Thursday, May 24, 2012

The "Reasonable Doubts" podcast on presuppositional apologetics: Part 1

Reasonable Doubts is an atheist podcast to which I regularly listen, and honestly I find them among the least unfair of all Internet atheists I’ve encountered, which I generally appreciate. That’s not to say they are always or even often fair to the Bible or the Christian faith, but I am willing to appreciate lesser amounts of evil when greater amounts have been experienced.

The Doubtcasters recently performed a two-and-a-half part critique of presuppositional apologetics that quite rightly became a critique of biblical theology, and I’d like to respond to the 2nd episode (beginning around the 17-minute mark).

The Doubtcasters made it clear in the 2nd episode that they would be engaging in an internal critique of the Christian faith and nothing more. They specifically said that they were not going to provide their own account of reality, that this is merely a demonstration that the Christian worldview is incoherent and impossible. Keep this in mind as we proceed - since their intention was to show Christianity's internal incoherency, my defense will be entirely from the Christian perspective.

Their first critique has to do with with God's relationship to the laws of logic and consists of an attempt to impale Christians on the horns of a dilemma, which they liken to the Euthyphro dilemma. That sort of fits, though to my mind the Euthyphro dilemma is easily resolved.
Is logic both contingent on God's existence and logically necessary? Or must it be one or the other? Is God dependent on the laws of logic?
No need to reinvent the wheel here - James Anderson and Greg Welty recently wrote a paper that answers this dilemma quite well. Read here The Lord Of Non-Contradiction.

Around the 42:26-minute mark, the Doubtcasters' next critique begins. It has to do with the notion that only Christian theism can account for induction and thus all science and scientific enquiry. I affirm this statement, but of course the Doubtcasters don't.
The Doubtcasters choose here to bring up what a commenter on their blog, Reynold, mentioned, rather than, apparently, thinking of their own critique:
1) a god who performs “miracles” shoots down the idea of the “invariant laws of nature”
They quote Chris Bolt, from here:
Reynold thinks that covenantal apologists are committed to some concept of “unvarying laws of the universe,” but this is not necessarily the case. Some do not even believe that there are any such things as “laws.” Perhaps laws are merely descriptions of the regularities we observe in nature. And the Christian knows that these regularities obtain through time and location because it is God who oversees them in that manner. But the atheist has no basis upon which to affirm this understanding of regularities as one of their own, David Hume, famously pointed out.
The question here is not about instances where nature does not behave in a regular fashion. Anomalies presuppose regularities. The Christian can account for the regularities in virtue of God controlling and ordering His creation. The atheist cannot.

Doubtcaster Jeremy Beahan objects to Bolt's statement, then goes on to empty all meaning from his own objection, giving away the farm.  He says that, yes, anomalies can wreak havoc on scientific theories and they should force us to revise our ideas about what those regularities are. He fails to take seriously just what this means.
Dave Fletcher: And science is structured to include those anomalies.

If it weren't already obvious, this is one of the first points where the Doubtcasters fail to bring an internal critique. This is external, importing their own assumptions into the equation. Interestingly, their own worldview doesn't rule out miracles because of this objection. If you think a particular law of nature is in operation and then you observe an anomaly, you change the law or figure out why there was some other force or entity in play, right?
If you observe 1000 rocks fall to the ground when thrown into the air, you might conclude there's probably a force that pulls them back toward the center of mass - downward. If you throw the 1001st rock in the air and I catch it, thus stopping its fall, that's not a violation of a law of nature (ie, gravity). It's an intervention by an intelligent agent. One easy Christian response to this kind of critique is simply to point this out - miracles are intervention by an intelligent agent, and it's no more difficult for us to account for than for a naturalist to account for intelligent activity in their own experimentation. How do the Doubtcasters not know this?

Moving on, Beahan reads more from Bolt:
Perhaps there are laws of nature, and they do not vary. In that case, God could intervene such that some law is not broken, but neither is it in play in that instance. So there is no successful objection here, and the atheist is still left having dodged, rather than answered, the problems raised for his own view by his own camp.
Here is the essence of the Doubtcasters' critiques here; I have transcribed what I believe to be the important parts of their discussion.:
So God can intervene in the parting of the Red Sea, but He's not actually breaking any laws of nature? 
How would buoyancy still hold at the moment, even as there's a wall of water? 
What is the difference? 
God makes sure nature behaves in regular ways except of course when God doesn't. God ensures that fixed laws of nature exist except when He suspends them, and this is supposed to give us a basis for induction. 
Presuppositionalists just think of this in the abstract. They’re not thinking about how this view would really affect science.
A doctor runs experimental treatment; are the people really responding to the treatment, or is this God actually intervening? How do we know what the people are actually responding to?
Seismologists poring over data from a recent earthquake - is it caused by plate tectonics or is God just smiting people?
And, OK, we could just say that God is smiting people and He is using natural processes to do so. But that doesn't help us predict when the next earthquake is going to occur, and that's what we're looking for when we use inductive reasoning.
Let’s say a building didn’t collapse on a guy during an earthquake - is that something we can add to our dataset in studying architectural design? What if he’s a Christian/Calvinist? Should we cross him off our dataset? This threatens the entire foundation of induction. It would only work if we knew some sort of number to help us with our probability, how often God would intervene.
Any absolute statement can be disconfirmed by one counterinstance. How could we ever know what a law of nature is then? Anything that appears to be a violation of a law of nature could just be God intervening. How could we falsify that hypothesis that a given law exists?

