Clearing the Rubble of Hume in the Making of an “Unapologetic” Argument for God

Hume’s argument against miracles seems to be more of an exercise in satire than a sincere exercise in reasoning.

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.[1] 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 cause”. 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 from his view of “the generality of mankind” emerging from “ignorant and barbarous nations” who he says are fools … industrious in 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 passionate convictions – a passion that smacks of the same kind of bias he accuses the “religionist” of committing. 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 (or seems to go against) the laws of nature that are commonly recognized 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 relegate miracles to the rarity they are by definition. He proceeds to define them out of the realm of possibility:  

“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 is saying that miracles cannot be proven by any amount or kind of evidence.

For this reason, 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 blunt force of his conviction seems stronger than his argument, is one reason I address him here.

Continue reading “Clearing the Rubble of Hume in the Making of an “Unapologetic” Argument for God”

How Not to Look for God: An “Unapologetic” Argument for God

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.

Continue reading “How Not to Look for God: An “Unapologetic” Argument for God”

Where to Begin Looking: an “Unapologetic” Argument for God

We can’t know very much about an artist from her painting, alone. We need more information, and we need to meet the artist to really know the artist.

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.

Continue reading “Where to Begin Looking: an “Unapologetic” Argument for God”

The Paths that Diverge at the Crossroads of Existential Angst

Why do I wonder? Why am I conscious of my wondering, and why does my wondering create in me such terrifying angst?

Stephen Meyer describes the existential angst he experienced in his early teens in an interview with Sean McDowell that is embedded in its entirety at end of this article. Meyer majored in physics and geology, but he accumulated a minor in philosophy on his way to an undergraduate degree. His interest in philosophy was driven by the existential angst he felt as a young man.

Stephen would become a geophysicist and college professor. Then he would go on to obtain a Masters n Philosophy and a Ph.D in the philosophy of science from the University of Cambridge.

Meyer explained that he wanted to be popular and good at sports, like most teenager’s, but that wasn’t going well for him. A couple of nights before a planned ski trip with his father, some “weird questions” started “popping” into his mind, like: “What’s it going to matter in a hundred years?”

He was initially troubled by those questions, but anticipation for the ski trip distracted him for the time being. On the skiing trip, however, he broke his leg badly.

He woke up from an operation with a full leg cast. Several days in the hospital and limitations on his mobility stirred his active teenage brain to dwell on the questions that haunted him before the trip.

While he was in the hospital, his father brought him a book on the history of baseball. As he read the book, he began to notice the stories all ended the same way. The great prospects were scouted. They came up to the majors with budding promise. They had a fantastic career. They accumulated records, and they retired….

…. and, “Then what?”, He wondered.

In his 14-year old mind, baseball was the greatest thing a person could do. Now, he wondered, “In a hundred years, would anyone remember those accomplishments?”

The mundane routines of his life – getting up in the morning, taking the bus to school, coming home, doing his homework and chores, and getting up in the morning to do it all again – led him to fear “that nothing I was doing was going to amount to anything”.

The routine of hobbling to the mailbox each day to get the newspaper to read the baseball box scores added to the existential weight. As days went by, he became conscious of the dates on the newspapers. Each day a new date, one after the other, with each one passing into memory.

Snap your finger one moment, he realized, and the next moment you are remembering the moment you snapped your finger. Each moment is passing even as you dwell on the moment, and then it is gone. An endless reminder of his finitude.

He became aware of the ephemeral nature of time, and began to wonder, “What is it that is the same all the time and is the basis for binding all these passing sense impressions together?”

This question led to the conclusion, “Unless there is something that doesn’t change, everything that is constantly changing has no lasting reality, let alone meaning.”

He had no reason to believe there was an answer to this angst. There was no reason to believe there was anything that was always the same, that there was anything that was unchanging. There was nothing evident to him to anchor the ever changing world of his experience to anything solid.

This reminds me of an early realization in my own life. I was maybe around 5-7 years old, when we watched a reel of home movies of my father and grandparents and me as a younger child. This was, perhaps, my first self-conscious awareness of the passage of time.

I don’t know if I dreamt this, or imagined it, or whether it was a “vision”, but what I recall was real. I still remember it, though the immediacy of the feelings that went with it have faded. I experienced the sensation of floating in the unimaginably vast emptiness and expanse of space – alone – not connected to anyone or anything.

The feeling that accompanied the dream was utter and terrifying emptiness and disconnectedness. Words don’t do it justice. I imagine now that the Yawning, gnawing feeling utterly terrifying feeling I had is similar to what Meyer experienced as he wrestled with the questions whirling in his young mind.

Meyer realized one day, when he had a strong urge to ask his parents, that his parents could offer him no better solution. He realized there was no sense even asking. They were finite creatures like him. They could not provide salve for what bothered him.

Stephen Meyer remembers looking at his windowsill in his leg cast and staring at the pattern in the wood. He wondered, “How do I know that what I am seeing is really there and not just something that is going on in my brain?”

