It’s time for a little update, not much, but I am no longer new to blogging. I have been at it a few years. Not that I have gained any particular stature. I simply can’t claim to be new at it. I still write as part of my profession, but blogging is more interesting. Blogging is my way of sharpening ideas and fleshing them out. I know I don’t always “get it right”, but it’s the journey that counts.
I have been on a journey for truth since I emerged from the haze and confusion of adolescence, much of it self-induced. Stepping out of that myopic existence I began to get an inkling that a world of truth lay in front of me to encounter, and so I set off. I didn’t realize, then, how much faith is required to seek truth. Continue reading “My Journey”→
I have been trying to clear the way for an “unapologetic” argument for God. I am four articles in, and still making me way to the beginning. Standing in the way as I move forward is Hume’s standard of proof for miracles.
David Hume has had a profound influence on Western thought in the promotion of the Enlightenment view, which values human reason as the supreme measuring stick. Hume’s argument against miracles has been viewed as a gold standard among proofs that Christianity is not credible, especially to the extent that Christianity stands on the foundation of a miraculous event – the resurrection of Jesus.
Hume does not hide his antipathy for Christianity. He calls the “Christian religion” a doctrine “so little worthy of a serious refutation … founded merely in the testimony of the apostles”. He labels belief in Christianity “arrogant bigotry and superstition”.
Hume speaks of the “greediness” with which “miraculous accounts” are received. He characterizes the “religionist” as “an enthusiast who sees no reality”, whose vanity is excited by strong temptations and self-interest to promote narratives he knows to be false for what he deems to be a holy. Hume accuses “religionists” of renouncing judgment by principle and losing grip on judgment by “passion and a heated imagination”.
Hume blames the popularity of religion on a “strong propensity of mankind to the extraordinary and the marvellous”. Hume’s disdain carries over to “the generality of mankind” from “ignorant and barbarous nations” who he says are fools … propagating the imposture” of the “supernatural and marvellous”, the “grossest delusions”, and “delusive prophecies”.
Hume rails on the religions “of ancient Rome, of Turkey, of Siam, and of China” equally. He lumps together the testimony of “a few barbarous Arabians” about Mahomet with “Titus Livius, Plutarch, Tacitus, and… all the authors and witnesses, Grecian, Chinese, and Roman Catholic, who have related any miracle in their particular religion”.
Me thinks he doth protest too much. The standard Hume created to determine the veracity and credibility of a miraculous account contains the poison of his strong convictions. Yet, that standard has adherents today, perhaps because he reduces it to mathematical proportions that have the appearance of sacred science. Hume says,
“A hundred instances or experiments on one side, and fifty on another, afford a doubtful expectation of any event; though a hundred uniform experiments, with only one that is contradictory, reasonably beget a pretty strong degree of assurance. In all cases, we must balance the opposite experiments, where they are opposite, and deduct the smaller number from the greater, in order to know the exact force of the superior evidence.”
He acknowledges the importance of eyewitness testimony, but he imposes a standard on it that diminishes the value of any eyewitness testimony that contradicts widely established human experience. This seems reasonable on its face. “Marvelous” assertions are suspect; miraculous ones are even more suspect.
I think most of us can “go there” with him. On miracles, Hume says.
“A miracle is a violation of the laws of nature; and as a firm and unalterable experience has established these laws, the proof against a miracle, from the very nature of the fact, is as entire as any argument from experience can possibly be imagined.”
In one sense, Hume is merely acknowledging the nature of a miracle: it is a miracle that goes against the laws of nature and the weight of common experience. Nothing would be considered a miracle that was common to the experience of people, even if that experience is relatively uncommon among human experience. He reasonably says,
“There must, therefore, be a uniform experience against every miraculous event, otherwise the event would not merit that appellation.”
Hume, though, is not content to define relegate miracles to the rarity they are by definition. He proceeds to define them out of the realm of possibility. He says,
“And as an uniform experience amounts to a proof, there is here a direct and full proof, from the nature of the fact, against the existence of any miracle; nor can such a proof be destroyed, or the miracle rendered credible, but by an opposite proof, which is superior.”