Some initial thoughts before I break into a more specific rebuttal.
Here is more relevant material from Chris Bolt.

God promised, after Noah had disembarked from the ark, that:
"I will never again curse the ground on account of man, for the intent of man’s heart is evil from his youth; and I will never again destroy every living thing, as I have done. While the earth remains, Seedtime and harvest, And cold and heat, And summer and winter, And day and night, Shall not cease" (Genesis 7:21-22). This promise, enacted directly after the catastrophic Flood that killed every landgoing animal and all people except for those on the ark, speaks directly to God's intent never to disrupt the natural cycle that He had put in place on such a wide scale, until the Eschaton.
Indeed, the very idea that the Parousia of Christ will be such a cataclysmic upheaval of all that had been before presupposes that there was a more or less normal flow of nature, before. In the same way that making all language allegorical eviscerates true allegory, thinking that God is "constantly" intervening, as the Doubtcasters ignorantly put it, means that miracles are unremarkable.

All the commands in the Old and New Testaments to keep working and live faithful and diligent lives presuppose that the Lord is not going to be intervening miraculously all the time.

Miracles are and have always been quite rare. The sophomoric reader of the Bible may object - but they're all over the place in the Bible!
Are they indeed? Count them. How many total miracles are recorded in the Bible's accounts of history? A few hundred, maybe. How many events have occurred throughout human history in the last ~8000 years? The amount is incalculable. Compared with how many times I, if I were Almighty God, would feel like intervening and either blowing something up or stopping someone from sinning or something, I believe God has shown remarkable restraint in His miracle-working.
The miracles are "all over the place" in the Bible because they are so special as to merit recording and they serve redemptive and revelational purposes. They are done to highlight the fact that God is at work in the world and through the people whom He has set apart for His work. If miracles were occurring all the time, willy-nilly, then the whole point would be lost. They wouldn't be special. They wouldn't get anyone's attention. God distinguishes His prophets and also the ministry of Jesus and the apostles by the attesting signs and wonders for the precise purpose that people will see the powerful works and pay close attention.
To wit, John 9:16 - Therefore some of the Pharisees were saying, "This man is not from God, because He does not keep the Sabbath." But others were saying, "How can a man who is a sinner perform such signs?" And there was a division among them.

Biblically speaking, there are not a whole lot of miracles happening during scientific experiments that might intentionally or unintentionally mess them up. Who was studying the parting of the Red Sea to find out whether "buoyancy" was still holding?

It is more important to trust God than to trust in the scientific enterprise. Let science burn if it should come to that; "let God be true and every man a liar" (Romans 3:4). Standing commands exist for Christians to work hard and work excellently, to praise God with our daily work, design, and knowledge. If, for the sake of argument, it should be determined that we can't know that a given law or set of laws of nature hold except for very rare divine interventions, if God were indeed "constantly" intervening, that changes nothing for the Christian. God knows far better than we do what we need in this life, and if He deems it better to perform constant miracles than to take a more hands-off approach, where His providence and the ways He has made nature to function are more prevalent, then so be it. He is in charge; it's His universe and we are His creatures and His slaves. He is omniscient and very wise, whereas we are very, very limited. The Doubtcasters' sneering at how miracles undermine the scientific enterprise show that they were either unable or unwilling to consistently perform an internal critique. They should definitely stick to external critiques, for they know very little about Christian theology, no matter how many times they want to claim they came out of Calvinist churches. One's background matters little; one's fairness and knowledge matter far more.

The Doubtcasters go on to ask how we can know whether an event that would appear to disconfirm what we previously understood to be a law of nature was the result of a natural process or was a miraculous event.
Again, this is answered by remembering that miracles are rare, and are performed for specific redemptive and revelational purposes. The pattern that we see in the Bible roughly divides miracles into two categories. Most of the miracles recorded in the Bible are divine healings. For example, a great deal of biblical miracles occur in Jesus' ministry (and the apostles') and most of those were related to healing. The Doubtcasters fret about how we could know whether God is "smiting" someone and how that might relate to civil engineering. To what are they referring? There are actually few instances of God exercising power to punish people in a prima facie supernatural way. I guess a few that come to mind are:
1) Sodom and Gomorrah, obviously
2) Parting of the Red Sea
3) The 10 Plagues against Egypt
4) Nadab and Abihu, Leviticus 10
5) The angel destroying the Assyrian army encamped before Jerusalem
6) The ground swallowing up Korah and his party during Korah's rebellion, Numbers 16
7) God striking an entire Aramean army blind, 2 Kings 6