In his next thought he wondered, “Is this what it means to be insane?” Then arose the fear that led to a new fear that the questions meant there was something wrong with him. Meyer speculates that a psychologist might have diagnosed him with anxiety leading to a panic attack.

In college, though, Meyer was able to find some clarity and context for his experience in the study of existentialism: “Without an infinite reference point, nothing finite has any ultimate meaning or value.” (Paraphrasing John Paul Sartre). Meyer realized, “That was what was bothering me!”

Everything is in flux from our human vantage point. Everything is passing, passing, passing….. Nothing has any lasting meaning or value from the position of a finite being. The anxiety he felt was a “metaphysical anxiety”.

Stephen Meyer’s journey is somewhat similar to mine, except for the details. This journey is also common to human experience, and it has ancient roots. Anyone who has spent any time reading Ecclesiastes knows what I am talking about.

Continue reading “The Paths that Diverge at the Crossroads of Existential Angst”

Pulling at the Threads of the Christian Paradigm that Uniquely Influenced the Western World

Down at the bedrock of modern, western values remains a Christian foundation.

Galleries under the central arena of the Colosseum in Rome, Italy

I read Tom Holland’s new book, Dominion, about a year ago, and I have written about it a few times. Many Christians would not think to read a history about Western Civilization by a self-described secular humanist (once atheist, perhaps now agnostic) historian.

Most non-Christians are likely to be uncomfortable with the chronicle Holland describes of the radically influential role that Christianity played in the development of Western Civilization, providing the foundation, in fact, for secular humanist ideals. When Holland dug down to the bedrock of modern, western values, he was surprised himself to find them anchored on a Christian foundation.

Holland did not set out to write a Christian apologetic, and he seems to remain somewhat uncertain how to process what he “discovered”. What he found, though, changed his mind about Christianity. He gives a brief explanation in the following clip:

Though Holland has had a turnabout on his view of Christianity, he finds himself caught in an odd position wrought by the unexpected discovery that his lifelong, secular humanist values flow from the radical catalyst of Christian influence and remain embedded ubiquitously in its very fabric. The awkwardness of his current position is evident in his interviews and discussions about the book.

Christians and secular thinkers, alike, wrestle with his book. Holland doesn’t hide any warts, and he doesn’t pull any punches. Neither does he obfuscate the thoroughly paradigmatic shift in Western thinking that Christianity worked into a society that once proudly and unashamedly championed strength and privilege over the poor, the weak, and the lowly.

Holland exposes the metanarrative developed during the Enlightenment and thereafter that belies the foundation on which the Enlightenment structure was built. Far from advancing the progression of human values, the Enlightenment threatened to undo the distinctly Christian concern for the poor, weak, and lowly while attempting to wrest western civilization from the hold of the Divine. Humanism saved the Christian ethic, albeit divorced from Christ.

Consider the full title of Darwin’s great tome which staked out the ground of a scientific (and social) revolution free from God’s interference:

“The Origin of Species by means of Natural Selection or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life”

The title of Darwin’s book championing the evolutionary paradigm, harkens back to the Greco-Roman value system that despised the poor, the weak and the lowly. That value system did not just turn a callous eye at wanton and discriminate cruelty, it cheered on the strong while they snuffed out the weak. It was national sport!

The very reason the full title never “stuck” (I now believe) is due to a fundamental, pervasive, and thoroughly entrenched counter-value of the intrinsic worth of human life that is uniquely Christian in its source.

The intrinsic value of all human life, from the greatest to the least, from the wisest and strongest to the weakest and most imbecilic, from the fittest to the most infirm, is traceable to the Christian belief that all human beings are made in the image of God. That the survival of the fittest did not take hold as a western social or ethical value is attributable to the deeply ingrained Christian ethic that survived yet, despite the efforts to eradicate its God from modern equations.

Modern humanists may attempt to recast Darwin into a humanistic mold, but the idea of “social Darwinism” bears his name through no model of random, unguided selection. According to John G. West, Charles Darwin, himself, set in motion the inertia for eugenics, among other things, that were associated with social Darwinism:

Darwin himself in The Descent of Man provided the rationale for what became the eugenics movement, and how the vast majority of evolutionary biologists early in the twentieth century were right to see negative eugenics as a logical application of Darwin’s theory.

While the defense of Darwin against the charge of social Darwinism has largely succeeded in popular and polite company, the very title of the Origin of Species (by means of Natural Selection or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life) belies the success of that effort. The fact that the full title is merely a parenthetical today is evidence only of a concerted rescue campaign.

Christian values survived despite the Enlightenment coupe, not because of it. Humanism today assumes the evolutionary paradigm for its science alongside the uniquely Christian paradigm of intrinsic human value. That the two assumptions do not fit well together seems to be lost on modern minds.

Continue reading “Pulling at the Threads of the Christian Paradigm that Uniquely Influenced the Western World”