Perhaps, wanting to appear open-minded, Hume allows for some proof that might establish a miracle. The proof of a miracle, Hume says, must so weighty “that its falsehood would be more miraculous, than the fact, which it endeavours [sic] to establish”.
Even then, Hume says, such counter-balancing evidence only levels the scales; it doesn’t make the factual assertion of the miracle more likely than not (and rejection of the assertion of a miracle would be justified either way).
Hume says, the mere testimony that a miracle occurred should be dismissed out of hand unless the falsehood of the assertion would require believing the miraculous, itself.
Hume seems to assume the possibility of such corroborative evidence, but a simple application of math belies the lack of substance he saw in anything miraculous. Nil plus nil equals nil.
As Hume’s approach is a mathematical one, we can see by the application of math and the value Hume has given to the miraculous the impossibility of establishing proof of a miracle on Hume’s position. The likelihood of proof is nil.
Indeed, he sets his bar so high and makes the requisite proof so onerous that a miracle would be required to prove a miracle. Lest there be any doubt about the meaninglessness of Hume’s standard, he admits:
“I beg the limitations here made may be remarked, when I say, that a miracle can never be proved….”
Hume’s argument against miracles seems (to me) to be more of an exercise in satire than a sincere exercise in reasoning. I am surprised, therefore, that we take him at all seriously. To give further illustration and to remove all doubt about his pretense, Hume seems to beg the question in the following example:
“But suppose, that all the historians who treat of England, should agree, that, on the first of January 1600, Queen Elizabeth died; that both before and after her death she was seen by her physicians and the whole court, as is usual with persons of her rank; that her successor was acknowledged and proclaimed by the parliament; and that, after being interred a month, she again appeared, resumed the throne, and governed England for three years: I must confess that I should be surprized [sic] at the concurrence of so many odd circumstances, but should not have the least inclination to believe so miraculous an event.”
The fact that people still take him seriously, though the force of his conviction seems stronger than his argument, is one reason I address him here.
In two previous articles attempting to make an “unapologetic” argument for God, I have just been ramping up to make the argument. I still haven’t gotten there yet, and I am still just getting started.
That’s right. I am still working on getting to the starting line. Maybe I will still get there.
I say, “unapologetic”, rather loosely, in case you are wondering. I am not being apologetic in the sense of apologizing for anything. Apologetics has nothing to do with being sorry, of course. It means to provide a defense, and it specifically describes the effort of providing a defense for Christianity.
The word, apologetics, derives from the Greek word, apologia, which means “a speech in defense” or a “verbal defense” or a “well-reasoned reply”. The world is used in Peter 3:15 as follows:
“Always be prepared to give an answer [apologia] to everyone who asks you to give the reason [logos] for the hope that you have.”
I am using “unapologetic” as a kind of play on words. I am not giving a typical apologetic argument for the existence of God, and I am not being apologetic about doing that.
I previously made the observation that we all start with axioms, premises on which we support our positions for and against God, but we are incapable of proving those axioms. We consider them “self-evident”, but that is, frankly, just another way of saying that we can’t prove our starting premises” we have to assume they are true, and we go from there.
We take our fundamental premises on faith, essentially. This includes everyone, even in science.
As an example, consider the scientist, like a few I have heard, who says that science is the only way to know truth and all truths can be revealed by science. That premise cannot be scientifically proven. Therefore, you just must take it on faith.
Ironically, that statement is also self-contradictory. If science is the only way to know truth, and the statement itself cannot be proven by science, then even if it is right, it is wrong! (Echoing John Lennox here.)
I recently heard the astrophysicist, Michael Guillen, say similarly that science does not prove anything absolutely. As an example, he says we could posit that ravens are always black. Every raven the modern world has ever encountered and documented may be black, but that doesn’t mean that every raven that ever existed and every raven that will ever exist is always black.
To make the claim that all ravens are black is to go beyond science. We can only verify the blackness of all the ravens we can find and the ravens that other people have documented, but we can’t verify the blackness of the ravens that were never documented or the ravens that have not yet existed.