There may be a few more, but in what way would these "undermine the scientific enterprise"? For all we know, God could have used natural means to bring these to pass anyway. I'm not saying He did; I'm saying it's possible and the text doesn't tell us either way.
Now, dear reader, don't get carried away here with criticisms and laughter. I'm just proposing these for the sake of the argument, to show the Doubtcastic critique has no teeth:
1) A volcano and seismic event could have taken care of this. No evidence of this, you say? It was thousands of years ago. Nobody has any idea what topographical changes have taken place since. Volcanic eruptions do not undermine the scientific enterprise.
2) A microburst of wind and a coincidental seismic shift of some kind could temporarily part water.
3) Plague of blood - granted, it's hard to think how this could naturally occur.
Of frogs - not hard to think of a sudden fertility surge among frogs.
Gnats - ditto.
Livestock - epidemics happen occasionally.
Boils - epidemic.
Hail - weather pattern.
Locusts - locust plagues are hardly unheard-of.
Darkness - solar eclipse.
Firstborn - epidemic. Hey, strange things happen.
4) Maybe a wind kicked up and they were standing too close to the brazier or a big fire, and they got burned up. It happens.
5) Sudden epidemic.
6) Sudden earthquake (which is a bit redundant - not too many earthquakes aren't sudden).
7) Sudden epidemic. Syphilis, perhaps. They were pagan Canaanites, after all, known for their crass and wild sexual religious rituals.

So, again, what I'm trying to say is that the Doubtcasters are playing on biblical ignorance in this critique. And except for one of these events (the plague of blood), I can think of a "natural" cause pretty easily that could easily, for the sake of argument, account for what the Doubtcasters think is a miracle that undermines the scientific enterprise.

As for divine healings, again, it's not like anyone was studying the beneficiaries of a touch from God's hand for healing. And so what if a doctor puts a man on medication and he is miraculously healed the next day? Do the Doubtcasters really want to say that there's reason to think that God intervenes that often to heal people? On what basis would they say so? They propose a scenario where God's healing messes up a study of medicine, but that's just silly. What in the world would lead anyone to think that God is just interfering with such experiments for the fun of it? That's the stuff of caricatures and strawmen, not biblical Christianity. The Doubtcasters need to give us a reason to think this is something God does regularly, not import their biased, derisive views into Christianity, all the while claiming, however, that they are performing an internal critique.

As for their statement:
God makes sure nature behaves in regular ways except of course when God doesn't.

They say it in a mocking tone, but it's wide of the mark. Remember how gravity causes rocks to fall to the ground except when it doesn't? You know, because someone caught it?
Is intelligent activity part of "nature" in the way they mean? Ie, is human activity a law, a cyclical pattern observed over and over again? No. Nature does behave in regular ways except when God intervenes. That is not the same thing.

They say:
we could just say that God is smiting people and He is using natural processes to do so. But that doesn't help us predict when the next earthquake is going to occur

Again, God is not too concerned with our ability to predict when the next earthquake is going to occur. He is concerned that we know how to worship and glorify Him, and so we can actually learn from, say, Korah's rebellion that may have ended in a sudden seismic event. Here's the lesson: Don't rebel against God and act like you know better than the omniscient Creator. The prediction we can glean from this is that negative consequences follow from such rebellion. If the Doubtcasters were really engaging in an internal critique, they would've know this.

But see, because of their biblical ignorance, they do not allow for God to reveal purposes and communicate about the nature of and reason for miraculous occurrences. They can't perform an internal critique because they can't understand the Word of God.
1 Corinthians 2:
6Yet we do speak wisdom among those who are mature; a wisdom, however, not of this age nor of the rulers of this age, who are passing away; 7but we speak God’s wisdom in a mystery, the hidden wisdom which God predestined before the ages to our glory; 8the wisdom which none of the rulers of this age has understood; for if they had understood it they would not have crucified the Lord of glory;
9but just as it is written,
10For to us God revealed them through the Spirit; for the Spirit searches all things, even the depths of God. 11For who among men knows the thoughts of a man except the spirit of the man which is in him? Even so the thoughts of God no one knows except the Spirit of God. 12Now we have received, not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, so that we may know the things freely given to us by God, 13which things we also speak, not in words taught by human wisdom, but in those taught by the Spirit, combining spiritual thoughts with spiritual words.
      14But a natural man does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually appraised. 15But he who is spiritual appraises all things, yet he himself is appraised by no one. 16For WHO HAS KNOWN THE MIND OF THE LORD, THAT HE WILL INSTRUCT HIM? But we have the mind of Christ.

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