Sunday, March 25, 2012

Reason Rally 2012 Washington DC: "Show me the Evidence!"

Daniel is a home-schooled high school senior who attends Ratio Christi meetings from time to time and came with us to the Reason Rally in order to engage in rational dialogue with the many atheists present on the mall between the Capitol Building and the Washington Monument. The mist and rain bathed us intermittently beneath the canopy of a gray, solemn sky that hung overhead like a lid on a jar. No real hope of the sun breaking through today to warm our weary bones from an all-night bus trip from Greensboro to Washington.

With a bold flavor, this young man clad in braces and Carolina Tar Heel blue walks up to a number of pin-wearing, sing bearing atheists and begins a conversation. The men he is speaking with are middle to retirement age: they've heard all the arguments and have come ready for the battle of the mind. In terms of age and experience, this is a real David and Goliath moment!

I'm the chapter director of Ratio Christi at Lenoir-Rhyne University in Hickory, North Carolina, and a few of us joined a host of students and leaders of UNC Greensboro's Ratio Christi group. I watched Daniel engage these men out of the corner of my eye, allowing him the freedom to interact on his own for a while. Most of the conversation surrounded the idea of evidence. "Show us the evidence for God!" they repeat. Through his apologetic training, Daniel knew to ask these men what their definition of evidence was and why evidence was so important for forming belief-structures.

After a while, I quietly stepped into the foray, listening as the men told Daniel that empiricism (knowledge obtained by means of the 5 senses) is the only acceptable means by which someone should appropriate belief in God. Jeff was one of them, holding his fingers and thumb aft and discussing, with each appendage, the five senses in question: seeing, hearing, touching, tasting, smelling. With long, straggly hair, Jeff is adamant in his demands for empirical data. I asked him questions about the nature of empiricism.

What I got from Jeff was that we should engage in empirical inquiry is because it works. We know things from scientific inquiry because scientific inquiry gets results. That's true--it does. But such a justification for empiricism is merely pragmatic: could I give the same reason for my belief in Jesus Christ as the Messiah? "I believe Jesus is the Messiah, because it works (makes me more compassionate, satisfies me intellectually, and so on)." Such an argument given from my perspective would be dismissed out of hand. So, why is it that empiricism has this unapproachable, untouchable upper hand when it comes to a pragmatic justification?

As I've noted before on this blog, empiricism cannot give an account for other things like the nature of justice, mercy, love, truth and beauty. When I mention this, the reply I usually get is, "Well, sure it can! Because we know that it's right to help rescue little girls who are suffering genital mutilation in Africa." (Oddly, a number of atheists mentioned this malady and wanted to shift blame on Christian missionaries in African countries for its activity there. But, I'll save that for another post).

Rebuttal: No. You have given me what is, but not what ought, to be. You have said it is good to help a small, vulnerable child, but you haven't shown my why we should do it. Further, what does this have to do with empiricism? Empiricism will show us what happens when A causes B (Hume's problem of induction notwithstanding).

A: Person X rescues little girl
B: little girl is rescued.

That's not saying much, folks.

Of course, this says nothing at all about why we should rescue the little girl. So, it's strange to me that these atheists haven't really thought deeply about the nature of empirical inquiry and its limitations. Scientific inquiry can tell us about the world, but it cannot tell us why we should do things. Scientific inquiry indeed does have its limits. It cannot tell us what beauty is, or what justice is, because these entail moral judgments. Philosopher Montague Brown in his book, The Restoration of Reason, shows us that indeed, reason should not be limited to the empirical enterprise, but should be applied to ethics (morality) and aesthetics (beauty), but what Jeff and his kin are thrusting into the fore is a strict, crude empiricism that is the only means by which knowledge is obtained. Well, with regard to God anyway. Brown reports that it's only because of Francis Bacon (mmm...bacon) and his "Baconian scientific model" that we in the West hold to this all-encompassing view of the omnipotent paradigm of epistemology known as empiricism. And it just ain't so. Reason is the wheel to which empiricism is one of many spokes.

Now this leads me to my final thoughts.

I asked Jeff if he believed that "If something cannot be proven in a lab, it should not be believed." Surprisingly, he said no. He said no! (If he'd said yes, it would be time for "Self-referential incoherentism 101," but I was saved from having to give that lecture). But he insisted that the question of God's existence be stratified into that category of subject to empirical inquiry. Now I do wonder: if it is true that empiricism cannot give an account for some things, like justice, mercy, love, etc., why is the existence of God included in the "empirical only" category, and not in the other?

So we have two categories of knowledge, according to Jeff. There is category A, where things are subject to empirical inquiry and where hence, truth and knowledge can be obtained. Category A includes things from the natural world. Category B includes things that are non-empirical: justice, love, mercy, etc. Structures in category B are rightly understood as conceptual in their ontological status (ontology is the study of the nature of things and their "being"). While trees have an ontology subject to the five senses, justice is not. Justice, in its application is seen, heard, felt, experienced, but the concept of justice is what? Is it seen? Remember, we're talking about the concept, not the application. No, justice, as an ontological reality, is not seen. Justice is seen when it is applied. Further, justice is judged to be so, when it is actualized in reality. So, Justice is 1) a concept, and 2) subject to moral inquiry as to whether said action is actually just.

