a sinner) the Creator and owner of everything. That means we are accountable to him. Perhaps Fyfe should again define his terms.
To the person who is afraid to let go of God, either for personal reasons or because this would lead to his being an outcast in his community of friends and family, this rationalization serves its purpose. This person can join his friends and family in looking down on those atheists who claim that God does not exist when they cannot possibly have non-retractable knowledge that God does not exist.
Of course, there are some theists who set the evidence bar even lower than this. For them, the evidence bar is not sitting on the floor, it IS the floor. These are the faith-peddlers, the people who claim that one can know that God exists without any evidence at all – that there is absolutely no bar to clear.
I’m one of those guys, and I’m not ashamed of it. No, I’m not talking about a person who believes in God without any evidence, but I am a person – as are all genuine Christians – who doesn’t approach the Creator of the universe with a man-made “bar” and say jump it God! Or I won’t believe in you! The fact is, the bar, the floor, and the evidence for either wouldn’t exist, let alone have meaning, without the Source of all being and meaning.
If these people were applying this standard only to beliefs that have no effect on others, then there would be little reason to complain about it. However, many of those who use the faith standard are using it to decide how they are going to treat other people, what laws they are going to vote for and against, and what politicians are worthy of holding power. In fact, many insist that the only politician worthy of holding power is one whose standard of evidence is as low as theirs – which provides a very dangerous foundation for public policy.
Well, “many of those who use the faith standard” includes all Christians, and all non-Christians. And all people use this “faith standard” to determine their values and thus their behavior. This “faith standard” is called a worldview, and everyone has one. And a person’s worldview determines values (i.e. truth values), and values determines behavior (i.e. your votes, public actions). Fyfe has absolutely no reason to be looking down on theists because they make actions according to their faith-commitment and “ultimate presupposition” as Frame says; everyone has faith in something, and everyone acts on it whether they are conscious of it or not.
I am not saying that these are the conscious thoughts of individuals involved in these ways of thinking. In fact, as conscious thoughts they would fail. Rather, the way these arguments work in practice is in the form of beliefs grounded on emotion.
Seems like classic Freudism. People believe in God only because they are driven by fear and emotion. Another unfounded presupposition. At any rate, I’m still confused as to how a conscious thought that a worldview determines our values and behavior “would fail.” What is failure? How is it determined?
An individual experiences a learned aversion to the atheist label. Because of the discomfort of this learned aversion, he finds that he is more comfortable thinking that atheism requires a non-retractable definition of “to know”. Because this non-retractable definition is comfortable, the agent adopts it.
Or maybe everything coming from revelation through the senses to the brain assumes, demonstrates, and demands God’s glory and fact of existence, so to say “well, God might not exist” would be the very definition of borderline absurdity?
The same is true of the person who is afraid to let go of God. She is more comfortable holding onto the belief, and finds that she is comfortable thinking that atheism requires this non-retractable concept of “to know”. Because these beliefs are comfortable to her, she adopts them as being true.
For these reasons, we find ourselves in a culture that allows a retractable concept of “to know” everywhere other than when we talk about God, and a non-retractable concept when we talk about God. We are surrounded by such a culture because it helps people to avoid conclusions they do not like. It helps atheists avoid the stigma of thinking of themselves as atheists, and it helps theists hold onto a belief in God that they are desperate to hold onto.
I know that no God exists. I know it in the same sense that I know who my biological parents are and I know on what day I was born. It doesn’t mean that there is no chance that I am wrong . . . only that I consider the chance of error to be remote.
Here is where Fyfe makes the parallel and in doing so falls off an epistemological cliff. He presents the two truth claims as if there are no distinctions with epistemological consequence. I mean, is Fyfe really suggesting that one truth claim (an event? A present reality? etc.) requires no more justification than another? Can we say “I know no star or planet or speck of dust beyond Pluto exists. I know it in the same sense that I know Abraham Lincoln was the first President”? I doubt this is really some “ordinary use” of the term “know.” Indeed, it is the opposite.
Truth claims and claims of knowledge come in a variety of shapes and sizes. Some require different types or degrees of justification (the “bar” Fyfe refers to) than others. For example, a claim about history is obviously different in nature than a claim about immediate sensory experience. “Jerusalem fell in 70AD” is a bit different than “I smell chocolate chip cookies.” How do we know this? Because of how we try to prove the claim. What is required to demonstrate the truthfulness of the fall of Jerusalem? The truthfulness of me smelling cookies? The answers are much, much different.
The same is the case for God’s non-existence and the illustrations Fyfe provided. The first major distinction he misses is that the knowledge of the non-existence of something requires far greater justification than the knowledge of the existence of something. Or in other terms, positive truth claims are easier to prove (and know) than negative truth claims. If I say “I know that a debate over Mormonism occurred in the year 1922,” my knowledge of this fact might only need one newspaper article from 1922. With that article, I would be justified in saying “I know” that it happened. But if I said, “I know that a debate over Mormonism did not occur in the year 1922,” I would have to have read absolutely everything written in that year, and perhaps literature from years past to demonstrate that I “know” that a debate didn’t occur – still using “know” in the same sense as in the positive claim. And, even if I exhausted all evidence, I still might not know that the debate didn’t occur – for it may not simply have been on record. There is a possibility for error and retraction on both, but that doesn’t put them on equal ground as far as what is required to “know.”
Again, that is true for ontological claims of knowledge and the existence of God. “I know that no God exists” requires an insurmountable amount of evidence and epistemic justification for there to be adequate grounds for saying it, even in the most ordinary way of “know.” You would have to be everywhere all the time and be able to see everything, and even then, there is a chance you’re wrong. Wouldn’t it be much more logical, according to Fyfe, to simply respond to such a claim with “No, you don’t ‘know’ God doesn’t exist,” given the general use of the term he has described?
Again, all of these claims are “retractable.” Our senses could deceive us. We could be in error. Historians could be lying to us, etc. But this is where Christian epistemology makes a massive distinction: the Creator controls the knowing faculties of the knower, and is the Creator of both – and the knowledge being known. Thus, if there is any non-retractable claim, a claim that has the highest degree of certainty, it is a claim made by the Creator Himself, revealed to his creatures, and secured by this Creator’s Spirit in the mind of the interpreter. The Word of God is the final standard for truth claims. But the atheist has no such God, and therefore no such basis to assert the reliability of the senses, etc. In fact, he has no reason to explain why one person interprets information in the same way as another; to “know” might be different (even opposite!) in another person’s evolved mind. Furthermore, human beings by their very nature are God-conscious. Revelation everywhere screams “God Made!” “God is the Creator!” “Great, Wise, and Powerful is the Lord of Creation!” (Rom. 1:21-23) Contrary to popular thought, self-consciousness is no more ultimate or important than God-consciousness (the details of this are too lengthy to describe at present); to retract “God exists” is to retract “I exist.” There is no basis to have it any other way as long as the creature is a creature made in God’s image.
This is essentially the end of the major portions of Fyfe’s article. Much more could be said. But, in short, the skeptic is simply left to absurdity when trying to deny his/her Maker. The pot is correcting the Potter. Silly indeed.

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