Michael Egnor published a provocative article posted on Evolution News & Science Today: Theists vs. Atheists: Who Has the Burden of Proof? Egnor’s comments follow a debate he had with Matt Dillahunty, who is, perhaps, the most popular atheist voice speaking out against religion today.
Egnor claims Dillahunty “didn’t fare well” and demonstrated “no real understanding of any of the ten classical proofs of God’s existence”. It seems that Dillahunty’s big position in the debate was that theists have the burden of proof, so there is no real need for him to assert a position; he can sit back and take pot shots at theist’s arguments and call it a win.
I didn’t watch the debate, so I am just parroting Egnor’s characterization on my way to making a different point. Dillahunty did recently attempt to undress William Lane Craig’s favorite argument, the Kalam Cosmological Argument, so perhaps he isn’t quite as derelict in his opposition as Egnor makes him out to be. (Though, again, it’s just taking pot shots at positive arguments.)
It is true that Dillahunty relies heavily on the position that he has no burden to prove the negative: that God doesn’t exist. Egnor claims this is because positive atheist arguments are “few and weak” (before putting up a strawman argument in caricature of Dillahunty’s favorite argument based on “Divine Hiddeness”, which I don’t intend to address either).
Egnor may be right, basically, in his assessment of Dillahunty’s position, though not very winsome in stating it. Of course, I wouldn’t characterize Dillahunty as winsome either. Much less so.
What caught my attention about the article wasn’t in the article at all. It was a comment about the article to the effect that anyone who is interested in truth has the burden of proof. That comment deserves some attention.
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.
In Dr. William Lane Craig’s book, Reasonable Faith, he addresses the role of reason, or the lack thereof, in faith. At one point, he responds to a somewhat common position – that we don’t need reason; we just need to preach the Gospel – this way:
“Now, there is a danger…. Some persons might say, ‘We should never seek to defend the faith. Just preach the Gospel and let the Holy Spirit work.’ But this attitude is unbalanced and unscriptural, as we shall see in a moment. For now, let us just note in passing that as long as reason is a minister of the Christian faith, Christians should employ it.”
While just preaching the Gospel isn’t necessarily wrong, we shouldn’t abdicate the use of philosophy, logic or reason in support of the Gospel. Of course, there is another, danger: an unwarranted and non-critical confidence in human reason.
An atheist, scientist recently took issue with Dr. Craig and the statement quoted above. He astutely noted that Craig’s suggestion that reason should be employed only if reason “ministers” to (supports) Christian faith implies that Dr. Craig believes reason should not be used if it doesn’t support the Christian faith. In a recent podcast, Dr. Craig confirmed that is exactly what he meant.
For the atheist, scientist, the suggestion that reason should take a backseat to faith is anathema. Reason is the highest standard, the “magisterial” standard, of arbitrating truth for the materialist who doesn’t ascribe to the Person of God, the supernatural or metaphysical reality. No surprise there of course.
For the atheist/materialist, there is no higher standard of proof for determining reality than human thought.
As important as I think sound human reasoning is, I agree with Dr. Craig. I have long held that the human capacity to reason should not be given such a magisterial place in a material world. By that, I mean that a materialist’s confidence in his own capacity to reason is utterly misplaced if he is right about materialism.
It’s an interesting conundrum. A materialist has no choice but to rely on his own capacity to reason on a materialist worldview. He has no other tools in the toolbox, but this tool is not adequate for the job required of it. Let me explain.
Do we have free will? Modern materialists say, no. This is what I learned watching an episode in a series on science that was hosted by Stephen Hawking on Public Broadcast Television.
Hawking explained the experiments that informed this view. In the experiment, the subjects were told to choose to push a button and to note the time on the clock at which the decision was made. At the same time, the subject’s brain waves were being monitored for activity. Over and over again, the brain waves were measured showing that the uptick in brain waves happened before the subject was conscious of the actual decision being made to take the action.