Now, the Christian idea of God is not that he is merely a concept, so there is not line-by-line, direct analogy to conceptual scheme of justice per se, because in Christianity, God is a personal being (three persons, one God). Nevertheless, the idea of the conceptual holds: not all things are subject to empirical inquiry and empiricism has its limits. Now, if the existence of God is a question that empiricism, with all its limits, fits into category B (and it does), why then are Christians told over and over again that we must provide empirical evidence for his existence? If empirical inquiry cannot be used to validate a warranted, justified belief in the conceptual world of category B, and if God fits into category B, then we are we held as irrational for rightly appropriating the limits of empiricism, just as Jeff the atheist admits is the right thing to do?

Lastly, because this post has run its course, there are indeed good, scientific evidences for the existence of God: the cosmological and teleological (design) arguments are replete with scientific evidences from the fine-tuning of the universe, the information and intelligence in DNA and at the bio-molecular level, the irreducible complexity of the cell, the privileged place of our own planet earth in the solar system, and so on. I suggest to the reader to research these topics in their own right.

I suggest to the reader also to remember that Empiricism, as an epistemological paradigm, has its limits, and cannot tell us what ought to be, but only what is. Further it cannot tell us about the conceptual world and the ontology of things, but only how things work. Science has its limits!




4 comments:

Walt said...

"What I got from Jeff was that we should engage in empirical inquiry is because it works. We know things from scientific inquiry because scientific inquiry gets results. That's true--it does. But such a justification for empiricism is merely pragmatic: could I give the same reason for my belief in Jesus Christ as the Messiah? "I believe Jesus is the Messiah, because it works (makes me more compassionate, satisfies me intellectually, and so on)." Such an argument given from my perspective would be dismissed out of hand. So, why is it that empiricism has this unapproachable, untouchable upper hand when it comes to a pragmatic justification?"

>>>I think this analogy is off. Jeff is arguing that empiricism has led to natural explanations of things for which we previously had no explanation, e.g. stars, seasons, heredity, disease, etc. I think of this as a track record of sorts. Empiricism works in that it performs its function (acquisition of knowledge) remarkably well. Saying that Christianity works by making you a better person is not the same at all. This would be arguing that Christianity has good side effects, so it's true. The direct and appropriate analogy here would be to claim that Christianity works because it has a solid track record of fulfilling the purpose for which it exists. If Christianity does fulfill its purposes, e.g. forgiving your sins and giving your soul eternal life, then you can say that Christianity truly works, and this would not be a pragmatic argument at all.
In short, saying that empiricism works because it achieves natural explanations is analogous to saying that Christianity works because it forgives our sins, gives us eternal life, etc...nothing to do with side effects or pragmatism.

Second, why can't it be said that suffering is empirically bad?

"Now, the Christian idea of God is not that he is merely a concept, so there is not line-by-line, direct analogy to conceptual scheme of justice per se, because in Christianity, God is a personal being (three persons, one God). Nevertheless, the idea of the conceptual holds: not all things are subject to empirical inquiry and empiricism has its limits."

>>>You hit it right on the head - this is where the analogy to concepts like justice falls apart for God. I don't claim that a God concept doesn't exist (a deity?), but I do reject all of the non-concept material attributes of God (miracles, special creation, etc). This is the difference between a god that exists metaphysically and a god that interacts with us materially - the latter requires evidence.

"there are indeed good, scientific evidences for the existence of God"

>>>These aren't scientific evidences for God, they're evidences for a god of the gaps that has been pushed back again and again by empiricism. One cannot add the complexity of DNA to the evidence for God for the same reason that one can no longer add the complexity of planetary orbit, weather patterns, contagious disease, hereditary disease, etc. to the evidence for God.

Chris Van Allsburg said...

Hi Walt,

thanks for commenting.

It's not god of the gaps. the traditional arguments are laid down in deductive syllogistic form. Deduction has nothing to do with gaps.

The inductive arguments from design and fine tuning are not god of the gaps either but follow the inference to the best explanation, concluding that intelligence is the best explanation for the results of our studies.

god of the gaps thinking is, "I don't know what caused X, so god must have caused X.

Now I DID hear a number of arguments like these: "I don't know where the universe came from, but science will tell us eventually."

That's called "Science of the gaps."

Atheists are guilty of this all the time.

Chris Van Allsburg said...

Walt,

I also would never argue that Christianity is true because of the results it gives, whether the forgiveness of sins, or the right to eternal life, or whatever.

I would commend Jesus Christ to people because of the results coming from faith in him, but the truth of Christianity is more robust than mere pragmatics. This is my point in justifying empiricism. And the point stands: Hume's problem of induction has shown us that we can only throw up our hands and say, "Well, it works, and that's that. We MUST believe in cause and effect, because w/o it, life can't progress."
Of course, we WANT our worldviews to work, but that doesn't make them true.

deyessorC said...

Excellent post Chris!