William Lane Craig talks about the philosophy of logical positivism championed by people like AJ Ayer in the 1940’s and 50’s. Logical positivism, or “verificationism”, as Craig calls it, was claimed that consideration of the existence of God is meaningless because it is not verifiable by the five senses. The book, Language, Proof and Logic, was a kind of “manifesto” of this view, says Craig,
Verificationsim was used by Ayer to nix anything metaphysical. According to this view, a statement is only meaningful if it is capable of being empirically verified. Since metaphysical statements are beyond the reach of empirical science, they cannot be verified. Metaphysical statements were, therefore, dismissed out of hand. According to Craig,
“Ayer was very explicit about the theological implications of this verificationism. Since God is a metaphysical object, the possibility of knowledge was ‘ruled out’ by our treatment of metaphysics. Thus, there can be no knowledge of God.”
Do you see the problem with this view? One only need ask, “Is that statement capable of being empirically verified?”
Ayer’s view was built on an axiom he could not prove, and which could not be proven by the methods he arbitrarily limited according to the premise he assumed. His view could not even stand up to itself!
Craig says the collapse of verificationism was “the most philosophical event of the twentieth century”. The verification principal was not only unscientific; it was self-refuting. “The statement, ‘You should only believe what can be scientifically proven cannot, itself, be scientifically proven.’”
In the previous “unapologetic” articles, I claim that we all have to take certain things on faith, especially our starting premises, which are the tools by which we view and explore the world, but not all of those starting premises are created equal. Some of them cannot even stand up to themselves!
But, enough of that. I need to get to the point of this article.
It seems axiomatic that, if one wants to determine whether God exists, and if one is sincere in making that determination, one will not start with a premise that will inevitably result in the logic that God does not exist.
I recently read a review by Chris Smart on the Solas blog of the book, Strange Rites, by Tara Isabella Burton, published by Public Affairs, New York 2020. My thoughts come third hand, but I found enough meat to chew on (hopefully) in the review to warrant some attention.
The author of the book is an American, though she establishes some objective distance through her Oxford education in the UK. Only about five percent (5%) of people in the UK attend church on Sundays, and the trend in the US is moving in that same direction.
Into the vacuum that is growing with nones in the US are rushing other objects of our religious impulses. This seems to be the focus of the book, analyzing the places religious impulses are taking modern Americans as they drift away from Christianity.
If Protestantism that has dominated the religious landscape in the US in the past is a religion of the printed book, the new spiritual movements in the US are “religions of the Internet”. That remark certainly doesn’t surprise me, though I had not thought of it that way.
The Internet is larger than life in our world. It has replaced encyclopedias and asking our parents (or even your doctors) for information. It eats up our spare time more completely than the television did in my youth and the radio did in my father’s youth.
The Internet is everywhere. It never leaves our sides. We turn to it feverishly at all hours of the day and night. We can’t wait to communicate with it, and we constantly check it for validation through its communication with us.
Chris Smart, summarizing Burton’s observations, describes our preoccupation with the Internet as a search for transcendence in which people are “looking to create meaning, purpose and community through new rituals”. Those “modern rituals” are exploited and perpetuated by big business.
Some of the largest big businesses are the purveyors of community and connectivity on the Internet. They help to lead people with the breadcrumbs of their own preferences to tribes that are personally tailored for them. Our new temples are the echo chambers of our own inclinations and the tribes to which they tend to lead.
In a pervious article, The Beginning of an “Unapologetic” Argument for God, I conceded that human beings cannot prove the existence of God as an absolute, objective certainty. Not because God may not exist, but because we are finite beings who have limitations.
Because we don’t know what we don’t know, we have have to take our most basic assumptions on faith. Basically, we all must reason from a point of faith. Whether our premise is a multiverse limited to space/time and matter or the existence of a transcendent creator God, we assert the starting premise on faith because we cannot prove it.
That is the very nature of an axiom. Axioms are propositions we regard as “self-evidently” true, but we can’t prove them.
Immanuel Kant famously demonstrated the dilemma we face on the existence of God by creating an airtight syllogism logically proving the existence of God. Then he turned around and created an airtight, syllogism logical proving there is no God. What was the difference?