The experiment demonstrated the following sequence: (1) a brain signal occurs about 550 milliseconds prior to the finger’s moving; (2) the subject has an awareness of his decision to move his finger about 200 milliseconds prior to his finger’s moving; (3) the person’s finger moves.
This was interpreted as evidence by Hawking that we don’t have free will. The decisions we make are actually prompted by brain activity before we are conscious of making the decision. The conclusion is that we are responding to some prior stimuli and only think that we are making independent decisions. Hawking concluded, therefore, that we are determined, as everything is, by natural laws in an endless stream of cause and effect.
But wait, there is more. The scientist who conducted these experiments, Benjamin Libet, actually came to the opposite conclusions. And lest you think this is only an interesting experiment with no practical application, I find some interesting applications to our struggles with sin.
When I was in college, the first class I took was World Religions. Though I graduated with an English Literature major, I also had enough credits to be a Religion major. I didn’t need the dual major. I only took the religion classes because they interested me.
I also became a believing Christian during my college years. It was a transition that took place between that World Religion class and the summer between Sophomore and Junior years. It’s a long story that I might tell in detail some time, but the point for now is that I did a lot of reading and thinking about these things in those years and in the decades since. It doesn’t make me a theologian, but I have more than a passing interest.
Early on I learned that the creation story and flood story in Genesis, among other things, have counterparts in other religions, including other religions in the same area of the world – the Ancient Near East. Phoenicians, Assyrians, Persians, and other people groups had similar myths that have been uncovered from that general time period.
Zoroastrianism, in particular, was said to share many attributes similar to the ancient Hebraic view of the world, including the idea a singular creator God, a dualistic cosmology of good and evil, the ultimate destruction of evil, judgment after death, etc. The scholarly understanding when I was in college was that Zoroastrianism may have predated Hebraic thought and influenced it.
It occurred to me at the time, not having any reason to doubt that speculation, that Abraham may have been particularly open to his encounter with God if, indeed, he had lived in an area of the world and in a time in which there was this kind of influence. It made some sense. He was the right guy in the right place with the right influences setting the table for an encounter with God, the Creator of the world.
Recently I did some research on Zoroastrianism. Wikipedia acknowledges that Zoroastrianism has “possible roots dating back to the second millennium BC”, though “recorded history” of Zoroastrianism only dates back to the 5th Century BC. (Wikipedia). Obviously, dating the roots of Zoroastrianism back to the second millennium BC is just conjecture if records of Zoroastrianism only date to the 5th Century BC.
If we date the accounts of Abraham and his descendants according the biblical chronology and references, that history goes far back into the second millennium BC, but a loose consensus of modern archaeologists and theologians reject that dating in favor of first millennium BC dating. (See Wikipedia, for example) Modern scholars don’t take the Bible at face value. In fact, they presumptively dismiss it for its face value.
Scholarly views are not universal on this issue, of course. Not by a long shot. Some notable evidence and analysis exists that the modern consensus is wrong about the timeline for the life of Moses, the Exodus and other things. (See for instance Patterns of Evidence: The Moses Controversy) The Patterns of Evidence conjecture is that historians and archaeologists who assume a particular timeline for certain events are not apt to see the evidence for those events if they occurred in a different timeline.
The Patterns of Evidence thesis is that evidence for the events described in the biblical narrative is there if we peer through the lens of the right timeline and look for them in the right time periods. Specifically, the biblical accounts of Moses, the Exodus and entry into the land of Canaan are apparent in the archaeological record and historical data on the biblical timeline (second millennium BC), not in the first millennium timeline applied by modern, skeptical scholars.
Certain archaeological finds, like the Ebla Tablets, also raise questions about the modern scholarly consensus. The importance of “looking” in the right places according to the right timelines is explored in Timing the Walls of Jericho.
Back to Abraham, though… he was reportedly from the area of Ur (southwest Iraq), which is quite a distance from the area of Canaan (later Judea) where he ended up – about 1600 miles in fact. In Ur, he may have come in contact with Zoroastrians and other influences. That intrigued me in college, and so I revisit that thought journey again today.