question all, but question yourself first
This already appears at the tale end of another thread but I thought to post it as a separate part so as to have more read it. I have little doubt that much will be misunderstood and misconstrued but perhaps some may read this and realize that we're dealing with people, not disembodied ideas and that in our attempt to reach humanity, it would be best to truly understand them and what they actually say, not what you think they say.
Quite frankly, this will be my last entry. In it, I will attempt to outline the overall issue that I have been trying, perhaps in vain, to bring to awareness. If everyone hear still doesn’t get it, then that’s your problem. The continued refusal to recognize that all ideological structures are based on assumptions and that these assumptions must be clearly delineated and understood, to accept that Christians and other theists aren’t stupid and to see that rigid adherence to a particular claim is not solely the prevue of religion, is an indication of the vast ignorance found here about real Christian apologetics, philosophy in general and theological history. I urge anyone interested in actually knowing what believers think to start reading Carl F.H. Henry, Gordon Clark, and Alvin Plantinga among others. These are men with degrees and a history of thought far greater than I or anyone else here. Regardless of whether they are wrong, which of course I think they are, they should be taken seriously and understood properly. I am reminded of a theology prof of mine who once told a student who was flippantly dismissing Richard Dawkins that despite disagreeing, Dawkins should be treated with respect as he is an academic and a good thinker. If believers are willing to be that level-headed, it would behoove us to be so as well.
But anyway, let’s break this down.
The believer, like any person, is faced with the dilemma of choosing an epistemological and ontological foundation. There are many epistemic possibilities to choose from, including rationality (in various forms), intuitionism, empiricism, and faith. They all are separate means of ascertaining truth. That does not mean all are as capable or that each is exclusive to the others, only that they are separate possibilities of the epistemic question. What is imperative here is to notice that none, except for faith, which will be touched on shortly, are without problems.
Take reason for example. It simply doesn’t work in all situations or in fact isn’t even used very often. This is clear from neurological and psychological studies. Our brains in most everyday action are not propositionalizing various data and then running through streams of inductive and deductive arguments in order to come to a conclusion. Quite often, decisions are made without any overt rational thought and are simply constrained by ontological paradigms, social mores, and instinctive drives. This does not mean that one cannot look back at a decision and create a rational for it, but this is after the fact and in all likelihood is simply a creative enterprise, since clearly the average person wants to put themselves in the most favorable light when looking at their reasoning capabilities. Following this, reason is, as alluded to previously, largely constrained by the social mores in which the person using it is found. There is no particular way that reason must be used. Even logic, which is unfortunately what reason is usually equated with, has gone through various changes and can be found in different forms. Indeed, logic isn’t even a truth-determiner, but rather a tool to delineate propositional relationships. In addition, not everything can be broken down into propositional form. This is simple fact. We all believe a great many things about the world, like the subject-object dichotomy, the movement of time, and the one-for-one cause-effect relationship of reality, without any reason for it. We accept these facts prima facie and only when they are brought to our awareness do we then fabricate a rationalization for showing why it is so. But even if no reason were given, these aspects of our existence would still be true and we would go about our merry lives without any sense of loss. None of this is to say that reason, generally, is bankrupt, only that it is limited and blind acceptance of it and the willy-nilly way in which it is used only furthers the distance between human beings.
Empiricism (science) also fails in being all-encompassing. Not only has quantum mechanics shown that the very attempt of scientific study changes the way information is going to be understood and thus we are, in some small way, changing reality to suit our preconceived notions, but there are also things that empiricism simply isn’t capable of describing. For instance, the phenomenological feel of events. There is no reason to delve into a type of dualism, natural or supernatural, to see that even if one were to be capable of empirically demonstrating on a computer or in a laboratory all the mechanisms that go into thought and experience, it would still not actually tell us what a person experiences when they “feel” something. Kant was quite clear in his stipulation of the noumenon and phenomenon paradigm that there will be always exist a separation between the real and what is known. Now, I don’t think his criticism was completely valid, but his thinking does show that there is a gap between mathematical models and the thing itself. This isn’t damning, it’s simply a limitation and one we ignore at peril of becoming as absolutist in our claims to knowledge as the theist is in his.
So on to faith. Defining it as belief without reason is not an argument because that is precisely what it is. All you’re doing is stating a fact. What has yet to be shown is whether therefore faith is a valid epistemic tool. And to do so, it is not enough to simply say “well, reason says so.” One must demonstrate that when a person uses the term in its religious context, they are failing in engaging with reality. By gallivanting around and picking fights with statements of faith, instead of the core epistemic theory itself, the atheist is implicitly at a loss in argumentation.
Now, I can already hear some saying “but, but, the theist is under an obligation to show their claims are accurate, since they’re making a positive claim about reality.” First, this isn’t true, because faith claims, being that they are not based on reason and empiricism, are not claims about physical reality per se, though there may be inferences derived from those claims. Second, quoting the argument out of the George Smith handbook is naive. The atheist, too, is making positive statements, though not about God exactly. The atheist assumes the validity of rational and empirical evidence as a means of making positive claims about reality. This is an assumption that must be demonstrated, not because it’s fun to do, but because reason and empiricism are competing epistemic systems and thus are in need of being shown why one has chosen them over others.
All of this of course, is secondary. The believer does hold faith to be an epistemic system, but this is largely based on a previous belief as to the legitimacy of “the bible” as a real object. It astounds me that nobody has picked up on this yet in what I’ve been saying and only shows that everyone is so stuck on their standard modes of attack, that they don’t stop to really read what is being said. So let me say it more clearly: there is no such thing as “the bible.” It is not a singular book, it does not have an internal transcendent message and it was cobbled together by monarchical decree and choices of various committees.
In every quotation of scripture, in every claim to “know” what “the Bible” is truly saying, the atheist has embarked on the same ideological vessel to nowhere as the believer has. But it’s worse actually, because at least the believer has recourse to thousands of years of church apologetics and several academic disciplines that have grown around the belief that there exists a singular book called “the Bible.” And before someone starts screaming ad hoc fallacy like a broken record, it would be wise to stop and think first. Of course disciplines are going to come about after beliefs are stipulated. Do you really think that the discipline of astronomy was created before people had opinions about the stars? Of course not. Beliefs happen and then disciplines are created to deal with them. The exact same thing has occurred with “the Bible” belief. Since it was already assumed that such a book exists, to deal with the disparate opinions about it, academic disciplines were created to deal with the problems. This is perfectly acceptable and has occurred in every other field of human inquiry.
Christian believers are notorious for being able to lead a skeptic down rabbit trails. From years of apologetic study, I have seen that this is actually what some teachers explicitly teach believers to do. By implicitly agreeing with the believer about the efficacy of faith and the existence of “the bible” the atheist thus can be taken down trails to nowhere because foundational elements have yet to be discussed. The atheist, in the same absolutist zeal as the believer, postulates that his epistemic claim is the only one valid and the only one capable of “proving” anything, thus misses what the believer is actually postulating. Perhaps it would be wise for atheists and humanists to begin to focus more on humanity and understanding the person in front of them, instead of blindly following an ideological paradigm that may in fact, due to the inherent fallibility of humanity, be obsolete in the future.
Every one of your relationships to man and to nature must be a definite expression of your real, individual life corresponding to the object of your will. -Erich Fromm