The difference was the first premise, the axiom with which he started. Thus, the premise with which your logic starts will determine the outcome of a syllogism. Different starting premises yield different logical conclusions. The logic can be solid in both examples, but the difference in the starting premises leads to opposing conclusions.
This is the human condition, finite as we are: we have to take our starting premises on faith. We can test them logically and in other ways. We can eliminate starting premises that won’t stand up to logic or other forms of testing, but we cannot ultimately prove our starting premises.
When we have two syllogisms that stand up to logic and to other ways of testing them, and they still yield opposite conclusions, we are at a loss to reconcile them and to eliminate one or the other – except by faith.
We can’t hold them together, because they are diametrically opposed to each other. We cannot resolve which one is correct objectively because we do not have the facts we need, as finite beings, to determine which axioms comport with ultimate reality, and which do not.
This is the human dilemma on the existence of God. It requires us to choose a starting premise on faith. With that said, I am going to make a very “unapologetic” argument for the premise of God.
I really like apologetics. I find it interesting to think about, but apologetics has limited power as a tool to convince people to believe in God. It is not a magic bullet. There is no magic argument to prove the existence of God.
When I see article titles or social media posts that make claims of proving the existence of God, I cringe a little bit. It’s a promise we can’t deliver. We really shouldn’t “go there”. I feel that we should be more honest than that.
Of course, the “promise” depends on the definition of “prove”. The Oxford online dictionary defines the word, “prove”, as follows:
demonstrate the truth or existence of (something) by evidence or argument. (“The concept is difficult to prove.”)
demonstrate to be the specified thing by evidence or argument. (“Innocent until proven guilty.”)
If everyone accepted and applied these definitions, perhaps, we could find more common ground. A “proof” in the first sense is just evidence or argument that demonstrates the truth of the existence of something. Whether that proof actually, definitively and absolutely provides the truth or existence of that something, is another matter. A proof in this sense is still open to judgment whether it accomplished the goal.
A proof in the second sense is similar, and the example includes a standard of proof (one that we use in criminal proceedings). This example raises a key point: Without agreement on the standard of proof, the determination whether a proof is successful in proving that point is a moving target.
The success of any evidence or argument in proving a point depends on what standard of proof is applied. Two people may apply two very different standards of proof and, therefore, arrive at two very different conclusions on the determination whether the proof was successful.
Most of the arguments between theists and atheists gloss over and fail to recognize this fundamental issue. Not only do they apply different standards of proof, they make all kinds of different assumptions, and worse: they define their terms differently. It’s no wonder the debates and discussions produce so much disagreement. They are basically talking in foreign languages to each other.
Wikipedia defines “proof” as “sufficient evidence or a sufficient argument for the truth of a proposition.” What is “sufficient” evidence, though, depends on the standard of proof that is applied. Different standards of proof will yield different results.
For instance, we generally apply different standards of proof in the American legal system in different contexts. In civil cases, the applicable standard of proof is “more likely than not”, and in criminal proceedings, the applicable standard of proof is “beyond a reasonable doubt”.
Proving a case under the “more likely than not” standard is much easier than proving a case “beyond a reasonable doubt”. The higher standard (“beyond a reasonable doubt”) is designed for criminal cases with the purpose of causing “the system” to err on the side of finding a guilty person innocent (rather than erring on the side of convicting innocent people).
At least, that is the theory. People still disagree on the outcomes of criminal cases, and innocent people are sometimes found guilty, even when applying the much higher standard of proof. I am reminded of the axiom: to err is human.
These problems of proof are inevitable for finite beings. We don’t know what we don’t know, and we are always prone to “getting it wrong”. If we don’t take that limitation seriously, we become arrogant and prideful.
Therefore, I am reminded of the propriety of maintaining humility. Even if we are certain in our own minds of the truth of a matter, we should be mindful of the human tendency to get things wrong.
This is where faith comes in. Faith, in part, is an exercise in humility. Faith is the inevitable condition of being human, and that goes for faith in the truth that science reveals and faith in the truth that the Bible reveals. Let me explain.